Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 11g The Phenomenology of Spirit and the Enneads

The Phenomenology of Spirit describes the experience of Soul in its epistemological ascent from sense-certainty – ‘the first and most primitive form of consciousness’1 – through what was for Plotinus the third hypostasis (All-Soul, Universal Soul, Soul of the All) to what was for him the second, Intellectual-Principle – the site of Hegel’s conflated ‘reason-world’. An ascent from the finite to an infinity of creativity, in itself though immeasurable but still an image of the infinity of the One and the Good, which infinity is addressed in the Logic as it details the ‘mind’ of God.2

As I have argued, the Phenomenology describes not a propaedeutic, a purificatory preparation3 for ‘proper’ philosophy, but the dialectical development of consciousness within an essential, philosophical stage of self-knowing in the Neoplatonic process of return to the source. In it, consciousness (Soul) both rises and goes within through a series of Neoplatonic ‘shapes’ to attain the point of ‘absolute knowing.’ Throughout, Spirit crafts itself, continuing that crafting in the Logic.

Having shaped our souls into Intellectual-Principle (Hegel’s ‘reason-world’), ‘we make over our souls in trust to it,’4 so that from there, our reason now ‘pure’ and active in the realm of unity-in-diversity, we may continue in the dialectical advance to the knowledge of God.

Plotinus believed that philosophy is for the few and that the development of consciousness to the attainment of the complete unity of subject and object requires great effort, the soul repeatedly falling back to the realm of sensory experience

The soul or mind reaching towards the formless finds itself incompetent to grasp where nothing bounds it or to take impression where the impinging reality is diffuse; in sheer dread of holding to nothingness, it slips away. The state is painful; often it seeks relief by retreating from all this vagueness to the region of sense, there to rest as on solid ground5

Anchoring the same thoughts in the world with a more complex prose poetry, Hegel set out the process through a sequence of metaphors themselves described metaphorically – the Stations of the Cross echoed in the tribulations of a pilgrim’s progress

because it has only phenomenal knowledge for its object…it can be regarded as the path of the natural consciousness which presses forward to true knowledge; or as the way of the Soul which journeys through the series of its own configurations as though they were the stations appointed for it by its own nature, so that it may purify itself for the life of the Spirit…The road can therefore be regarded as the pathway of doubt, or more precisely as the way of despair.6

On descent to the sensory world, Soul loses its knowledge of unity with the One, with God and recollection is the means for its recovery. For Hegel and the Neoplatonists, Soul’s recollection of whence it came is a timeless and partless activity (distinct from the understanding’s memory which is the retrieval of things that have been introduced – of time, part and space7) essential not only to that recovery but to speculative philosophy and the developmental progress of consciousness which Hegel begins in his Phenomenology. When we fail to recollect we inevitably return to the world of sense.8

Recollection conveys not only the thought of the higher realm but also the emotional condition in which that thought was experienced. Thus imagination is the core of recollection and dialectic

Recollection proceeds through metaphors, ingenuities, and images…To recollect is not to form a proposition, but to form an image9

Plotinus wrote that recollection resides in the imagination or ‘image-making faculty’ and that words can act as a bridge between what is to be recollected (‘the concept’) and the ‘image-making faculty.’ Foreshadowing Cusanus’ use of both metaphors and concepts, followed by Hegel, Plotinus held that the ‘verbal formula’ can exhibit the indivisible ‘mental’ conception as in a mirror

the verbal formula – the revealer, the bridge between the concept and the image-taking faculty – exhibits the concept as in a mirror; the apprehension by the image-taking faculty would thus constitute the enduring presence of the concept, would be our memory of it.10

The Phenomenology is built on this theorising.11

Rather than using these ‘metaphors, ingenuities and images’ as mere illustrations or even as a means of circumventing ‘the unsayable,’ Hegel, consistent with the other Neoplatonists, used them as essential elements to condition the thinking of the readers of his Phenomenology to a non-discursive way of reasoning, of grasping ‘reality.’12

the metaphors or images in the Phenomenology of Spirit are not just any metaphors but the metaphors of consciousness itself, those by which it accomplishes the turning…of its being (my italics) at any given moment. The Phenomenology of Spirit is a philosophical speech in which all the powers of language, its imagistic and its conceptual powers, are brought forth so that the reader may recollect.13

Recollection is self-recollection – an inner vision of the ‘truth’ we unconsciously possess, of our spiritual core, giving it expression in philosophy.14 Magee wrote that the Phenomenology ‘is a “recollection” of the different forms in which Spirit has displayed itself and continues to display itself’.15 He discussed Hegel’s use of the concept ‘recollection’ (Erinnerung) in the final section of the Phenomenology, ‘absolute knowing’

At one point (Hegel) hyphenates the German word as Er-Innerung, suggesting an interpretation of ‘recollection’ as a ‘going within’ of the subject (inner has the same meaning in German as in English, and Innerung has the sense of ‘innering’ or ‘inwardising’). The Phenomenology is, in fact, a recollection of Spirit’s development by Spirit itself. It is Spirit going within itself, recollecting itself, and writing its autobiography – not in the sense of a literal history, but instead the natural history of its manifestations16

Both the Enneads and the Phenomenology conclude with the cancellation of otherness and a withdrawal into self17 but where the conclusion of the Enneads is the end of the entire process addressed through the Enneads, from the sensory world to unity with the Supreme,18 that of the Phenomenology is only the degree of self-development, of spiritual unity necessary for the continuation of the process at a higher stage of consciousness, of being, in the Logic,19 indicated by the closing words – again, not of discursive reason but a poetic and religious image of infinite Neoplatonic vitalism

from the chalice of this realm of spirits

foams forth for Him his own infinitude20

They invoke the Logic. The Phenomenology of Spirit: theatre of the ‘mind’

The Phenomenology is a theatre of the ‘mind.’ Centre stage is the dramatis persona, ’consciousness.’ The readers are the audience. At the side of the stage Hegel stands at a lectern

pointing out to us aspects of the action, highlighting features we may have otherwise missed, directing our attention.21

As Redding wrote

Our ability to follow the progress of the character is dependent on our ability to empathise with his experience and ambition…But at the same time we retain the external point of view onto the character on stage. The doubleness of consciousness demanded of the dramatic persona of the Phenomenology is demanded of the spectator as well.22

He asks, in regard to this perspectival, recognitive unity-in-diversity

Might it be…that the review of the whole drama constitutes our anagnorisis? This, it seems to me, is something like what is supposed to happen here: there is meant to be some strong sense of recognition of the self on our, the readers’ part.23

The Phenomenology is a great work of art. Hegel employed a range of literary devices, particularly metaphor,24 to draw his readers in to his philosophical theatre and by putting all of us on centre stage through the development of his dramatis persona ‘consciousness,’ to convey his Neoplatonic philosophy. It is because of this, that it is so clearly a work of art, that academics cannot accept that it is philosophy at the highest level – that they believe, as Redding does, that ‘philosophy proper’ is to be found in the text that followed this, which completed what Hegel began in his Phenomenology – the rise of consciousness from the sensory world to the knowledge of God.



1. Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 166. It is necessary to begin with sense-certainty not only because sensory experience is the basis for contemplation: ‘when in seeing what is perceptible I understand that it exists from a higher power (since it is finite, and a finite thing cannot exist from itself; for how could what is finite have set its own limit?), then I can only regard as invisible and eternal [this] Power from which it exists.’ De Possest, 915, 3, it is also the basis of conceptualisation: ‘the power of the mind—a power that grasps things and is conceptual—cannot succeed in its operations unless it is stimulated by perceptible objects’ Idiota de Mente, 545, 77
2. The infinity of Intellectual-Principle is not that of the One: ‘This unity-in-diversity is the most perfect possible image of the absolute unity of the One, whom Intellect in its ordinary contemplation cannot apprehend as He is in His absolute simplicity. It represents His infinity as best it can in the plurality of Forms. Intellect is itself infinite in power (my italics) and immeasurable, because it has no extension and there is no external standard by which it could be measured, but finite (my italics) because it is a complete whole composed of an actually existing number (all that can possibly exist) of Forms, which are themselves definite, limited realities.’ Armstrong in Plotinus, Enneads, Trans., A.H.Armstrong, op. cit., vol. I, xxi. Thus the lines of Schiller’s Neoplatonic paean to infinite creativity that Hegel adapted to conclude the Phenomenology with are entirely apt, signalling Soul’s arrival at what was for Plotinus the second hypostasis.
3. ‘Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit represents, in the Hegelian system, an initial stage of purification in which the would-be philosopher is purged of false intellectual standpoints so that he might receive the true doctrine of Absolute Knowing,’ Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op.cit., 14. Magee argues that his interpretation of this aspect of the Phenomenology exemplifies Hegel’s Hermeticism.
4. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., VI.9.3
5. Ibid.
6. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 49; ‘Hegel’s own philosophical point of view is shot through with Christian images, to such an extent that his system would be difficult to describe without making reference to these symbols.’ Plant, Hegel, An Introduction, op. cit., 133 
7. ‘Now a memory has to do with something brought into ken from without, something learned or something experienced; the Memory-Principle, therefore, cannot belong to such things as are immune from experience and from time.’ Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., IV.3.25
8. ‘When we forget we return to the world. We think in a present and when we do this, no self-knowing is possible. …We risk becoming merely a person again and not a philosopher.’ Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 75
9. Ibid., 3; ‘Without images, concepts become dry and abstract. Hegel’s own thinking is famously replete with images, metaphors, and analogies. …it is evident that thought continues to be fructified by the imagistic materials thrown up by representation,’ Hodgson, ‘Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion,’ op. cit., 239 
10. Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., IV.3.30
11. In the Phenomenology Hegel employed the ‘verbal formula’ of development through metaphor, in the Logic, he used the ‘verbal formula’ of development through concepts. Cusanus, whose example Hegel followed and developed on and to whom Hegel was profoundly indebted, also used both.
12. ‘The vivid images and metaphors used by (Plotinus) apparently did not just act as illustrations of mental concepts, but served rather to attune the mind to nondiscursive modes of grasping reality.’ Chlup, Proclus, An Introduction, op. cit., 180; ‘This Becoming presents a slow-moving succession of Spirits, a gallery of images, each of which, endowed with all the riches of Spirit, moves thus slowly just because the Self has to penetrate and digest this entire wealth of its substance.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 492; ‘all things are in us psychically, and through this we are naturally capable of knowing all things, by exciting the powers and the images of wholes which we contain.’ Proclus, On the Theology of Plato, op. cit., Bk. I, Ch. III 
13. Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 25; ‘(The author argues that) the philosophic meaning of this work depends as much on Hegel’s use of metaphor and image as it does on Hegel’s dialectical and discursive descriptions of various stages of consciousness.’ Ibid; Verene quoting Carl Vaught in The Quest for Wholeness: ‘the stages generated by Hegel’s philosophical quest for completeness can be regarded as a sequence of metaphors which are held together by analogical connections.’ Ibid., 118; ‘(Quentin Lauer argued that the most poetic of Hegel’s works is the Phenomenology of Spirit and) goes on to suggest that imagery, symbol, and metaphor are necessary not just for the comprehension of Hegel’s text (i.e. the Phenomenology) but for the comprehension of Hegel’s subject itself – the speculative understanding of history, reality, and spirit. I could not agree more.’ Ibid., xiii; Verene made excellent points with regard to Hegel’s use of irony ‘Hegel uses irony to exclude other positions. It is his principal weapon, for example, when he speaks against other doctrines of the absolute (“the night in which all cows are black”), or against phrenologists, or against ethical views (“the law of the heart and the frenzy of self-conceit’). He makes them into jokes. …Irony is a trope close to dialectic in that the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used. …In the end, irony as well as metaphor and recollection, is the key to Hegel’s system,’ Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 22, 31, 118 
14. ‘Vision of the Ideas through recollection is an inner vision…Plotinus is the ultimate inspiration for this focus on inner vision.’ Mark Cheetham, The Rhetoric of Purity: Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, 5
15. Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 167
16. Ibid., 197
17. ‘(Spirit’s) withdrawal into itself, in which it abandons its outer existence and gives its existential shape over to recollection.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 492
18. ‘This is the life of gods and of the godlike and blessed among men, liberation from the alien that besets us here, a life taking no pleasure in the things of earth, the passing of solitary to solitary.’ Plotinus, The Enneads (Abridged), op. cit., VI.9.11
19. ‘In this knowing, then, Spirit has concluded the movement in which it has shaped itself, in so far as (my italics) this shaping was burdened with the difference of consciousness [i.e. of the latter from its object], a difference now overcome.’ Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 490
20. Ibid., 493; ‘Hegel ends his whole work (the Phenomenology) with an image, an image of the inability of the divine to bring its own creation and its own being to a point of rest.’ Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 7
21. Redding, Hegel’s Hermeneutics, op. cit., 80
22. Ibid., 82
23. Ibid., 134-135
24. ‘we have so little experience in taking metaphorical speech seriously as a carrier of philosophical meaning that we read right past it. …we have become so accustomed to the monotone hum of the abstract concept and the category, the fluorescent buzz of the argument, that we have lost track of the dimensions of philosophical language. We have forgotten its secrets and cannot recollect its manner of eating bread and drinking wine.’ Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 34-35

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