Beyond the Deadlock of Representation

Religion from the Outlook of Absolute Knowing

Simone A. Medina Polo
5 min readJun 10, 2022

[This essay is the last in a 5-part series of short-writings that came from Todd McGowan’s 2022 Seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.]

The transition from the section on “Religion” to “Absolute Knowing” in the Phenomenology of Spirit centers around one of the central warnings that Hegel has reminded us about time and time again throughout the text. As early as the Preface, Hegel comments on the habit of depictional thinking that the fleshing out of the Concept will ultimately challenge (Hegel, 1977, 35 and 38). In the section on “Consciousness,” language becomes an instance of representations which problematized the notion of the immediate as the place of truth (Hegel, 1977, 61). And by the point when we arrive at the first explicit instances of philosophy in the section on “Self-Consciousness,” Hegel stresses the differences between thinking through representations as opposed to thinking through the Concept (Hegel, 1977, 120). By the time we get to the section on “Religion” where Spirit is knowing itself as Spirit, it is through these picture-thoughts and representations that Spirit becomes self-conscious of its own activity. And by the end of ““Religion,” we leave this section unresolved as far as Absolute Knowing is concerned (Hegel, 1977, 478 and 479).

When we look at Hegel’s account of representation throughout the Phenomenology, it is seemingly contradictory in the sense that Hegel asks us to embrace representation while ultimately rejecting it for the deadlock it culminates in. We could certainly stress that that when Hegel overcomes representation this is in no way a fall back into a pre-critical immediacy of something prior to language, depictions, and representations. Rather, Hegel invites us to embrace the mediation that these representations introduce precisely to overcome the pre-critical immediacies that Hegel regards as an impatient approach to claim the Absolute — thus, any account of Hegel’s critique of representation has to see representation through to the point where it reaches a fundamental deadlock which stands in the way of Absolute Knowing and Absolute Spirit commuting with itself. Therefore, for Hegel, the means or medium are far more important than the goals it sets itself out with and where it ends insofar as the philosophical process embraces what seems to be an error in the last instance because it comes to realize what it is through the passage of mediation — in short, that the fear of error turns out to be a fear of truth (Hegel, 1977, 47).

The deadlock of representation happens at a crucial point in the Phenomenology when it transitions over from the section on “Religion” over to “Absolute Knowing.” By this point in the Phenomenology, Hegel’s rendition of the crucifixion of Christ brings together a community of believers through the mediation of a figure such as Christ — in this respect, “the mediation of the picture-thought is necessary” (Hegel, 1977, 462 and 475). However, despite the vanishing mediation of Christ through his death — and in a considerable anticipation of Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead” — Hegel notes that the religious community holds on to the compulsive habit of picture-thinking insofar as its content is not able to arrive at the necessity that speculative thought claims through Notions (Hegel, 1977, 465 and 466). What Religion achieves is nonetheless unfinished, according to Hegel, because it still conceives of the fundamental contradictions as something external and accidental due to its reliance on representations. Religion achieves a religious community that should be distinguished from the spiritual communion that Absolute Knowing gets at.

Hegel characterizes this transition as a realization that this negativity is not just as the content that has been laid out through religious representations, but rather it is Spirit’s own act. The very notion of Spirit comes to terms with its own acts of gathering itself through the separate moments of the Phenomenology that it comprehends to be its own acts and its own moments — in other words, Spirit realizes it has always been there, albeit implicitly; and only now does it arrive at an explicit expression of its own concept (Hegel, 1977, 485). Or as Hegel eloquently notes, “the content of religion proclaims earlier in time than does Science, what Spirit is, but only Science is its true knowledge of itself” (Hegel, 1977, 488). This is crucial, because this is the point of the Phenomenology of Spirit where the coming-to-be of Spirit through its appearances (or the phenomenology of Spirit) transitions over to the Science—another way to put it is that the Phenomenology is the exhaustion of all possible avenues of wisdom as they result in contradiction time and again, and the only wisdom that arises out of this is a fundamental contradiction which is not just in thought, but also as being (a formulation that recalls the Lacanian account of the drive and every drive as a death drive).

All the contradictions that the Phenomenology have moved through the loving pursuit of wisdom which is frustrated every step along the way — and nonetheless this yields a wisdom called Absolute Knowing as the bedrock of contradiction in being as well as thought. When Spirit looks back at every step we have traversed, it is not so much from the perspective of determinate reflection of what is Spirit is, but rather as a reflexive determination of Spirit through its own activity. This activity is cognition. And while at first this cognition is conceived of as this oscillatory transformation between the substance/consciousness and subject/self-consciousness in an immediate abstraction, its negative labour is expressed by emptying itself into time and realized to its truth through actual history (Hegel, 1977, 488–492).

When Hegel’s discusses the spiritual community as opposed to the religious community, it is precisely by letting go of the representations and owning up to its own acts as a community-of-Spirit-and-in-Spirit seen through its very notion to the point of its truth. Spirit is in communion proper when it recollects its infinitely contradictory movements as its own history through what Hegel describes as a gallery in the realm of Spirits, while it philosophically comprehensively organizes this in the sphere of Spirit’s appearance — in my own reading, this means that not only we arrive to actual wisdom in a communion amongst internal contradictions and shared failures, but Hegel’s spiritual communion also turns at the lovers of wisdom who do not know this yet in a gesture such as the Phenomenology’s Preface.

References and Citations:

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Ed., J.N. Findlay. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.



Simone A. Medina Polo

Simone A. Medina Polo is a philosopher and an PhD candidate at the Global Centre for Advanced Studies for Philosophy and Psychoanalysis.