Circling Toward Absoluteness

Hegel prominently refers to “absolute” knowledge as a kind of circle. Here I think he has in mind Aristotle’s notion of the “perfection” of circular motion. This in turn presupposes a Greek notion of “perfection” that — unlike the more theological sense it acquired later — is intended to be something realizable or finitely achievable, a kind of completeness within itself of a finite essence with respect to its ends that is still compatible with life and motion, and indeed requires the latter. The perfection of absolute knowledge also has to be construed in a way that is modest enough to allow for the contingency that comes with inhabiting a world. It is actually much more ethical than epistemological.

The circle metaphor here also involves an aspect of returning to the beginning. The immediate subjective “certainty” that throughout Hegel’s long development has been distinguished from real essential “truth” finally becomes adequate to the expression of “truth”, in part by going through development and learning from its mistakes, and in part by letting go of its self-centered pretensions.

The specific kind of completeness within itself involved here has to do with the way knowing, doing, and forgiving are brought together. Harris in his commentary says that for Hegel the putting together of knowing and doing — when its implications are followed out — leads “logically” to what Hegel has been calling the breaking of the hard heart, which Hegel also identifies with the forgiveness stressed in historic religious traditions.

“‘Immediate Dasein‘ [concrete, implicitly human being] already has no other significance than that of ‘pure knowing’ for the active Conscience. My conscientious conviction is that I have done the best I can in the circumstances as they are known to me; my ‘pure knowledge’ is precisely that it is my duty to do that. We expect, in simple justice, to be forgiven for the errors caused by ignorance; the [Sophoclean tragedy] Oedipus at Colonus already makes this point quite clearly. Of course, in my uneasy ‘shifting’, I do learn how ‘impure’ my motives always are. But the forgiving community comprehends and forgives the fact that I saw the whole situation in my way, and defined my duty according to some personal interest that is not universally (or as Kant would say ‘categorically’) imperative. Thus the community reduces ‘actuality’ to the pure knowledge of what the inevitable conditions of acting are.”

“The ‘determinate Dasein‘ that arises from action and judgment in their ‘relationship’ is the forgiving that comprehends the action in its concreteness. The acceptance of the action as ‘conscientious’ — or as objectively rational — involves as its ‘third moment’ the Spirit that says ‘Yes’ (rather than ‘No’, as the moral spirit must say). When the two sides are thus reconciled, the ‘universality’ or ‘essence’ in which both are comprehended is the ‘I = I’ or ‘the Self’s pure knowing of itself’.”

“This ‘pure knowing’, as a concrete experience, is necessarily both an achievement (for the two sides do indeed clasp hands in reconciliation) and an end or goal to be achieved (for we may spend a lifetime trying to comprehend the objective rationality of the other’s act or judgment)…. [I]n principle, this is how the singular rational self — the recognized Conscience or justified sinner, simul peccator et justus [simultaneously sinner and justified] in Luther’s phrase — both constitutes the community, and is constituted by it” (Hegel’s Ladder II, pp. 720-721).

“If consciousness is to come to the comprehension of what ‘truth’ is, (or what the word signifies) through a process of self-criticism that we [readers of the Phenomenology] simply observe, then we must necessarily begin from the side of the ‘for-itself’. The communal substance of our rationality is the ‘in-itself’ which can only gradually come to be ‘for itself’; and its last step must be later….”

“It is, of course, the motion of ‘the Concept’ as self-critical that drives both sides onward; but it is a mistake to identify the motion of the Concept with philosophy as speculation (or even as both speculation and critique) because the concrete historical movement of the whole world… is so essential to it. The lesson that philosophy is not to be understood apart from its history is widely understood; what Hegel’s science of experience teaches us is the much more demanding imperative that philosophy and religion must be comprehended together in the context of the actual history of the human community” (p. 722).

“The Concept” is Hegel’s term for concrete human thought for which there is none of the separateness that the object always has for what he calls Consciousness. This realizes Aristotle’s suggestion that in the case of pure thought, we ought not to separate the act of thinking or the thinker from the thing thought.

In the corresponding part of his separate quick overview Hegel: Phenomenology and System, Harris says, “The Self of Cognition has been shown to be the mediating moment between the finite spirit and the absolute Spirit. It is the self of the infinite community — the incarnate Logos, the ‘I that is We’. Now we have to show (on the one hand) how this absolute Concept comprehends all the experiences that have led us to it and (on the other hand) how we, as singular consciousness, actually comprehend it. We all embody the Concept (before we do any philosophizing at all) because it comprehends us — that is, it provides the context of all that we intelligently say and do, and of everything that we understand about what is unintelligent.” (p. 92).

“The human self is Yorick [the skull contemplated by Hamlet, as Hegel recalls]; our singularity is identical with our ‘thinghood’…. Finally, the sensible thing has to be understood as the essence of the self. This happened for us in the stabilization of the moral self as Conscience” (p. 93).

Conscience already identifies (its own point of view on) what it actually does as a direct expression of its essence. But what Conscience actually did and its consequences also have the same kind of retrospective, socially available “objective” status as Yorick’s skull.

Finally “It is the perfection of Conscience in Forgiveness that gives rise to the singular self as the pure knowing of the community” (ibid).

Varieties of Religion

Religion for Hegel is ultimately concerned with the genesis of Absolute Spirit in mutual recognition. But before that, in most of its historical existence, it involves various “presentations” of this ultimate truth by way of figures and images.

About these earlier forms Hegel writes, “So far as spirit in religion presents itself to itself, it is indeed consciousness, and the reality enclosed within it is the shape and garment in which it clothes its idea of itself. The reality, however, does not in this presentation get proper justice done to it, that is to say, it does not get to be an independent and free objective existence and not merely a garment. And conversely, because that reality lacks within itself its completion, it is a determinate shape or form, which does not attain to what it ought to reveal, viz, spirit conscious of itself” (Baillie trans., p. 688).

Hegel’s sketch of a general phenomenology of religion is as far as I know the earliest attempt at such a thing. Despite significant limitations with respect to concrete data, it has both philosophical and spiritual value. Hegel profoundly admires Greek tragedy, sympathetically interprets his native north-German Lutheranism, and remains close to the spiritual perspective of his old friend the poet Hölderlin. There are many other traditions to which he does not begin to do justice, but here I want to dwell on the positive value of what he does say. As a principle of charitable interpretation, we ought to give much more weight to a philosopher’s distinctive developed thought than to prejudices of the philosopher’s community that the philosopher happened to share.

At top level, Hegel distinguishes natural religion, what he calls art religion, and offenbare (“manifest”) religion. All three of these terms are either used in nonstandard ways or are original to him. Harris thinks that religion is the one area in which Hegel in the Phenomenology really meant to claim a kind of linear progressive historical development.

As examples of “natural” religion, Hegel gives the ancient Zoroastrian symbolism of light, and a notion of spirit as “artificer” that he associates with ancient Egyptian religion. Natural religion for Hegel is not associated with direct nature worship or the early modern “argument from design”. Its most significant characteristic seems to be a sort of abstractness that Hegel associates with the “natural” consciousness for which everything is an object or Vorstellung. As Harris says, “We have to learn to think conceptually (or without Vorstellungen)” ( Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 689).

In this context Hegel observes that “The consciously presented self is not the actual concrete self” (Baillie trans., p. 697). “[W]hat is consciously presented… only ceases to be something ‘presented‘ and alien to spirit’s knowledge, by the self having produced it, and so viewing the determination of the object as its own determination, and hence seeing itself in that object” (ibid).

Harris comments that “In the world of Natural Religion, the human community solves problems and remodels its environment; but it has no consciousness of making itself by so doing. That sort of consciousness can only arise when there is a community of communities that do things differently, and a communication system in which all parties recognize both the legitimacy of this, and the ‘freedom’ that is involved in it” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 564).

This begins to be the case in what Hegel calls the ancient Greek “religion in the form of art”, in which he sees a new recognition of human creativity. Hegel sees a spiritual significance in realistic portrayals of the idealized human form in statues of the gods. In its higher forms, religion in the form of art includes the ideal of living a “beautiful” life.

In Greek culture poets were the principal spiritual authorities. The Greek drama that impressed Hegel so much seems to have begun as a kind of ritual performance, but the great tragedians showed considerable originality of thought.

Hegel says, “The work of art hence requires another element for its existence; God requires another way of going forth than this, in which, out of the depths of his creative night, he drops into the opposite, into externality, to the character of a ‘thing’ with no self-consciousness. This higher element is Language — a way of existing that is directly self-conscious existence. When individual self-consciousness exists in that way, it is at the same time directly a form of universal contagion; complete isolation of independent self-existent selves is at once fluent continuity and universally communicated unity of the many selves” (Baillie trans., p. 716).

Here again we meet Hegel’s thesis that language is the concrete being (Dasein) of spirit. The earlier part of the passage contrasts this with the mere “presentation” of objects. The ordinary use of language already implicitly takes us beyond “presentation”.

“Higher than both [oracles and utilitarian calculations] is to make careful reflection the oracle for contingent action, but yet to recognize that this very act reflected on is something contingent, because what it refers to is opportune and has a relation to what is particular.”

“The true self-conscious existence, which spirit receives in the form of speech, which is not the utterance of an alien and so accidental, i.e. not universal, self-consciousness, is the [poetic] work of art which we met with before” (p. 719).

Harris suggests that Sophocles’ Antigone, who can be read as seeking forgiveness for her brother, would be one of the saints of Hegel’s personal religion, and even that the New Testament can be read as the “last and greatest” of the Greek tragedies.

He quotes Hegel saying the simple content of “absolute” or “manifest” religion is that God is incarnate in humanity and “has essentially and immediately the character of Self-Consciousness” (p. 666).

Harris continues, “‘Self-Consciousness’ has to travel all the way from the life and death struggle to the community of forgiveness; but in its immediacy it is the kind of self-awareness that the living man Jesus had; and it appears to me to be a rigorously necessary inference from what Hegel says that ‘the divine essence’ has no other ‘self-consciousness’ than this. The humanly ’embodied shape’ can say, as the Jesus of our record did, ‘I and the Father are one’. It will be a very naive historian who says confidently that this record (in John) is ‘historic’; but only in the ‘oneness’ that is here asserted (which our science seeks to explicate) can ‘the Father’ properly be said to have ‘self-consciousness’ at all. We, the observing readers, are the absolute authority concerning what ‘self-consciousness’ is; and if ‘absolute religion’ or ‘absolute knowledge’ is even possible, then it does not use language in an analogical way, since no analogy is knowably ‘absolute’. The presence of God is a matter of Sense-Certainty because I too can say that ‘I and the Father are one’.”

“The religious encounter of two selves, which is the immediate shape of Absolute Spirit, is the complement of their encounter in the world. The self in whom God is actually recognized, refused to fight, and accepted the certainty of death willingly, rather than put the life of another self at risk. His God, in whom he knew himself and all other selves, was a Substance whose accidents were all precious and essential. In the religious metaphor, this God sees the fall of every sparrow. He is Spinoza’s ‘God or Nature’, because Nature has already been recognized as the divine ‘Substance’ that contains all finite selves as its accidental aspect.

“It is the structure of Consciousness (as the intentional awareness of an ‘object’) that requires this universal Spirit to be known as other. There is not, and cannot be, anything hidden by its otherness; properly speaking, the Other is ‘the Father’, i.e., the world of the reconciled community of all selves. It can become another ‘self’, the object of an inward encounter, only as my own higher self, the embodiment of the perfectly reconciled community in me. Only in this way can I know God as a self, who is both other, and my own self. From the first moment I have claimed to know anything, from the first moment of theoretical sense-certain consciousness, when I could say ‘It is‘, though I found it impossible to say what ‘it’ was… my own selfhood has had this universal dimension. Now… I can say that this universal dimension is God — that it is ‘I that is We and We that is I’…. My Sense-Certainty that ‘It is’ has become the certainty that God is, as the absolute Spirit…. God’s being ‘the Creator of all things visible and invisible’… will only be interpretable if we can first grasp how the Spirit creates itself ‘out of nothing'” (pp. 666-667).

“No theologian of the schools taught the identity of God and Nature; but Hegel interpreted both the Trinity and the Mass in this way” (p. 675). “The doctrine of the Trinity is the logical expression in a Vorstellung of the concept of Spirit as self-actualizing self-knowledge” (p. 677). “What ‘Selfhood’ is, we learn in experience; and even when we have learned empirically that we are ‘members of one another’, it seems to us paradoxical rather than ‘logical’. So it is a long time before we can see that the Trinity is just the logic of it” (ibid).

“The world in its finite multiplicity is certainly other than God; but the human consciousness of it is the ‘appearing’ of God as ‘essence'” (p. 680).

“Just as Creation was not a gratuitous act, or an arbitrarily free choice, so the Fall of Man did not result from a sinful act of disobedience or pride. The story of the Fall is a myth that expresses the logical necessity of the Spirit’s turning away from the natural world within which it comes to birth, and leaving it behind” (p. 682).

“Hegel’s speculative conception of the creative Incarnation of the Logos requires the reconciliation of the ‘evil’ principle of self-assertion with the ‘good’ principle of duty and sacrifice” (p. 684). “Evil is the blind moment of singular self-assertion, which finally recognizes its own spiritual character as the self that is born from, lives in and returns to, the rational community. If the cycle did not begin with a natural organism, with its exclusive needs, and its selfish urge for dominance and ‘independence’, the human community could never come to be a community of ‘individuals’; or in other words it could not come to be as a self-conscious community, since the individual is the ‘concrete universal’, the self-consciousness that is both singular and communal” (p. 685).

“We must cling firmly to the contradiction that self-consciousness is both Evil and Good.” (p. 689).

“The self has to break with Nature, and become the Unhappy Consciousness. We should interpret this now as the betrayal and loss of the Greek Garden of Eden, the Paradise of True Spirit” (p. 691).

“As we shall soon see, the difference between Religion and Absolute Knowing is marked by Religion’s dependence on Vorstellung. But there is such a thing as ‘fully self-conscious Faith’ — i.e., a religious consciousness that still uses the Vorstellungen, but knows what they mean, and does not count on any Beyond” (p. 688).


The “Spirit” chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology is followed by a discussion of religion that is “phenomenological” in Hegel’s sense. The ultimate sense of “religion” that he develops could perhaps be summed up as what keeps Conscience honest.

We saw that Conscience faces a danger of self-deceit or hypocrisy when it becomes too comfortable in its self-certainty. The general antidote for this is the recognition of others, and of something greater than ourselves. More particularly, Hegel had concluded his discussion of mutual forgiveness at the end of the Conscience section as follows:

“The reconciling affirmation, the ‘yes’, with which both egos desist from their existence in opposition, is the existence of the ego expanded into a duality, an ego which remains therein one and identical with itself, and possesses the certainty of itself in its complete relinquishment and its opposite: it is God appearing in the midst of those who know themselves in the form of pure knowledge” (Baillie trans., p. 679).

This is a form of what Hegel calls the “I that is We, and the We that is I”, by which he characterizes “Absolute” Spirit. Harris notes that Hegel had appropriately introduced this formula as far back as the discussion of the Unhappy Consciousness, but here it begins to appear in an unalienated form.

In introducing the Religion chapter, Harris says “What happens when the Hard Heart breaks, and we make the transition to Religion proper is that the God within is projected outwards. God becomes recognizable as the spirit of the actual community in which we live and move. We give up the moral standpoint altogether, because we recognize the one-sided inadequacy of moral judgment, and the universal necessity of forgiveness for our finitude. Forgiveness is recognized as the only moral duty that can be absolutely fulfilled. Whether as moral agents, or as moral critics we need forgiveness; and we can receive it only if we give it, for that is the only way to deserve it and so to be able to forgive ourselves. The soul that flies from the world to the God within, is guilty for that flight, and doubly guilty when it pretends to condemn the world in the name of the God within. This inner God must appear; he must become ‘manifest’. That was already the fundamental importance of the Moral World-View. But God can only be manifest as the spirit of universal forgiveness, the spirit that transcends the whole moral standpoint.”

“This transcending of the moral standpoint does not constitute a ‘moral holiday’…. On the contrary, it is the climax of moral judgment, [and] resolves all the problems of the Moral World-View” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 521).

“But this ‘mercy’ of forgiveness is something with which (even for the religious consciousness that sees it as coming from a transcendent source) we must collaborate. God cannot forgive us, unless we can forgive ourselves; and to be able to do that we must both forgive others, and have the conscientious consciousness of commitment to the doing of our duty as best we can. For the absolute Self that is now manifest to us as an Absolute Subject ‘proceeding between’ the finite and imperfect moral self and its universal community is that same being that first appeared to Antigone as the ineluctable ‘unwritten law’ of family piety which has no known origin…. Thus we can now see that ‘the Absolute’ has indeed been ‘with us from the start'” (pp. 521-522).

“The Spirit does not cease to be an ‘object’ just because it has now appeared as a subject. For it is Substance just as much as it is Subject. The moral authority of Conscience is not affected by the recognition that the deliverance of Conscience is always one-sided, and hence in conflict with others. But the last law of Conscience, the one through which all consciences are reconciled is: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’…. [A] philosopher… must not presume to condemn anyone; for when he does that he falls short of his scientific goal, which is to comprehend them.”

“… It is only when we abandon the stance of moral judgment, only when we do not seek to be moral valets, that we can be scientific observers at all…. For it is only in this spirit of universal forgiveness, universal ‘absolution’, that we can be scientific observers at all” (p. 522).

“[T]he contradiction between the finiteness of the actual spirit and the infinity of the Absolute Spirit… is only overcome when we recognize that the adequate embodiment of Reason is in an actually infinite community of finite spirits. The rational spirit of forgiveness is ‘actually infinite’, precisely in virtue of having surrendered its office of legislation” (p. 523). (I prefer to say “potentially infinite”.)

“Religion is more truly practical than theoretical, because the reconciliation of practical disagreements in the spirit of fraternity, and the absolution of the necessary consciousness of finitude as ‘sinful’, is its logical goal” (ibid).

“The reconciled community continues to disagree; and its disagreements must at times be as absolute as Luther’s defiance of the Council of Worms” (p. 524).

“The object of Hegel’s chapter on Religion is to make the actual infinity of the human community appear in its visible concreteness…. [T]he ideal of community that we comprehended when we recognized the universal necessity of forgiveness, must now realize itself through the recollection of how our actual, far from holy, community has come to be” (p. 525).

According to Harris, “[R]eligious experience… must be generated in life (and in every aspect of life” (p. 534).

“The Dasein [concrete being] of Absolute Spirit is the total experience of the [world spirit] all spread out in space and time. In this sense, Absolute Spirit is the ‘Word, by which all things were made’; and this is the ultimate sense in which the Dasein of Spirit is language. We have to grasp that this is not just a theological metaphor. It expresses the logical truth that all modes of consciousness are modes of human self-interpretation…. ‘Spirit’ itself means only the actual finite communal spirit that is conscious of an external world. It is human religious experience that is the ‘self-consciousness’ of the Absolute Spirit.”

“Spirit does not have its properly absolute Self, until we become its self-consciousness as philosophical historians. We have to forgive and forget the moral struggle of singular agents, and observe how the social substance expresses itself in all of the active singular consciousnesses who are themselves preoccupied by their moral struggles.”

“Of course, being well schooled in the academic ethic of forgiveness (at least), we have been observing ‘experience’ from this ‘absolute’ standpoint all the time” (ibid).

“‘Finding out where we are’ when we adopt the stance of the critical observer is a long and complex task. We have to begin by trusting the instinct of our natural consciousness, and letting it criticize itself progressively. Then, in the end, we discover that our speculative observing standpoint is properly just the ‘compassionate’ attitude that our religion ascribes to God” (p. 535).

“It is vital to recognize that no transcendent subjectivity is involved in this ‘grabbing up’ of a particular Gestalt [shape] of Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, and Reason. There is only the human community building up its own way of life in the natural environment” (p. 540).

“It is a mark of the ‘natural rationality’ of the Greeks, that they realized their ‘God’ was not in charge of Fate” (p. 542).

“Hegel speaks of ‘God appearing’, only when the community understands its own function of forgiveness…. But when we arrive at the consciousness that ‘God is Love’, we are recognizing a divinity whose very being is constituted by our recognition” (ibid).

“At the end of the development, the distinction between actual life and religious consciousness is overcome” (ibid).

“God’s creative activity as Spirit has to be conceived as the progressive creation, not of the eternal order of Nature grasped by the Understanding, but of the embodied community of Reason…. [T]he ‘creation of the world’ signifies God’s creation of himself as Spirit” (p. 543).

“There is no ‘self’ involved in the process, except the one that comes to be through it; and the deepest truth about that ‘One’ is that it is necessarily the infinite unity of the many selves who are members of its community” (ibid).

“Only after the bad infinity of the certainty that Reason is God has been experienced in every possible way, can the adequate concept of Religion itself be born” (p. 546).

“The immortal spirit must speak to us not with natural noises but in our own speech; and what she tells us we must be able to recognize as what we all knew or ought to have known. Her utterance must be recognizably divine because it is the voice of Reason” (p. 566).