Hegel for Beginners

Outer v. inner direction. The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) had a decisive influence on Karl Marx, and he continues to exert influence on intellectual thought today. For this reason, it’s good to know the gist of Hegel’s theorizing and how one might apply it as a tool for analyzing such things as history, politics, literature, and art.

For Hegel, coming into ever greater self-consciousness is what human beings are doing on Earth. Unlike other animals, whose consciousness—to the extent that they possess any—appears to be directed outward toward survival and reproduction, and not much else, human beings are directed inward, toward an ever greater knowledge of themselves as geist (spirit).

Geist with a capital ‘G.’ And what is this spirit to which each individual is aware of possessing? Who are you, really? Hegel’s answer is that you are an emanation of the World Spirit—the Geist with a capital “G”—and that Geist comes into ever greater awareness of itself through you. When Geist is mirrored perfectly back to itself by the world as a whole—that is, when the Geist’s essential unity with all that exists is realized in history, it will be the end of history. But since we’re not at the end of history yet, we are in a process of increasing self-awareness.

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. How does self-awareness grow? How do you discover who you really are? Again, Hegel has an answer: by living; by crashing into people and things and learning what you’re made of. It is in living your life that you discover whether, and in what sense, you are a noble dominator of existence or a mere handmaid to forces greater than yourself. Sometimes you’re being defeated and incorporated into some larger existence or goal that you didn’t choose, but to which you submit; at other times, you’re incorporating other people and things into your own larger existence and vision. In either case, Geist is coming to discover itself through history and struggle—the dialectical movement of thesis (assertion), antithesis (resistance), and synthesis (unity). For Hegel, the ultimate dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is when Geist and the universe face off in one last round and Geist wins, reaching a final unity on its own terms, and transcending history. In the meantime, we live in the midst of our peculiar Zeitgeist (the Spirit as manifested in our present age and culture).

The Master-Slave dialectic: being for itself v. being for others. If you are what you eat and digest (or what you are eaten by and digested into), then where is this eating and being eaten taking place? For Hegel, there are four key arenas for the spirit’s struggle: in physical labor (wrestling with material resistances to your existence, desires, and thriving); in ideas; in art; and with others. With regard to others, your first experience of being self-conscious is in the breaking of your unity with them—of a recognition that you are not alone, but in a diverse world with diverse others which, as Hegel puts it in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), have other “shapes of consciousness” from your own.

On encountering another person, therefore, you discover the paradox that your very existence as a “being for itself”—a self-assertive being—is dependent upon your also being a “being for others” (that is, a part of the object world of other self-assertive beings, potentially in their service). If it is necessary for you to acknowledge that the other person exists to realize your own self-assertive existence (this is mine; that is yours), it also follows that she or he must acknowledge you. And this leads to a face-off. What will be the terms of this acknowledgment? Whose spiritual vision will be essential and whose will be secondary or absorbed? This dilemma is Hegel’s famous (or infamous) Master-Slave dialectic, in which two people, being “unequal and opposed,” and therefore not yet synthesized into a unity, must contend for dominance: “[T]hey exist as two opposed shapes of consciousness; one is the independent consciousness whose essential nature is to be for itself, the other is the dependent consciousness whose essential nature is simply to live or to be for another. The former is lord [Herr], the other is bondsman [Knecht]” (544). And who is to be independent and who dependent is discovered in struggle: “[The lord’s] essential nature is to exist only for himself; […] he is the pure, essential action in this relationship, while the action of the bondsman is impure and unessential. […] The outcome is a recognition that is one-sided and unequal” (545).

The irony of substitute satisfactions for losers, alienation for winners. In the Master-Slave dialectic, what does it mean to lose, to be a loser? Two things. First, it means to be “seized with dread,” for she or he has had a foreboding of the ultimate submission to death, “the absolute Lord.” In being “quite unmanned,” the loser trembles “in every fibre,” for “everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations” (545). In the loser’s upheaval, however, a substitute satisfaction is discovered that leads to a rediscovery of her or his own inner power, his or her “being for itself”: work. In thought and physical labor directed to a triumph over a material problem, the bondsman rediscovers an inner strength that even the lord does not enjoy. The lord, in deriving pleasure from material things by setting others to labor on her or his behalf, is actually alienated from the material world (one step removed). The bondsman, however, finds in the shaping of material reality (rather than people), dignity and self-knowledge: “[I]n fashioning the thing [as opposed to persons], he becomes aware that being-for-itself belongs to him, that he himself exists essentially and actually in his own right” (546). Karl Marx was influenced by Hegel here, asserting that capitalism, in its exploitative nature and ever finer divisions of labor in the name of efficiency, alienates both workers and bourgeois consumers from full enjoyment of what is actually produced, undercutting the dignity that Hegel accorded to losers in the Master-Slave dialectic.

The symbolic, classical, and romantic in art. Since, for Hegel, the master-slave dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is what spiritual beings, in their embodiment as humans, are up to, he applies this dialectic to ideas and art, which are also part of the historical process by which Geist comes to self-knowledge. With regard to art, for example, Hegel offers a very particular three-stage historical progression for its evolution. These consist of “the symbolic, classical, and romantic” stages, and they represent the three strategies “in the striving for, the attainment, and the transcendence of the Ideal as the true Idea of beauty” (555).

Nature as wholly other—wholly alien—from you, and beyond your control. What Hegel calls “the symbolic” is art that focuses on setting before the mind one’s relation to alien nature: there is a whole world out there functioning independent of you and that does not submit to you. It defies your attempts at meaning. Hegel’s example is “the early artistic pantheism of the East” in which the subjects for art entail “even the most worthless objects,” and in which they may appear “bizarre, grotesque, and tasteless,” making any potential human victories over them seem futile (“null and evanescent”). This first historical form of art, “with its quest, its fermentation, its mysteriousness, and its sublimity,” sets out the terms against which any being-for-itself must struggle (552).

The Greek body in art as synthesis of spirit and Nature. Hegel’s “classical stage” is the art innovation of the ancient Greeks, in which Nature is overcome by man. The struggles and victories of the Geist—the Ideal spirit—are represented by the synthesis of the human spirit and body with Nature: “[P]ersonification and anthropomorphism have often been maligned as a degradation of the spiritual, but in so far as art’s task is to bring the spiritual before our eyes in a sensuous manner,” it is necessary. The Greeks understood this, as have subsequent sculptors and painters, that the human body is the intersection of spirit and Nature, for “spirit appears sensuously in a satisfying way only in its body” (553). Thus for Hegel the first two stages in the history of art emphasize the human spirit and Nature as thesis or antithesis—two forces to be reckoned with and brought into contemplation, then conflict (agon), then unity.

Moving inward, toward Geist with a capital “G.” For Hegel, it belonged to the romantic stage to move art to its next level—not the synthesis of spirit and Nature, but the wholly inward turn—what Hegel calls “the inwardness of self-consciousness”—the synthesis of the human spirit with the Geist itself: “[M]an breaks the barrier of his implicit and immediate [animal] character, so that precisely because he knows that he is an animal, he ceases to be an animal and attains knowledge of himself as spirit.” This romantic turn is associated, for Hegel, with Christianity: “Christiantiy brings God before our imagination as spirit, not as an individual, particular spirit, but as absolute in spirit and in truth” (554). And so the “inner world constitutes the content of the romantic sphere […] its true reality and manifestation it can seek and achieve only within itself.” Thus it is that romantic art functions paradoxically: “[R]omantic art is the self-transcendence of art, but within its own sphere and in the form of art itself.” (555). In the romantic stage, one does not struggle to shape art into a mirror reflecting the union of spirit and Nature, but to somehow reflect instead the truth of one’s inwardness and power solely, though it is, literally speaking, invisible.

What you see when you look in the mirror. In short, Hegel is a Jacob-wrestling-the-angel kind of person, and in answer to the question—How do I come to know myself?—his answer is: by attempting to shape spirit, the material world, ideas, art, and others in such a manner that when you contemplate them, they are in your service, mirroring back to you your triumphant and independent spirit. Of course, if they don’t, this too is self-consciousness (the self-consciousness of being a secondary and dependent being in service to them).


Resource: An introduction to Hegel with selections from his Phenomenology of Spirit and Lectures on Fine Art can be found in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2nd edition, 2010), beginning on page 547.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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