The Phenomenology of Spirit: Culture and Pure Insight

This will be the reading for September 13th’s meeting. We will be meeting later than usual, at 5:00. Let’s try and arrive by 4:30 so we can start on time, as we are beginning late and this is a longer essay than usual.

Previously, we saw how the inherent tension between family and community led to the development of the (Roman) legal order, in which a person’s traits and culture were inessential – only their empty legal status mattered. We are about to see how the individual gains content: through culture, or in what amounts to the same thing, alienation.

The individual, through self-cultivation, leaves behind their original nature, thus alienating themselves. It is this alienation that creates both individuality and culture. To be an individual, one requires recognition from others, and this recognition comes in the form of language; in a world of aristocrats, there must be a highest aristocrat who can provide recognition for all, so an absolute monarch is raised. The state gains actuality when supported by the speech acts of individuals – specifically, the nobility, whose “flattery” creates the absolute monarch.

The problem is that the state’s power comes from language, and a particular empty form of it: flattery. The aristocrats surround the throne and continually tell the king who he is. This form of speech is quickly found out as vain, and all culture is quickly recognized as vanity. It is this recognition of vanity that gives the sphere of faith, or pure insight, its actuality: when the world falls into vanity, only the pure “I” is left, the ‘I’ of pure insight.

Alienation: the motor of culture and individuality

While the ethical order’s focus was on the maintenance of an organically whole, unalienated social order, here the focus is entirely on how culture is built on alienation. Self-consciousness is only self-consciousness– or only actual – when it alienates itself from itself. In this alienation, it attains universality, and in that universality, it gets its “authentication and reality.” Rather than the unmediated, merely given world of legality, culture is mediated by alienation and thus generates its own content.

That alienation is the essence of the individual. It is how thought becomes reality and individuality becomes essential. The individual moulds itself by culture, thereby setting aside its natural will. In alienation, the content of self-consciousness’ will becomes rooted in the universal. If individuality is supposed to be entirely rooted in the particular, then there are no individuals. A pure individual – with no externalization/alienation – is a figment.

What appears as an individual’s culture is the passage from thought to actuality. The process by which the individual moulds or develops themselves is also the development of the world. First, the world comes into being via individuality, but appears alienated. Then, certain the world is substance, individuality tries to master the world. This looks like the individual is conforming itself to reality, like it is trying to live according to the in-itself. However, what appears as power over substance is actually the actualization of substance: “For the power of the individual consists in conforming itself to that substance, i.e., in externalizing its own self and thus establishing itself as substance that has an objective existence.” (§490)

The self isn’t constituted by the unity of a consciousness of itself and the object – for the self, the object is negative. By means of the self, substance is moulded; one opposition stirs the other to life, and through their alienation, get their own existences. Hence, “The self knows itself as actual only as a transcended self.” (§491)

Each moment – that is, self-consciousness and its objects – get their own existences via the alienation of alienation and thus a return into the whole. This difference between them is fixed in a general way by the uses of the terms good and bad, which cannot be one and the same. But, “existence is really the perversion of every determinateness into its opposite, and it is only this alienation that is the essential nature and support of the whole.” (§491)

Pinkard: Aristocracy and the ethic of honour

In Pinkard’s reading, the alienation of self-cultivation was about becoming a type. One used their talents and character (from nature or “breeding”) to do the things and feel the emotions proper to an aristocrat. Aristocrats had to sacrifice individual desires while at the same time becoming individuals, a clear conflict that required resolution.

Initially, the aristocrat became an individual through warfare. Glory and violence. The aristocrat defends their own honor by defending the honor of their lord, and hence their identity is found in their attachment to state power. To act honourably, to be the kind of person an aristocrat was supposed to be, was to selflessly serve the state: “I pray for you, I fight for you, I work for you” But this so-called selfless pursuit of honour is only honour in the eyes of others – it must be recognized. “The pursuit of honour in the eyes of others is thus a particular end, something that the individual may be expected to pursue out of concern for his own personal standing. Yet, peculiarly, so Hegel argues, the noble is supposed to take himself as pursuing this self-interested goal selflessly.” (Pinkard, 162) This is the “ethic of honour”, for example of the 17th century English cavaliers and their relation to King Charles. It contains a long list of internal contradictions: one must pay attention to clothing and manner, while not caring about petty details. One must act from a detached point of view, but exhibit a controlled passion in doing so. One must act from an impersonal code, yet this impersonal code is his deepest personal end. In return for services, the aristocrat receives wealth as a mark of prestige, but that wealth cannot be their motivation. Only the base would pursue wealth for its own sake.

The noble submits to the state, and the merchant submits to their own self-interest and the acquisition of wealth. Each one chooses their own end, based on which appears to the good and the bad. However, this is ultimately a criterion-less choice.

The merchant only sees the state as interfering in his private interests, hence he is alienated from the state. He can’t attain honour. “The aristocratic ethos as the ethos of this form of life seems to make the aristocrat fully identify with his activities in the service of the state, and to compel the bourgeois to be fully alienated in his activities of seeking wealth.” (Pinkard, 165) As a result, the merchant understands himself in the terms set by the aristocrat. It is the internal incoherence of the aristocratic way of thinking that will lead the merchant to a higher level of consciousness.

Honor, for both, can only be bestowed by others: “Each is therefore fully alienated in that each takes his self-identity to be dependent on that which is outside himself, the opinions of others. On its own, the self is empty; it is, as Hegel puts it, ‘pure consciousness.’” (165) No self-identity outside of others, so the freedom they get is an alienated freedom. The feudal aristocrat takes himself to be a man of virtue, working for the universal, while the merchant merely works for private ends.

This aristocratic self-conception is what leads to legitimizing an absolute monarch. Hegel is not making a claim about the complex social causes that led from medieval feudalism to absolute monarchies; he is talking about “the logic of the accounts that these forms of life gave of themselves in terms of how they tried to reassure themselves that the kinds of reasons that they had come to take as authoritative for themselves ‘really were’ good reasons”. (Pinkard, 166/157)

The aristocrats argued over what the public good really was, and were really only asserting their privileges against one another – and the more you assert your own privilege, the more you look like a merchant, and then they began to doubt their accounts of themselves.

Good and Bad, State and Wealth

Substance is split into the self-identity of the world, a sort of generalized conformity, and individuality. Conformity considers itself to be “intrinsic being,” the essential element of the world, while individuality gets an existence of its own by sacrificing the universal to particular desires. Initially, uniformity and independence appear as good and bad, respectively. Uniformity appears as “the self-accordant, immediate and unchangeable essence of every consciousness, the independent spiritual power of the in-itself. . .” (§493) Individuality appears as the “passive spiritual essence,” or the universality that surrenders itself to give individuals space. It is the essence that is “null and invalid” – the bad. Conformity is the starting point of individuals who are purely universal; individuality is partly self-sacrificing being for another, partly a perpetual return-to-self.

Conformity is submission to, and mutual recognition of, state power, while individuality is found in personal wealth. State power is the simple substance, the universal work in which individuals find their essential nature expressed, where their individuality is a consciousness of their universality. It is a “simple result from which the sense that it is their doing has vanished.” At this stage, personal wealth is seen as being devoid of inner worth, but “it is equally the perpetually produced result of the labor and activity of all, just as it is dissipated again in the enjoyment of all.” (494) The individual does gain a sense of individuality, but this enjoyment is the result of the general activity. Everything thinks they are working for themselves; but everyone works for everyone.

Hence, “In these two spiritual powers, then, self-consciousness recognizes its substance, content, and purpose; in them it beholds its dual nature: in one it sees what it implicitly is, in the other what is explicitly for itself.” (§495) However, it is a negative unity – that is, the individual feels free to choose between state power and wealth; one can be a merchant or an aristocrat. One can see the state as bad and wealth as good, or one could make the opposite judgment. This isn’t a “spiritual judgment,” because one side – the individual – is seen as being-in-itself, while the other side – substance – is the negative of being-in-itself. Since essence is the interfusion of both moments (state/wealth or good/bad), they are not exhausted by their respective determinations.

Language and the state

The noble consciousness, well-disposed towards the state and negatively towards its own selfish purposes, has the heroism of service. The heroism of service earns self-respect from self and others. But it is also the real, ultimate source of state power.

At first, self-consciousness only sees the state as an impersonal legislator; self-consciousness offers advice to the state powers. The “haughty vassal”, as Hegel puts it, and Pinkard points to the court of Louis XIV as an example of this. The haughty vassals, the nobility, appear loyal to the state, but are always ready to conspire against the state for their own ends.

In order to gain the respect they desire, the aristocrats require the recognition of another: they must see themeslves in another, and hence they must alienate themselves. That alienation takes place in language. There is a distinction here between this and language in the ethical order: in the ethical order, in law and command, “language has the essence for its content and is the form of that content, but here it has for its content the form itself, the form which language itself is, and is authoritative as language. It is the power of speech, as that which performs what has to be performed.” (508) Language is the “real existence” of the pure self; it is how it comes into existence for others. “Otherwise the ‘I’, this pure ‘I’, is non-existent, is not there; in every other expression it is immersed in a reality, and is in a shape from which it can withdraw itself. . .” (§508) He continues, “Language, however, contains it in its purity, it alone expresses the ‘I’, the ‘I’ itself. The ‘I’ is this particular ‘I’, but at the same time, the universal ‘I’.” (§508) Its externalization or manifestation is also the vanishing of the ‘I’, so it remains in its universality. The ‘I’, just like the ‘now’, only exists in its vanishing. As Findlay puts it, “In all cases of self-alienation language plays an operative role. Through language the individual makes himself universal and impersonal, and transcends his immediate, changing self.”

Spirit gets actuality because the 2 extremes, state and nobility, are determined as real on their own account; the unity is their middle term, which is excluded and distinct from them, seen as something distinct and real. The two sides gain existence only through their self-alienation. Spirit is that which is one in and through separated sides, each of which treats the other as separate from itself. As such it will express itself as a single object – i.e. a monarch, distinct from its many sides.

State and noble consciousness are split by noble consciousness; the state is the abstract universality which is obeyed, and noble consciousness is self-centered. This conflict is basically the general good vs the pure self. Both sides are basically the same – their unity is their middle term. The sides are not yet in-themselves; “This language is, therefore, not yet Spirit that completely knows and expresses itself.” (§510) The “universal best” is a poor expression of the unity of the various sides of society; an individual, monarchical will is a better expression.

“The noble consciousness, being the extreme which is the self, appears as the source of the language by which the sides of the relation are shaped into animated wholes. The heroism of silent service becomes the heroism of flattery.” (§511) This creates the middle term that not only creates the extreme of self, but the extreme of universal power – the unlimited monarch. An unlimited monarch, “because the language of flattery raises this power into its purified universality; this moment being the product of language, of an existence which has been purified into Spirit, is a purified self-identity; a monarch, for such language raises individuality to its extreme point; what the noble consciousness divests itself of as regards this aspect of the simple spiritual unity is the pure intrinsic being of its thinking, its very ‘I’.” (§511) It gives the monarch a proper name; it makes the difference of that individual not presumed but actual. The universal power becomes actual, via the nobles who “group themselves around the throne as an ornamental setting, and that they are continually telling him who sits on it what he is.” (§511)

The language of their praise is how the state power itself unites the two extremes. It reflects the abstract power into itself and makes it “being-for-self that wills and decides.” In other words, the flattery of the aristocrats is what creates the monarchical self-conciousness. However, the nobility in practicing flattery retain their inner independence. The noble consciousness, through its unscrupulous use of flattery, becomes indistinguishable from the base consciousness. For the base consciousness, the monarch becomes a source of wealth for which it is grateful. Wealth represents individual satisfaction but not the satisfaction of a definite individual. “It is a form of intrinsic being in which being-for-self is negated.”

The noble consciousness is not related to the object as an essence in general – rather, it is its own being-for-self; it is alienated, and has to receive itself from an alien will. Self-consciousness can abstract from every particular, so when it is tied to one of them, it continues to think of itself as an independent being. But here, it finds its ‘I’ outside itself – its very personality is dependent on something alien. In the legal order, one can abstract themselves; but here, its self-certainty is devoid of essence, and this produces rebellion. The pure ‘I’ is disrupted. In other words, It is enslaved to the chance personality of another. The pursuit of wealth makes one impersonal, a commodity to be bought and sold. Feeling that everything essential is reduced to unessentiality, the individual becomes rebellious.

The self, seeing itself superceded and rejected, supercedes his supercession and rejects the rejection. It is consciously for itself in and through them. The condition of the consciousness is linked to that disruption, so the distinction between noble and ignoble consciousnesses falls away. The beneficent Spirit of wealth is distinguished from the spirit receiving the wealth; wealth was something to be sacrificed; in imparting itself, it becomes self-centered enjoyment. Its beneficence is actually the ownership of another’s ‘I’; “all stability and substance vanish.” (519) Hegel goes on to say, “It is this absolute and universal inversion and alienation of the actual world and of thought; it is pure culture. What is learnt in this world is that neither the actuality of power and wealth, nor their specific Notions, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. . .” possess truth; “on the contrary, all of these moments become inverted.” (§520)

As Findlay puts it, “The absolute, universal inversion of reality and thought, their mutual estrangement, is the final product of culture. Everything becomes void of substance and confounded with its opposite. All values become transvalued. Spirit in this phase of culture speaks a language of utter disintegration, which takes the novel form of wit.” Wit can be serious or silly, trivial or profound, all with a complete lack of taste or shame.

Plain sense and sound morality can teach this “disintegrated brilliance” nothing that it does not know. It concedes from the outset that good and bad are mixed in life, and substitutes dull platitudes for witty brilliance. The disintegrated consciousness can be noble, but this is for it only one note among others. To ask it to forsake its disintegration is seen as naivete.

Consciousness is openly aware of this dissolution and criticizes everything. “The vanity of all reality and every definite Notion, vanity which knows itself to be such, is the double reflection of the real world into itself; once in this particular self on consciousness qua particular, and again in the pure universality of consciousness, or in thought.” (§525) In the first, spirit still finds its immediate content in the world; in the second, the gaze is partly directed inward and is negative, and partly beyond the world.

Consciousness is on the way to transcending its disintegration. It sees the vanity of treating all things as vain, and so becomes serious: “In that aspect of the return into the self, the vanity of all things is its own vanity, it is itself vain. It is the self-centered self that knows, not only how to pass judgment on and chatter about everything, but how to give witty expression to the contradiction that is present in the solid elements of the actual world, as also in the fixed determinations posited by judgment; and this contradiction is their truth.” (§526) It gets its sense of self from all these alienations. Power and wealth are its only ends, but it knows these are vain too. But: “. . .this particular self, qua this pure self, determined neither by reality nor by thought, develops into a spiritual self that is of truly universal worth.” (§526) All content is something negative, leaving only the pure self which has returned into itself. In knowing itself as disintegrated and in rising above this, it achieves a truly spiritual self-consciousness.

b. Faith and pure insight

“The Spirit of self-alienation has its existence in the world of culture.” But because the whole is alienated from itself, “there stands beyond that world the unreal world of pure consciousness, or of thought. Its content is in the form of pure thought, and thought is its absolute element.” (§527) But for now, consciousness only has these thoughts; it does not actually think them. It is just a series of representation. “The disrupted consciousness is only in-itself, or implicitly, the self-identity of pure consciousness, a fact that is known to us, but not to itself.” (§527) It is only an immediate elevation, not a mediated one. So for now, the essence of its thought has the value of being essence, noy only as an abstract in-itself, but as a common actuality.

It is different from the stoic consciousness. What counted for the stoic was only the form of thought, for which any alien content was taken directly from the world. It is also different from the virtuous consciousness, which did have a relation to the actual world, but was a “non-actual” essence (I’m not sure why). It is the same with Reason as it tested and gave laws; it was not yet actual. So, “while pure thought fell within the world of culture itself as an aspect of the alienation, viz. as the standard for judging Good and Bad in the abstract, though having passed though the process of the whole, it has become enriched with the moment of actuality and thereby with content.” It is a flight from actuality, but a flight laden with the content of that actuality.

“Religion – for it is obviously religion that we are speaking about – in the form in which it appears here as the faith belonging to the world of culture, does not yet appear as it is in and for itself.” (§528) We’ve already seen religion as the unhappy consciousness and in the ethical world as as faith in the underworld, but neither of these are yet faith, “not essence posited in the element of pure consciousness beyond the actual world, but has itself an immediate presence; its element is the family.” (§528) Here, in pure insight, “religion in part has proceeded from the Substance and is the pure consciousness of it; in part, this pure consciousness is alienated from its actual consciousness the essence from its existence.” (§528) It is not longer an insubstantial moment of consciousness, but it is still opposed to the actual world, an antithetical to particular consciousness, and so merely a belief.

Since consciousness in religious belief is a flight from the world, it takes something from the world with it – the critical, negative voice of culture. This skepticism destroys all positivity, and fastens on to the representations of the transcendent world to attack it. Both faith and pure insight represent consciousness returning into itself from the dispersion of the world of culture.

For faith, its absolute object is a representation of the real world, with the historical character of that real world – i.e. beings doing and saying things. In relation to the real world, faith articulates itself into the absolute father, the self-offering son, and the Holy Spirit in which it returns to its simplicity. Since the Son and Holy Spirit bring the transcendent religious object into relation with reality, they also bring the believing consciousness into relation with the transcendent.

The spirit of religious faith lives in the world of culture, but tries to rise above it to transcendence. It practices devotion, which really brings it no closer to its object, which it thinks of as being in a remote time and place.

Since thought of primary importance, “For pure insight the Notion or concept alone has reality.” (§535) It wants to overcome every kind of independence other than that of self-consciousness. In this first appearance of the concept of pure insight, it is not fully realized. “Accordingly, its consciousness still appears as contingent, as single and separate, and its essence appears for it in the form of an end which it has to realize. It has, to begin with, the intention of making pure insight universal, i.e. of making everything that is actual into a Notion, and into one and the same Notion in every self-consciousness. The intention is pure, for it has pure insight for its content; and this insight is likewise pure, for its content is solely the absolute Notion, which meets no opposition in an object, nor is it restricted in its own self.” (§537) In this “unrestricted” Notion there are two aspects: first, that everyone has self-consciousness, and that this is universal – that is, that everyone has access to pure insight.

Genius, talent, and the like are not the point here; individuality is not concerned with the unreal “matter in hand” or any particular content. What is for the ‘I’ an other is only the ‘I’ itself: “Pure insight is, therefore, the simple, imminently differentiated essence, and equally the universal work or achievement and a universal possession. . . . This pure insight is thus the Spirit that calls to every consciousness: be for yourselves what you all are in yourselves – reasonable.” (§537)


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