Hegel: Knowledge, Desire, and Freedom

The first part of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, concerning “consciousness,” shows us how knowledge of objects is knowledge only of oneself. In other words, it describes how we reach the initial premise of “transcendental idealism” – a philosophy created by Kant and developed by Fichte – that says that all the objects we know in the world are constructed in our minds, and that whatever might exist outside our minds is totally unknowable and entirely un-object-like.

Knowledge of objects is knowledge “only” of oneself: but it is knowledge of objects nonetheless. Because on the one hand, objects are constructs in the mind; but on the other hand, the reality we’ve constructed is the only reality we have, and so these objects are “real” in every meaningful sense of the term.

And so, in the Phenomenology, consciousness (meaning consciousness of objects) and self-consciousness (meaning consciousness of consciousness) keep getting separated, they’re proven again and again to be distinct, because it’s just not enough to say that everything exists “only” in the mind. Objectivity is a thing that keeps coming up again and again, or we might say: we keep running into objects day by day, they are a stubborn part of our experience, and we have to explain them somehow. And saying they “only” exist in the mind just isn’t enough.

And so, later in the Phenomenology, we get the discussion of “stoicism,” where objects are known to us by our desire for them, all objects are desire-objects, and so they exercise control over us, and so the only way to be free is to find a way to flee the grasp of the object, by retreating into thought.

Subjective freedom versus objective determination: this war for the freedom of the individual, for triumph over material circumstances, rages on, long after objects have been proven to be “only” in the mind.

(I’ve been reading Jean Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by Samuel Cherniak and John Heckman, published in 1974 by Northwestern University Press.)

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2 Responses to Hegel: Knowledge, Desire, and Freedom

  1. That Hyppolite book is extremely good. Also, check out some by Stephen Houlgate if you ever get the chance. Houlgate is stricter in speaking in Hegel’s vocab, but I prefer Hyppolite. Cool write-up man, I love reading about German Idealism wherever I can.

    Liked by 1 person

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