Hegel’s reconstruction of Christianity as the historical appearance of Kant’s autonomous subject (Dec 2017)

Lecture for the conference Hegel’s Relevance, 6-8 Dec 2017 @ Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


It almost goes without saying that Kant’s concept of the autonomous subject has captured everything that is great about the Enlightenment with such intellectual profoundness as well as political and social engagement that it is absolutely without precedent or comparison. Nevertheless, Kant’s philosophy did leave us with a dualism between theoretical and practical philosophy, a gap between boundary-setting purpose of transcendental philosophy, and his practical philosophy which purpose it exactly is to go beyond these boundaries of theoretical reason, opening up a domain of pure practical reason – the domain where the autonomous subject resides. I regard the project of the Phenomenology of Spirit as Hegel’s attempt to identify the precise nature of Kant’s dualism between theoretical and practical reason, as well as to overcome it. It is critical of Kant but first and foremost in the sense that it completes the philosophical project that Kant initiated. In general, I hold the view that Hegel’s analysis and reception of Kant is far more subtle than Hegel is often given credit for, even (or especially) in cases where Hegel’s absolute monism is presented as superior to Kantian dualism. Drawing such oppositions are quite bold and do not do justice to the fact that Hegel gives a highly differentiated account of Kant’s philosophy at several place in his philosophical oeuvre.  However, precisely the topic that I am going to present today – autonomy in relation to Christianity – urges me to point out what I think constitutes a genuine systematic difference between Kant and Hegel: their concept of religion. I argue that the way in which Hegel handles the concept of religion in the Phenomenology (in other works as well, but I will not discuss them here today) is decisively distinct from Kant’s handling of religion in his late works. From Hegel’s discussion with Kant in the Morality chapter of the Phenomenology, it becomes clear, I argue, that he rejects Kant’s concept of religion, and that he develops a quite different conception. For time reasons, I limit myself to a very concise presentation of Kant and Hegel’s Kant-criticism, so that I can spend most of my time on Hegel’s actual reconstruction of Christianity in relation to Kant’s concept of the autonomous subject.

The main argument of Kant’s practical philosophy is that we cannot determine whether our actions are morally good or not. We have no objective knowledge about what drives our actions, hence our conception of what is morally good – that Kant does not deny we have – can never confirmed by reality. Instead of unmasking the objective validity of the morally good, as many philosophers after Kant have done, Kant argues quite brilliantly in the Critique of Practical Reason that one actually has to do the exact opposite: the undisputed validity of the morally good limits all other validity claims. Both our senses and our understanding, being equally incapable of grasping the morally good, are merely finite capacities and hence not allowed to disqualify the morally good. In his “On the deduction of pure practical reason”, Kant makes very clear that if the understanding is given the choice between rejecting the existence of free will or eliminating itself as a criterion for determining the validity of this existence, the only reasonable choice to make is to eliminate itself. This separation between the understanding and reason is highly valued by Hegel for two reasons. Firstly, because the fundamental insight that freedom cannot be conditioned by any other thing, but is itself the condition of everything else; and secondly, because this freedom cannot exist as an immediate and graspable reality, because an immediate reality leaves no room for the difference that is required for individual moral freedom. In Kant, the autonomous subject becomes the rightful arbiter of the world, the decider about good and evil – without question a necessary condition for modern subjectivity and freedom, also for Hegel. Nevertheless, making freedom something ungraspable disconnects it from the real world. As an external arbiter, the autonomous subject remains opposed to the real world, which appears here as the sphere of action. The moral subject can judge and must judge, but it cannot alter reality to ensure that the morally good is indeed realized. The unity of being morally worthy of happiness and actual happiness cannot be guaranteed by the subject. Hence their correspondence is projected outside of the autonomous subject in a divine being, an intelligible creator or author of the world. Though it is a necessary reflection for any reasonable being that it must assert the existence of such entity for accepting its physical existence as being possible worthy of happiness, there is no knowledge and no certainty whether such supreme being in fact exists. It is a matter of faith and belongs to the domain of hope. In his concept of religion, Kant draws the consequences of this position. I argue that we must understand his famous expression that “morality inevitably leads to religion” as that religion introduces a concept of world that is in itself directed at making moral action possible. God becomes the moral lawgiver, the subject-transcending external guarantee for the realization of freedom. Still, the religious world remains conditioned by the as if, it is a necessary imagination in the service of practical reason rather than a means to broaden the scope of knowledge.

When Hegel examines Kant’s position in the Morality chapter from the Phenomenology, his main object of criticism is that this conception of God as moral lawgiver is ambiguous, and in the end contradictory. In fact, I argue that the entire morality chapter can be summarized in one single sentence: Kant’s concept of religion is not yet a concept of what religion is in itself. The transition from morality to religion, which Hegel thinks is necessary as well, is not completed by Kant. Kant remains stuck in an opposition between religion and morality, so that cannot think the true unity of religion and morality. My first argument to support this is exegetical. Hegel writes: “For in the Notion of the moral self-consciousness the two aspects, pure duty and actuality, are explicitly joined in a single unity, and consequently the one, like the other, is expressly without a being of its own, but is only a moment, or is superseded.” (p. 371) This sentence, in which Hegel analyses the postulate of God in relation to the moral worldview, is a surprisingly affirmative evaluation of the moral consciousness in the sense that the pure duty and actuality, say, the ideal and the real, are indeed unified in the moral concept of God as moments of the same unity. Nonetheless, a few lines later it becomes clear what the fundamental shortcoming of this position is: “For the moral consciousness itself, however, its moral view of the world does not mean that consciousness develops therein its own Notion, and makes its this object. It is not conscious of this antithesis either as regards the form or the content; it does not relate and compare the sides of this antithesis with one another, but, in its development, rolls onward, without being the Notion which holds the moments together.” (p. 372) In my view, this is the key to understanding Hegel’s very subtle critique of Kant: on the one hand, the moral standpoint is de facto the absolute position, because it does justice to the unity of the real and the ideal as well as the difference between them (this is what Hegel actually says); on the other hand, however, the moral viewpoint is not conscious about what it is, it has no object of itself – in that sense it is not an absolute position, because the absolute position requires self-consciousness about what it is. In other words, the moral consciousness fails because it is not able to conceive of what it is in itself, an absolute position. Consequently, the contradiction of morality is that has no object that adequately expresses what it is in itself, and the transition into the next shape of consciousness logically entails the introduction of an object that indeed vindicates the truth of morality, i.e. Hegel’s concept of religion.

My second argument is more systematic. The point of departure of the morality chapter is the individual consciousness that knows itself to be the holder of an absolute certainty, viz. that it is free to the extent that it realizes its moral duty. Whereas the content of the moral duty is the Self of the moral consciousness, the relation of consciousness to its duty is a pure self-relation. The question is whether the individual consciousness can realize this pure self-relation. The answer is no, because as an individual consciousness it relates to an external nature from which the pure self-relation exists independently. This however contradicts the supposed absoluteness of the content of the moral duty. Through the course of the morality chapter, Hegel constructs several attempts of the individual consciousness to relate to external reality in order to overcome this problem, and each time, the externality of reality keeps the individual consciousness from succeeding. At first, it seems as if the individual consciousness can overcome the externality of nature by becoming conscience. As conscience, individual consciousness views nature and its manifoldness as irrelevant for the determination of concrete moral action. It is [quote] “the moral genius which knows the inner voice of what it immediately knows to be a divine voice.” (p. 397) However, this absolute self-certainty of individual consciousness is in fact kept in place by a community. It is conviction, a speech-act rather than the substantial truth it claims to be, and the language that is needed to express this conviction is an intersubjectively shared one. As such, there is a relation to others, not external nature but other people. This relation of an intersubjectivity shared conviction that morality is realized in their actions is what Hegel calls the beautiful souls. It is a purely formal recognition that pretends to exist as if reality does not matter, but the certainty that reality is irrelevant can only be upheld be actively keeping reality at distance. [Quote] “… to preserve the purity of its heart, it flees from contact with the actual world.” (p. 400) This position is then opposed by another moral consciousness, that of hard heart, that unmask this purity as hypocrisy: the proclaimed purity of the beautiful is merely posited, and it is action, which is never pure. This opposition between the beautiful soul and the hard heart fixes itself into an absolute opposition that reveals the general deficit of individual consciousness, viz. that it is subjective, either with regard to its self-positing or with regard to its characterization of what action is. The breaking of the hard heart means that when the individual consciousness recognizes itself as an universal consciousness, the opposition between the subjective determination of action on the one hand, and the subjective characterization of action as something necessarily something impure on the other, is sublated. This means, however, that the individual consciousness has no existence in itself altogether. The “word of reconciliation” that Hegel introduces at the end of the morality chapter is not an individual subjective consciousness but “the objectively existent Spirit”. (p. 408)

This objectively existent spirit is, so to say, the hidden presupposition of the moral consciousness. It means that individual consciousness only exists in the context of a community and that this community is not the result of a collective self-positing of individual consciousnesses. Instead, the community is an object for consciousness as something that is always already given to it all the time. The recognition of the absolute spirit as something that is not just the content of the moral law, but as something that actually objectively exists, is what calls religious consciousness. Religion is the appearance of the absolute. In comparison to Kant, religious consciousness is not presented by Hegel as the imaginative production of a moral subject, but necessarily a real community that commits itself to an objectivity of which it believes that it is actual presence of the absolute. Even though Hegel of course has no intention of attributing real knowledge to religious consciousness, his point is that the production of religious imagination cannot be a subjective activity, but is always the activity of a communal spirit – of a people. From the beginning, he makes clear that religion is the self-consciousness of the community, i.e. the divine object of worship reflects – in a less or more developed fashion – what the community is in itself. The relevance of the religion chapter is that it has to become explicit for consciousness itself that the object of worship is in fact produced by the community. In religion, the community recognizes its Self-being in the form of otherness.

These considerations set the stage for reconstructing Christianity as the appearance of the autonomous subject. In the third shape of religious consciousness, revealed religion, the appearance of the absolute spirit is no longer opposed to what the spirit is in itself. The nature of the appearance is neither a natural or sensibly given thing, as is the case in the natural religion, or a manufactured work of art, as it is in the religion of art. For both these forms of religious consciousness the problem is that the Self exists outside of the appearances that function as a representation of the absolute substance – as long as the Self remains external to the absolute substance, there remains a contradiction the substance and its appearance. In the revealed religion, this contradiction is resolved because the substance now appears as a Self, viz. as an absolute being that is both human and divine. Here, the meaning of revealed religion as the religion that conceives of truth as something that is revealed to us, acquires a very specific meaning. Although the basic idea of something being revealed constitutes, at first sight, a rather formal criterion, more about the way we look at things that about what these things are in themselves, Hegel clearly has in mind not the thing that is being revealed but the thing that reveals itself, and this thing cannot be just any random entity. Precisely the activity of revealing has to be understood of as an activity of the Self that results in the appearance of the Self without the Self becoming something other than itself. The thing that appears as the thing that it is in itself, necessarily is a thing that has the shape of a Self. As such, only a thing that is both human and divine can count as a proper object for revealed religion. Consequently, the only possible object of the consciousness of revealed religion is the God-man.

Hegel stages the historical appearance of the religion of the God-man, Christianity, as a consequence from the decline of the Roman empire. In my view, the decline of the Roman empire signifies the definitive loss of tradition that began in the Greek world of the Polis. In the developmental structure of the chapters in the PhdG on spirit, the Roman empire forms the transitional phase from the ethical world of the Polis to the self-alienated spirit or the realm of culture. The self-alienated spirit is opposed to the ethical spirit in the sense that the consciousness of ethical spirit recognizes the actual society in which it lives as an adequate realization of freedom. The societal structure at this stage consists in the horizontal recognition of the citizens, which means that they recognize themselves and each other as being free and equal. This mutual recognition is consciously upheld by all citizens acting in correspondence to the human law. Their conscious relation between their actions and the human law, between form and content so to say, has the shape of the stoic self-consciousness: the concepts of reality immediately express what reality is in itself, form and content are unseparated, the content of the human law determines the acting Self, and freedom is only conceivable by serving the human law. From the beginning, this conception of freedom – perhaps comparable to what we would call positive freedom today – is full of tension. As the stoic self-consciousness ascribes absolute meaning to contingent concepts, the ethical spirit conceives of a historical society, such as the Greek Polis, as something absolute.

However, from an external perspective, the laws of the Polis are absolute insofar as they express the recognition between free and equal citizens, but insofar as they are specific historical laws, there are not absolute. This is best explained in terms of lord and bondsman. The citizen of Polis that realizes his freedom by serving the law, can be compared to the bondsman that serves the lord. For the bondsman, the lord symbolizes its freedom, yet the true freedom lies not in being served but in the act of serving. The ability to serve an external law is conditioned by the inner freedom to restrain inclinations. If the freedom expressed in ethical spirit is this inner freedom, it can never be fully grasped by any historical law. In other words, the freedom that is realized in the ethical spirit is, at the same time, external to ethical spirit. However,  from within the consciousness of ethical spirit, it cannot be accepted that there exists externality for the Polis. As a result, the externality that nonetheless belongs intrinsically to the world of the Polis presents itself as an absolute contestation of the human law. We know that what looks like the manifestation of an external power coming from outside of the human realm must in fact be the power of the Self, but this is not for the consciousness of ethical spirit. Moreover, how an external power and the power of the Self can be the same is not for us either. It is a contradiction that must be resolved.

The first and foremost requirement for consciousness to be able to make the development that is necessary to acquire insight in the absolute Self is that consciousness must recognize that there exists a power external to its reality. Therefore, the stoic consciousness must make a transition into a different shape, viz. the unhappy consciousness. The unhappy consciousness is the consciousness that recognizes that the essence of reality is separated from the objectively given world. The essence of reality is a supersensible entity, ungraspable and not in correspondence with our concepts and determinations of reality. The transition from the stoic consciousness into the unhappy consciousness is mediated by the position of skepticism. Skepticism is the act of absolute negation, i.e. the possibility to claim the exact opposite of any possible truth claim. It is opposed to the stoic consciousness in this sense, because it rejects stoicism’s correspondence between concepts and their objects. It nevertheless shares with the stoic consciousness that it does not give up the certainty of the Self. On the contrary, the skeptic consciousness regards itself as the absolute arbiter of truth. This self-positing of the Self as an absolute Self is indeed the hidden presupposition of the stoic consciousness (who is unaware of the fact that the correspondence that he thinks he discovers between his concepts and reality are as a matter of fact imposed by him), but taken by its own merits the skeptic consciousness is not a valid position either. The skeptic consciousness is an idle consciousness, because he thinks he can decide about the truth. This conviction is grounded in the pure self-certainty and still fends off externality or otherness as a constitutive moment of selfhood. The transition into the unhappy consciousness is only completed when consciousness gives up this self-certainty and acknowledges that the Self of the consciousness is not in any way contained within consciousness. For the unhappy consciousness, the external power is no longer an abstract force but the true Self, in and through which everything else exists. This realization tears up consciousness in the deepest and most radical way imaginable, its Self becomes literary disassociated from the reality of consciousness, the latter is reduced to mere appearance, and consciousness experiences an absolute loss, a loss of the Self, its identity with itself is taken away from him and displaced in the unreachable realm of otherness of the Beyond. In my view, the consciousness’ disassociation from the reality of consciousness and the displacement of the Self in a supersensible realm are two distinct moments of the unhappy consciousness. The displacement of the Self suggests an absolute disconnection between consciousness and the Self, but by disassociating and reducing its reality to mere appearance it nonetheless holds on to this Self. The loss of Self that results in a purely ideological consciousness that is deprived of any attachment to its self-being, would be impossible for Hegel, or at least it has no place in his dialectics.

Not only does Hegel indeed make notable mentions of the unhappy consciousness in the subchapter on revealed religion, also his understanding of historical Christianity in the Realm of Culture as having the form of self-alienation indicates that Hegel sees the unhappy consciousness as the adequate shape to apply to Christian religion. The Roman empire on the other hand is connected to the stoic consciousness. At first sight, this seems questionable. After all, the Roman empire is connected to the state of law, and the state of law is the result of the decline of the Polis in the sense that the ethical world was unable to hold form and content together: the mutual recognition between the free and equal citizens had the shape of historical laws, i.e. laws that belong to a specific tradition. In the state of law, this contradiction is resolved because the laws of society are no longer understood as laws of a specific tradition but as universal laws. Here, the free and equal citizens are not conceived of as natural individuals but as legal persons. The legal person is a formal Self that ‘sets free’ any content. This separation between form and content is characteristic of the state of law, exemplified by the Roman empire. However, the premise of this separation is that the content of the law is irrelevant because its universality and absolute validity is uphold by its form. The indifference towards the content of the law originates from the conviction that there is an correspondence between reality and the Self. Only a Self that is not alienated can be indifferent towards the content of the laws of society. What the Self is not conscious about is that this correspondence does not exist independently from the content of the law. In truth, the correspondence is mediated by a social nature that is historical as well. This absence of historical consciousness about the social conditions of the correspondence between the Self and reality make the Roman empire is my main argument why we have to regard the Roman empire as a historical realization of the stoic consciousness.

The Self of the Roman empire and the substance of the state of law is the Roman emperor, or as Hegel calls it, the Lord of the World. From our perspective, the Lord of the World is the highest shape of the stoic consciousness, the last attempt to uphold the certainty that freedom can be fully realized in a specific historical society. But whereas this certainty is based on the denial or (unconscious) repression of the historicity itself, it is inevitable that these contingencies will manifest themselves at some moment in history, and when they do, they necessarily appear as a destructive force, because they are external to the stoic consciousness. This is a proper example of the logic of history as Hegel sees it. No society can claim to be an absolute and universal realization of freedom: every real society is finite. Moreover, this insight is not given, but it must be learned through a historical process. First, the finiteness of a specific society must be experienced; second, the truth of this experience must be internalized by society. So for the Roman empire, at first, it seems as if the decline of society is caused by external powers, by the barbarian tribes that brought down ancient Rome. The eternal rest and immobility of the state of law is opposed by a just as incessant restless power struggle. The unity of these two elements – the unrest of the power struggle versus the rest of the state of law – seems inconceivable at first. However, what must be learned is that they are one – they are two moments of the same absolute essence. What must be learned, in the end, is that what appears to be a blind and external force, seemingly targeted against the Self, is in fact the inner power of the Self. So the downfall of the Lord of World prepares the rise of the religion of the God-man in the sense that the downfall signifies the rebellion of reality itself against the Self, causing it to displace itself in another world, but at the same time, this rebellion is an act of the Self. In this entire movement of becoming other than itself, the Self remains identical to its Self. Its alienation is self-alienation.

When Hegel stages “the birthplace of spirit” in the context of the decline of the Roman empire, the logic behind it is that what presents itself as a historically contingent chain of events that cause the Roman world to collapse, is, from another perspective, the self-realization of spirit. In the chapter on revealed religion, this other perspective is observed under the viewpoint of the representing consciousness, i.e. the perspective is tied to a specific object – in this case, an object (or better: an objectivity) that represents the absolute as the self-realization of spirit, the God-man. From a comprehensive philosophical standpoint, it is already clear that at this stage of the phenomenological development of consciousness we understand that the self-realization of spirit is that substance is subject. The God-man thus is the appearance of substance as subject, and the particular individual Self that is identified as the God-man, viz. Jesus Christ, is at the same time a general Self. Firstly, therefore, the God-man is both distinct and not distinct from those who identify him as the God-man. Secondly, the God-man represents the self-realization of spirit, but as a particular individual it has a sensible existence, i.e. he initially appears as the immediate unity of the human and the divine, and hence not as movement. Nonetheless, thirdly, the appearance of the God-man establishes the presence of the divine in this world that overcomes the suffering of the unhappy consciousness by bringing the otherworldly Self back to the real world – the appearance of the God-man is the self-realization of spirit also in the sense that the otherworldly divine reveals itself by becoming a truly sensible and touchable reality, a real human being, that reconciles the two worlds that tear up the alienated Self. I argue that these tensions indicate that we still have to understand the revealed religion as a shape of the unhappy conscious, but that through the revealed religion we can acknowledge in what sense the Self has not disappeared for the Self that has gone through the experience of absolute self-loss. The unhappy conscious is still accompanied with an image of the Self, viz. the image of the God-man, who is not of this world but nevertheless came to this world. So there is an image of reconciliation but there is no actual reconciliation. The immediate presence of the God-man is problematic in the end, because the religious consciousness, for whom Christ is the God-man, may be able to see, feel or even touch the self-realization of spirit, in the end it remains external to it.

So having an image of the self-realization of spirit as the reconciliation the absolute Self and the real Self does not mean that this reconciliation is real yet. Instead, the religious consciousness that has an image of the God-man is separated from this reconciliation because it does not yet recognize that consciousness itself is the place of reconciliation. However, insofar as consciousness has an image of reconciliation, the only thing that still has to happen is that consciousness must understand is that actual reconciliation takes place through its own activity, not the activity of another being outside of consciousness. For this reason, I propose to read the chapter on revealed religion as the emancipation of religious consciousness into the philosophical consciousness that recognizes absolute spirit as it is in itself. On the one hand, religious consciousness cannot be an endpoint, because it stands outside of the absolute that is cognizes, which is a flat contradiction; but on the other hand, specifically in the case of revealed religion, the image is emancipatory, because it is not an imaginary projection but a genuine mirror: it reflects the Self of consciousness as it is in itself – consciousness sees itself in speculo. In this way, the narrative of the God-man – including his death and resurrection – contains a hidden truth. Hegel emphasizes that there is nothing natural expressed in these terms, only a purely spiritual matter, viz. the self-realization of spirit. To express the truth of the God-man requires, therefore, a purely spiritual language that is adequate to the content that needs to be expressed, i.e. the self-realization of spirit. This is the language of the concept. The emancipation of consciousness from religion to philosophy is one that begins with the immediacy and slowly uncovers the structure of mediation. The immediate presence of the God-man gradually makes place for the Trinitarian structure of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit, increasingly immaterializing and spiritualizing the self-realization of spirit. Through this development the God-man becomes more and more concrete, because it becomes more and more what it is in itself, viz. spirit.[1]

In the death of Christ is becomes evident that relation of recognition is not guaranteed by the God-man but only by the community that remembers him. Their language now becomes the reality in which the self-realization of spirit is expressed, as the story of the life of Christ. As language, the immediacy of the actual existence of the God-man is broken, and its truth – to be mediation – can come to light. However, the language in which the truth of spirit is expressed, is still very much a natural language. Rather than exposing the conceptual relations in terms of their necessity, it constructs stories of contingent occurrences. Here, Hegel analyses that the structure of mediation first appears in the story of the fall of man, or the fall into sin. The immediacy of nature is broken, but the mediation appears as the problem of evil. Hegel emphasizes that although Adam and Eve broke the law of God by choice, the presence of the snake indicates that evil already existed in the Garden of Eden; therefore, evil is not external to the divine world. The Christian belief that appears here is not focused on returning to the Garden of Eden, but instead focuses on the coming of the messiah, the God-man that will save mankind from sin. This salvation history clearly has the structure of mediation and Christian mythology even projects this mediation back into the divine world by imaging Christ as taking the place of the fallen angel Lucifer, as Hegel points out. Quote: “This self-consciousness is natural spirit; the self has to withdraw from this natural existence and retreat into itself, which could mean, to become evil. But this side is already in itself evil; its withdrawal into itself consists, therefore, in convincing itself that natural existence is evil.” (p. 474) On the other hand, however, the mediation that is now called evil is still kept outside of the essence of the divine. The distinction between good and evil appears as the distinction between the community, between mankind that has fallen into sin, and the God-man, the Savior who conquers and overthrows evil. This shape has the form of the unhappy consciousness because the Self of the community is projected outside of the community in a pure Self. Still, the structure of projecting itself out of itself is the mediation and negativity is the mediation that the community executes by itself, i.e. it is self-expression and self-negation. The truth of the pure Self represented as the Savior is this self-negation, which becomes for itself in the death of Christ, now understood as the death, which redeems mankind from sin. It seems to me that Hegel’s argument is that the mediation, which was first projected in mankind fallen into sin, becomes the truth of what the God-man is in itself. The religious consciousness becomes aware that the mediation or negativity constitutes a moment of the essence of the absolute.

It is through the dualism of good and evil that religious consciousness emancipates itself. Hegel analyses that this dualism ends up in contradiction, because they cannot exists independently from another – without the good there is no evil and vice versa – but they are also absolutely different. The reason why there is no way of reconciling them, Hegel argues, is because good and evil are presented as two fixed elements rather than moments of one and the same movement. The dualism is created by the consciousness’ clinging to the copula, the [quote] “lifeless ‘is’”. (p. 473) The reconciliation of good and evil thus implies to abandon their opposition altogether by getting rid of the inadequate terminology of being and not-being. At this very precise instance, Hegel claims, the transition from religious representation consciousness into philosophical conceptual consciousness really begins. Quote: “… and since this unity is the universality of self-consciousness, self-consciousness has ceased to think in pictures.” (p. 473) Here, it may seem as if Hegel jumps to conclusions by simply flipping an argument ex negativo into something positive, viz. a whole new conceptuality. Firstly, as I said, it is only the beginning. We are still very much in the realm of religious consciousness. What happens is that consciousness begins to express itself conceptually. Secondly, what Hegel thus calls conceptuality is by now explicitly distinct from the conceptuality that clings to the forms of being and not-being. Thirdly, what Hegel means by this different conceptuality has already been presented in the rest of the Phenomenology – we are reading the penultimate chapter here. Particularly in the chapter on self-consciousness, we have seen that what Hegel considers to be the real existing concept, is the concept of recognition presented as the unity of life and self-consciousness. The concept is the self-movement of this spiritual species; a species that finds, as opposed to natural species like horses and bees, its unity in being a people, having a second nature, living under an unnatural self-imposed law. Therefore, Hegel is in fact justified to posit what he posits at this point, viz. that the required reconciliation and hence the existence of the concept, is already realized in the actual religious community. Quote: “Spirit is thus posited in the third element, in universal self-consciousness; it is its community.” (p. 473)

Here, religious consciousness begins to apprehend what it really is, viz. objectively existent spirit. Moreover, the consciousness of revealed religion grasps the spiritual meaning of this substance, or in other words, it understands that the community itself is spiritual. The negativity, which was first identified as the evil of nature opposing the self-consciousness, is now understood as the proper essence of spirit. The mediation that was kept outside the God-man in its initial appearance as a sensible being, is now understood as its truth. The death of the God-man acquires a spiritual meaning, which Hegel describes as the transfiguration of death. Quote: “Death loses this natural meaning in spiritual self-consciousness, i.e. it comes to be its just stated Notion; death becomes transfigured from its immediate meaning, viz. the non-being of this particular individual, into the universality of the Spirit who dwells in His community, dies in it every day, and is daily resurrected.” (p. 475) The internalization of the negativity evoked by death, and its consequent recognition as belonging to the inner structure of spirit, becomes pivotal in understanding objectively existent spirit, or the community, as the presupposition of the moral individual consciousness. We have to admit in retrospect that the point of departure of the moral individual was already a spiritual individual, not a natural one, because only an individual that is not ruled by instinct or natural inclinations is able to realize a moral content. Such an individual has already negated nature all the time. Hence, the community that underlies such an individual must itself have the structure of spirit, i.e., it must be a nature that encompasses its negativity in itself, it must be self-negation. I argue, in conclusion, that the spiritual meaning of death entails exactly this. Here, the religious consciousness becomes reconciled with its object, when the communal praxis of religious consciousness itself becomes the object of religious consciousness. Still, the religious consciousness does yet recognize this object as its self-activity, but it devotes it as the doing of another power. Quote: “It does not grasp the fact that this depth of the pure Self is the power by which the abstract divine Being is drawn down from its abstraction and raised to a Self by the power of this pure devotion.” (p. 478) However, precisely through the act of devotion, it is clear to us that the object is brought in its place by religious consciousness. A conclusion that is further elaborated in the chapter on absolute knowing. Therefore, in conclusion, the answer whether Hegel’s reconstruction of Christianity is in fact a thesis about the appearance of the autonomous subject: On the one hand ‘yes’, because it is the moral Self that appears in the God-man; on the other hand ‘no’, because as an image of the Self it is not equal to what this Self in itself is. My most important conclusion, however, is that this image of the Self in Christianity is not a positive realization of an otherwise transcendent being, but in fact depicts the structure of self-negation allowing consciousness to become aware of negativity as a moment in the spiritual movement that is its existence, i.e. to become self-consciousness.


[1] We can ask ourselves though, what can be more concrete than an actual human individual? I would answer that indeed nothing is more concrete than a human individual, but that the essence of a concrete human individual is that it stands in a relation of recognition. In the case of the recognition of the God-man, the relation of recognition lies on the side the religious consciousness, which is – at that point – considered unessential by the religious consciousness. By doing so, it precisely represses what is concrete about recognizing the God-man.