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I understand that Hegel intends to justify the history of mankind by stating that every town and society that has existed has been a test indirectly arranged by the 'world spirit' in order to eventually create a town in which people would live ethically, and that this process has been done in order for the 'world spirit' to become aware of its freedom. But what exactly is this 'world spirit'?

In the last quiz of a course I'm taking (I´ve taken this year a philosophy course at college), I wrote that the 'world spirit' was some kind of parasitic entity which inhabits every human being that has existed and is going to exist. Does this seem right?

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    I´ve just noticed I forgot to write that I´ve taken this year a philosophy course at college. – Werther Jul 7 '14 at 16:46
  • This Wikipedia article will answer all of your questions. – user132181 Jul 7 '14 at 19:07
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I wouldn't go so far as to say that wikipedia can answer the question completely, but it's not a bad start. The meaning of Spirit (Geist) is complicated and a matter of contested interpretation, but I will just explain to some extent what happens with spirit in Phenomenology of Spirit (or Mind), hereafter PhG.

To summarize very quickly, the PhG is a story about knowledge and consciousnesses. The story begins in the preface with naive realism that asserts "what I see in front of me is real" under the heading "SENSE CERTAINTY." The story then advances through problems with different accounts of knowledge, i.e. how we know things as "CONSCIOUSNESS" of objects. It then turns to topic of the self that is able to know under "SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS." From there, it discovers "REASON" which has to do with the process of thinking itself. Then thinking itself rotates back into the world as the activity of thinkers under "SPIRIT" which is the self that understands and realizes it is spirit and takes specific form as "RELIGION" and finally "ABSOLUTE KNOWING."

Thus, we could say at one level Spirit is a section in the Phenomenology. But the real answer is more complicated. This is because (giving away the ending) it turns out that the agent of knowing all along has been Spirit -- even before it knew it was conscious, self-conscious, reason or spirit. Largely, this is a journey of increasing self-awareness. Spirit is thus the active element in consciousness.

In the section called "RELIGION", Hegel will argue that the death and resurrection of Jesus and the reception of the Holy Spirit is the recognition in history that we are the divine Spirit that is consciousness engaged in the task of knowing itself. For Hegel, Jesus is a man who realizes he is God, who dies, and then is "resurrected" as Spirit's self-consciousness in all men that they are Spirit -- meaning they are the conscious part of the universe that makes what surrounds us a "universe" (as a concept for us) and gives things meaning).

For Hegel, this turns out to be necessitated. You can understand this necessity either as a contingent necessity built into the nature of consciousness or as an absolute necessity built into the inevitability of everything that happens in the world. I would tend towards the latter as an interpretation of Hegel's own view.

It's mentioned in one of the answers above, but Spirit is ultimately panentheist or pantheist insofar as it turns out that God is Spirit and we are Spirit and all we do is Spirit. But this is because the objects, etc., we know and perceive are already being imbued with Spirit through our acting and perceiving.

Im not sure if that's helpful for you, but it's a brief sketch of what happens in PhG as it relates to Spirit.

What about "world Spirit"? Well, it turns out World Spirit is the recognition that consciousness is ultimately non-individual. The cultural backgrounds, etc., in which we think make it so that the agency of understanding is not localized but rather occurs within societies and cultures as their agency. For Hegel, this also includes their destiny. World Spirit is the necessity of the unity of rational consciousness that Hegel believed happens inevitably (whether this is contingent or necessary inevitability is a matter of debate).

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    This is a good summary of PhG. Later, in the third part of Encyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften, and based on Wissenschaft der Logik, Hegel puts Geist into a more encompassing background story. The metaphysics of the "Logik" ends with the appearance of the Idea, which then externalizes itself in Nature. This Nature then develops subjectivity and hence the Spirit grows out of it. The story of PhG becomes (just) subsections 1B "Phänomenologie" and 3 "Absoluter Geist" of book III of the Enzyklopädie. The role of conciousness is relativized to just one moment among others. – Urs Schreiber Jan 28 '15 at 15:57
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First encountered on Philosophy Forums, the following discusses Hegel's 'World Spirit' (ie: 'Weitgeist') and summarises Hegel, but is NOT my own work. Since this summary aided me, but suffers from many grammatical errors, I decided to emend it, and not only copied and pasted it; so please observe any differences. Please notify me of any errors and suggest improvements.

Author: 'Tobias'    Posted Aug 27, 2005


I made a short summary of core themes in Hegel’s philosophy that may help people wishing to get to know him better. It is no professional summary though, not the be-all-and-end-all of Hegel. I would like to know what you think; so please point out mistakes or things you think I have missed. Regards in advance, Tobi

1. Starting point of Hegel’s thought

German philosopher Hegel starts as a follower of Kant, but quickly becomes involved in a movement that tries to surpass Kant, without losing the improvements made by Kant and his Copernican turn.

The main reason that Hegel feels Kant’s philosophy cannot be the final articulation, is that according to Hegel, Kant divides our relation to the world in dualisms, such as into: sensibility and intelligiblity, noumena and phenomena, into intuition and concept. All these dualisms cannot be related to each other, and so (according to Hegel) makes our knowledge of the world always incomplete and detaches our knowledge from reality. Reality is the noumenon (Ding an Sich) which we can never know. Kant seems to pull apart what belongs together for Hegel: thinking and existing. Kant’s divisions have grave consequences for metaphysics, because they doom our attempts to think the great metaphysical question: the self, being, God as something real, which (with Kant) instead become simple regulatory principles which have no bearing on reality. We cannot think Kant’s philosophy above and that which is given in experience, without losing ourselves in antinomies, unsolvable paradoxes.

Hegel instead feels impossible not to accept a unity in which all these seemingly opposite notions have their place. If we find an opposition between concepts, than we must be able to conceive them as opposition so in relation with each other. Even the classic opposition A and not-A belong together on a plane of A-ness where they are opposite. So for each opposite we find a higher identity in which they belong. If we accept the consequence of this thought, than there must be a totality, all reality in which there oppositions have their place. Hegel called that totality the 'Absolute'.

2. The Absolute

The Absolute is one of the most provocative ideas of Hegel, but I feel the idea is rather simple: It is in principle the relation between two different things that ties these things together. If I lay my hand on the table, I have the absolute. Why? Because though the table and my hand are different objects, it is my hand which I lay on the table and I laid my hand for a reason; so my hand and table are connected as parts in that complex movement (of laying my hand on the table). My hand and the table are no strangers toward each other; in fact, a table is a good place to rest my hand, and laying my hand on the table shows well my immediate relation to my surroundings.

More generally speaking, the world is no stranger to me. I live in it; I do things with it; I presume the world has some order which I can know. Even though I am often surprised and bewildered by the world, I still accept the surprise as part of my world, not as some alien thing. In fact, is not lack of surprise only possible when my idea is that I know the world intimately? After all, I can only be surprised if I expect something else.

So the absolute is that simple relation we have to the world; but is it really that simple? Well it is a little bit more complex, because our relation towards the world and the relations within the world itself, always change. 2.1. To exemplify the previous sentence physically, I might lay my hand on a table and assert that this is absolute: this assertion might be right. 2.2. As another example, suppose that I put a glass on the table (for instance). Then the relation is no less absolute. But my reasons for laying my hand on the table differ from my reasons for putting my glass on the table, because the first action exemplifies the topic sentence of this paragraph, whereas the second action is necessary for easy access to my drink.

I hope that this clarifies that the relation is always absolute, but is also always different; the relations within this totality change from minute to minute, from moment to moment.

This relation is not an immovable relation, but an always changing one. The absolute is always the same, but posits itself always as different. Always there are different opposites being connected; in fact the absolute can only exist because it unifies differences and because there are always new differences evolving from the absolute. The absolute is no substance; it is a process, because no matter how these relations change and what the new states of affairs will be, the change is understandable. Some changes may seem irrational, but when cogitating them we always find a reason for what happened. Relations evolve in a reasonable process, which Hegel calls 'Spirit'.

3. Spirit

Spirit is the idea that things 'logically' follow from each other. We cannot think of something other than being in a development to something else. I examine 2.2 further: When I put my glass on the table, I do so with the idea that I will drink from it again, which means the glass will become empty at some point, and so which means that I will have to remove it from the table and put it in the dishwasher. My thinking thinks things in a certain procedure that is basically orderly, which procedure is common to the whole totality from which no part is exempt. We can understand this as follows:

We find Spirit most clearly in human intentional activity. Spirit is goal oriented and is the human thinking that 'molds' all development and gives human thinking that orderly label. How is Spirit in nature? We see nature as what differs from ourselves: that force all around us with floods, earthquakes and seemingly blind coincidence. Nature doesn't seem rational; it just seems 'the way things are', being blind and unreasonable. Yet this opinion of nature is a mistake, thinks Hegel, because we discover laws in nature: regularities. Nature is not fundamentally other than spirit; it is the 'other' of spirit. Recognises Nature as Spirit’s other, mirror image, Spirit recognises that even nature is only thought of as ‘Other’ by Spirit. It is only Other in Spirit’s own understanding. The same goes for religion and God. God is already a very advanced form of, and is a definition more or less of, thinking the totality; yet God is still a symbol. God is still not an inwardly understood concept, but an outward symbolising of it. Even the unlimited God, has its limit because it is a symbol and is something that is not understood properly. Yet when Spirit realises that this god is nothing but a symbol of this totality, Spirit will recognise God as Spirit’s own creation as if God were Spirit’s projection on a wall. If Spirit reflects on itself like that and understands that there is literally nothing beyond, Spirit recognises that it alone is all reality and that all reality is reasonable.

In the previous paragraph, I projected quite some human characteristics on Spirit: Spirit that reflects on itself, that recognises things, etc. For Hegel, this characterisation of Spirit is not only metaphorical; for Hegel Spirit is indeed a kind of rationality. This rationality shows itself in our human ratio; we as humans are not unconnected atoms, but instead are connected in practices and shared goals that have their own rationality, beyond what a single human understands. Spirit is that rationality that overarches all these practices in its turn, in that order that is the world itself. Hegel sometimes calls this the Absolute Idea, because Idea expresses this rational idea and expresses that it is not a substance, but a moving relation all encompassing relation, rather than a thing.

4. Dialectic

Of course this is all well and good, but is there any proof for this overarching totalistic rationality and if so, how can we find that proof? Hegel tried to show that this Absolute Idea exists via a method he first called speculation and later dialectic. Hegel's probably most influential work is supposed to be a 'deduction' of this Idea. In this book Hegel tries to show that we must accept a rational totality because all other viewpoints will find themselves in insurmountable contradictions. In fact Hegel shows us that we can never find rest in any kind of metaphysical fundament: not in the idea that what I immediately see before me is most true, because if I look a moment later I see something else; but again also not in the opposite view, that everything extant is just in the here-and-now. Why not? Because for these ideas to be real, they must have some concrete content. We cannot be happy with an essentialist account, e.g. that salt is salt because of its saltiness. We can discern lots of different things about salt, but one of them is not saltiness. Is salt then a combination of different qualities? No, because then all these qualities would be in thin air, with nothing to bind them, and so on and so on… We find ourselves in oppositions that constantly urge us to review our theories of reality, which make us doubt and find some new explanation. The new explanation is always a new standpoint, which we will find can also not hold, but through this constant review, we do learn something. We learn how we are related to reality: that it is basically our thinking that orders the world. We learn that being conscious is essentially being self-conscious and that if we get confronted by other self-consciousnesses, some order will evolve and shape our roles in that hatchling community. We learn the problem of freedom: that we can only be free within certain boundaries. We learn that that the world of laws is itself controlled by the real world of occurrences, which in turn had to be explained by the world of laws etc... All this ends with the recognition that what we relate to, is not something strange, but something linked with us: what we have called the Absolute or Spirit. Ending with nothing less than absolute knowledge, Spirit knows that it is all there is. That is the dialectic: Hegel's conviction that all development proceeds by encountering opposition, which encounter then produces a new idea or new judgement, which in turn will be opposed and so on. Each new opposition steps towards a higher insight into the totality.

In the Logic (Hegel’s second influential work), he dialectically tries to extrapolate all the determinations of: thought, because reality depends on, at least does not differ from, thought; and of reality too. This work resembles Kant’s; Hegel tries to deduce the categories of thought as Kant before him did. But Hegel does so not self-reflectively as Kant tried, but dialectically, moving along with the flow of thinking which creates all oppositions. But since these oppositions are oppositions in a unity, a higher concept can always be found, after the logic is completed and our thought process is totally mapped. All other sciences can be worked out on the basis of this dialectical model. This task he tried to perform in the Encyclopedia, the Religionsphilosophie and the Outline for a Philosophy of Law.

To quickly recapitulate the dialectic: When posited as some final notion that explains a part of reality, every notion will be countered by its opposition, and this counter will force both oppositions to come together in some higher notion (that contains within the higher notion) the tensions of the first two oppositions. I exemplify with the following dialogue of two sentences:

  • I say, 'we deal with each other on the basis of justice'.
  • 'No', you will immediately counter, 'we deal with each other on the basis of power'.

Then the above tension will be overcome by the idea that we deal with each other on the basis of law, justice armed with power.

5. Conclusion

Absolute, Spirit and Dialectic: I think these three notions are the main building blocks of Hegel’s philosophy. I also hope to have shown that Hegel with the conception of his philosophy is thoroughly indebted to Kant.

Books I found very helpful understanding Hegel were: R. Pippin Hegel Idealism, Cambridge 1999 (?)
H. Marcuse Hegels ontologie und die Theorie der Geschichtlichkeit,
W. Jaeschke Hegel Handbuch Metzler Verlag 2003.
(In Dutch) Hegel een Inleiding ed. Arie Leijen en Ad Verbrugge, Boon 2002

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I know almost nothing about Hegel, but your description is awfully similar to one of Owen Barfield's ideas, which he espouses in Unancestral Voice and Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. His idea is that in order to have 'evolution', one needs two things to happen:

  1. discontinuous change
  2. continuity of identity

There's actually a way to talk about this idea with physics: invariants. A well-known invariant is the conservation of mass–energy. In a closed system, we strongly believe that while energy can move from one place to another, it is never created nor destroyed. Barfield claims that we need an invariant to have it be 'evolution' instead of "one-damn-thing-after-another". He doesn't use the word 'invariant'; instead, he uses the word 'spirit'. The spirit stays the same while other things change; indeed, Barfield has the spirit causing the change.

Philosopher Jonathan Pearce recently posted The “I”, personhood and abstract objects, in which he argues against the existence of a "continuous 'I'". In other words, there is nothing to a person which keeps him/her the same person over some time period. There is no continuous 'identity'. If there is no continuous identity of persons, surely there is no continuous identity of groups of people, including villages and nations.

It seems to me that maybe Hegel is using the idea of a spirit to unify a group of people. From what you say, he also has the spirit acting on groups of people, like Barfield. One could say that the spirit very gently manipulates people, a bit like the recent experiment Facebook ran on manipulating people's emotions. Perhaps spirits use some sort of nonlocal causation, which cannot even be identified without "zooming out" enough.

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Carl G. Jung, a Kant follower, used ideas from the Germanic culture that, in turn, Herman Hesse used in "Steppenwolf": there is no such thing as a 'unified I' or self. We are "many selves," which Jung calls "complexes." Then, a "false I" is the so-called "personality"; which in the bourgeois thinking that first Hegel, then Marx criticized is equated with "self," but it is not.

I find Hegel's idea of a self that is so to speak in flow fascinating. It is brought to these times from Heraclitus

  • I made some edits which you may roll back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. If you have quotes or other specific references like the reference to Steppenwolf by Hesse they would strengthen your answer and give the reader more places to go to get additional information. Welcome to this SE! – Frank Hubeny Oct 1 '18 at 20:00
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    Interpreting world spirit as a self does not seem to be very Hegelian. AFAIK, the standard interpretation is closer to a Spinozian God rather than a conscious self (especially for the late Hegel). – Philip Klöcking Oct 1 '18 at 20:33

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