Unhappy Consciousness and the Origin of Reason

Simone A. Medina Polo
3 min readJun 3, 2022

[This essay is the third 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 self-consciousness to reason characterizes some of the dramatic high points in the Phenomenology of Spirit. As it is recurrent throughout the entire Phenomenology, Hegel invites us to work with what may be most immediately familiar to us, then this gets estranged from us to the point that it is through this estrangement that Spirit gains its truth — or in his own terms: “But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death, and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself” (Hegel, 1977, 19). The section on the freedom of self-consciousness exhibits this recurrent moment of the Phenomenology through the contradictions of the Unhappy Consciousness that results out of the initial abstract articulations of this freedom in Stoicism and the more concrete exertions of this freedom in Skepticism.

At the end of the Lord-Bondsman dialectic, the first freedom that the position of servitude attains is the freedom of the internal world. This becomes the central paradigm of Stoicism, where the immediacy of freedom retreats from the external as inessential to its freedom asserting its independence through thinking as an exercise of it. But this attitude never gets more concrete than this as it remains a purely formal doctrine which in fact relays heavily on the world it rejects. Skepticism embraces this contradiction of Stoicism by turning its thinking towards the world as part of the actualization of thinking itself out. Not only does Skepticism turn towards the world but it actively reduces its to nothing — it breaks its world down, and as a consequence, the problems it finds in the world come by its own hand.

Unhappy Consciousness comes as a follow up of the breakdown of the external world as resonating as an internal breakdown of a divided subject making itself apart. The division of the Unhappy Consciousness amounts to a movement of double reflection that contemplates Stoicism and Skepticism. One the one hand, it is a consciousness of the pure inner world which eventually gives way to a feeling of wretchedness. And on the other hand, it is consciousness of its willing, acting and enjoyment that culminates in the contemplation of the poverty of its work and desire (Hegel, 1977, 134–136). At this point of utter dismemberment, which is simultaneously a dismemberment of the external world and a dismemberment of the internal world, Hegel clears the way for a bedrock contradiction that will change the terms of questioning in the Phenomenology again.

It is at this moment that the Unhappy Consciousness looks for absolution and relief of its misery that it turns to the figure of the mediator for the mediating act — in this instance, Unhappy Consciousness undergoes an actual sacrifice in relinquishing itself over to the figure of the priest (Hegel, 1977, 137 and 138). Unhappy Consciousness is this culmination where the articulations of freedom result in freedom breaking down the external world which in turn analytically breaks down its own internal world into a state of relentless restlessness. In this extent of utter dismemberment, it finds its truth announced in the Idea of Reason. While the attempt at absolution is incomplete and ultimately fails, by appealing to the assuming certainty of the priestly mediatory, this nevertheless introduces the Idea of Reason in principle — which is to say that at the point in which both the external and the internal world are both broken down, the Unhappy Consciousness gives way from its own analytic activities over to the synthetic connections of Reason in an attempt to put its world back together (Hegel, 1977, 142 and 143). And this desperation to put the world back together sows the seed for the desire that will impurify Reason as it looks for these connections — in other words, the origin of Reason rests in this utter dismemberment and its yearning for absolution in desire to put things back together.

References and Citations:

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

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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.