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.

Overcoming Ontotheology (Westphal)

Westphal, Merold.  Overcoming Ontotheology. New York, Fordham University Press, 2001.

This is a Christian, albeit sympathetic, reading of academic postmodernism as it has come to us via Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida.  It is not a treatment of the emergent church. That is not academic postmodernism.

Ontotheology is when someone treats God as another datum to be analyzed and uses this datum to explain all of reality.  Like all of Westphal’s books, this is very well-written and learned. Parts are even in German. There is a danger to this book:  both sides, modernist and postmodernist, and the Christians within both camps, might say that this book, and by extension Continental Philosophy, is the true philosophy.  Therefore, analytic philosophy is ontotheology. Even worse, they might argue that Continental philosophy = postmodernism. Westphal himself doesn’t do that, as he notes that some postmodernists like Rorty are closer to the analytic tradition in some ways.

For Heidegger, philosophy starts out as Being qua being, but this needs an Unmoved Mover to complete the system. For Heidegger, if we try to introduce God into this system, we can only do so on philosophy’s terms.

We will have to square up to Westphal’s use of the term “postmodern.”  By it he is simply denying that humans can have a “God’s-eye view” of Truth. He finds this in Plato’s claim of “the unaided intellect” which is purified from the senses (Phae 65e ff). Pure thought meets a pure object. 

What critics like Kant and Heidegger suggest is that we can never escape Time.  Our experience is always temporal. With this in mind, Westphal summarizes the leading postmodernists (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Rorty, Heidegger, Derrida):

  1. All our experience is linguistically mediated.
  2. Every language is a conceptual scheme that lacks universality.
  3. Every language is contingent.
  4. Every language is a perspective.

Christian Philosophers and the Copernican Revolution

Westphal’s specific argument is that Kant’s claim to a thing-in-itself is not necessarily an anti-Christian claim.  Indeed, Westphal argues that Kant correlates (somehow) the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. For him, the distance between things-in-themselves and appearances is the way the world is versus the way I experience it.

Positive Postmodernism as Radical Hermeneutics

*Foundationalism is a replacing of mythos with logos.

The Hermeneutical Turn in Modern Continental Philosophy

The trace: something at work in my thinking that is not present now yet never has been fully present.

Laughing at Hegel

Mediation: mediation involves otherness.  Immediacy is its absence. At this level Hegel is a philosopher of difference. Hegel does hold to immediacy at one level, though.  Something is immediate in its being “self-evident,” yet it is not self-evident in itself. It is self-evident to us.

Immediacy is abstract self-relation and hence it is abstract identity (EL 74A). Immediacy is a product of social mediation, of our being in history.  Hegel’s argument is that immediacy can never exist at the level of abstraction, for then it would only give you the altar of the unknown god.

Immediacy tries to undo all of the relations that connect to us.

What does Hegel mean by “dialectics?” First, he doesn’t mean what you’ve been told by bloggers that he means.  He never uses that triad (thesis/antithesis = synthesis) in the way that you think he does. For him, and well for all of the philosophical tradition, dialectics is the negative point of reason (EL 81R).  Everything finite is its own sublation. Westphal suggests that this sublation, this aufhebung, is a recontextualization into the whole.

If you want a triad, it is this: abstract self-relation, mediation through another, and the self-mediation of the totality.

The Otherness of God and Ontological Xenophobia

I see where Horton got the “meeting a stranger” motif.  I agree that the Augustinian/Ps.-Dionysian project is more Neoplatonist than classical theists want to admit.  I just don’t think Derrida is the answer.

For the Neoplatonist et al, the goal of religion is “overcoming estrangement,” by which he means finitude.  For Covenant man, it is meeting a stranger who descends to us. In the former we ascend via negation. In the latter God descends to us.


Heidegger himself might not avoid his own criticism, for in saying we must go beyond the horizon of being to understand being, is he not putting being into intellectualist terms?


*He says Husserl’s process of epoche is an attempt to escape finitude.  I’m fairly certain Husserl is not doing that.  

* Westphal takes issue with Plantinga’s attack on Kant’s “creative anti-realism.” This hinges on whether Westphal’s theistic reading of Kant is tenable.  When read in light of Kant’s philosophy of religion, I don’t think it is.

* Finally, the pious churchgoer might wonder if there is any point in reading Derrida.  I would have to say no. Everything Derrida wants the Reformed already have in the archetypal distinction.  Further, while we agree with Heidegger that we should overcome ontotheology, God has already done so in being the God of the Covenant.


A Heidegger study list

Heidegger is notoriously difficult, but once you decode him he is easy and there is a huge payoff.  The following is more or less what I did.

I did some study notes on Heidegger that some might find helpful.

a) Jamie Smith’s *Desiring the Kingdom,* despite all of Smith’s goofiness, does a good job explaining what Heidegger was about.
b) I read Heidegger’s *Basic Writings* first. The upshot is that you get a glimpse of his finest writing. The downside is you really don’t understand his project until you read Being and Time.
c) My intellectual mentor, Matthew Raphael Johnson, has a good lecture on Heidegger.
d) The world-class British orator Jonathan Bowden did an outstanding lecture on Heidegger. He places Heidegger as the counter-opposite of Satre

Merold Westphal has a good introductory lecture.  Here is a course he did.  The audio is awful, but you might be able to make something out of it.

Can Wilson even deal with Heidegger

So after I finished Heidegger’s Being and Time I went to the leading “Evangelical spokesman” to see what he said. Long story short, if you go to www.dougwils.com and type in “Heidegger” you will get three pages of “see how stupid they are” or “muh Nazis!”  What you won’t get in a sustained, mature interaction.  

The only time he remotely gets close to understanding Heidegger is when he is citing Leithart’s discussion of Westphal’s discussion of Heidegger.  And it’s clear that Wilson is out of his depth, which he kind of admits.

(Is he speaking in tongues in this post?)

Here he shows himself mentally incapable of dealing with a godly and renowned philosopher like Merold Westphal.  (Mind you, I have some differences with Westphal.  I think he too closely identifies ontotheology with metaphysics).