Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: The Preface, Part I (Sec. 1-23)

Georg W.F. Hegel stands alongside the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes as one of the most consequential philosophers who ever lived. Nineteenth century philosopher, especially nineteenth century continental (non-British) philosophy is largely indebted to him (though he, in turn, is indebted to Plato, Plotinus, and Augustine). The Phenomenology of Spirit is one of the most complex and dense texts produced and situated in the Western philosophical canon. It is a text that is, at times, impenetrable – even to Hegel scholars – in large part due to his verbose use of German which does not translate well into English and doesn’t even make too much sense in German. Nevertheless, Hegel’s Phenomenology and the content described therein are essential for his later works – namely: Lectures on the Philosophy of History, the Philosophy of Science, and the Philosophy of Right. In some ways the Phenomenology serves as a preface to all of these works, introducing to the reader the basic concepts and frameworks that undergird Hegel’s philosophical system.

As the romantic story goes – and this is fitting given Hegel’s position as the greatest of the German idealists and romantics – he was putting the finishing touches on his magnum opus on the eve of the Battle of Jena as Napoleon was invading Germany while at war with Prussia. Hegel himself saw Napoleon whom he described as the world spirit on horseback, sometimes described as “the Enlightenment on horseback.” The even more romantic story is that Hegel was finishing the final sections of the Phenomenology as the guns of Jena sounded off the plain and hills while he was frantically compiling his work inside Jena University (which was, at that time, the premier university in the German states).

Hegel’s position at Jena introduced him to the Jena Romantics: Johann Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Friedrich Schelling in particular. All of these German romantics are also part of Hegel’s critique.

Before we can understand Hegel we must understand his position in the history of Western philosophy. Hegel was writing in the early nineteenth century at the height of the German romantic movement, which gave birth to idealism in philosophy. Part of the German romantic movement was a rebellion against the utilitarianism and materialism of the new science which the romantics saw as sterile and decadent – which is immediately on display in the preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology. While some earlier German writers and philosophers, like Johann von Herder and Johann Hamann were early catalysts for the movement, the real rebuttal to the new science began with Immanuel Kant. The post-Kantians took Kant but also rebelled against Kant.

Kant had argued that there was an overlap in a priori and a posteriori reasoning and experience which would permit humans to know some truth but not truth altogether. In this manner Kant had, in his mind, saved philosophy from the jaws of nihilism which was emanating from the new science. The post-Kantians disliked some of the implications of Kant’s philosophy because it lacked passion, emotion, and the subjective – it lacked the movement of life and vitality. There was also a problem with the Kantian position that full truth could not be known in totality because of our finitude. The result of the post-Kantian idealists was to swing hard in favor of subjective idealism.

This is where Hegel enters the picture. Hegel sees the movement of modern philosophy from the purview of the dialectic: a confrontation between the universal and homogenizing tendencies of the utilitarian and lifeless new science which destroys all differentiation and particularity (thesis) and the subjective particularity of post-Kantian subjective idealism which, in saving difference and particularity, ironically destroyed the possibility of truth and truth must be universal (antithesis). It is up to Hegel to work out the synthesis of the two. To this end Hegel’s philosophy is not at all complex though it is mired in intense verboseness.

The essence of Hegel’s philosophy is to unite the two confrontational schools into a single synthesis which allows for the universality of truth and its particularized concretization in the subject (the human person and culture). To do this Hegel is drawing on older forms of Greek rationalist and Christian anthropological thought which undergirds much of his content. Thus, we can say before delving into the Phenomenology that the task of Hegel is to present a philosophical system which explains how the universal becomes particularized, thus saving Truth (as the Absolute), difference/particularity/uniqueness (pluralism), while also ensuring a sense of vitalism (life). This in of itself is the tripartite system within Hegel, the trinity of the Absolute (Father), particularity or embodied uniqueness (Son), and the vitalism of life (Spirit) which corresponds with Christian Trinitarian theology.

The Preface of Hegel’s Phenomenology is considered one of the great masterworks of philosophy just on its own. As such, we’ll examine the preface and give it its due consideration.

Preface, Sections 1-23: History and the Movement to Embody the Universal

The first 23 sections of the preface roughly breakdown into a historical reflection on philosophy leading to Hegel’s proposition of embodied universality which, within the framework of Christian anthropology, allows for unique embodied particularity resulting in uniqueness and difference as to how the universal is concretized through unique cultures and individuals. Hegel is asking a simple question that is at the root of philosophy – it is the same question that Socrates asked in Athens: How do we know anything? To this the answer is, of course, philosophy since philosophy is the queen of the sciences.  By “science” (in English) Hegel is simply referring to knowledge (wissenschaft). In German, the word for science simply means knowledge so one should not confuse “science” in Hegel as referring to the scientific method. Hegel’s “science” is the how one comes to know anything at all.

As Hegel informs us in the first section what his grand reflection is about, since philosophy and the coming to know anything requires reflection, “philosophy moves essentially in the element of universality, which includes within itself the particular.” Admittedly this may be counterintuitive for many to claim. How can universality have room for the particular? We must remember that Hegel’s philosophical system rests on classical anthropological and metaphysical presumptions. “Unity in Diversity” (how a body – the universal – is made up of constitutive parts – the particular). For Hegel, philosophy is always concerned with the universal.  Yet, without the universal nothing can become particular.  The two go together in plurality, much like with Aristotle, or Christianity’s Christianized, hylomorphism.

Hegel uses the development of a plant with fruit as an example of universality (life) being particularized (in the plant) which is unfolding to an end (Sec. 2). There is also an organic whole within the plant which leads to diversity. There is a seed. There is blossom. The fruit. Each corresponds with each other and builds from one another: the seed to blossom to fruit. 

This is an organic process of development in which everything is interconnected wherein diversity is also seen. Hegel’s emphasis on organic unity and organic development, though in the metaphor of the fruit bearing plant, is also Hegel’s rejection of atomism. In Hegel’s metaphor we also see philosophy as a history: the history of philosophy. It is not until the plant blossoms in totality that we know everything. To address the plant as the seed is to have missed the mark in totality, but one got the addressing of the seed correct. In the age of the blossoming plant one might claim totality in the blossom but still doesn’t reach the end (telos) of the plant which was the fruit. Thus, philosophy is comprehensive. Only at the end, the consummation, can the philosopher look back and see the whole system (through conscious reflection).

Additionally, Hegel’s preface deals with establishing the principles of concretization, why loving knowledge is not the same as actual knowing, that philosophy is a process of becoming, and ending with God – as the Absolute – and how the Absolute is embodied in particular life. Hegel first presents the history of modern philosophy between the incessant reckoning (reasoning) to results (utilitarian new science) and how this is lifeless which doesn’t get to heart of the “real issue,” and transcendental subjectivism (of Hegel’s contemporaries) and how this “gaz[ing] to the stars” – while allotting the importance of passion and enthusiasm and consciousness – nevertheless relativizes everything and thus destroys the possibility of actual knowing. “You have your truth and I have my truth” is precisely what Hegel is attempting to avoid. As is he trying to avoid the hollow and permissive nihilism of the new science which is lifeless and is focused only on material results and claims that as “truth.”

Hegel is redressing the problem of practical science (concerned only with results) and subjective relativity, both of which according to Hegel avoid the thing itself (the real issue). There is no engagement with phenomenon. Examining the results misses the whole, it also misses the entire system (or process) by which something unfolded which should be the primary task of philosophical discovery: understanding the whole. You can see how Hegel is worried with atomization in the concentration only with results which takes away from the organic whole that he was highlighting earlier.

The counter to the new science is subjectivism. The problem with gazing to the stars is that it takes the subjective and thrusts itself to the universal and, in doing this, also has the system in reverse because this type of subject-to-universal rather than universal-to-subject and concretized in the subject keeps the individual subject at the center of everything. The problem with the empirical is that it takes the subjective and materializes it into monochromatic formalism (homogenization) which destroys the possibility of difference and particularity. The problem with the subjective is that it exhausts itself in relativism which, in due time, will exhaust itself into epistemological nihilism where there is no truth (universal) and only subjective experience. Again, Hegel is attempting to avoid the inevitability of the “your truth”-“my truth” phenomenon which is the result of relativism.

Where should philosophy concentrate? The Transcendent? Or the Empirical? For Hegel the problem is the subjective I (self) encountering the world of universal substance (nature) and not being in union with it – the new science sacrifices subjectivity for universal materiality and pure subjectivism will never be able to grasp the universal as a whole; hence his phenomenology of experience and understanding in the world. Hegel is very much responding to Descartes as well. Thus, for Hegel, the answer is both. The two go together and are not separate from each other. The transcendent is being made real in the phenomenological! For Hegel, the implicit dualism of modern philosophy perpetuates self-alienation which is what must be overcome for us to have firm knowledge and a meaningful existence.

To illustrate, although the new science tradition was metaphysically monist and materialist, it posited man over and against nature – hence the implicit dualism. It separated man (who has consciousness) from nature (object) and therefore ripped the whole into two. This is the famous subject-object dichotomy that will dominate phenomenology going forward; the subject-I and object-not I (I vs. not-I) distinction that emerged in Fichte’s philosophy which Hegel tries to resolve. Likewise, the subjective idealism of first generation post-Kantian idealism is problematic for its implicit dualism bordering on rejection of the object (nature) altogether and concentrating solely on the subjective self which only leads to solipsism.

In attempting to resolve this epistemological and ontological dilemma, Hegel moves into his philosophy of process (rather than progress). Thus, actual knowing is a process to completion. Love of knowing is not knowing itself, but the fuel – so to speak – that gets the process of actual knowing rolling. To claim to love knowledge is to fall short of truth. The only reason to “love knowledge” is to come to know knowledge itself: Actual Knowing. For Hegel, the art of philosophy is the actualization of knowledge that can be articulated systematically to allow persons to understand the whole and overcome alienation.

What is alienation, then, for Hegel? Alienation is the separation of self from the world, world from self, consciousness from universal consciousness, and separation, most importantly, from the roots and unfolding progress of my particular culture. We do not live in dualistic world or existence for Hegel. We live in an integrated or unitive world. I am supposed to, as a subject being, have a relationship with the natural world and the natural world with me (thus resolving the man-nature dualism of Bacon and the New Science). 

I, as consciousness, am also supposed to be in union with universal consciousness (Truth) wherein the universal becomes particularized in, and through, me. This means I am in pursuit of Truth and until I come into union with Truth I will always be, in some sense, alienated because man is an animal who seeks after Truth to be made whole. (Astute readers of Augustinian Christianity should see Hegel’s debt to Augustine here.) And lastly, as a particular person, belonging to a particular people, if I am not tied to my particular culture then I am also alienated from society and since man is a social and cultural animal I would be alienated from myself precisely because I am rejecting my particularity. (This is the root behind Hegel’s famous phrase, “I is the We, and the We the I.”) It should also be noted that Hegel takes alienation as the origo, the starting point of human existence. In this manner Hegel’s existential alienation as starting point is accepting, in secular form, the Christian idea of the Fall (the alienation from God, from ourselves, from others, and the world) as the starting point of existence.


Furthermore, Hegel is rejecting pure intuition as a ground of truth because, as he makes clear, such an epistemology will only exhaust itself in solipsism and relativism. Truth is relational, that is, truth can only be known and actualized in situatedness or relationality. This plays on the concept of the dialectic: I only know myself through either negation or through the Other (opposite of myself or the not-I).

What does Hegel mean by negating oneself? Admittedly this is a very humanized or secularized construction of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Sin, having ruined the harmonious state of being in the human image, eliminated the possibility of pure self-knowing. As Augustine recounts in Confessions, I cannot know myself until I come to know God because I had lost God in the Fall and through Original Sin. Only by turning inward and recognizing my limitations and sinfulness, could one rediscover God and, therefore, himself since the discovery of the self is simultaneously the discovery of God.  Hegel is arguing much the same simply without Christian theological presuppositions to it. Namely, that if I do not negate myself I can never understand difference, opposition, reflection, or relations. To not self-negate is to remain wrapped up only in oneself. I am the center of the universe and have no relations to anything but myself. Because knowledge and understanding – actual knowing – is predicated on coming to understand one’s situatedness (or relationality), then by not self-negating one can never progress beyond oneself and, ipso facto, never actually come to know much at all.

Hegel asserts that those who often speak the most, speak the loudest, and opine the most opinions, are those who are self-absorbed and can only scratch the surface of things as a result. These people never get at the real issue (Sec. 4). One must delve into the heart of the matter (found in culture, history, metaphysics, and ontology, etc.) before one starts to have any understanding.  The idea of self-negation is, in some respects, removing oneself from the center of the universe – man is not the measure of all things in other words. Or not yet, at least. This is the paradox of Hegel.  We are seeking self-understanding, knowledge of the world and ourselves. So in some respects we are self-centered. But we are not cut off from relations and the whole. This is the key. The egoism of the sophists, and of Hobbesian-Lockean egoist anthropology, is the problem because it takes the person as completely cut-off and separated from the whole, others, and the world.

Since knowledge is only found in the whole and one is but a small part of the whole, by refusing to self-negate I am forever stuck in the in-itself and cannot come to comprehend the whole because I have refused to see the whole. This entire argument is a rejection of atomism. Hegel is an anti-atomistic thinker!

In confronting the problems of the new science and its “results”-driven mentality, Hegel warns that if we adopt this outlook we are at risk of confusing universality for sameness and homogenization. Again, Hegel is out to protect difference and particularity. Speaking of those who adopt the approach of the new science (Sec. 15), “Rather it is a monochromatic formalism which only arrives at the differentiation of its material since this has been already provided and is by familiar.” The entire world is painted one color through a stringent formalism of the new science which reduces all possibility of difference; in fact, this process destroys difference.

This is the problem of the new science: it confuses substance for subject. Likewise, the problem with subjective idealism is that by being drowned in the subjective, it cannot reach the substance of the matter. We are stuck in dangerous waters. Subjective idealism leads to solipsism and relativism wherein no truth can ever be known or actualized and is, as a result, nihilistic. Likewise, the new science, with its focus only on material things and lifeless “results” (no vitalism), leads to human impoverishment in the realms of culture, experience, and the transcendent. Because humans do have a transcendental nature to them (reason, i.e. the soul) this also leads to ontological poverty as humans do not live for anything beyond themselves.

For Hegel, substance (the Absolute) has the possibility of being manifested (concretized) in the subject (consciousness) which allows for the embodied particularization of the Absolute in life. Since this is possibility and that humans are social animals, the togetherness of subjects embodying the Absolute produces the wholeness of which Hegel speaks – the wholeness of culture, society, the nation, and so forth. This is what provides life.

Hegel asserts that the reason why people do not seek to embrace wholeness, or totality, is because of fear or ignorance:

But this abhorrence in fact stems from ignorance of the nature of mediation, and of absolute cognition itself.  For mediation is nothing beyond self-moving selfsameness, or is reflection into self, the moment of the ‘I’ which is for itself pure negativity or, when reduced to its pure abstraction, simple becomingReason is, therefore, misunderstood when reflection is excluded from the True [Transcendent Absolute], and is not grasped as a positive moment of the Absolute.  It is reflection that makes the True a result, but it is equally reflection that overcomes the antithesis between the process of its becoming and the result

Don’t worry about the verboseness of Hegel. This is the key to Hegel: understanding his dense jargon – once done Hegel is not all that difficult to understand, which is why I began this summary by telling you what the essence of Hegel’s philosophy is. Reflection is the critical insight of reason, not reckoning to results (e.g. Hobbes). Reason is the ability to reflect upon experience, statements, and concepts, upon relationships and situatedness, to arrive at the embodiment of Truth. Reason is the ability to reflect – different from the ability to reckon – and reason itself is what drives understanding and the actualization of self-consciousness, the coming to know and embody the truth in our own lives.

You should see the difference between reflection as the actualization of consciousness vs. reckoning to get a result. Reason, as defined by the heirs of the new science, suppresses consciousness and reflection – it situates human reason to only want material results which impoverishes us and suppresses reason itself. By focusing on results it misses the whole picture and only looks at the results. Thus, “Reason is misunderstood” Hegel tells us. Reflection, which is only possible through subjective experience, but also through self-negation whereby one’s experience is also situated in the web of the whole (relations, connectedness, history, etc.), is what truly allows oneself to know oneself and one’s place within the whole. This reflection is the actuality of self-movement.

The idea of self-movement is very important in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Spirit is always moving forward. There is always quantitative growth ongoing in the world. The Spirit is embodied in the world and grows organically from this initial embodiment (like the child in the womb). From quantitative growth there are moments of qualitative leaping – those moments of fast and spectacular change. But through qualitative and even quantitative growth, the old is not discarded with entirely. Something of the past survives in the present. 

Hegel takes the old Aristotelian pyramid of quantitative ascendancy through a pyramidal metaphysics (the base finding fulfillment in the middle which finds greater fulfillment as it proceeds to the top) and situates that model in the form of linear progression. The beginning (seed) finds fuller fulfillment as it grows in stages towards its end. In this manner Hegel preserves Greek and Catholic metaphysics while transforming it into the new historicism of the Enlightenment. He thus takes the Whig view of progress (linearity) while rejecting the Whig view of rejection of all the past in the relentless push for progress and the end of history. Thus, Hegel builds on what he found to be true in everything that came before him while building those partial truths to the totality of his system within the Phenomenology.

Reflection, reason, allows us to build from the past and grow it into the future. Just as a growing tree “discards” its seed form, it  has, in other respect, not destroyed the seed – per se – but fulfilled the seed’s first purpose. For without the seed it could not have grown into the tree that it is today. The seed found its fulfillment in becoming a tree. We gain greater consciousness and understanding of ourselves through reflection on the past to the present as we see ourselves and who we are and what we’ve inherited from all the seeds that have nurtured and grown us. At end the seed finds its consummation (fulfillment) in the fully blossoming plant bearing fruit as he outlined in Section 2.

Hegel ends the first third of his preface by returning to the Absolute, or God. “God is the eternal, the moral world-order, love, and so on.  In such propositions the True is only posited immediately as Subject, but is not presented as the movement of reflecting itself into itself.” Hegel’s discourse on God as the moral world order, that which is the eternal True, and love itself, is basic Christian theology. He contrasts this with the God of “being” and “One” (cf. Plotinus) that was common for the Greeks. For Hegel, the movement of God from being to the moral world order was the Christian development to fullness which permits the possibility of the abstract becoming more concrete in particularity. Being and Oneness are vague abstractions, the moral order and love, though also abstract, are more concrete at the same time. Because God becomes incarnate in man the moral order and love becomes particularized (made manifest) in the human subject. This is the process of self-actualization as the human imago embodies the moral order and love in their life and thus becomes like God.

Just as God has the power of agency, in embodying God (the Absolute) we, as subject beings, possess agency. This is the process of reflection; that is, the realization of negation. We must be continuously active, filled with agency, the ability to reflect, if we are to grow in knowledge and come to actual knowing and the concrete embodiment of the Absolute. As such we become like God not only through our agency but our ability to know ourselves and the wholeness of the world.

Here we see Hegel presenting the Absolute Ideal becoming concretized in a subject. The unity of the substance and subject is now underway. The movement, thus, to self-actualization and actual knowing, commences. The end result will be the actual knowing necessary to avoid the nihilism of the new science and the nihilism of subjective idealism which are currently at war with each other in the world of philosophy. But Hegel sees truth in both (the new science reaches at substance and subjective idealism reaches at the subject). For Hegel, the dialectic is not the reduction of thesis-antithesis to the dustbin of history once one is “proven” to be true and the other false – philosophy as a history of dialectical confrontation builds from each other. What is true in the thesis and what is true in the antithesis come together in the synthesis. And this is the task that Hegel is attempting to achieve.

In Summary

Reading Hegel is no easy feat but is extremely rewarding when you parse him out and get into the depth of his thought. The first third (roughly speaking) of his preface outlines the problem of philosophy and the question of knowledge: (1) the universal and the particular, and how the universals can become particularized; (2) the substance-subject and subject-predicate problem, wherein substance threatens to overwhelm subject(ivity) and subject(ivity) threatens to completely ignore substance; (3) philosophy (as the ultimate science) must avoid complacency and edification, in other words the love of knowing – philosophy must embrace actual knowing and continue to develop toward actual knowing while never completely eviscerating the segments of the good, true, and beautiful with the past, from which actual knowing has practical ramifications in life (e.g. being able to live virtuously thru knowing); (4) actual knowing is a process of movement (organic growth), vitality, of ups and downs, which includes great ecstatic explosions and periods of slow growth, furthermore actual knowing (reflection) is predicated on relationality and situatedness (or connectedness) – in reflection one must come to know their position within the whole and their particular embodiment of a universal; (5) the substance (new science) vs. subject (subjective idealism) dialectic is one in which, if either side “wins,” nihilism would be the result – thus it is imperative to see the truth in both (substance in the new science and subject in subjective idealism) in order to derive the synthesis; (6) the synthesis of the substance-subject (universal-particular) dilemma is the transcendent having been made manifest (realized) in particular (individual) subjects – this synthesis is self-knowledge and actualization.

The rest of the preface builds from this and the whole of the Phenomenology goes into greater detail about how this comes about. The system that Hegel produces is remembered as Absolute Idealism. The remaining two-thirds of the preface attempts to prepare the reader for the system of how what Hegel established as the principles of philosophical knowledge and coming to be in the first-third of the preface becomes manifested in reality (which is what the rest of the book is about).


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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