Sections 24-37 of Hegel’s Phenomenology contain the his system of science (knowledge) or philosophy. Having laid out the groundworks of what he is dealing with, namely how do we avoid nihilism and come to actual knowing which is the embodiment of objective substance within the subjective self (a form of transcendental phenomenology), Hegel moves into establishing how this system of movement to actual knowing takes place. Again, the verboseness of Hegel’s writing can be off-putting to many in their first reading but it is deeply rewarding once you penetrate through his web of language to get at the Sache Selbst (real issue) of the matter.
The Hegel’s System of Philosophy (Secs. 24-37)
The goal of Spirit is consciousness, which is self-actualization, self-consciousness, and the understanding of oneself within the web of the organic whole which helps to overcome the problem of self-alienation which, again, is primarily ontologico-epistemological in nature. Once again we must understand that Hegel is an anti-atomistic thinker and very much responding against atomistic philosophy in his time. Philosophy, or science (knowledge), is a system of reflection. Philosophy is systematic and never departmentalized, so to speak, with the Whig mentality of only the present matters. Rather, the entire whole of philosophy must be open to us: past and present.
In these sections, principally 24-28, Hegel begins to articulate his brand of historicism. The long travel he speaks of in Section 27 is the slow and long movement of the Spirit into the world of phenomenology and coming into being itself. What Hegel means is the movement of rationality, rational reflection, and rational self-consciousness (because God is Reason) is a slow growing process that takes time and marches through periods of history. The march of consciousness is like the slow growth of a plant, reaching back to his metaphor from Section 2, of having been first a seed, then sprouting, establishing its roots, growing outward, blossoming, and finally bearing fruit. Only at this final stage does the plant complete itself in its totality and only then does the plant know what its end was for: bearing fruit, but it also knows that everything that came before it had a purpose and contained an important aspect or role to play in this long development.
Thus, Absolute Spirit is becoming incarnational in the world. It is becoming embodied in individuals and cultures which are always progressing and moving toward completion. Through this process of embodying the Transcendental becomes concretized in the phenomenological. Thus, that matter at hand is this:
The task of leading the individual from his uneducated standpoint to knowledge had to be seen in its universal sense just as it was the universal individual, self-conscious Spirit, whose formative education had to be studied. As regards the relation between them, every moment as it gains concrete form and a shape of its own, displays itself in the universal individual. The single individual is incomplete Spirit, a concrete shape in whose whole existence one determinateness predominates, the others being present only in blurred outline.
What the hell is Hegel saying here? The individual shows his knowledge, that he knows, by being part of the whole. That’s it. Again, we must remember some key foundations for Hegel: First is his anti-atomism; second is his concretization of the universal to the particular which situates itself within the whole body; third is how actual knowing is dependent upon relationality (the dialectic). The universal individual and the single individual are two sides of the same coin, just as universality and particularity are two sides of the same coin. Hegel is warning against the concentration on only singularity (atomism or subjectivism) which prevents complete knowledge – hence the blurry outlining of the others and whole from those who are too concerned with only themselves and not seeing the larger picture.
Thus, the individual – in actual knowing – sees himself part of the unfolding organic whole. The individual is like a particular part of a large tapestry. Hegel does not celebrate the individual qua individual. Quite the opposite. He celebrates the individual only within the scope of relationality, understanding himself and what came before, and himself in present situation with all the webs of connectedness in the present. The individual who cuts himself off from the whole demonstrates his idiocy. Incidentally the word “idiot” comes from the Greek word idiote which meant the private, cut-off, self-absorbed, person who didn’t want to be part of the whole (polis). You’re an idiot. You don’t know yourself or anything about the natural world if you think you should be atomized like that.
When Hegel asserts that “Science sets forth this formative process in all its detail and necessity” (Sec. 29) what Hegel is presenting is the philosophy of determinism also known, in its particular context with Hegel, as the philosophy of necessity. This unfolding growth of the whole cannot be avoided. The phenomenology of spirit, the unfolding growth of self-consciousness and actual knowing, is necessary. Thus, Hegel establishes what is remembered as necessitism in philosophy. You cannot, in other words, buck the trend of the necessary and the inevitable. The most you can do is join up for the ride. Conversely, the World Spirit – in its movement – passes through individuals. (This would have been the case with Napoleon in Hegel’s time, or for those who have read Hegel’s Philosophy of History, this would be the mythological heroes of old who were moved by the Spirit to do the necessary thing in that moment of time despite them not fully knowing what they were doing and what endeavor they were engaged in – we know from our standpoint which is why they should be lauded and praised for what they had done.) This necessary process of unfolding works through those who willingly sign up (demonstrating their knowing) or the process simply works through agents of the Spirit for the advancement of growing consciousness.
By Section 30 Hegel returns to the importance of culture and A.V. Miller translates the German as a “cultural reorientation.” “We take up the movement of the whole from the point where the sublation (aufehebung) of existence as such is no longer necessary; what remains to be done, and what requires a higher level of cultural reorientation, is to represent and to get acquainted with these forms.” What Hegel is discussing here is the process of unfolding consciousness and identity and how it has moved through culture to the point of completion. At this stage one must reorient themselves, and culture as a whole, to understand completeness. The reorientation is a recovery of the past to understand ourselves in the present. To refuse this would be like cutting the roots from the plant which his blossomed and borne fruit. The result of this is the tree would die and everything that has branched off with it will also die. In essence, cut off the first principles of any culture, the first principles of the movement of the Spirit, and system collapses into nihilism and death. This is the problem of the modern age, being so wrapped up in the “results” that we lack comprehension of what came before and how that was necessary for us to arrive at our present destination.
Nevertheless, this negation was also necessary to allow for the possibility of self-reflection. Had we simply accepted ourselves as is, and not negated ourselves, we would find ourselves in the situation of present comfort (familiarity) and refuse to self-reflection. If you recall from the first third of Hegel’s Preface, self-reflection is the consummation of reason itself – the fullest demonstration of rational thought via reflection upon the past and upon self-negation.
One must quit the stage of familiarity to truly penetrate to the Sache Selbst (real issue). Readers of Nietzsche will find Nietzsche’s Hegelian influence upon his concept of the Last Man here. For Hegel, the non-thinking, non-rational, non-reflective person is the one who accepts comfortability and familiarity as a given, and therefore refuses to self-reflect (utilize reason) which prevents the self-subject (consciousness) from growing and attaining actual knowing. Hegel’s non-negating self is the same as Nietzsche’s Last Man, it is the person who lives not for thinking or knowing but simply for comfort, familiarity, and acceptability. It is the man who simply wishes to live a life of the familiar and comfortable without any distress (which is what the process of self-negation brings – tremendous distress as you eliminate everything you were once familiar with and plunge into the Abyss before reconstituting yourself within the web of the organic whole).
Thus, the unfolding of the system of Science (or philosophy) in Hegel is the movement of the Spirit to completion which brings actual knowing. This process is an organically and necessarily growing enterprise. Our place within this process brings comfort insofar that we like to accept our familiarity and comfortableness and not think about the past. The result is that we lack any proper knowledge. To stick with Hegel’s fertility and organic nature metaphors, this would be like a twig (human) who thinks that being the twig is all that there is. The twig has cut himself off from the whole and refuses to see that he is part of a branch, which is part of a trunk, that has given rise to other branches and twigs, which is all the outgrowth of a single seed. (Please note, Hegel does not use this metaphor of a twig and tree – I am using this metaphor to help illustrate and explain his points.)
Now to highlight universality in particularity, the acorn seed is universal. An acorn seed has the same end as all other acorn seeds. Thus all acorn seeds are universal. But each acorn will sprout and grow a unique tree with particularity all to its own. No two trees are alike even if they were born from the universal acorn seed which has the same end. Thus, each person and each culture in the world is unique, particular, through embodying the universal.
The only way to know oneself, and the whole, is through negation. By breaking with comfort and embracing self-negation, the subject allows himself to be reduced to nothing and reassemble himself within the context of the whole. In doing so the subject raises his consciousness in realizing that he was part of a larger organic unit than just himself. Yet again we see Hegel’s anti-atomism on display beneath all of his verbose language.
The universal, then, Hegel asserts, is not a fixed point. Rather, it is constantly in flux, fluid, and is in movement. This is how it brings life. Vitalism. Vitality. Movement. The universal is moving to a goal, or an end. It is not the end in of itself (per the ancients). Anything that is fixed is dead. (Note: this is a problem for later generations of Hegelians; Nietzsche, for instance, argued that Hegel’s rejection of nihilism failed because Hegel’s positing of an end of history is nihilism itself because the movement of life – the vitalism of the movement of the universal to its goal – will come to an end and therefore represent death.) The movement to completion is what allows for knowledge to become actual.
This is what Hegel completes by Section 37: the movement of Spirit (subject-consciousness) to be in union with substance (object-whole) in which the subject and substance become one. This is the finding one’s place within the organic whole. In doing so when can understand himself as both subject and object, as embodying substance and the universal through whatever concrete and particular manners have manifested to them. Actual knowing is complete or, at least, now possible with this union of the transcendent and phenomenological realms. The gulf between subject (the I) and the substance (the object of the I) has been brought together. This is the movement of Spirit.
Note, the object or whole which Hegel speaks of has multiple meanings. At one level the object-substance is the natural world we find ourselves in. At another level the object-substance is civil society, or the nation, or community, which the subject is also part of. At an even further level, and the most thorough level, the object-substance is the culture of a people. Hegel is arguing that our dilemmas and problems of not knowing (the not-I) is the result of the disunity between subject and object (see again how Hegel is assaulting atomism here). The two must come together in order to be made whole, complete, from which actual knowledge is possible: understanding oneself within the scope of the whole, or of totality.
Thus, sections 24-37 are important in laying out Hegel’s systematic philosophy of spirit, the philosophy of self-reflection, consciousness, and knowing. Philosophy is inherently systematic and a process of movement toward completion. This movement toward completion is an organic process that occurs through stages (or eras). We mustn’t become complicit in our stage of growth and find comfort in this “familiarity” of things because this would represent the death of reason – the end of self-reflection. Thus, the system as it unfolds in dialectical sublation is also the unfolding of self-negation and reassembling. By breaking oneself up and then reassembling oneself within the web of the whole, one embraces the distress needed in thinking to break out of the shell of comfortability or familiarity. Only by situating ourselves in the relational web of the organic whole can I begin to know myself and understand totality as such.
This dialectic of unfolding progress and actualization of Spirit is the establishment of the self-subject in contradistinction to the objective substance which the self-subject must come to embody. In this embodiment we see the transcendental (Spirit) taking form in a concrete and particular subject bringing substance to the subject’s life. This substance being embodied by the subject allows for the subject to grow in consciousness and, therefore, come to know the universal which is the substance that is being embodied. This process is occurring on all self-subjects and we are all bound together through particular organic bodies.
What can we say of Hegel’s system of philosophy? It is anti-atomistic to be sure. It embraces the idea of organic development and organic wholeness. And we come to understand ourselves in relationality to others.
Additionally, Hegel is following Augustine who, in Book X of the Confessions, wrote the famous expression mihi question factus sum – I have become a question/problem to myself. According to Hegel, I must first recognize that I do not know myself (self-negate and end my comfort with familiarity) before I can begin critical self-reflection (the inward turn to rediscovery) and then reassemble myself within the scope of totality. It is precisely this need to eliminate the familiar, drive oneself into negation, and then reassemble oneself at the end of it all that garnered Hegel the reputation as being a father of nihilism and existentialism. We must remember that nihilism is not the mere absence of values and beliefs, but the deliberate and intentional destruction of that which is (exists) which is required in this process of self-negation. Though Hegel is combating epistemological and ontological nihilism, the fact remains his philosophy does require some aspect of nihilistic destruction to, paradoxically, ensure the certainty of self-knowledge. Existentialism, of course, is the philosophy that life is defined by worrying characteristics, characterized by uncertainty: anxiety, want, guilt, and so forth. This uncertainty of the self, uncertainty of knowledge, and the unsettling environ that the self finds itself in are all quintessentially existential dilemmas. This is overcome by the union of the subject and object, the elimination of the void between the transcendental and phenomenological realms.