The Logic of Desire
There is such divine harmony in the realm of lifeless nature, why this discord within the rational?
To open the pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is to enter a labyrinth. The Minotaur of these regions, the Demon of Difficulty, haunts every chamber. The difficulty of Hegel is both legend and cliché. It tends to be so great and so persistent, so much a part of how Hegel thinks and speaks, that we risk losing our way at every turn. Early on, Hegel tells us that the Phenomenology chronicles no mere path of Cartesian doubt but a way of despair. And yet, how little he seems to realize that his book, intended as a ladder to the absolute, is itself a way of despair for the would-be reader.
This essay is an introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit. I shall try to provide a thread to guide us through Hegel’s labyrinth. The center of this labyrinth is the self: it is the point around which everything else in the Phenomenology turns. The word “spirit” or Geist that appears in the title, a word that also means “mind,” is just this — the condition of fully developed selfhood. Hegel’s book tells us how this condition is achieved. In his commentary on Hegel, Alexandre Kojeve begins with the following definition: “Man is self-consciousness.” My efforts take their cue from this definition and are devoted to an exploration of what Hegel means by the self.
For the most part, I will be dealing with the chapter on self-consciousness. But before plunging in, I want to say a word about the Phenomenology as a whole and discuss a few of Hegel’s basic terms.
The Phenomenology belongs to a quartet of greatest works on the theme of education. The other three members of the quartet are Plato’s Republic, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Rousseau’s Emile. Despite their profound differences, these works have important similarities. For one thing, each reflects on education through some over-arching story or muthos. In the Republic this muthos is the founding of the best city in speech; in the Divine Comedy it is Dante’s journey to God; in Emile it is Rousseau’s fiction of playing governor to a child not his own by nature. In the Phenomenology, too, education is not simply talked about but presented as a drama or story. It is the story of how spirit, which for Hegel is somehow both human and divine, struggles to attain Self-knowledge. Another similarity is that each of these stories is a tale of liberation. Each tells of how man is freed from some bad and enslaving condition — from either a cave, or a dark wood, or the corrupting influence of society or, in the Phenomenology, from what Hegel calls “natural consciousness.” Finally, and most importantly, each work in the great quartet explores the relationship between reason on the one hand and action and passion on the other, between man as a thinker and man as the being who acts and feels.
Hegel educates the reader by initiating him into the minds of others. To use a metaphor that occurs in the final chapter, the Phenomenology is a picture gallery (492- page numbers in the Miller translation, from which I have occasionally departed). It presents us with a colorful array of human characters or types. Hegel calls these types “shapes of consciousness.” These shapes are the phenomena or appearances for which the Phenomenology seeks to provide a logos or reasoned account. In the course of the book we encounter all manner of characters, much as we do when we read the Platonic dialogues or when we journey with Dante through his three-fold cosmos. We meet the scientist and the warrior, the Stoic and the Sceptic, the unhappy consciousness and the beautiful soul. Sometimes we meet characters lifted
from the realm of fiction: Faust, Karl von Moor, Don Quixote, Antigone and Rameau’s crazy nephew. All have their place within Hegel’s picture gallery; all are stages on the way to the fully developed selfhood of spirit.
The single most important feature of this array of human types is that each embodies or personifies a specific claim to know. This claim is put forth by the character as unquestioned and unqualified, in other words, as absolute. Absolute knowing is not just in the final chapter but permeates the whole. It is present in all the preceding chapters, present not as genuine absolute knowing but as the unsubstantiated claim to know absolutely, that is, divinely. This claim to absolute or divine knowing Hegel calls “certainty.” Hegel’s phenomenologist is a combination of impersonator and spy: He must infiltrate all these appearances of absolute knowing, enter into the spirit of their characteristic certainties, and expose them for what they are — mortal shapes or, to use one of Hegel’s most beloved words, moments. The shapes that come before the phenomenologist, the shapes he has critically “taken on,” are self-refuting; they are consumed in the very process of articulating themselves. In the course of witnessing this process, a process Hegel calls “experience,” the phenomenologist sees something positive: He sees the logical order of generation by which one shape gives birth to another. In this way he reconstructs the path that leads to genuine absolute knowing, to the truly divine.
Hegel tells us in the Introduction that the Phenomenology depicts the education of natural consciousness as it “presses on to true knowing” (49). The Phenomenology is not about the education of single human individuals. As we shall soon see, the individual is at the heart of what Hegel’s book is all about; nevertheless, no single human individual traverses the stages of consciousness, becomes a Stoic at one point in his life and gets converted to scepticism at another. It is mind or spirit in its universality, what Hegel provocatively calls “the universal individual” (16), that makes the transition from stage to stage. The universal individual manifests itself in the various epochs of world history, epochs summed up by the characters I mentioned earlier: Antigone, for example, sums up one aspect of Greek ethical life, while Rameau’s nephew sums up the perversity of the modern world of culture. The individual reader, to be sure, goes through all the stages; but he does so from the standpoint of “true knowing,” that is, dialectical knowing. He enters into the labyrinth of each mode of certainty vicariously, playfully. He does not lose his way — at least, he is not expected to — and he does not share the self-ignorance and self-deception of that mode. As Hegel tells us in the Preface, philosophy in the form of science has already come on the scene. In tracing out the logical thread that runs through all the shapes of consciousness, the reader vindicates what he already possesses rather than learns what he did not know. Education in the Phenomenology, then, is the education not of conscious individuals but of consciousness, of universal mind struggling to know itself. What, then, is consciousness? Clearly, we must ask this question if we are to understand what Hegel means by self-consciousness.
Consciousness for Hegel is any mode of thinking that is characterized by a strict distinction between a thinking subject and an external object. “External” here means “external to thinking.” Consciousness is the subject-object opposition. It is inwardness that is outer-oriented, outer- directed. Ordinary sense experience offers a simple instance of consciousness. I see an apple before me. It is one thing; I am another. My gaze is directed, vector-like, away from myself and towards the apple. This is the attitude of consciousness. Consciousness does not give subject and object, perceiver and apple, equal weight. The apple is there, it exists. It would be there if I weren’t looking at it. The apple is assumed by the attitude of consciousness to be the real, the substantial, the true, while the light of consciousness that falls on the apple is assumed to have nothing to do with the apple. In short, consciousness does not merely perceive the object but values or esteems it insofar as it is an object; and furthermore, it values or esteems it at the expense of the conscious subject. This may be termed the prejudice of consciousness.
To educate natural consciousness is to lead it out of this prejudice that “holds up” objects and “puts down” subjects. Natural consciousness is man in an intellectual “state of nature.” In this state he identifies the true with the natural. Now “natural” here means more than the apples that exist outside the perceiver. It refers to anything that is assumed to have either an immediate existence or an immediate truth. “Natural” means “logically undeveloped.” It refers to anything that is assumed to be true simply and solely on the grounds that it is given. This realm of the natural as the mind’s undigested “other” includes not only sensuous givens like the apple but also, and more interestingly, intellectual givens like innate ideas, intellectual intuition, the categorical imperative, and conscience. Man can even adopt this natural attitude towards himself. He can think of himself as having a fixed “nature” like the apple, a nature that is simply given. Dialectic in the Phenomenology is the logical process by which the immediate is mediated or thought through. As the systematic destruction of all givenness, it embodies Hegel’s attack on the merely natural.
Consciousness, for Hegel, is the human condition from a certain point of view. It is a divine condition, too, a mode in which God as universal mind appears on earth, appears in and through man; but for now I want to focus on the human side of Hegel’s man-God identity. In the condition of natural consciousness, man finds himself thrown, unaccountably, into a whole world of external objects. This world includes laws, customs and prohibitions as well as apples. In his natural or pre-educated condition, man regards all these things not only as objects over and against him but also as objects over and above him. With all their apparent determinateness and solidity, all their naturalness, they rise up before man like an overbearing authority figure. The attitude of natural consciousness makes the world seem that way, invests the merely given with authoritativeness.
With these observations we begin to see the moral dimension of the Phenomenology. Natural consciousness is man’s cave and dark wood, his condition of bondage. The education of this consciousness is the path by which man becomes fully himself or free, free of the tyranny of nature and all the undigested otherness that nature implies. Dialectic, as the mediational process by which all givenness is destroyed, is not only the path to the true; it is also the path to man’s highest good in the form of freedom. As we shall see, this good can be attained only on the basis of a revision of how we understand human desire. Consciousness must get beyond merely looking at the apple: It must eat the apple and then suffer the consequences. This is what happens at the level of self-consciousness.
The chapter on self-consciousness is the most important as well as the most dramatic in the whole Phenomenology. It is the point at which the book finds its center and true beginning. The three preceding stages of sense-certainty, perception, and understanding, important and interesting as they are, form but the prologue to Hegel’s imperial theme of the self. Now the whole Phenomenology is the study of the human-divine spirit in the mode of consciousness, spirit or mind caught up in the subject-object opposition. That is why every character in the book is said to be a shape of consciousness. But the three opening stages represent consciousness in its narrower sense. Here the thinking subject places the truth squarely in a non-thinking object: sense-certainty in the sensuous This, perception in the thing and its properties, and understanding in force. These stages are objective, not only because they locate truth in an object but also in the colloquial sense: They are objective in the sense of being detached or uninvolved. The subject here merely “takes” its object. The subject is neither practical nor productive; it neither acts nor makes. Nor is the object in any way a reflection of the thinking subject: It neither lives nor thinks. The “cool” detachment of these modes of certainty stands in sharp contrast with the “heat” of self-consciousness. Self- consciousness is passionately involved with its objects. As we see from the opening “fight to the death,” its very first manifestation is that of extreme violence. When self-consciousness bursts upon the scene in the Phenomenology, it does so like Alcibiades in the Symposium — drunk, tyrannical and full of a truth it does not understand.
The key to the self-consciousness chapter, and indeed to Hegel’s book as a whole, is the violence with which self-consciousness first appears. This violence exerts its influence over all the characters we meet in the chapter, not only the warrior and the lord, but also the Stoic, Sceptic and unhappy consciousness. Hegel’s technical word for this violence is negativity; the experiential word for it is desire. In the introductory section entitled “The Truth of Self-Certainty”, Hegel tells us: “Self-consciousness is desire”(105, 109). The remainder of my essay is an effort to understand this sentence.
In order to get at why self-consciousness is violent, let us ask a more basic question: What does Hegel mean by the self? Towards the end of the Phenomenology, Hegel utters a surprisingly helpful answer to this question. He says: “The ‘I’ is not merely the self, but the identity of the self with itself”(489). The self, in other words, is a relation, the relation of identity. More precisely, it is the act of self-relation. One is tempted to coin the verb “selfing.” The self is not something I have but something I do; and this doing is what I most deeply am. Ordinarily, when I refer to my self, I refer either to my body or to something mysteriously lodged in or attached to my body. I treat the self as though it were an object that is simply there — like the apple. To recall the three stages of consciousness, I treat the self as though it were a unique this that defies language, or a thinking thing with properties, or a psychic force. For Hegel all these ways of thinking about the self belong to natural consciousness, the condition of bondage from which philosopher and non-philosopher alike must be delivered.
Self-consciousness is the spelling out of selfhood as the act of self-relating. It is the experience of what it means to say, not just “I” but “I am myself.” Self-consciousness is the so-called “law of identity,” “A=A,” that has “bubbled up” to the surface of human experience in the form of “I=I.” My selfhood, my act of relating myself to myself, is the law of identity brought to life. For Hegel, this act of self-relating is negative or self-contradictory. The reason is that, in being aware of myself, I hold myself before myself: I am both subject and object. To pursue the spatial metaphor, I generate an inner “distance” between myself and myself. In logical terms, I generate the condition of self-otherness. Were it not for this self-otherness, I could not be self-aware. But clearly I cannot stop at this moment of distance or self-otherness, for then I would not be aware that what I hold before me is myself. In order to be aware of myself as identical with myself, I must generate a distance and overcome that distance in one and the same act. Self-consciousness is this single act; it is the experience of being at once self-same and self-other. We have here the paradigm of what Hegel calls determinate negation. This is negation that preserves what it negates. In being self-conscious, I negate my simple or immediate self-identity, my naturalness, and simultaneously negate the negating. Determinate negation is negation with a positive result. In this case the result is —me as a self-conscious individual. All this explains why the “law of identity,” “I=I,” is an incomplete or what Hegel calls “abstract” truth. It is incomplete because it conceals and even seems to deny the moment of self-otherness, without which my selfhood would be impossible. To be grasped in its wholeness, and therefore in its truth, self-consciousness must be regarded as the unity of the self-same and the self-other. If the logical dissonance within this unity ever came to be resolved in the sense of obliterated, if logical dissonance were like musical dissonance, I would cease to be self-aware, I would cease to be.
Earlier I said that self-consciousness was the spelling out of what it meant to say “I am myself.” What are the moral consequences of defining man as self-consciousness, as the being who says “I am myself”? To address this question, we must bring in one of the most important terms in Hegel’s book — individuality. The chapter on self- consciousness is Hegel’s exploration of what it means to be an individual. “I am myself”is the maxim of individuality, the claim that captures the individual’s certainty of himself as an inward or self-relating being. No one who utters this sentence or hears it uttered can fail to note its assertive, even militant tone: “I AM MYSELF.” “I am myself” is not a mere proposition, the mere statement that I happen to be identical with myself, but an affirmation, an act of will. In saying “I am myself,” I stand up for myself; I affirm the value and dignity of my being not just human but this human, my value and dignity as an individual. Furthermore, I assert that this value and dignity derive from my ability to say “I am myself,” that is, from the sheer fact of my inwardness or self-consciousness. In saying “I am myself,” in affirming his individuality, man says: “I am an end and not a means, a whole and not a part — and I am to be respected as such.” In short, this self-affirmation, this battle cry of the individual, is man’s “declaration of independence.” It is man’s unwillingness to bow before any authority other than himself.
The willful or militant character of “I am myself” brings us back to the violence that defines self-consciousness. The violence we witness in Hegel’s drama derives from the fact that self-consciousness, as Hegel tells us, is desire. What, then, does Hegel mean by desire? And why does desire serve to define self-consciousness?
Like every other character in the Phenomenology, self-consciousness starts out in the condition of mere certainty, as an unsubstantiated claim to absolute knowing. Here the self is certain, not of external objects but of itself. The most immediate or natural form of this self-certainty is egotism or amour-propre. Hegel’s technical term for this egotism is “simple being-for-self”(113). At this primitive level of selfhood, the individual is all wrapped up in his own utterly private perspective on the world. He is, in the colloquial sense of the word, subjective. Because of his intense concentration on his exclusive selfhood, the individual is at war with the whole external world, at war with otherness. As consciousness. the self was mesmerized by the apparent solidity of external objects. This worship of objects vanishes with the individual’s certainty of himself. To be sure, the external world is still there; but it has been demoted. No longer a regulated cosmos of independent beings, the world is now fuel for the engine of self-love.
This negative attitude towards externality or otherness is what Hegel means by desire. Self-consciousness is desire because, in the condition of radical egotism, self-certainty at its most immediate level, the individual asserts himself at the expense of the world. I return to the apple of my earlier discussion of consciousness. As a self-conscious individual, I no longer want to look at the apple: nor do I want to understand the natural laws by which the apple grows or falls to the ground. I want to eat the apple. The desire to eat the apple, as Hegel sees it, does not derive from my hunger for apples. It derives instead from my belief, my certainty, that I am substantial while the apple is not. I set out to eat the apple in order to prove that this is the case, to demonstrate my being and its nothingness. We recall Hegel’s praise of the animals in the sense-certainty chapter: “They do not just stand idly in front of sensuous things as if these possessed intrinsic being, but, despairing of their reality, and in complete certainty of their nothingness, they fall to without ceremony and eat them up” (65). Self-consciousness is deeper than consciousness because it knows the wisdom of the animals: it knows that objects are insubstantial. But, as we shall see, it is also more deeply tragic. In seeking the annihilation of the world, in giving way to desire, self-consciousness kills off the necessary condition for self-fulfillment.
Hegel’s logic of desire is clearly a radical departure from how we ordinarily think about desire. Desire in its ordinary sense is positive and other-directed. By this I mean that it is the desire for something, and that it is the desire for something other than myself. The ordinary view is echoed and elaborated in various ways by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Dante. Hegel inverts the two characteristics of desire in its ordinary use. Desire for him is negative and self-directed. It is negative because it is the impulse to destroy rather than to acquire; it is more like hatred than love. And it is self-directed because the whole point of all this negativity is the self’s affirmation of itself. A necessary consequence of this inversion of desire is a radical shift in the meaning of a final cause. Man, for Hegel, is not evoked, called forth, by some being outside him, neither by the Platonic forms nor an unmoved mover nor the grace-bearing Beatrice. He is driven from within, impelled by his very self-certainty to seek the truth of that certainty through antagonism towards the external world. What man strives for, desires in the broad sense of the term, is not an object other than himself, nor a divine condition to which he aspires without ever attaining, but his own full self-expression. Man, for Hegel, is his own end. This autonomy first shows itself in man’s radical egotism, his simple being-for-self.
Desire as the will to negate is most clearly present in the fight to the death, with which the drama of self-consciousness begins. The individual in his condition of amour-propre finds himself in a world that includes, not only external objects but also other self-conscious individuals, other beings who say “I am myself.” From the individual’s perspective, these other individuals must be “phonies” — thieves and usurpers of the sacred pronoun “I.” Now, certain as he is of his own selfhood, the individual is also aware that that’s all he has — mere certainty, the untested assurance that he is the legitimate bearer of the name “I.” Out of this awareness is born the individual’s insecurity and his need to “prove himself.” In Hegel’s language, he is driven to raise his mere certainty to truth. Positively, he must prove himself to himself, show that his self-certainty is even more important than his life. Negatively, he must destroy the merely apparent or false selfhood of his opponent, who, we must remember, is also driven to prove his self-worth.
To say that self-consciousness is desire is to say not only that the self wishes to destroy but also that it thrives on what it destroys. If the object were irrevocably consumed, consumed once and for all, the self would have nothing to “feed off. “ Since self-consciousness derives its sense of self from the negation of an other, the other must somehow be preserved even as it is destroyed. In the very first experience of self-consciousness, the individual realizes that killing one’s opponent is ultimately unsatisfying, that what he really wants is recognition. The individual who fights for recognition desires to annihilate the otherness of his fallen opponent. He wants to deprive the other self not of his life but of his selfhood and individuality, his right to say “I am myself.” He does so by making the other individual his slave. The warrior at this point loses his nobility in becoming a lord. He is now “free” to indulge his lower desires: He can eat the apple pie that the slave has made. But the slave, precisely through his subservience to his master in the form of work, rises above his master. He does so because his condition of servitude, not to mention his overwhelming fear of violent death, has stifled his former will to destroy, his former desire. The apple pie may be food to the master, but to the slave it is a work of art, an independent thing that the slave makes but is not permitted to consume. In the independence of the thing, the apple pie, the slave sees the embodiment of his own independence as a maker or producer. The pie is not just the product of his work but the objectification of the slave’s act of working, the slave’s investment of himself in an external object. The lord, on the other hand, remains in his condition of desire. Partly, this is because desire, once gratified, only repeats itself. I eat the pie, and an hour later I am hungry again. The result of giving in to desire is just the reappearance of the desire. But even more importantly, the lord can hardly derive much satisfaction from the recognition that comes from a debased human being, a being who lacks independence. The mastery of other selves is necessarily self-defeating.
The initial war of the selves cannot help but remind us of Hobbes’s state of nature. Hegel appropriates Hobbes’s view that man is by nature competitive or warlike and gives it a logical grounding, that is, a grounding in the logic of selfhood. What for Hobbes was a fact — the first fact — of human nature, is for Hegel the logically necessary outcome of the self’s dialectical identity, its dissonance of “same” and “other. “ The individual is by nature at war with other individuals because, as a self-consciousness, he is at war with himself. Earlier we saw how selfhood for Hegel was the unity of the self-same and the self-other. The clearest indication that I am a divided being is the fact that I am alive; I am a self-consciousness sustained by and rooted in an organic body. My body is an “other” that is at the same time also myself. It is also that aspect of my existence that does not have to do with dignity and worth. At its most immediate and therefore most violent level, self-consciousness, since it is obsessed with self-sameness as the sole basis for its absolute worth, is at war with its own body and life. It feels its manhood undercut or rendered questionable by its animality. That is why the warring individual risks his own life in seeking to destroy the life of the other, why the fight to the death is combat rather than murder.
The dual or self-divided nature of the self has profound consequences for the desire for recognition. For many authors, pagan and Christian alike, this desire, so closely connected with amour-propre, is held in low esteem. Perhaps the author who puts the desire for recognition in its worst light is Rousseau. For Rousseau this desire is not natural to man but artificial: It is acquired as a result of man’s membership in civil society. Towards the end of the Second Discourse we are told that whereas natural or savage man lives “in himself,” societal man “is always outside himself and knows how to live only in the opinion of others.” Against Rousseau. Hegel upholds the inherent goodness of the desire for recognition. He does so by making it literally and necessarily the case that man lives “outside himself.” In the fight for recognition, this other who stands before me, strange to say, is myself. As Hegel tells us early in the chapter, self-consciousness “has come outside itself” as an opposition between two individuals (111). Self-consciousness is one universal self actually divided into two individual selves. This numerical duplication is the self’s inner dissonance made actual in the external world. If indeed the other individual is my own selfhood thrown out in front of me, then my fate as an individual is utterly bound up with the fate of this other. I no longer have the option of saying: “It doesn’t matter what other people think of me; I know my own worth.” Such “self-esteem” that seeks to do without the esteem of others is meaningless; it is a falsification of one’s own individuality. Hegel gives cognitive value to recognition: The violent desire for recognition is in fact the first or most immediate manifestation of my desire to complete my vision of myself in this other individual, to reconcile the two warring aspects of my own selfhood through a reconciliation with this externally existing, actual other. The desire to be known by another is in fact my desire to know myself in the context of a human community. What the combatants do not yet know — because they have not yet experienced it — is that genuine recognition comes about only if it is reciprocal or shared, only if the one who recognizes me is not a slave but my equal. Nevertheless, this later, mature stage cannot be attained without the original violence.
Progress for Hegel is made not through smooth degrees, nor through the tempering of extremes, but through the pushing of extremes to their logical and self-defeating conclusions. The Hobbesian state of war, the violence of desire, is the very principle of man’s education and refinement.
The negative spirit of desire continues into the second section of Hegel’s chapter, the section entitled “Freedom of Self-Consciousness. “ The Stoic, Sceptic and unhappy consciousness are all instances of the will to negate the world in order to affirm the self. On the surface, the Stoic seems to be motivated by will rather than by desire. The Stoic affirms himself. He does so not in the external world — for that is the place of suffering — but in the unperturbed realm of thought. The stubborn inwardness of the Stoic, his will to be himself regardless of what happens to his life in the external world, is what makes the Stoic violent or, in Hegel’s technical meaning of the term, desirous. Scepticism is the truth of Stoicism because it unleashes this violence. The Sceptic actually carries out the destruction of the world that the Stoic implies and presupposes but is too noble to carry out himself. In the move from Stoic to Sceptic, arguments replace platitudes. Through his endless paradoxes, the Sceptic shows that the external world is riddled with contradiction, that it is altogether insubstantial.
Hegel’s account of the Stoic is two-fold: It consists of both praise and blame. The Stoic’s freedom is abstract, just as his talk about virtue is empty. But the Stoic seeks to express himself and his freedom in the realm of pure thinking, thinking that is no slave to pictures or images. This bond with pure, pictureless thinking does more than ennoble the Stoic; it also makes him the precursor of philosophy in the form of system, in particular the precursor of the science of logic. Unfortunately, the Stoic resolves to “think positive”; he disdains the negative activity that alone could give his thinking and freedom some filling or substance. The account of the Sceptic is similarly two-fold. The Sceptic frolics in negation and so holds in his hands the key to the divine logos. He, too, is a precursor of sorts. The problem is that the Sceptic, who is a child at heart, frolics rather than thinks; he does not see the determinate or positive character of his randomly produced negations but delights in negation for its own sake.
We now come to the crowning moment of the chapter, to the character Hegel dubs “the unhappy consciousness.” It is extremely important here to remember where we are in the dialectic of self-consciousness. As I mentioned earlier, self-consciousness, like every other shape in the Phenomenology, starts out in certainty and ends up in truth. The truth always contradicts the original certainty. The unhappy consciousness, in other words, is not merely the last character in the chapter but the negative truth of self-consciousness as a whole, the truth that undermines the original effort at self-affirmation. The individual started out as a proud warrior. He wanted to prove that he was simply for himself, that he was “the genuine article.” In the course of Hegel’s drama, the warrior falls; he is reduced to the status of the humble Christian, who lives only for Another. The amour-propre or egotism that fueled the whole project of self-affirmation at this point is transformed into the obsession with annihilating amour-propre, into the hatred of self-interest, the desire of desire. The violence of desire, formerly directed towards the external world, is now turned back on the self; negativity is now self-sacrifice, and self-certainty self-condemnation.
The unhappy consciousness emerges from the dialectic of Scepticism. The Sceptic is self-contradictory. On the one hand, he says, “All things are relative”; on the other, he puts forth this teaching as absolute truth. This contradiction reveals that there are in fact two modes of thinking, two selves, within the Sceptic. One self is defined by its contact with unchanging truth; the other self is defined by thoughts that constantly fluctuate and contradict one another. Now the Sceptic, in his childish way, keeps going back and forth between these two selves. He is a unity of opposites, but he does not know that he is a unity of opposites. The unhappy consciousness is the explicit awareness of this unity within opposition. It is, to quote Hegel, “the consciousness of oneself as a doubled, merely contradictory being” (126). Ever since sense-certainty, the force of contradiction has been at work in every shape of consciousness. But only now does a shape actually experience contradiction as such. That is why the unhappy consciousness is unhappy, not because there is something outside it that it wants and cannot get, but because its “inside,” its very selfhood, has been divided and set at variance with itself. To be unhappy, for Hegel, is to be “not oneself.”
Hegel’s account of unhappiness is logically complex. It is also steeped in Christian imagery. I will here confine myself to showing how Hegel’s sentence, “Self-consciousness is desire,” continues to be operative. Desire comes up in the unhappy consciousness in three guises. The first I’ve already mentioned. Since it is painfully aware of its own egotism or “sinfulness,” the self is continually “down on itself”; it desires to be rid of its self-love, which it identifies with the unessential or fickle aspect of its being. Secondly, there are, of course, all those desires it is seeking to negate, desires that it considers “dirty.” But the third guise of desire is the most interesting and important. This is the longing for union with the one true Self, the “infinite yearning,” as Hegel calls it, for God. This is the first time that God comes up in the Phenomenology, although, to emphasize God’s function in the argument, Hegel prefers to call Him “the unchangeable.” Man started out in the self-consciousness chapter wanting to affirm himself as an individual. He tried to validate his self-certainty by negating the world. In the unhappy consciousness this negativity, the violence of desire, circles back on the self. But in this reflexive and self-defeating moment, desire has accomplished something: It has generated the new experience of infinite yearning. To the unhappy consciousness, this yearning is directed towards God as the sacred Other. The unhappy consciousness is the lover, and God the beloved object. What the self longs for is to be with God in some hoped for beyond. In other words, the unhappy individual labors under the illusion of natural consciousness; he is enchanted with some immediate given, in this case, a timeless and infinitely remote God. What the unhappy consciousness regards as an infinitely remote object is really the divine or unchangeable aspect of itself. This follows from the definition of the unhappy consciousness. The unhappy consciousness is a mortal self and a divine self in one and the same consciousness; or, as Hegel puts it, it is “the unity of pure thinking and individuality” (130), where thinking is my self-sameness or divinity, and individuality is my otherness and mortality. If rightly understood, the divine is not a beloved object but man’s own selfhood in its purely divine aspect, the moment of man’s selfhood that is purely self-same. What the self-consciousness chapter dramatizes, then, is the logical generation of the divine nature out of the human, the generation of the universal self out of the particular. It shows us how man, for Hegel, is the father of God.
What, then, is the true nature of the infinite longing for God? It is what we have seen all along as the abiding goal of human striving: Man’s inner compulsion to be himself, to be fully himself. What the unhappy consciousness interprets as man’s erotic longing to be with God is in reality man’s will to be God, the individual’s will to be universal . Self-affirmation, having fallen to the ground, rises up again, this time at a new and higher level, a level that is not characterized by desire. Hegel’s name for this higher level of self-affirmationis — reason.
In spite of its many subdivisions, the Phenomenology as a whole is composed of only three main parts: Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, and a third part, which Hegel leaves untitled. Consciousness, we recall, was the self’s fascination with objects. The apple was an object of intellectual reverence rather than something to eat. At the level of self-consciousness, the individual regarded the apple only as food, regarded the whole external world with all the other selves in it only as fuel for the engine of self-love. At Hegel’s third level, the individual stops trying to destroy the world in order to affirm himself. Here the individual allows the world to be substantial. He sets out not to destroy the world but to find himself in it, to give worldly substance and solidity to his otherwise abstract and purely subjective selfhood.
In this third and untitled part of the Phenomenology, the longest part by far, man’s quest for selfhood is completed. Man becomes complete when the logical implications of his self-identity rise to the level of conscious experience, when man is explicitly or actually what he is implicitly or in his concept. But what is man implicitly? What is man’s concept? This we have already seen in the earlier account of self-identity. Man as self-consciousness is the unity of the self-same and the self-other. Man is the being who beholds himself. How, then, is man to experience himself for what he is? What can it possibly mean to experience the determinate negation that is logically inscribed in man’s self-awareness, in man’s concept?
With these questions, I reach the last leg of my journey through Hegel’s labyrinth. Consider the title of Hegel’s book: The Phenomenology of Spirit. Phenomena or appearances, whatever else they may be, are outward or showy, while spirit is inward and deep. To give a phenomenology of spirit, then, is to give a reasoned account, a logos, of what it means for spirit to appear, what it means for the inner to make itself outer, for the deep to be showy while still remaining deep. For Hegel, the inner and the outer, self and world, are both necessary to the full expression of selfhood. That is why desire failed. It failed because the individual wanted to affirm himself at the expense of the world. If there is no world, or if the world is just a vale of tears, then there is nothing solid, nothing objective, in which I might contemplate my worth, in which I might behold myself. Just as consciousness, in its unreflective piety towards objects, lost sight of the true goal, so too does self-consciousness in its effort to destroy objects. Complete selfhood demands that the purity of thinking and the showiness of the world somehow come together, come together in a way that is not a mere contradiction or dissonance, as it was for the unhappy consciousness. In the account of natural consciousness I gave at the beginning of this essay, I laid particular stress on the tyranny of the external world. But that is not the only tyranny that besets man in his quest for selfhood. There is a worse monster than the external world. This monster is man’s fascination with his own spirituality or inwardness, man’s tendency to become — a beautiful soul.
The beautiful soul is a more deeply tragic version of the unhappy consciousness. It is also more perverse. The unhappy consciousness was a lover; it longed for union with an infinitely remote God. The beautiful soul, too, is a lover, but not of an object. It is in love with its own inner purity, in love with itself as the Holy of Holies. Whereas the unhappy consciousness distanced itself, infinitely, from the one true Self, the beautiful soul identifies with this Self, with God in all His purity. The unhappy consciousness found itself hopelessly worldly and carnal; the beautiful soul, on the contrary, forswears the world and the flesh. Regarding itself as “too rich for use, for earth too dear,” it treats itself as though it didn’t even have a body. In Hegel’s characterization, “It lives in dread of besmirching the splendor of its inner being through action and existence” (400). Having turned its back on the world, the beautiful soul simply dies for want of a life. It vanishes, Hegel says, “like a shapeless vapor into thin air” (400).
The beautiful soul dies because it throws away the self-otherness that is necessary to man’s self-identity. Man cannot be fully himself, cannot behold himself, unless he somehow preserves the world that stands before him as his “other,” comes to regard that world as his “significant other.” To fulfill the destiny of his self-otherness, man must become reconciled to the world’s externality. Man’s inwardness, his spirituality, must somehow come to terms with the outward and showy realm of action and existence.
The phenomenon of reconciliation is the climax of Hegel’s story of consciousness. At this point God comes on the scene, not as an infinitely remote beyond, but as a living presence within a community of selves, as the spirit of that community. The last two chapters on religion and absolute knowing are Olympian reflections on the relation between God and time; they stand above the “way of despair,” the Golgotha, which the Phenomenology attempts to give rational or scientific form. In this last moment of the phenomenological journey, two individuals confront one another, as they did in the earlier fight to the death. One judges; the other is judged. The judging individual has become enchanted with his own moral austerity, his moral purity. He has looked upon the Gorgon’s head of pure spirituality and has been turned to stone. His stoniness takes the form of condemning others who are not pure like him, the Napoleons of the world, who have “sold out” and traded in their purity of soul for outward show and worldly preoccupation. The self-righteous individual judges the other to be immoral, not because that other has done something wrong, but simply because he has done something, because he has allowed himself to have an outward existence and a concern for action, because he is worldly or secular. To the judgmental individual, this worldliness is the greatest betrayal of which a human being is capable- the betrayal of the sacred inwardness that alone makes us worthy of respect. The judge judges the other to be a hypocrite; someone who claims to be spiritual or inward but in fact prostitutes this inwardness by worldly action and concern. The judge is the Napoleon of pure morality, the emperor of inwardness. He is also a hypocrite, an even bigger Tartuffe than the individual he judges. The reason is that judgment, which for Hegel must take the form of outward speech, is itself an act, a moment of entrance into the external and secular world. The judge cannot pass judgment on the other individual without becoming like him. He cannot denounce hypocrisy and also remain pure.
Reconciliation occurs when both individuals admit to being worldly and in that sense the betrayers of spirit. Each must confess his worldliness. This is clearly a much more dramatic and difficult moment for the judge, since he has to sacrifice his purism, abdicate as the emperor of inwardness. As the judge confesses his own hypocrisy and forgives the hypocrisy of the other, he gives his blessing to the secular world he once had cursed. In this moment of reconciliation, each self sees itself in the other and admits to this seeing. Now hypocrisy is self-otherness; it is the knowing concealment of one’s true selfhood, in particular, the concealment of one’s worldly self-interest and amour-propre beneath a pious “front.” When each self admits to seeing itself in the other, self-otherness, the moment of self-identity that had been denied for the whole course of the book up to this point, at last receives its due. The long-suppressed self-othemess rises to the surface of human experience. The most important feature of reconciliation is the change that takes place in the relation between self and world. With the confession of self-otherness, the external world ceases to be the inimical “other” over and against the self; it is now the home of spiritual manifestation, the place of God.
Reconciliation, for Hegel, is a human experience with a conceptual or philosophical meaning. Much more is going on in this phenomenon than the individuals involved realize. In the act of forgiveness, the hard heart melts. This softening of the hard heart is, in truth, a dialectical or intellectual accomplishment. The softening of the heart, the loosening of hard being-for-self, is the feeling of dialectical fluidity, the feeling of thinking. Now it is the peculiar power and sublimity of reconciliation to retain past enmity as something that has been overcome. In other words, reconciliation is the experience of determinate negation, negation that preserves what it destroys. In this feeling of determinate negation, man can experience, at last, the complete unity of his self-identity, the being-together of the self-same and the self-other. In the section on revealed religion, Hegel gives us his definition of spirit. He says: “Spirit is the knowledge of oneself in the externalization of oneself; the being that is the movement of retaining its self-identity in its otherness” (459). This is precisely the condition that has been dialectically generated in the phenomenon of reconciliation. In the confession of hypocrisy, the two selves “come out” of their private selves, become external to themselves while remaining inward or spiritual beings. There is now mutual recognition of selfhood, unlike the one-sided kind we had earlier. The individuals here have experienced the divine in time: They have become reconciled, not only to one another but also to the universal self that the individual self had unhappily fathered.
All this, we must note, takes place in and through language. For Hegel, the inner must become outer. The inner is by definition the drive or compulsion to be an externalized inner, an inner that has some substance to it. The self-righteous judge must not simply think his condemnation of the other; he must utter it, indeed, throw it in the face of the other individual. So too, in the moment of reconciliation, the two hypocrites must confess their hypocrisy openly to one another.
Now language plays a central role throughout the Phenomenology. Even sense-certainty, up to a point, speaks. But language acquires a special importance in the context of reconciliation. For Hegel, language is not mere communication but spiritual or intellectual presence. In Hegel’s words, it is “the being-there or existence of spirit” (395). Simply put, language is the outward expression of inward thought. When I speak, I translate my inwardness into something outer and real. I make my thought present for my listener and also for myself. Language is thought standing in its own presence, thought that beholds itself as thought. But this outward expression is not a direct and smooth translation of the inner into the outer; it is not without its moment of conflict. To speak is to betray a thought. In uttering a thought, I betray it in the negative sense that I turn against my own dear inwardness and hand it over to its enemy — the external world. To speak is to act. Now comes the magic of language, the magic that distinguishes language from every other human action. Even as I betray my inward thought by making it outer, I turn against this very betrayal and defeat the “bad effects” of externality: I betray my thought in the positive sense that I express or reveal it as thought. In other words, language, the quintessential act of man, is the most immediate, most obvious instance of spirit as Hegel defines it — the retaining of inwardness in the very act of externalization. Like forgiveness, language is the overcoming of betrayal in its negative sense. Reconciliation is for this reason not just an instance of speech but the logic of the very act of speaking brought to the level of experience.
In the phenomenon of reconciliation man experiences his true identity, experiences himself as the dialectical unity of same and other. But man is not fully himself for Hegel until he gets beyond this experience and thinks his identity, until he thinks the reconciliation of opposites at the level of pure conceptuality — thought without pictures. This is the level we reach in the final chapter on absolute knowing, the level Hegel calls science. At this level, mind, having been purged of all naturalness or anti-mind, wins the condition of complete self-identity and freedom. Mind is free to be itself, to lead the life that is completely its own. In the Phenomenology, man does not simply come to know the truth; he comes to know that he is the truth. He comes to know that his concept as a self-conscious individual is identical with the Concept, with the divine intelligibility, the divine logos, that steers its way through all things. This divine logos, the life of pure intelligibility, is embodied in the magnificent Science of Logic. By entering into this life of the mind, man enjoys the divinity that is inscribed in his self-consciousness. In the spontaneous unfolding of what Hegel calls the Concept or Notion — Hegel’s analogue to the Platonic Good — man enjoys the very principle of his cherished freedom and the pure play of his self-identity. He is transported to the true heaven.
But the divine life of thinking does not spring full-blown from the head of the philosopher. For Hegel, philosophy in the form of science is the product of history, the product of human self-identity working out its many contradictions in time. The Phenomenology is the history of consciousness, the history of man as a thinking being, put into rational form; it is time looked at from the standpoint of mind. The world for Hegel is not a cave from which the philosopher tries to escape. For one thing, he cannot escape. As we hear in another work, The Philosophy of Right: “Each individual is in any case a child of his time; thus philosophy, too, is its own time comprehended in thoughts” (Preface). But more importantly, the true philosopher will not want to escape. As the friend of reason, he will acknowledge that the world in its historical unfolding, the outer world of action and struggle, is precisely the path along which wisdom is attained, or rather, generated out of man’s self-consciousness. To be rational, for Hegel, is to give the external world its due, while still revering the inward purity of thought. It is to acknowledge the world as the home of thinking. This acknowledgment is the wisdom at which Hegel’s book aims. In the Phenomenology the philosopher “recollects” — to use Hegel’s word — the laborious process that gave rise to the philosopher’s own act of thinking. As phenomenologist, the philosopher returns, knowingly, to his prephilosophical origins. He enacts what might be called intellectual gratitude, gratitude towards Time as the mother of Wisdom.
I now take my leave of Hegel’s labyrinth; I bid farewell to all its monsters and heroes. Hegel ends on a grand theological note. He speaks of time as the Place of Skulls, where spirit suffers and reveals its glory. My closing note will be far simpler. Hegel cautions us in the Preface about our enchantment with things uplifted and remote; he warns philosophy against ingratitude toward its worldly origins. This warning is echoed by Zarathustra, whose plea captures the spirit of Hegel’s Phenomenology: “I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth.”
Copyright © 1996 St. John’s College. Used with permission.
Peter Kalkavage is a tutor at the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College.
This essay was first delivered in lecture form on the Annapolis campus in March, 1995. It subsequently was published in Volume XLIII, #2 of The St. John’s Review.