Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit as Metaphor

by Matthew Kelsey

            In the words of one commentator, the dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit “involved the realization that our objective world is permeated with the alterations made by subjectivity; and that subjectivity itself is essentially oriented to, and conditioned and determined by, some type of objectivity… we could best understand any facet of reality only if it was veridically deduced from the context of this interaction (an interaction which might be termed ‘Spirit’…).”[1]  This particular account of the Hegelian dialectic emphasizes a special problem encountered by readers of the Phenomenology: the reader is him- or herself a part of the ongoing course of the dialectic.  Most readers assume that their responsibility, as Hegel sees it, is simply to follow through his permutations in the Phenomenology, until the standpoint of Absolute Knowledge is achieved and everything, for better or worse, is resolved.  Alternatively, many scholarly readers choose to approach the text as a series of propositions that must be untangled, related, synthesized.  Either way, there is no particular regard for the positioning of the reader relative to Hegel’s voice.  Both of these sorts of readers tend to portray the Phenomenology as an omnivorous activity that seeks to consume and relate every Notion it comes across until it reaches the end-point of Absolute Spirit.

            Occasionally, however, Hegel gives us hints that neither of these ways of approaching the text is completely correct; neither fully accounts for the complexity created when an individual reader and Hegel the individual author are called upon to wrangle over the Absolute, as they are in the Phenomenology.  In the course of the Phenomenology, §306, after the emergence of Self-Consciousness, Hegel states that “what is to have an influence on the individuality, and what kind of influence it is to have – which really mean the same thing – depend solely on the individuality itself.”[2]  Specific to this text, we can apply this maxim as an injunction to consider carefully how much of us is spilling into the text, and vice versa; it is the “double gallery” depicted in this section that is the image of the reader’s engagement with the text in the manner Hegel desires.

            To illustrate this, I would like to suggest another image for the Phenomenology. Instead of the nebulous, omnivorous Absolute, we can imagine Hegel standing in an operating theater, bent over his specimen, carefully watching it as it evolves from the immediacy of Sense-Certainty to the completely concrete realization of spirit.  The omnivorous Absolute is being observed from above even as it completely permeates the dynamic of the exchange.  It is an invitation to participate in Hegel’s philosophical “we.”  The penultimate question in reading the Phenomenology is where to stand in relation to the rapt observer of the Absolute Spirit’s evolution and growing self-consciousness that is Hegel’s authorial voice.

            Instinctively, we wish to completely subordinate ourselves to Hegel’s description of the dialectic, but this is to fail to engage Hegel using the same dialectic that he is describing; it is to be borne along in a river of sand without engaging in the overcoming of the self in the other that would allow a mere figure for the Absolute like the Phenomenology to be more than dead theory and spring into concrete actuality.  Mirroring the nature of writing’s forcing us to postulate an author for the text and outside the text – i.e., Hegel himself, or the specter of Hegel conjured within the text – we must assume an existence outside the Phenomenology’s flow before we can engage the living Hegel instead of the dead theory of an abstracted text.

            Hegel occasionally gives a sense of this separateness from the text when he invokes the philosophical “we” or the observing “us” as being observers, predictors, or even agents of the evolution toward Absolute Spirit.  For instance, §87 has a startling call for a partnership with Hegel: “From the present viewpoint… the new object shows itself to have come about through a reversal of consciousness itself.  This way of looking at the matter is something contributed by us, by means of which the succession of experiences through which consciousness passes is raised into a scientific progression – but it is not known to the consciousness that we are observing.”[3]  Even more striking is a direct call to action in §133: “we must…be the Notion which develops and fills out what is contained in the result.  It is through awareness of this completely developed object… that consciousness first becomes explicitly a consciousness that comprehends [its object].”  It is as though the Hegelian observer, his gaze ever fixed upon the steadily-growing Absolute, has asked us to intervene, together with itself, to ensure the success of the all-important matter at hand.  These passages, joining the reader in Hegel’s analysis, are scattered throughout the Phenomenology (see, e.g., §117 and §174). Each time they occur they work to shock us out of the complacency of simply drifting along in a lazy stream of Theory and call us to rise to the level of the Hegelian voice, to engage it in the relationship of Self-Consciousnesses most vividly depicted in the discussion of the lord-bondsman relationship (§178ff.).

            These passages are, however, only the most strident examples of an underlying commitment to Hegel’s goal of raising the reader into a direct confrontation with the authorial voice of the Phenomenology.  This still leaves open the question of exactly where and how Hegel relates himself, as author, to the phenomenological endeavor he has embarked upon.  In order to engage this question, I would like to appropriate a trope from geometry for future use and speak of the “angle of narrativity” as the term for this relationship.[4]  If Hegel’s voice is indistinguishable from that of the Phenomenology’s overall project – that is, if the progression of Consciousness is simply the first-person account of Hegel’s own process – we would have a case of a shallow angle of narrativity, where the author’s voice and the narrative are essentially identical.  On the other hand, if the Phenomenology was presented as a series of propositions unconnected with a temporal and specifically narrative flow, the angle of narrativity would be at almost a right angle; the narrator looks down upon the work in toto and dissects it effortlessly.

            The latter of these possibilities is clearly not the case.  Indeed, “the frequent occurrence of metaphorical discourse in the Phenomenology gives Hegel’s thought its initial richness and provides him with a linguistic medium in terms of which to make philosophy concrete.”[5]  In other words, the Phenomenology relies essentially upon the features of a narrative voice to make it concrete, and concreteness is an utterly crucial aspect of Hegel’s desired Science.

            However, it is equally true that the Phenomenology does not have an entirely vanishing angle of narrativity; there is some diremption between Hegel as an authorial voice and the Phenomenology as narrative of Absolute Spirit.  The tone of Hegel’s discussion is that of someone manifestly on the outside looking in, a guide but not a participant.  We may be assured that this is at least partially an affectation, but it still provides the essential enthymeme of the text.  If Hegel and the reader are the only things continually and, it seems, irrevocably outside the internal flux and self-identity of Absolute Spirit, how will it be possible to resolve both into the Absolute, to complete the perfect and total systematization that Hegel purports to provide?  It is the duty of the reader who would truly know the Absolute to provide himself as the missing premise of the suppressed enthymeme built into the book, that of the author standing outside the text’s narrated permutations, outside the Absolute as expressed in the phenomenology.

            We can see both the importance and the difficulty of standing forth as the crucial “no” to the Hegelian “yes” in §808, the rich final section of the Phenomenology.  Here Hegel asserts that “History… [and] the Science of Knowing in the sphere of appearance… together, comprehended History, form alike the inwardizing and the Calvary of absolute Spirit, the actuality, truth, and certainty of his throne, without which He would be lifeless and alone.  Only / from the chalice of this realm of spirits / foams forth for Him his own infinitude.”[6]  Immediately evident in this quotation is the poetic leaning of Hegelian language, a seemingly dispensable ornamentation.  According to Findlay’s analysis of the text, for instance, this section, more than a full page long, can be summed up in two lines: “It must then study Spirit returning to itself in time, i.e. in the long procession of historical cultures and individuals.”[7]  Such paraphrasing is a travesty, but in this case it is particularly culpable, because the short-and-sweet paraphrase significantly alters the angle of narrativity Hegel is presenting.  Everywhere in this passage, we can detect Hegel’s deliberate refusal to approach his Phenomenology as either a radically subjective or a radically objective philosophical text, instead seeking philosophical viewpoint that favors neither extreme while retaining its place as an absolute viewpoint.  Note that Hegel here speaks of the highest manifestation of Spirit as a distinct outsider, analyzing Spirit’s situation – “the actuality, truth, and certainty of his throne”  – and his motives – avoiding being “lifeless and alone” – as though he was someone distinctly beyond or watching from afar.  Note also that Hegel alters the snatch of poetry with which he concludes his book., further reinforcing the status of Hegel’s voice as a particular individual inviolate within the utter interpenetration of the Hegelian dialectic.[8]  The simple act of changing a few words in a poem is significant because it indicates that, even at this late hour, Hegel-as-author acts as an individual consciousness, modifying Schiller’s poem to make philosophy more than simply “its own time raised to the level of thought.”

            Given this (complex and changing) sense of the separateness of Hegel’s voice from the “slow-moving succession of Spirits… [and] gallery of images” in the Phenomenology, what are we as readers to do, and what implications for Hegel’s metaphysics do our actions as readers have?  Essentially, asking this question is to ask the reader to complete the last great enthymeme remaining at the close of the book, to create a syllogism uniting Hegel’s voice and the reader’s participatory subjective consciousness.  For this reason, it is to the general progress of the dialectic and of understanding – the pattern that must be repeated here – that we must turn.  In Hegel’s words, “understanding [is]… the power of the thinking self and of death.”[9]  In the discussion of the topsy-turvy world (the verkehrte Welt) the resolution of which overcomes the Kantian dualism of the noumenal and the phenomenal worlds, we see that the power of death expresses itself as a total opposition, strikingly depicted in Hegel’s description: “Expressed in determinate moments, this means that what in the law of the first world is sweet, in this inverted in-itself is sour, what in the former is black is, in the other, white…”[10]  He goes on to describe the moral content of vengeance, which we usually regard as a mix of the just and unjust, as being completely split by the opposition of the world and its topsy-turvy antithesis.  We can use as a guide here the radical negation between the two worlds.  To understand is to negate, and to negate in a Hegelian way is to negate through complete opposition.  Only by the juxtaposition of two such completely different and, on ultimate appraisal, completely identical Notions or Consciousnesses can the higher unity be obtained by the concrete realization of the A = A Notional relation which has absolute difference explicitly as the term of similitude.

            It is not the mere use of the dialectic that Hegel is after, of course, and this adds an additional complication to our maneuverings as readers attempting to finish the work of the Phenomenology by engagement with its authorial voice.  The dialectic alone is not enough, for “Kant has brought back into philosophy the dialectical triplicity which is the essential form of Science.  But neither he nor his successors have been able to give it life.”[11]  The final piece of the puzzle Hegel is presenting appears in the section on Self-Consciousness: “a self-consciousness exists for a self-consciousness.  Only so is it in fact self-consciousness; for only in this way does the unity of itself in its otherness become explicit for it… Self-consciousness, in being an object, is just as much ‘I’ as ‘object.’  With this, we already have before us the Notion of Spirit.  What still lies ahead for consciousness is the experience of what Spirit is.”[12]  This experience is the highest intellectual good the reader may hope to derive from the Phenomenology of Spirit.

            From all this, we can build a picture of what the reader of the Phenomenology should look like, and what attitude he or she should have in relation to Hegel’s presence as author and narrator in the text.  First and most important is a sense of the otherness of the reader’s and of Hegel’s voices; we must not allow ourselves to float languidly through the changes of Consciousness and the ascendance of Spirit as though the mere fact of the depiction of this narrative had significance beyond the immediate.  Second, we must orient ourselves in absolute otherness in relation to Hegel’s voice; we must be the line of consciousness driving headlong as the opposite course of the angle of narrativity Hegel traces at any given time, with the Phenomenology itself as the third thing mediating between our diametrically opposed consciousnesses.  In this struggle, the foremost concern is concretization of the dialectic in the struggle of self-consciousness to describe the “I” of the reader and the “object” of Hegel in terms that are those of living Spirit, not dead Theory.

            The status of the Phenomenology in metaphysical terms is an outgrowth of these considerations.  The Phenomenology stands in relation to Absolute Spirit and Knowledge as the speeches and works of philosophy and literature stand relative to the inner thing they express:

Speech and work are outer expressions in which the individual no longer keeps and possesses himself within himself, but lets the inner get completely outside of him, leaving it to the mercy of something other than himself.  For that reason we can say with equal truth that these expressions express the inner too much, as that they do so too little: too much because the inner itself breaks out in them and there remains no antithesis between them and it; …too little, because in speech and action the inner turns itself into something else, thus putting itself at the mercy of the element of change, which twists the spoken word and the accomplished act…[13]

As we can see from this quotation, the act of writing a Phenomenology of Spirit is the act of creating such a thing, in a way that goes both too far and not far enough.  This gives the Phenomenology a metaphysical existence as a vulnerable but wholly complete expression of Absolute Knowing. Given this, we can say that, for Hegel, the decision of how to read the Phenomenology is in some sense the most critical decision one can make because the speech of Hegel and the work of the reader stand in a fundamental relationship with Absolute Spirit itself.  There is nothing that could possibly be more critical than resolving the “element of change” by engaging the Hegelian voice and resolving the element of uncertainty and outwardness that is an immanent part of the writing and reading of the Phenomenology of Spirit.  By doing so, we are able to overcome the sense in which the act of the Phenomenology is too little for the inward sense, leaving only the “too much,” that is, the shared experience of Spirit and Science that can be gleaned from the text.  This is the most profound sense in which “Philosophical sentences… illustrate the nature of the absolute.”[14]

            From Hegel’s perspective, it is possible for two people to understand the Phenomenology equally well, in terms of its progress, its theory, its background, and everything else the closest of readings can teach us, and yet be polar opposites in every way that matters.  He believes that, read correctly, the Phenomenology means that, for the reader, “[consciousness] leaves behind it the colorful show of the sensuous here-and-now and the night-like void of the supersensible beyond, and steps out into the spiritual daylight of the present.”[15]  Without the crucial engagement with the text’s latent enthymeme, “the merely single individual… instead of having taken the plunge from dead Theory into Life, has therefore really only plunged into the consciousness of its own lifelessness and has as its lot only empty and alien necessity, a dead actuality,” an ending by no means to be envied.[16]  By thus insisting on a specific way and method of reading, the Phenomenology of Spirit has both more richness and an even greater omnivorousness than it appears to have on the basis of an analysis that refuses to consider the location of Hegel’s authorial voice and deliberately position itself contra to that voice in an attempt to resolve the last great dialectical movement, that movement which can in fact only be completed after the end of the book, by a vitalizing return to the Preface (“the Preface” is the title of the section in question) and what may be called the spirit of Hegel’s systematic dialectic.


[1] Howard P. Kainz, Hegel’s Phenomenology, Part I: Analysis and Commentary – Studies in the Humanities No. 12, Philosophy (University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1976), 9.


[2] G. W. F.  Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit.  In A.V. Miller (Ed. and Trans.), Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (pp. xxxiii – 493).  With analysis of the text and foreword by J.N. Findlay (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1977), §306.

[3] Ibid. §87.

[4] What follows is inspired in large part by W.J. Harvey’s discussion of the “angle of mimesis” in W. J. Harvey, Character and the Novel (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1965), 16ff.

[5] Carl G. Vaught.  The Quest for Wholeness.  (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1982), page 176.  Cited in Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel's Recollection: A Study of Images in the Phenomenology of Spirit (Albany State University of New York Press, 1985), 4.

[6] Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, the last lines of §808.

[7] .N. Findlay, Analysis of the Text, in Hegel’s Phenomenology, §808, page 591..

[8] The original poem, by Friedrich Schiller, is as follows:

                Friendless was the great World Master

                Felt a lack – thus he created spirits,

                Blessed mirror of His bliss! –

                Still found the highest being no likeness

                From out of the chalice of the whole realm of the soul

                Foams for Him – infinity

Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel's Recollection: A Study of Images in the Phenomenology of Spirit (Albany State University of New York Press, 1985), 7.

[9] Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, §31.

[10] Ibid. §158.

[11] Ibid. §50.

[12] Ibid. §177.

[13] Ibid. §312. Emphases mine). 

[14] Ibid. §23.  See in addition Kainz’s definition of Hegel’s use of the term “life” – “1) Life is the process by which beings are drawn into the unity of consciousness and/or become conscious themselves.  2) Life is the process by which subjects come to find themselves in the otherness of their world by objectifying themselves in that world.  3) These processes take place simultaneously and mutually generate each other – so that there is really only one process taking place in the whole scheme.” Kainz, Hegel’s Phenomenology, page 84.  Additionally, see Verene’s description of the use of the Metaphor (which the Phenomenology is, in a global sense) – “The trope puts one Word in place of another. The metaphor or translatio makes use of one word instead of another that is more literal. The irony does this too, because it replaces the "proper" word with an exact opposite. Irony transfers or turns meaning over to its opposite. To the logical mind, the Understanding in Hegel's terms, tropes are improper forms of speech because they are imprecise. Logic attempts to exclude all such figurative meanings. But from the standpoint of dialectic and Reason, tropes allow thought to enter into new stages of consciousness.  Tropes are not arbitrary because the translatio presupposes the discovery of a similitudo that makes the transfer possible. The introduction of the metaphor or irony always gives consciousness a new lease on life… These elements are not accidental but required because of the powers of recollection and ingenuity that are present in consciousness itself.”  Verene, Hegel’s Recollection, pages 22-23.

[15] Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, §177.

[16] Ibid. §363.