Phenomenology of Spirit

One of the least comprehensible courses that I took in my undergraduate program was Phenomenology, a class entirely dedicated to reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.  It is one of the most opaque books in existence – it makes Heidegger’s Being and Time seem direct and to the point.  Currently though I’m taking another stab at it and feel like I’m making comprehension headway.

I understand the core of Hegel’s project as an attempt to understand the human condition.  He is trying to reconcile the individual with the flow of history.  The philosophical move that he makes is to posit a world spirit, an entity comprised of all human minds.  It is not an entity in any way distinct from the minds that comprise it – we are all both temporary individuals and an element of the eternal world spirit.

This actually has some resemblance to some of my own recent philosophical thought.  I have been trying to think of some way to express a similar idea in relation to knowledge.  It seems to me that the way to knowledge is a kind of constant activity.  We pick up where the previous generation left off, and eventually we in turn pass on the torch, and it seems to me that recognizing this reality is crucial to the activity itself.  Hegel applies this kind of idea on a much grander scale – he doesn’t limit himself to epistemology but instead tries to explain all human activity and purpose.  He suggests that everything we do is this kind of flowing activity, and also tries to express this grand flow of humanity as a comprehensible notion.  To understand this idea it is essential not to make the mistake of thinking that Hegel is proposing any kind of entity which is the world spirit.  The world spirit is no more and no less then the sum of its parts (us).

I’m only halfway through the book, but my understanding is that Hegel’s project is nothing less then absolute knowledge.  When I first heard this I was skeptical – I thought that Hegel was just on an extreme ego trip.  However, I think I can now see what Hegel was angling for.  What I think he was trying to express was the form within which all human activity takes place.  I’m still inclined to think that it is impossible to express any absolute knowledge, but when I say such a thing I’m making a claim of a similar kind to Hegel’s – I’m trying to express the parameters of human existence.

Thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman

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