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Morality, Theology and Individual Self-Assertion: An Analysis of the third division of the chapter on Reason in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit

Frans Erkens


            My aim in this paper is to present an interpretation of the chapter of G. W. F. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit entitled "Individuality which takes itself to be real in and for itself." (PhS, §§394-437)[1] The main conclusion I will defend is twofold. I will first aim to show that in the first part of the Chapter Hegel lays the basis for his system of ethics by effecting the fundamental shift from a pre-moral frame of reference towards a moral one, while at the same time rejecting consequentialist considerations (that is, he establishes the necessity for morality and establishes that morality cannot be consequentialist in character). I will then aim to show that in the latter part of the chapter what Hegel is in fact doing is grounding this ethical system within a theological framework.

            It should perhaps be stressed from the outset that the reading of the text that will be presented here differs considerably from the way in which these passages have traditionally been understood. The first part of the chapter, centred on the section with the bizarre title "The spiritual animal kingdom and deceit, or the 'matter in hand' itself," tends often to be given very little attention at all, or else to be construed in the form of a 'parable' on bourgeoisie industriousness or the academic cult of productivity, from which more universal lessons can be drawn only indirectly.[2] For the basis of Hegel's moral philosophy, it is generally agreed, one needs to turn to the succeeding chapters on Spirit. The latter part of the chapter, encompassing Hegel's discussion on "Reason as lawgiver" and "Reason as testing laws," is typically seen as a somewhat superficial critique of Kantian philosophy, and while there may be many places in the Phenomenology where it is easy to argue that Hegel is speaking in an explicitly religious or theological manner, this particular section of the text may seem on the face of it to be a rather unlikely place to look for such a meaning.

            The paper is divided into four unequal sections: (1) a presentation of the issue that motivates the first part of the chapter; (2) an analysis of Hegel's resolution of this issue; (3) a presentation of the issue of the latter part of the chapter; and, (4) a discussion on Hegel's response to this latter issue.


            At the level of Reason, Hegel tells us, consciousness no longer identifies itself merely as an individual in isolated abstraction, but rather comes to look at itself as a being that "in its particular individuality... is all reality." (PhS, §230) As a result of this shift, the individual's sense of self can no longer be constructed merely internally, but must also come to be based on its external self-expression. In other words, consciousness can no longer be content with the simple fact that it is, and that its identity is maintained in the face of the broader reality that presses in upon it, but rather it comes to develop a fundamental attachment to its actions, because it is in acting that the individual places its personal stamp upon the reality that confronts it. Hegel expresses this point as follows:

[Consciousness] no longer seeks only to realize itself as End in an antithesis to the reality which immediately confronts it... Action is in its own self its truth and reality, and individuality in its setting forth or expression is, in relation to action, the End in and for itself. (PhS, §394)

A being that seeks to essentially identify with the fullness of a reality of which it is in its implicit being only a part, must do so by attaching fundamental significance to its going forth as a causal agent against that broader reality. By molding that which seems external to itself through the expression of its will upon it, "the being-in-itself of the reality opposed to consciousness is reduced to a mere empty show," (PhS, §401) and the supremacy of consciousness that "in its particular individuality is all reality" is established.

            The external world, then, holds significance for consciousness merely in virtue of its being a platform upon which the self-expression of consciousness can be outpictured. This external world or reality, as Hegel explains, "has the significance solely of putting on the shape of individuality; it is the daylight in which consciousness wants to display itself." (PhS, §396) A consciousness that acts, and which through its actions creates a work that is explicit and that persists, is something more than a consciousness that merely is. It is this 'something more' that consciousness at the level of Reason seeks to hold on to, and as such "the work produced," comes to be "the reality which consciousness gives itself." (PhS, §405) In "the simple transference of himself from the night of possibility into the daylight of the present," (PhS, §404) the individual aims to ground his individual self-expression on a stronger basis than it previously was.

            We soon find, however, that the newfound significance that consciousness attaches to action and to the works it produces through acting in the world becomes the basis for a crisis when this action is found to be fundamentally undermined. Hegel writes:

The work is; i.e. it exists for other individualities, and is for them an alien reality, which they must replace by their own in order to obtain through their action the consciousness of their unity with reality; in other words, their interest in the work which stems from their original nature, is something different from this work's own peculiar interest, which is thereby converted into something different. Thus the work, is, in general, something perishable, which is obliterated by the counter-action of other forces and interests, and really exhibits the reality of the individual as vanishing rather than as achieved.

Consciousness, then, in doing its work, is aware of the antithesis of doing and being, which in the earlier shapes of consciousness was at the same time the beginning of action, while here it is only a result. (PhS, §§405-6)

Consciousness invests its activity with the essence of itself because it sees in the externalization of itself the move "from the abstract in-itself to the daylight of actual being," (PhS, §404) but precisely because its work has such actual being, it becomes universally available to others to respond to as they see fit. Because the work in and of itself is, it becomes something which other individuals can relate to on their own terms, and because this work may not be in line with their own interests, they may aim to nullify it through their own activity. The contradiction that consciousness discovers is that while on the one hand its expression of itself through action is crucial to it, yet on the other hand the contingency of the results of its actions seems to betray the investment of self which it places into its activity. "In this fundamental contradiction inherent in work," Hegel declares, " all the aspects of the individuality thus appear again as contradictory." (PhS, §407)

            The consciousness that expresses itself through acting in the world and subsequently expects the world to be a perfect gaurdian of the self-identity which it invests into it could be described as selfish, but it would be an a-moral or pre-moral, as opposed to immoral, sort of selfishness. It is a selfishness born out of a perceived need for the confirmation of one's own identity in the actuality of the external world, rather than a selfishness born out of a disregard for others per se. It is not that the individual who expects the world to perfectly reflect his own will gives too much priority to himself, rather it is that in the lack of such a correspondence between the expression of his will and the state of affairs of the world he feels at risk of loosing himself altogether.



            Hegel begins his discussion on the resolution of this issue as follows:

If, now, consciousness is thus made aware in its work of the antithesis of willing and achieving, between end and means, and, again, between this inner nature in its entirety and reality itself, an antithesis which in general includes within it the contingency of its action, yet the unity and necessity of the action are no less present, too. The latter aspect overlaps the former, and the experience of the contingency of the action is itself only a contingent experience. (PhS, §408)

The key to overcoming the antithesis that arises from the fact that one's actions do not always have the desired results lies in recognizing that this does not compromise the completeness of the action insofar as it is a pure act of will stemming from oneself. Whether or not a given action will succeed in its goal has no bearing on its character as something that one does at the particular moment that one does it. From the point of the Self at the crucial moment of engaging in a given activity, all actions are the same; it is only after the fact that they become distinguishable on the basis of their relative success or failure. In this regard, the "unity and necessity of the action are no less present" for failed actions as for successful ones. An action in and of itself is nothing but a projection of one's will upon the field of reality at a particular time with a particular end in mind, and as such the causal history of this field of reality cannot be essential to it.

            What it comes down to is that in being distraught by the contingency of its actions, the individual has in fact failed to take its nature at the level of Reason fully seriously.[3] Hegel writes:

Objective reality, however, is a moment which itself no longer possesses any truth on its own account in this consciousness; that truth consists solely in the unity of this consciousness with the action, and the true work is only that unity of doing and being, of willing and achieving. Consciousness, then, because of the fundamental certainty of its actions, holds the reality opposed to that certainty to be for it alone. (PhS, §409)

If consciousness holds reality to "be for it alone," it cannot also seek to draw on the particular conditions of this reality to 'confirm' its sense of Self. Insofar as it would do so it would make the reality a moment that "possesses truth on its own account," because it would make its sense of self subject to its perception of this reality. To put this somewhat differently, it would be hypocritical[4] to take action as essential in the first place because it is the means by which one can project one's will over reality, but then to undermine the importance of action as the projection of this will by relating to the reality acted upon not in virtue of the potentiality it represents, but rather on the basis of its own particular characteristics (this would in fact be akin to regressing to the level of sense-certainty).

            The gist of Hegel's argument against attaching essential importance to the consequences of one's actions may be expressed by saying that the Self learns to distance itself from consequentialist considerations because it comes to recognize that such considerations are in fact distant from it. In the opening section of the Reason chapter Hegel explains:

Now that self-consciousness is Reason, its hitherto negative relation to otherness turns round into a positive relation. Up to now it had been concerned only with its independence and freedom, concerned to save and maintain itself at the expense of the world... But as Reason, assured of itself, it is at peace with [the world], and can endure [it]; for it is certain that it is itself reality, or that everything actual is none other than itself. (PhS, §232)

Because the way things are is already essential to the Self simply because 'everything actual is none other than itself,' it does not make sense to also relate to elements of reality on the further basis of how they reflect what the individual has tried to bring about through its activity. Consequences, therefore, lose their interest qua consequences, and rather take their more proper position as being of interest insofar as they are elements of the way things simply are - "the negativity manifested in work... affect[s] the reality as such." (PhG, §409)

            To illustrate the contradictions inherent in not rejecting consequences qua consequences in this regard, one need only consider a case in which somebody performs an action that brings about a result other than that intended. Upon becoming acquainted with this unexpected state of affairs, he may well desire to undertake another action that is only possible given this new way the world is. This state of affairs therefore becomes essential to the expression of his self-identity through this new wilful activity, which he might desire to bring about every bit as much as he did the previous one. If he were at the same time also to hold this same state of affairs as injurious to his self-identity on account of its thwarting the purpose of his original action, he would be in the contradictory position of viewing the same set of circumstances as both supportive of and hostile to his individual self-expression. I believe this sort of situation is what Hegel has in mind when he writes that, "the individual who is going to act seems, therefore, to find himself in a circle in which each moment already presupposes the other." (PhS, §401)

            In the relinquishing of attachment to the consequences of one's actions, something else has simultaneously occurred. In lieu of attending to the results of its actions, consciousness comes to attach complete importance to its actions considered purely as cause, or what Hegel terms 'die Sache selbst'.[5] We soon learn, however, that this Sache selbst is in fact "the ethical substance; and consciousness of it is the ethical consciousness." (PhS, §420) In other words, Hegel is telling us that in coming to view the significance of our activity as lying simply in the potentiality we exercise through it, rather than in the state of affairs it may or may not bring about, we in fact come to adopt a moral attitude towards our actions.

            The notion of developing an 'ethical consciousness' may be thought of as coming to feel a sense of essential responsibility for one's activity. In the pre-moral mindset one simply does what one wants to do because one wants to do it, but at a moral level one begins to feel responsible for how one's actions measure up to some sort of ideal. At first sight it might seem counter-intuitive for Hegel to suggest that it is just when one stops caring about the results of one's actions that one develops a sense of responsibility for those actions, but it is not in fact such a strange move to make at all. The reason is that in relinquishing its attachment to the particular consequences of its actions as essential to its own identity, the individual can come to recognize that the general ability of its activity to have results can mean that they hold a more universal significance. Hegel explains that, "the originally determinate nature of the individual has lost its positive meaning of being in itself the element and purpose of its activity." (PhS,  419) By loosing itself from the misguided notion of the results of its action as being essential for it, the individual at the same time comes to recognize that its activity can hold essential significance beyond its merely being an expression of its individual desires. As a result, the individual comes to see the power of potential which it wields in engaging in activity as carrying with it significant responsibility.

            When he was considering the individual who attended to the consequences of his actions to find in the conforming of the world to his will a confirmation of his self-identity, Hegel wrote:

Whether something is held to be good or bad, it is in either case an action and an activity in which an individual exhibits and expresses itself, and for that reason it is all good; and it would, strictly speaking, be impossible to say what 'badness' was supposed to be. (PhS, §403)

He has subsequently demonstrated that such an attachment to the effects of one's activity is deeply problematic, and that this level of consciousness must be transcended. What Hegel is now further suggesting is that in so doing, the notions of goodness and badness come to be well defined and acquire real significance for the individual.

            Hegel tells us that "a movement corresponding to that from sense-certainty to perception will run its course here." (PhG, §410) Just as in the early chapters of the Phenomenology we find that "the way we take in perception is no longer as something that just happens to us like sense-certainty; on the contrary it is logically necessitated," (PhG, §111) so here the way we relate to action is no longer as something we simply do, but rather it is (or ought to be) morally determined. The shift from approaching action as something we simply do to seeing it as something more complex is in fact a fairly useful way to characterize the move to the level of a moral consciousness. The reason the moral individual need not care about the results of his actions is that he can find in the 'dynamics' of deciding on a given course of action a confirmation of his identity and worth: insofar as he does the morally best thing when he could have done otherwise, his activity endorses his essential identity as an ethical Being-in-Spirit. As Hegel writes, the true work expresses "the spiritual essentiality... in which the certainty consciousness has of itself is... an objective fact for it." (PhG, §410) The pre-moral individual, on the other hand, engages in no such dynamic, but acts purely and simply, doing whatever he happens to desire at the moment. As such, he has no grounds for drawing confirmation of his identity or worth from the action in and of itself, and looks instead to its consequences, which as we have already seen is an ultimately futile strategy. In this way it also becomes clear how moral restrictions on actions, although they may at first appear as a fundamental limitation on one's expressive freedom, can in fact be liberating in an essential way.

            By moving from an attachment to the consequences of one's actions to an attachment to the Sache selbst, one goes from being concerned about the way the world reflects one's will, to being concerned about the way in which one's particular expression of will manifests one's potentiality to affect the world. In rejecting the importance of the particular consequences of one's actions, one ought not of course to lose sight of the fact that actions do have consequences; that, in fact, the essential significance of action as a moment lies in its potential to effect change. As such, one's concern must move from the specific effects of given actions and how they measure up to one's individual intentions, towards the general potential to produce positive or negative effects which a given action embodies. One's fixation on consequences shifts from being subsequent to the pure moment of activity to being simultaneous with it; such a shift, for Hegel at least, represents the adoption of a moral consciousness.



            The second issue arises once consciousness has accepted the need for its actions to be morally determined, and it then finds itself to run into difficulty in the practical implementation of its desire to do the right thing. Consciousness has accepted the basic imperative to "do good," but as Hegel explains, this general ethical substance "divides itself into 'masses' or spheres which are the determinate laws of the absolute essence." (PhS §420) In order to be applicable to specific cases and situations, the general moral imperative must be able to be broken down into specific laws and guidelines. The issue at this point is that of how consciousness is to discover these particular expressions of the ethical substance.

            Towards the end of his discussion on Reason as lawgiver and Reason as testing laws, Hegel tells us that "both the above moments fill[ed] the former emptiness of spiritual being." (PhG, §432) This former emptiness of spiritual being refers to a state of consciousness that has accepted the need for a morality but has no awareness of the 'determinate laws of the ethical substance'; that is, it is the emptiness that comes from desiring to do right but not knowing how to go about doing it in particular circumstances. In its eagerness to fill this emptiness, consciousness has attempted to find such moral laws immediately within its own reason (Reason as lawgiver), or through grasping anything that appears as if it might be such a law and determining through its reason whether or not it in fact is (Reason as testing laws). What it has failed to realize is that in approaching morality in this way, it has in fact acted directly contrary to its aspirations to be moral. As Hegel explains, "to legislate immediately in [the way of Reason as lawgiver] is... the tyrannical insolence which makes caprice into a law and ethical behaviour into obedience to such caprice." The 'testing' of laws, similarly, "means the insolence of a knowledge which argues itself into a freedom from absolute laws, treating them as an alien caprice." (PhS, §434) Both approaches fail to respect the true nature of ethical laws because each embodies "a negative relation to substance or real spiritual being." (PhS, §435) There must, then, be an alternative way for the individual to gain access to moral laws.

            In order to approach the ethical laws in such a way as to respect their nature as ethical laws, one cannot presume to put anything of oneself into them, or to put oneself over them as one who can judge them. For something to be a genuinely moral law, it must embody a level of absoluteness and aloofness - they must not "merely [be] laws... but at the same time commandments." (PhS, §434) Having rejected Reason as lawgiver and Reason as testing laws, Hegel's solution, then, is to simply proclaim that the moral laws "are, and nothing more." (PhS, §437) To say that ethical laws simply are is on the face of it a rather inane statement, especially as Hegel is here not advocating any sort of intuitionism; he writes, for instance, that "if they are supposed to be validated by my insight, then I have already denied their unshakeable, intrinsic being." (PhS, §437) But to claim that moral laws can simply be plucked out of the air is absurd, especially given that experience teaches us that people often experience lack of certainty regarding the morally correct thing to do in a given situation. Philosophers and people in general have had differences of opinion on matters of morality since antiquity, and furthermore the belief that moral laws are not immediately and universally available to all is the only way to explain that in situations where somebody claims to have done something because they thought it was right, when one personally takes the given action as having been wrong, one does not necessarily disbelieve that person immediately. What then does Hegel mean when he states that the laws of morality simply are? And, given that the laws simply are, what accounts for the fact that well meaning people can make moral mistakes?



            What I wish to suggest is that the meaning of Hegel's statement that the laws simply are comes down to a theological claim (that God exists), and that he furthermore establishes that the way in which one becomes acquainted with these laws is by being apprised to one's relation to divine being (and hence people can be out of touch with these laws insofar as they are unaware of or insincere towards this relationship and of their own place in the scope of spiritual reality).

            The claims that moral laws simply are and that God exists can in fact be understood to be identical. When the origin of the cosmos is attributed to a divine being, this gives one a basis upon which to claim that the ethical laws that determine the moral fabric of the world could have sprung into existence together with the world as a physical entity. In other words, when one sees the world as having been created by God, this allows one to posit that the physical and normative dimensions of the world could have come into existence together, and hence that the normative dimension to existence can in some sense be said to be fundamental. Theology is a peg upon which to hang morality in the sense that it provides one with a foundation upon which to claim that there really is an underlying ethical arrangement that has essential reality and that one can potentially tap into. When one rejects the idea of God and attributes the existence of the cosmos to merely physical causes, or to no causes at all, there is really no basis on which to argue that there is such a thing as an essential normative dimension to the world at all. Any attempt to formulate a theory of morality from such a standpoint, then, is in fact to 'construct' an ethics from a purely human perspective. This can be done either 'from the outside', by focusing on some quality that is deemed to be essential to humanity as an end in and for itself (say, happiness), and to advocate that morality consists in maximizing this quality, or 'from the inside', by arguing that the laws of morality have their basis in our reason or intuition. These approaches (consequentialism and Kantianism), however, are precisely what Hegel has rejected. For Hegel, then, the "True ethical law is the unwritten, inerrant, unalterable divine law spoken of in the Antigone."[6]

            Before defending and expanding upon this claim through an analysis of the text, there is a terminological point that needs to be addressed. There are countless references throughout the Phenomenology to 'Spirit', 'spiritual essence', 'spiritual being' and a wide variety of related terms. The notion of spirit is such a broad, diverse, and frequently used one in Hegel's philosophy that it may well be impossible to pinpoint precisely what is signified in many particular cases in which the term is employed. In the final few paragraphs of the chapter of the text which forms the subject of this paper, however, there are a number of instances where Hegel uses a construction that is rarely encountered elsewhere in the book, namely he writes of 'the spiritual being'[7] (that is, he uses the definite article in connection with spiritual being). In these particular cases, I suggest, the reference ought to be understood (naturally enough) as a reference to God.

            Hegel writes that "the spiritual being thus exists first of all for self-consciousness as law which has an intrinsic being." (PhS, §436) It is important in this regard to keep in mind that the Phenomenology is structured around a progression through shapes of consciousness (starting at the basic level of sense-certainty and moving up to the culmination of absolute knowing). Therefore, although when approached from the highest perspective, one may well be able to argue that God is first and foremost absolute being, or love, or whatever else, it is not at all unnatural to suggest, as Hegel does, that to the individual rising through the various shapes of consciousness, the being of God should first appear as the source or personification of the moral law (the "law which has an intrinsic being"). As argued in section II of this paper, in the first half of this chapter Hegel effects the basic shift from a pre-moral to a moral frame of reference in response to the observation that attending to the consequences of one's actions is problematic; here in the second part of the chapter he effects the basic shift from a pre-religious to a religious frame of reference, in response to the observation that looking for the basis of the moral laws within one's own reason or intuition is problematic. Both his morality and his religion will be much more deeply developed in the chapters of the text that follow, but just as morality has its foundation in the simple fact that one comes to feel an essential responsibility towards one's activity (one feels impelled to do good rather than ill), so religion has its foundation in the simple fact that one can find the source of moral laws only beyond oneself (in one's recognition of the externality of the law one first finds the being of God).

            Now, it is crucial for Hegel that religion is something in which the moments of God and of the individual lose their relation of 'otherness'. We might express this by saying that Hegel's conception of religion is a 'mystical' one. On the one hand the notion of God is for Hegel a definite and substantial one, and in a certain sense one must understand God as something beyond oneself; on the other hand, however, the relation between the deity and the individual is more than a simple hierarchical one, and in an essential sense the latter must be able to find himself within the former. Hegel's mystical theology is most explicitly expressed in the Revealed Religion chapter of the Phenomenology, where he writes such things as that "individual man is the immediately present God," (PhS, §763) that "the incarnation of the divine Being is the simple content of absolute religion," (PhS, §759) and that:

Speculative knowledge knows God as Thought or pure Essence, and knows this Thought as simple Being and as Existence, and Existence as the negativity of itself, hence as Self, as the Self that is at the same time this individual, and also the universal, Self. (PhS, §761)

The mystical character of Hegel's religion, however, pervades itself throughout the entire book, and it seems everywhere to be a cause of confusion. The complex and unconventional character of Hegel's religion has even led to the fact that despite the very explicit theological references throughout his texts, his philosophy has come to be interpreted by many in an almost purely secular or humanistic light (in which the notion of God tends to be replaced by some sort of social supra-consciousness). As the theological undertones in the particular chapter of the text we are considering are in fact somewhat complicated, we will need to examine them fairly closely.

            Perhaps the best place to begin is with Hegel's statement that, "since this existent law is valid unconditionally, the obedience of self-consciousness is not the serving of a master whose commands were arbitrary and in which it would not recognize itself." (PhS, §436) It is precisely because the laws are impersonal and unconditional that the individual finds within them the basis for a personal relationship with God who is the source or personification of these laws. This is interesting, and it may come across as on the face of it counter-intuitive that it is just in the impersonality of the law that the sense of otherness is eliminated. It is however in a conditional command that the relationship between a master and a servant is sustained. Although it is the duty of a servant to fulfill the particular task the master assigns to him, the essence of servanthood lies not in the doing of any particular activity but in the doing of the master's will. If the servant is not always open to the possibility that the master may change his mind, or may assign to him a different task than what is assigned to his fellow servants, then that one is not really a servant at all. The essence of the individual consciousness, however, lies simply in its doing of good. God may be the source or personification of the moral laws that define goodness, but these moral laws are not contingent to His will in the sense that they could be altered or differentially apply to different individuals. Because God is the personification of the moral law, and because the essence of the individual lies simply in acting in accordance with this law, the individual finds that by being true to its own essence it in fact comes closer to God. 

            The fact that God lays down universal law is in fact what first makes room within His being for the individual self-consciousness. In the absence of the universal laws that provide a rubric for goodness, there would be no room in the scope of the purity of divine being for the individual that through free will can express less than this divine purity. Because God manifests these universal laws, however, and because the individual comes to find the desire to obey these laws to be innate to it, one finds there to be a rubric through which the individual can direct its freedom of will to be in harmony with divine purity, and hence by adopting the "ethical self-consciousness," it comes to be "immediately one with essential being through the universality of its self." (PhS, §436)

            Hegel tells us that "the spiritual being" in its manifestation as the moral law, "is the universal 'I' of the category, the 'I' which is immediately a reality, and the world is only this reality." (PhS, §436) Earlier in the Phenomenology, Hegel has told us that the 'category' is "the unity of the 'I' and being." (PhS, §344) God as universal moral law, therefore, is the I AM.[8] In the simple moment of the individuality that the deity is, it is at the same time all of reality. But remember that at the beginning of the entire chapter on Reason, Hegel had similarly characterized the level of Reason as the certainty of consciousness that "in its particular individuality, it has being absolutely in itself, or is all reality." (PhS, §230) Back in its pre-moral condition, as described earlier in this paper, consciousness had attempted to confirm that its particular individuality was all reality by attending to the consequences of its actions and seeing in the reflection of its will in the state of affairs of the world a confirmation of its identity. This however, was found to be problematic. What Hegel is now suggesting is that the individual can still find a confirmation of itself in this way, but it must come to realize that it is all reality not as an ultimate end in and of itself, but rather through recognizing itself to be an essential end within an ultimate end (God) that is in at least some sense greater than itself. Consciousness need not surrender its certainty of being all reality in its particular self, even while acknowledging that in a fundamental sense it is only God who is all reality, as long as it has some basis upon which to establish that its expression of its own particular individuality is in some sense essential to God.

            Hegel does provide us with such a basis. He writes:

That law-giving and the testing of laws have proved to be futile, means that both, when taken singly and in isolation, are merely unstable moments of the ethical consciousness. (PhS, §432)


The spiritual being[9] is actual substance through these modes being valid, not in isolation, but only as superseded moments; and the unity in which they are merely moments is the self of consciousness which, being from now on posited in the spiritual being, makes that being actual, full-filled and self-conscious. (PhS, §435)

The individual self-consciousness is an essential end within the ultimate end that is God, because it "makes the spiritual being actual and fulfilled." The way in which it does so is that in the symbiosis of the relationship between the deity that is the personification of the law (lawgiver) and the individual that is the applier of the law (law-tester), the essence of the former is made actual and full-filled through the impetus of the latter. The individual self-consciousness, therefore, insofar as it is "posited in the spiritual being" (that is, insofar as it has come to align itself fully with the universal ethical law that the spiritual being embodies) plays a fundamental role in making that being more real or more present. In so doing, because it has come to be an essential end within the ultimate end that is all reality, it has also come to identify itself as one with this reality. This is a rather suitable ending to the chapter on Reason, and the gateway into the suceeding chapter on Spirit, as "reason is spirit when its certainty of being all reality has been raised to truth." (PhS, §438)


[1] All references to the Phenomenology of Spirit  are to A. V. Miller's translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), and are cited by paragraph number.

[2]  See, for example, Gary Shapiro, "Notes on the Animal Kingdom of the Spirit," in The Phenomenology of Spirit Reader, ed. Jon Stewart (New York: State University of New York Press, 1998), and Terry Pinkard, Hegel's Phenomenology - The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 113-122.

[3]  Recall that at the level of Reason consciousness is certain that "in its particular individuality, it has being absolutely in itself, or is all reality." (PhS, §#230)

[4]  I use this term generically, without meaning to suggest any Hegelian undertones (i.e. without alluding to anything he says about hypocrisy later in the Phenomenology).

[5] Variously translated by Miller as 'matter in hand' and 'heart of the matter'.

[6]  J. N. Findlay, Analysis in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, tran. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 550.

[7] Das geistige Wesen

[8] Which, of course, is the name traditionally given to God: I AM, or I AM THAT I AM.

[9] Miller's translation in fact omits the definate article in this case, but the orignal does read "Das geistige Wesen…"

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