History & Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology

Westphal, Merold. History & Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Hegel remains important today for the children who claim him as their father.  To be fair, you cannot draw a straight line from Hegel to Marx (or Cultural Marxism).  Hegel was a conservative monarchist.  Nonetheless, Hegel’s method was hijacked and in combating the evils of Cultural Marxism, it helps to know what Hegel said.  And what he said is different from what you were told he said.

As far as analyses of Hegel goes, this is hit-and-miss.  I don’t see it as an advance upon Charles Taylor.  On the other hand, Merold Westphal does a good job explicating what Hegel meant by “Spirit.”

Thesis: transcendental subjectivity has a social history and absolute knowledge is historically conditioned (Westphal xvii).

Hegel’s initial target is the view that takes knowledge to be merely an instrument. This is the view that knowledge is neutral and that the knower remains unattached to the process.

The Task of The Phenomenology

I’m not sure what Westphal was saying in this chapter. He makes a number of helpful remarks on Hegel’s system, though.

The best way to see Hegel’s project is that of Spirit progressively abandoning its external husks (26).  Hegel is interested in the historical and social dimension of Spirit. Geist overcomes oppositions.  If we take our standard oppositions of subject-object, mind-body, and spirit-matter, Hegel sees them as “congealed oppositions,” to which Reason’s goal is to transform them.

Reason, then, for Hegel is human life in its totality.   Obviously, this is not how we normally use the term.

The Knowledge of Nature: Sense Certainty

Sense certainty is the weakest of all theories of knowledge.  Hegel adequately rebuts it, but he goes the long way around to do it. If all we can know are our sense perceptions, then we must rule out things like cause, effect, consciousness, etc. (which, of course, is what Hume did).

As it stands, Hegel’s criticism of sense certaintyis convoluted, but what it does is allow him to develop terms such as mediation and immediacy.  He wants to make the move from “pure thought” to “pure Spirit.”

Mediation implies a negative relation to something else.  When I see a tree, I am not simply seeing sensations of brown and green.  I see the tree within a larger matrix (which rules out its being things it isn’t). All this may be true, but I don’t see exactly how it attacks sense-certainty.

Hegel says that when sense perceptions are present to my consciousness, they are always so in a contingent relationship (here, now).  They are never present as pure being.  Again, quite true but I am not sure this gets us anywhere. I think his point is that every moment of sense-certainty is always in a determinate (i.e., limited) context and never present as pure-ness.

If something is present to me in a pure, immediate sense, then it is so as an empty concept. For example, close your eyes and think about “being.”  Now think about “nothing.”  You probably thought about the same thing. I think the payoff is that sense certainty is trading on a number of concepts that it rules out. Hegel goes on to say that this mediation is language.

Constructing the knowledge-act: Every act of knowing has a subject and an object. Spirit mediates between subject and object, yet there is also a mediating act within Spirit itself. The object I know is part of a universal consciousness (is it?), of which I am also a part.

When Desire Doubles

We move from Consciousness to Spirit, and Spirit requires a social dimension.  Here’s how. Spirit or practical consciousness begins with desire (122). Whenever we are conscious of something, we are conscious of an object.  To desire an object is to experience its otherness. I am now conscious of my consciousness of the other.  This is Self-Consciousness.  Unfortunately, this objectifies the Other, which does not survive the negation.  What Hegel means is not that the object is obliterated, but that I only experience it as an object of my desire, never as itself.

We need another category that doubles my self-consciousness yet doesn’t negate the other.  This is Spirit. The Spirit is the third term that mediates between the two self-consciousnesses without negating the two.

Spirit is the unity of self-conscious individuals.  It is the I that is a We and the We that is an I (129).  Westphal lists several characteristics: spirit is a social reality, not an ontological predicate; it is an interrelated unity of selves; it is a substance which will become subject.

This points to an obvious conclusion: Spirit is fully recognized in the life of a people (Volk; 139). This is Hegel’s famous term, Sittlichkeit, ethical life. “It is the substantial life of a people expressed in its customs and laws.”  This sounds very similar to Augustine’s famous “common objects of love” (City of God Book 19).  Of course, all hinges on what we mean by Spirit.  Hegel might have meant something like “God,” in which case his thought is to be rejected.  But if we mean something like the real bonds which hold a society together, then it is fine.

The Career of Spirit

Spirit manifests itself in concrete forms in history.  It moves from the Greek Polis to the Roman Legal Self to Revolutionary Terror to the climax of human perfection, 19th century Germany.  That much is easy enough to understand.  It gets convoluted at the end.

The Greek life was one of social wholeness.  However, it lacked self-reflection.  As it began to reflect on itself (with the help of several wars), it lost its cohesion and Spirit moved to the Roman Empire.

The Roman self was a legal self.  The individual is his property and nothing beyond.  Unfortunately, this means I can only relate to the Other through externals (usually wealth), which will later introduce alienation.

The main problem with all of this is the evidence, as noted in the apocryphal quip, “Herr Hegel, the facts do not support your theory.”  Hegel: “Too bad for the facts.”


This isn’t my favorite Hegel text, and I mean no disrespect to Westphal.  He is an accomplished philosopher and a good writer.  I think he tried to say too much in too little space.  Charles Taylor’s book on Hegel is much longer and much clearer, clearer probably because it is longer.

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