Explanation and Desire

On the Satisfaction of Consciousness and the Unity of Self-Consciousness

Simone A. Medina Polo
5 min readMay 31, 2022

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

Towards the end of the section on “Consciousness” in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel announces the building blocks of the next section out of the contradictory impasse reached at the end of his dialectical exposition of Force and the Understanding. This impasse is remarkably distinct from the rest of the section on “Consciousness” since it changes the kind of questioning that is pursued altogether — and this is only realized once we have crossed the threshold of the implicit self-consciousness in consciousness over to its explicit exposition in the next section.

Self-consciousness constitutes a new shape of knowing that appears as the movements of consciousness vanish when consciousness realizes that the appearances that seem to engulf its experience from reality as such are in fact an experience of reality as such — furthermore, this experience of reality is actually reality experiencing itself. All the explanations and stories that consciousness provides to account for the contradictory of impasses that it keeps stumbling into amount to mere externalizations of this very issue when it insists it to be a question of experiencing reality and appearances as a deceiving engulfment. It only sees itself for what it is in this impasse at the level of self-consciousness, where it is explicit that reality itself must be structured in such a way that it must express itself to itself through appearances.

The process of explanations takes off when the tension between reality in itself and the way that reality appears for us calls for an account of their relationship. In trying to comprehend this, our explanations of the forces that make the appearances of reality inconsistent condense them into certain fixed and inert laws. At first, what is beyond these appearances is thought of as a stable, fixed realm of laws — however, these explanations abstract what they sought to explain, since if this were the case, then surely appearances would remain consistent with underlying inert reality that they express. Thus, explanations make the proliferation of differences in appearances into external differences of a reality which otherwise remains utterly identical with itself; but when explanations attempt to take account of an internal difference in reality itself, then the explanations of this reality must alter themselves in principle (Hegel, 1977, 94–96). This internal difference is referred to in the terms pure change, contradiction, and infinity by as follows: (1) the concept of internal difference establishes a self-identity that is in-itself different; (2) without this concept, formulaic laws and the disparate elements that they seek to account for have no binding relationship; therefore (3) the concept of the inner difference constitutes the unity of opposites through which speculative propositions are expressed (Hegel, 1977, 99).

This infinity that concerns the absolute unrest of pure self-movement is first encountered at the moment when we demand and provide explanations for its repercussions in our most immediate experiences. When we think that we are demanding and providing explanations of something else, this demanding and providing of explanations reveals something about the consciousness at work. Or as Hegel writes: “The reason why ‘explaining’ affords so much self-satisfaction is just because in it consciousness is, so to speak, communing directly with itself, enjoying only itself; although it seems to be busy with something else, it is in fact occupied only with itself…” (Hegel, 1977, 101).

All consciousness is self-consciousness; but it is only implicitly self-consciousness when consciousness insists on its onesideness by providing explanations that try to integrate some beyond only as its limit-point to entrench itself by; and it is only explicitly self-consciousness when that limitation turns out to be that consciousness itself is an impasse to recognizing itself in the infinity it introduced solely as an explanation. As Hegel writes: “In this sphere, self-consciousness exhibits itself as the movement in which this anthesis is moved and the identity of itself with itself becomes explicit for it… Self-consciousness achieves its satisfaction only in another self-consciousness” (Hegel, 1977, 105 and 110).

In seeing its limits as its own and in overcoming these limits, consciousness also outgrows itself. And in doing so, it spoils its own limited satisfaction. Thereby, it experiences anxiety at the danger of losing this satisfaction of consciousness and it may even enact a wish to remain in a state of unthinking inertia, only furthering itself by entrenching itself in sentimentality: “this is a satisfaction which we must leave to itself for it flees from the universal, and seeks only to be for itself” (Hegel, 1977, 51 and 52). It is thus apparent that the threshold between consciousness and self-consciousness is no simply limit-point, but rather a developmental leap into a different kind of thinking altogether.

What Hegel warns us about is something akin to a form of stunted development in psychoanalysis, where anxiety is deployed as a mechanism that softens the blowing impact of the introduction of symbolic relations; and fantasy frames the entrenchment of consciousness through a sentimental complacency to an imaginary unity (Lear, 2015, 41–42). What this means is that we can recount the central concern of explanations as the satisfaction of consciousness and desire as the unity of self-consciousness in Hegel through the terms of psychoanalysis. While in the former instance, explanations offer a narrative to satisfy the demands and offerings of consciousness trying to maintain an imaginary unity; the latter instance introduces a symbolic dimension that problematizes the initial demand and its satisfaction in the form of desire as what holds self-consciousness together, and to which self-consciousness holds onto desperately in an attempt to attain the satisfaction of recognition in another self-consciousness — or as Hegel writes, “…self-consciousness is Desire in general” (Hegel, 1977, 105). Thereby, the very unity of self-consciousness is tied to another self-consciousness, and self-consciousness risks its very undoing in that very relation as it becomes apparent in the figures of the Oedipus Complex and the Lord-Bondsman Dialectic (Felman, 1987, 114–117; Hegel, 1977, 119). It struggles to let itself go onto infinity.

References and Citations:

Felman, Shoshana. Jacques Lacan and The Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

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

Lear, Jonathan. Freud: Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2015.



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.