Reading Hegel’s ‘Geist’ as equivalent to ‘God’

Lluther asked:

Dear Philosophers:

The only book on Hegel I have browsed that made any sense to me is ‘Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition’. Could it be that by ‘Geist’ Hegel was playing on German Geist = Holy Ghost == God. Therefore Phenomenology of Geist is really Phenomenology of God, a risky title in Mitteleuropa in early 19th Century.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Hegel is interpreted in many ways. For some, he is a Christian thinker who’s writings offer a superior understanding of the Trinity and Incarnation. For others he is proffering a pan-psychism where the universe itself has consciousness. In either, there is a common theme of unification, of the reconciliation of subjective human thought with higher, objective thought.

Collections of essays written by the young Hegel in the years 1796-1800 were first published in 1907. Entitled Hegel’s Theological Writings, themes emerge which are central to his later writings. Themes such as the relation between the finite and infinite, the overcoming of alienation, estrangement and the reconciliation of oppositions.

These themes are present in works such as the Phenomenology of Spirit. Finite consciousness becomes aware of itself [for-itself] in self consciousness. It further finds categories of thought not only within itself but within the world/universe itself. Thought is in and for itself: consciousness reflects upon the world. In doing so, it unites with and thereby reconciles itself with the rational structure of the world. This marks the Absolute Idea. The Phenomenology is a history of Human consciousness moving towards this Absolute end.

If Reason/ Ratio/ Thought is in the world, the reconciliation of human consciousness with this objective Reason etc, could be read as the reconciliation of finite thought with infinite thought. Namely, the reconciliation of humanity and the Mind of God. Hegel makes reference to this view in his writings. However, it would be a radically different conception of God to that held by traditional, orthodox theology. It would be in the direction of pantheism or deism.

The ‘personal God’ to whom one prays would perhaps, be classed by Hegel as pertaining to figurative, representational thinking. Understanding tries to systematise the ideas behind the figurative into Theology/Metaphysics. One of the main themes in Hegel’s thinking is that the Understanding is limited to the principles of traditional logic such as non-contradiction, identity and excluded middle. So Understanding cannot deal with the Doctrine of the Trinity for example. Logically, the ‘three in one’ is a contradiction. Hegel believes he has superseded such limitations with his Speculative Reason – Dialectic. This highlights the logical categories, connections and historic influences underlying both the Understanding and the Figurative. Hence instead of the fixed, immutable categories of Theology, there would be a process Theology that explains the underlying movement of thought and how it is influenced by social/historic factors.

I think Hegel’s conception of God would, rather like that held by Spinoza two hundred years previously, be judged too radical by orthodox Theology. Most people still prefer, as perhaps, they would in the Nineteenth century, the personal conception of God which Hegel labels as Figurative. [?] Hegel’s approach is perhaps, developed by Ludwig Feuerbach in his Essence of Christianity. Here, Feuerbach concluded that the underlying figurative representations of existing Christian religion were symptoms of human alienation. Alienation could be overcome and humanity reconciled with itself again, if the qualities attributed to and objectified in God, could be ‘returned’ to Human beings themselves. In the place of such alienation would be a humanistic religion based on human solidarity.


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