G.W.F. Hegel



The Role of the "We" in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit

The Role of the "We" in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit

Mike Marchetti
March 23, 2005

[N.B. This article is being revised to show that the "We" does not play the role of observing consciousness as this article indicates, but rather has a transcendental role similar to the abstract Kantian Ego or unity of apperception. The revised article will appear in this space shortly.]

This article will explain that the difficulty in understanding the role of the "We" in the Phenomenology arises from the confusion between the two distinct ways that consciousness appears in its basic nature, where "consciousness is, on the one hand, consciousness of the object, and on the other, consciousness of itself" (PhdG §85). Firstly, there is consciousness of an object, let's call it C(O), which also holds that there is a distinction between itself, C(O), and the object in-itself, "O." Thus we have C(O) + O. Here, "consciousness simultaneously distinguishes itself from something, and at the same time relates itself to it" (PhdG §82). Secondly we have a consciousness of C(O) + O, which can be written as C[C(O)+O]. The first "C" in this formula is called observing consciousness, and the second "C" is the observed consciousness. The observed consciousness may also be called natural or ordinary consciousness. However, both observing and observed consciousness are essentially one and the same consciousness, "C," merely differing in form, at one and the same time both subject and object to itself.

In the Introduction and first three chapters of the Phenomenology Hegel calls the observing consciousness "We" because it is unknown to natural consciousness (and also at first to "us") that there is any other consciousness besides itself. In general, natural or ordinary consciousness is unaware of the role that observing consciousness or transcendental consciousness plays, a role that effectively brings it down from its apparent transcendental status and makes it immanent to natural consciousness.

If we keep this distinction between observing consciousness, which is the "We," and observed consciousness, which is natural consciousness, then, although it is intricate, there should be little problem in following the development as it proceeds in the Phenomenology.

In the Introduction (PhdG §§73-89) Hegel succinctly explains how the "We" is brought into the whole development. As already mentioned, §82 states, "Consciousness simultaneously distinguishes itself from something, and at the same time relates itself to it, or, as it is said, this something exists for consciousness." This "being of something for a consciousness, is knowing." Here, "we distinguish this being-for-[consciousness] from being-in-itself, so that "whatever is related to ... knowing is also ... posited as existing outside of this relationship." This is our C(O) + O, where C(O), consciousness of the object, may also be considered the formal Concept of the object.

To determine whether the consciousness of the object, or the Concept of the object, is identical with the object in-itself, will determine if the object has been comprehended in its truth, wherein the criterion for such truth is the being-in-itself of the object. A comparison of the Concept-of-the-object and the object-in-itself, however, seems to require a standpoint that is both above and inclusive of these two, i.e. as an observing consciousness or "We," that has the criterion of their agreement within itself. Thus Hegel writes that it seems "the essence or criterion would lie within ourselves" §83 rather than within the original system of consciousness-of-the-object and its object-in-itself.

But then Hegel assures us in §84, "this semblance of dissociation and presupposition [of the criterion and what is to be tested], is overcome by the nature of the object we are investigating." Why? Because "the investigation becomes a comparison of consciousness with itself." In other words, "We" are consciousness, and the consciousness we are observing is that very consciousness itself. We distinquish observing from observed consciousness, but that is only a formal difference, a "semblance of dissociation" only for purposes of analysis, since the consciousness being observed is only "our" consciousness. Therefore, it is not a foreign criterion that has to be brought to the consciousness that is being observed but it already belongs to consciousness.

Thus in §85, Hegel continues, "a contribution by us [is] superfluous" because "what consciousness examines is its own self." "We" are formal consciousness examining our own consciousness as being-there. Thus "all that is left for us to do is simply to look on."

In what follows, observed consciousness will sometimes be referred to as natural consciousness, and also as ordinary consciousness. By indicating the difference between observing and observed consciousness as they appear in the text, the significance of the "We" as observing consciousness may become clear.

we start with the two moments: natural consciousness of the object and the object in-itself. Here, as previously mentioned, natural consciousness of the object, which is knowledge of the object, is just the Concept (as the one-sided concept), while the object in-itself is considered the Truth. Both the Concept and the object are the content of observing consciousness, or belong to it - i.e. "both are for the same consciousness." Therefore, "this [observing] consciousness is itself their comparison."

In other words, observing consciousness of (1) itself (natural consciousness) and of (2) the object, belong to one and the same observing consciousness. At one and the same time I can be conscious (natural) of scratching my head and conscious (observing) of the fact that I am conscious (natural) of scratching my head.

Because both of these moments (natural consciousness and its object) are for the same (observing) consciousness, (observing) consciousness can compare the two moments with each other within its own self. So let us look at what there is to compare.

"Consciousness of an object," is what natural consciousness knows the object to be, i.e. it is its knowledge of the object. There is also the moment of the object as it is in-itself, i.e. the object as such, on its own - as what is known. Thus observing consciousness can compare (1) its knowledge of the object with (2) the object in itself. "Upon this distinction, which is present as a fact, the examination [by observing consciousness] rests."

We are actually dealing with three different terms here: (1) consciousness, (2) knowledge (3) object, where (2) and (3) are the content of observing consciousness (1), while we also have knowledge or the natural consciousness of an object (2), and the object in-itself (3).

Observing consciousness compares its knowledge (natural consciousness of the object) with the object in-itself. "If the comparison shows that these two moments do not correspond to one another, it would seem that [natural] consciousness must alter its knowledge to make it conform to the object. But, in fact, in the alteration of the knowledge, the object itself alters for it too, for the knowledge that was present was essentially a knowledge of the object." Since the object is only what it is known to be, i.e. it is only what knowledge makes of it, when we change our knowledge of the object we change the object. For example: I look at a table; I know it to be a wooden table. If I am a botanist, I know that the wood is a cellusosic structure, and thus I see the table as a celluosic structure. The table has changed its essence for the botanist who has such knowledge.

"Hence it comes to pass for [observing] consciousness that what it previously took to be the in-itself is not an in-itself, or that it was only an in-itself for [natural] consciousness." Thus the object has changed from an independent being-in-itself, according to natural consciousness, to a being-in-itself-for-consciousness, i.e. for observing consciousness. We started out with an object in-itself opposed to natural consciousness, which is now an object in-itself-for the consciousness that is observing natural consciousness.

In the next paragraph (§86) Hegel defines experience as involving this alteration that has occurred in the object. "Inasmuch as the new true object issues from it, this dialectical movement which [observing] consciousness exercises on itself [as natural consciousness] and which affects both its knowledge and its object, is precisely what is called experience [Erfahrung]." The "new true object" exposes the untruth of the first object, and this is called experience. In this expereince, "we see that consciousness now has two objects: one is the first in-itself, the second is the being-for-consciousness of this in-itself."

Ordinary or natural consciousness experiences different objects as it just happens upon them - contingently: "It usually seems to be the case ... that our experience of the untruth of our first notion comes by way of a second object which we come upon by chance and externally, so that our part in all this is simply the pure apprehension of what is in and for itself" (PhdG §87). Thus ordinary consciousness merely apprehends first one object, and then another object. It does not critically stand above and anlayze itself. Only when "We" take the place of this higher level of observing consciousness, which is a consciousness of both the knowledge (that belongs to natural consciousness) as well as its object, are we in possession of the higher knowledge of what goes on under the auspices of ordinary knowledge. In this sense we can say that this is a knowledge of knowledge.

"This way of looking at the matter is something contributed by "us" [the observing consciousness] by means of which the succession of experiences through which [natural] consciousness passes is raised into a scientific progression, but it is not known to the [natural] consciousness that we are observing" (Phdg §87).

In summary, the "us" or observing consciousness is the consciousness of both knowledge and object. Knowledge belongs to ordinary consciousness - the consciousness that is being observed. Thus "we" are the observing consciousness of the ordinary consciousness-of-the-object, i.e. the being-for-consciousness-of-the-object, which is knowledge, as well as of the object-in-itself that is also another moment of ordinary consciousness.

The "We" or observing consciousness knows that the object has changed from being-in-itself (for ordinary consciousness) to being-for-[observing]consciousness of the in-itself, i.e. being for the "We," and this change is thus due to the presence of the "We." This is a "reversal" of ordinary consciousness because ordinary consciousness changes whenever its content changes in simply apprehending another object. But observing consciousness (the "We") changes the object by its own activity. In the case of ordinary consciousness, a change in object effects a change in consciousness, while for observing consciousness the inverse is true: a change in consciousness effects a change in the object.

Comprehension of an object involves a rational or necessary way of experiencing it, whereas the immediate apprehension of an object involves an immediate, non-rational or merely contingent "happening" with respect to consciousness. Thus it is only when we rise to the consciousness of (or knowledge of) what is going on in ordinary conscious knowing that we come to actual scientific knowledge. As an integral system, this scientific way of knowing, which is both an "I" (self-consciousness) and "object" is called the Concept.

The object-in-itself of ordinary consciousness, is negated by the "we" as observing consciousness to become the in-itself-for-us, observing consciousness. The object is a contradiction of a being-in-itself on its own (for ordinary consciousness or knowing) and a being-in-itself-for-us, for observing consciousness or its knowing. Skepticsim only sees the fact that the object is contradictorily both an in-itself and an in-itself-for-consciousness. So it condemns the object to unreality or nothingness since it sees it as contradictory. Skepticism also condemns knowledge to unreality for the same reason - it is contradictory, first knowing an object in-itself and then knowing the same object as in-itself-for-consciousness. But, "in every case the result of an untrue mode of knowledge must not be allowed to run away into an empty nothing, but must necessarily be grasped as the nothing of that from which it results, a result which contains what was true in the preceding knowledge." Speculative philosophy recognizes and retains the rationality or necessity that belongs to and brings about or produces the contradictory situation.

Next, we just have to keep track of which consciousness is being referred to, whether it is observing consciousness (the "We") or observed consciousness (natural consciousness). "Herewith a new pattern of consciousness [for the "We"] comes on the scene as well, for which the essence [the truth, the object in-itself] is something different from what it was at the preceding stage [for natural consciousness]. It is this fact that guides the entire series of the patterns of consciousness [for the "We"] in their necessary sequence. But it is just this necessity itself, or the origination of the new object, that presents itself to [natural] consciousness without its [natural consciousness] understanding how this happens, which proceeds for us [observing consciousness], as it were, behind the back of [natural] consciousness."

The "new pattern" of consciousness is this: experience is not merely something immediate, but something "historical," because it is based on the transpiring development of knowledge. Of course, we are using the word "historical" loosely here since the development does not occur in time, but only logically. We may think of the word "expereince" as referring only to something immediate, but it also refers to what is historical, for example, when someone on a job interview asks, "What experience do you have?"

Hegel continues: "Thus in the movement of consciousness there occurs a moment of being-in-itself or being-for-us which is not present to the [natural] consciousness comprehended in the experience itself. The content, however, of what presents itself to us [observing consciousness] does exist for it [natural consciousness]; we comprehend [what is] only the formal aspect of that content [for natural consciousness], or its pure origination. For it [natural consciousness], what has thus arisen exists only as an object; for us [observing consciousness], it appears at the same time as movement and a process of becoming."

Here "the movement of consciousness" refers to observing consciousness for which "there occurs a moment of being-in-itself or being-for-us which is not present to the [natural] consciousness comprehended in the experience itself." Natural consciousness experiences the object as being-in-itself. It also experiences it as being-for-consciousness or its knowledge of the object. However, there is another consciousness behind its back, viz. the observing consciousness ("We") that has these two moments of knowledge and object as its content, in which the object is both in-itself and in-itself for observing consciousness.

Thus "the content ... of what presents itself to "us" does not exist for it [natural consciousness]." Therefore, "we comprehend only the formal aspect [for natural consciousness] of that content, or its pure origination." In other words, "we" (observing consciousness) comprehend a content that is for natural consciousness something that does not exist - it is merely formal for natural consciousness, i.e. because it is merely an abstract concept for natural consciousness. Furthermore, this abstract concept is mere immediacy, what is translated here as "origniation," or the immediate beginning of that which is about to become actual for observing consciousness ("us"). Thus, for natural consciousness "what has thus arisen exists only as an object..." - as something immediate, which has not yet developed itself into mediated actuality. But, "for us, it appears at the same time as movement and a process of becoming." Because "we" (observing consciousness) see the object undergoing change, know why it changes, and know explicitly what that change is, it is in this sense scientific knowledge that "we" as observing consciousness have.

Because "consciousness is, on the one hand, consciousness of the object, and on the other, consciousness of itself" (PhdG §85), the "we" as substitute for the observing consciousness is just consciousness. In other words, we may write C[C(O) + 0] as Cw[C(O) + O], where Cw is the "We" as observing consciousness. Consciousness, C, is exactly the same consciousness as Cw, but one appears in subjective form, the other in objective form. The essential point is that Cw is consciousness. It is not self-consciousness, which is treated in chapter IV of the Phenomenology. "Consciousness of itself" is the other part of what consciousness (of an object) is, and this must ultimately be resolved into self-consciousness. But as a consciousness of itself, it is at this stage still consciousness of an object even though that object is itself consciousness.

Thus there remains an object to Cw, which is why it is consciousness - a subject-object relation. By the end of Chapter III, Cw recognizes that C is itself, but it has not yet rid itself of this apparent foreign objectivity to itself that is required for it to become self-consciousness. This "requires a still more complex movement" (PhdG §165), in which the subject-object relation is comprehended in a dyanmic unity where the "I" [or "We"] "overarches the other, which for the 'I' is equally only the 'I' itself" (PhdG §166). It is in this way that the "We" is taken up into the movement of self-consciousness.

Having superceded the incomplete standpoint of consciousness, or natural consiousness, and risen to the comprehension of its actual nature as consciousness of itself as much as consciousness of its object, the role of the "We" as substitute for what was missing in natural consciousness, the observing or higher consciousness of natural consciousness, no longer needs to be made. The concept of self-consciousness already implicitly includes within itself the standpoint that the "We" was supposed to serve. Thus no major role is played by it in Chapter IV or the rest of the book.

The development of self-consciousness requires that it takes itself as object to itself, where "self-consciousness in being an object, is just as much I as object" (PhdG §177). This is what Hegel calls the Concept of Spirit, meaning that it is still implicit as concept, or is Spirit in principle. Then he refers to the "I that is We and the We that is I." This has nothing to do with the "We" that plays the role of observing consciousness in the first three chapters. What the "We" refers to here is that in facing itself, self-consciousness is a "We" in the sense that as confonting itself, self-consciousness is two, once as subject and once as object, or apparently as two "I's." At the same time they are identical, since both are one and the same self-consciousness. This confrontation may, therefore, be understood as an "I that is We and We that is I."

References and other works on this subject.

"Phenomenology of Spirit," G.W.F. Hegel, translated by A.V. Miller (1977) [All reference numbers refer to the paragraph numnbering of this book.]

"Hegel's Phenomenology of the We," David M. Parry (1988).

"Hegel's Phenomenological Method." Kenley R. Dove, The Review of Metaphysics 23 (1969-70): 641-61.