Absolute Knowledge

Prof. Eric Steinhart (C) 1998

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Read paragraphs 803 - 808. Go ahead. Knock yourself out.

The Absolute as Self-Simulating Object

In the Myth of the Cave, the final step is to look at the Sun. The Sun symbolizes the Form of the Good. For later Neoplatonists, the Form of the Good is the One. The One is the source of existence itself. It is pure Being, the source of the existence of all beings. During the Christian Middle Ages, the One becomes God (specifically, God the Father). This is God as the eternal Creator of the world. God the Father or Creator is the Hegelian Absolute. Hegel wasn't the first to use this term or idea; Fichte and Schelling had used it before him, and it's an important idea throughout the whole 19th century.

At the end of the 19th century the American philosopher Josiah Royce wrote about the Absolute. He described the Absolute as a self-mirroring or self-representative system. Self-representative systems are infinitely complex. Although Royce was writing nearly 100 years after Hegel, his idea of the Absolute is somewhat clearer and is a good place to start. As an example of an Absolute system, Royce describes a perfect map of England that exists within England:

A map of England, contained within England, is to represent, down to the minutest detail, every contour and marking, natural or artificial, that occurs upon the surface of England. . . . the map, in order to be complete, according to the rule given, will have to contain, as a part of itself, a representation of its own contour and contents. In order that this representation should be constructed, the representation itself will have to contain once more, as a part of itself, a representation of its own contour and contents; and this representation, in order to be exact, will have once more to contain an image of itself; and so on without limit. . . . We should at once observe that in this one assertion, "A part of England perfectly maps all England, on a smaller scale," there would be implied the assertion not now of a process of trying to draw maps, but of the contemporaneous presence, in England, of an infinite number of maps, of the type just described. [1]

The map of England that Royce describes preserves all the spatial relations of England; it's just a spatial map. A country that contains only a spatial self-map is still not fully self-mirroring, since it exists in time too, but the spatial map doesn't describe its temporal relations. To fully mirror itself, a country must contain a structure that preserves its temporal relations as well. A program for a computer is a spatio-temporal map since describes both informational structures (data structures) as well as transformations of those structures (algorithm). If a country contains a program that is isomorphic to its whole spatio-temporal reality, then a part of the history of that program mirrors the whole history of that program.

An object that includes a perfect spatial map of itself is a self-describing object; but an object that includes a perfect spatio-temporal map of itself is a self-simulating object. The Absolute is a self-simulating object.

Notice that self-consciousness is self-simulating: it is concsiousness of consciousness, and as such is consciousness of consciousness of consciousness, and as such ... well, you get the idea.

Hegel says: "The movement [of Spirit] is the circle that returns into itself, the circle that presupposes its beginning and reaches it only at the end" -- so that it goes around again.

The Absolute as a Self-Similar Fractal

Below is a picture of the Mandelbrot set, one of the most complex mathematical objects known. It's a fractal, meaning that it's self-similar. The self-nested series of maps of England described by Royce is also a fractal. Self-similar fractals repeat themselves within themselves at smaller scales, but with a bit of a twist to make the repetition slightly different. The buds or bulbs on the edges of the big blob have similar structures. Parts are like the whole.

Here's a magnification of one of the lightning bold edges from the fractal above. Inside, you see the original Mandelbrot set slightly shifted. Here is a deeply nested part that almost (but not quite) exactly resembles the whole.

Of course, the Absolute is not a picture. It's far more complex than any 2-dimensional object. But if it is like Royce's map, then it is self-similar and so it is a fractal. Perhaps these Mandelbrot images are just immediate intuitions of the Absolute at the level of sense-certainty.

The Absolute Comes into Focus

The Absolute (God) creates the world. The world is not God, but it contains a part that is made in the image of God. This part is human consciousness. Human consciousness is conscious of the world, and so is conscious of itself. It is self-consciousness. But it isn't fully enlightened at the very start. In fact, Hegel thinks of human self-consciousness as waking up. As it wakes up, it's self-consciousness (the world's comprehension of itself) becomes more and more accurate. This self-consciousness is a self-description or self-simulation. But it isn't perfectly self-mirroring as long as there's any inaccuracy in the world's self-consciousness; so, until humanity is fully enlightened, the self-mirroring is inaccurate and not Absolute. But as soon as the self-map becomes perfect, the result is something like Royce's England containing a perfect map of England. As soon as it attains perfect self-knowledge (Substance = Subject), human self-consciousness becomes divine. It is enlightened.

This is historical progress: Spirit moves upwards (to truth) and forwards (in time). As it moves, Subject maps more and more Substance ever more accurately. Substance is being absorbed by the accurate mapping of Subject. When it's perfectly accurate & complete, it's Absolute.

Self-Consciousness Devours Consciousness

801. Self-consciousness is awakening: "self-consciousness enriches itself till it has wrested from consciousness the entire substance and has absorbed into itself the entire structure of the essentialities of substance"

The awakening of self-consciousness occurs in time: "Time is the Notion itself that is there and which presents itself to consciousness as empty intuition; for this reason, Spirit necessarily appears in Time, and it appears in Time just so long as it has not grasped its pure Notion, i.e. has not annulled Time. It is the outer, intuited pure Self which is not grasped by the Self, the merely intuited Notion; when this latter grasps itself it sets aside its Time-form . . . Time, therefore, appears as the destiny and necessity of Spirit that is not yet complete within itself, [Time is] the necessity to enrich the share which self-consciousness has in consciousness."

Consciousness is the unreflective, automatic motion of Spirit. Consciousness just follows a rule, which generates the series of its shapes. Each shape comes from the previous shape.

For instance, consider the series: {1, 2, 3, 4, 5, . . . }. Here each member is generated from the previous just by adding 1. So if the rule of consciousness were "Start with 1; now repeat: add one to the previous member". If you let F(1) denote the first member of this series, then F(1) = 1; at the n-th step, the rule for generating the next member in terms of the last is F(n) = F(n-1) + 1.

A rule like F(n) = F(n-1) + 1 is what Hegel calls a "Time-form". It is HISTORICAL. It's historical because it is RECURSIVE. Recursive means that the next member is defined in terms of the previous member: the future is defined in terms of the past. Thus F(n) is defined in terms of the past term F(n-1).

Consciousness doesn't understand the series it is generating. It just generates it automatically. But self-consciousness REFLECTS on the series and sees that it has a timeless form: F(n) = n. This form is timeless since it makes no mention of any previous members of the series. With this form, self-consciousness has WHOLLY ABSORBED consciousness, because it is able to completely predict any shape or moment of consciousness, for any n. Consciossness can't do that. Once self-consciousness has wholly absorbed consciousness, substance has become subject.

Here's another series: F(1) = 1; F(n) = F(n-1) + n. This rule produces the series: {1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36}. You can see that the n-th term is just the sum of the first n integers. As self-consciousness reflects on this, it sees that F(n) = (n * (n + 1)) / 2. As soon as it sees this, it has completely wrested from consciousness all the substance that consciousness has.

Self-consciousness in the case of the Phenomenology reflects on the entire history of humanity; it remembers the journey out of the cave, and comes to see that this is its own self-actualization.

Remembering the Journey out of the Cave

The World-Spirit, externalizing itself in Time and creating History, is "sunk in the night of its self-consciousness"(808), that is, it is sunk in the negativity of consciousness. The negation that comes from consciousness "supersedes in such a way as to preserve and maintain what is superseded, and consequently survives its own supersession"(188).

When the World-Spirit was creating History, each earlier historical stage is cancelled by but preserved in the later stages. Similarly, within the Phenomenology, each earlier section is superseded by later sections. Therefore, sense-certainty (Ch. I) is cancelled and preserved in perception (Ch. II), both sense-certainty and perception are cancelled but preserved in the Understanding (Ch. III), and so on.

The entire series of shapes of consciousness is the process that ends in a particular shape, the result (Absolute Knowing). This result must cancel yet preserve the entire process; hence the entire series of shapes of consciousness (the whole gallery of pictures (808)) is cancelled but preserved (is superseded) in Absolute Knowing.

This is why the chapter "Absolute Knowing" contains a trace of each of the earlier shapes (these traces appear in an order appropriate to Absolute Knowing, in "the Notion's Time", not as they do in the Table of Contents of the Phenomenology). The chapter "Absolute Knowing" contains references to Sense-certainty (789), Perception (789), Understanding (789), Observing Reason (790), the Enlightenment and utility (791), culture and self-alienated Spirit (791), moral self-consciousness (792), Spirit that is certain of itself (793), Religion (794-797), and finally Absolute Knowing itself (808).

Spirit has now achieved the level of systematic philosophical Science. Science is the preservation of the series of Spirits "regarded from the side of their [philosophically] comprehended organization" (808).

Science reveals the necessary progress of the series of Spirits towards the goal of Absolute Knowing. It is the philosophical comprehension of the organization of the shapes of consciousness brought into existence in Time by the World-Spirit). In Science, the moments of the movement of Spirit no longer manifest themselves contingently as shapes of consciousness, as they did in History; rather, they exhibit themselves as "specific Notions and as their oganic self-grounded movement"(805). Nor do they manifest themselves in the Time of History, but in "the Notion's Time" (808).


This is why the Phenomenology of Spirit is not a simple linear re-telling of human history. It contains (not unsurprisingly) three historical series (these series are based on Kojeve's outline at the end of the Introduction to the Reading of Hegel ).

The first series begins with Primitive Societies, the Egyptians, and the Greeks (Ch. IV, A); pre-Christian Romans (Ch. IV, B, 1& 2); Christian Romans and the Medievals (Ch. IV, B, 3); it then enters the modern period, dealing with the 17th century, Pre-French Revolution, French Revolution to Napoleon, German philosophy and the Napoleonic Empire (Ch. V).

The second series is a new beginning; it too begins with Primitive Societies, Egyptians, Greeks (Ch. VI, A, a & b); Pre-Christian Romans and Christian Romans (Ch. VI, A, c); the Medievals and the 17th century (Ch. VI, B, I); Pre-French Revolution (Ch. VI, B, II); French Revolution to Napoleon (Ch. VI, B, III); German philosophy and the Napoleonic Empire (Ch. VI, C).

The third series again starts with Primitive Societies (Ch. VII, A, a & b); Egyptians (Ch VII, A, c); Greeks and Pre-Christian Romans (Ch. VII, B); Christian Romans, the Medievals, the 17th century, Pre-French Revolution, French Revolution to Napoleon, German Philosophy and the Napoleonic Empire (Ch. VII, C).

Chapter VIII, "Absolute Knowledge", is the chapter in which Spirit supersedes the series of its historical shapes. Hence this chapter is outside of history. Yet due to the relation of Absolute Knowledge to Revealed Religion (the content of Absolute Knowledge is Revealed Religion (788)), it seems reasonable to place Ch. VIII at the end of the third series (the Religion series), so that it is the overcoming of religion that leads Spirit out of history.

Hegel's Dynamical Absolute

803. Hegel's Absolute is something like the purely logical form of God. In the Old Testament, the Judaeo-Christian God tells Moses that God's name is "I am that I am". Conceptually, this is pure self-identity: "I=I". But it is not a static, motionless equation. For Hegel, the "I=I" is dynamical, it contains motion. So "this 'I'='I' is the movement which reflects itself into itself; . . . the self-identity of the 'I' . . . has to be expressed as Time" (803). In other words, God creates the world. But for Hegel, God creates the world dialectically.

THESIS: Being, I am that I am, I=I, God.

ANTITHESIS: Nothing, the not-I, the I that is not not-I, the non-God. The Judaeo-Christian story says that God created the world out of nothing.

SYNTHESIS: Becoming, the I that is not-I, the I = not-I. But this identity of I with not-I is dynamical; the not-I is becoming I. This becoming is the life of Spirit. It is the World that evolves into God.

The Progress of Self-Knowing Spirit

The rest of803 describes the progress of Spirit, one moment (stage) after another.

Spirit first awakens as Spirit in primitive religious superstition: "The movement of carrying forward the form of its self-knowledge is the labor which it accomplishes as actual History. The religious community, so far as it is at first the substance of absolute Spirit, is the uncultivated consciousness whose existence is all the harsher and more barbarous the deeper its inner Spirit is, and the deeper its Spirit is, the harder the task that its torpid Self has with its essence, with the alien content of its consciousness." (803) This "alien content" is superstition.

PLATONISM: After religious superstition comes Platonism (and its Aristotelian antithesis), with its Neoplatonic synthesis. The "intellectual world" is Plato's world of Forms. Spirit realizes that the world of forms is reached by internal work on the self, not external work on the world.

Spirit now enters modern philosophy. In 803, Hegel lists the progress of Spirit in the history of modern philosophy:

DESCARTES: "[Spirit] has thus expressed the immediate unity of Thought and Being . . . the unity of extension and being -- for extension is the simple unity which more nearly resembles pure thought"

SPINOZA: "[Spirit] revived in thought the Substance of the Orient"

LEIBNIZ: "Spirit at once recoils in horror froom the abstract unity, from this self-less subatantiality, and against it affirms individuality."

KANT: "in the sphere of culture, . . . Spirit has arrived at the thought of utility, and in the absolute freedom has grasped existence as its will"

FICHTE and SCHELLING: Spirit turns "the thought of its inmost depths outwards and enunciate[s] essence as 'I=I'"

Out of the Cave

804. "Spirit, however, has shown itself to us to be neither merely the withdrawal of self-consciousness into its pure inwardness, nor the mere submergence of self-consciousness into substance, and the non-being of its moment of difference; but Spirit is this movement of the Self which empties itself of itself and sinks itself into its substance, and also, as Subject, has gone out of that substance into itself . . . That first reflection out of immediacy is the Subject's differentiation of itself from its substance, or the Notion's separation of itself from itself, the withdrawal into itself and the becoming of the pure 'I'. . . . The 'I' has neither to cling to itself in the form of self-consciousness as against the form of substantiality and objectivity, as if it were afraid of the externalization of itself: the power of Spirit lies rather in remaining the selfsame Spirit in its externalization and, as that which is both in itself and for itself, in making its being-for-self no less merely a moment than its in itself; . . . knowing is this seeming inactivity which merely contemplates how what is differentiated spontaneously moves in its own self and returns into its unity."

805. "In this knowing, then, Spirit has concluded the movement in which it has shaped itself, in so far as this shaping was burdened with the difference of consciousness [i.e. of the latter from its object], a difference now overcome . . . Spirit, therefore, having won the Notion, displays its existence and movement in this ether of its life and is Science. In this, the moments o fits movement no longer exhibit themselves as specific shapes of consciousness, but -- since consciousness's difference has returned into the Self -- as specific Notions and as their organic self-grounded movement. Whereas in the phenomenology of Spirit each movement is the difference of knowledge and Truth, and is the movement in which that difference is cancelled, Science on the other hand does not contain this difference and the cancelling of it. . . . to each abstract moment of Science corresponds a shape of manifest Spirit as such."

But now the wheel has come full circle, and is about to spin around again.

Back to the Future

806. Substance has become Subject, self-consciousness has completely absorbed consciousness, so that the original self-identity "I=I" has been achieved. Humanity has effectively become God, or at least attained God-like powers. So just as God created a world in God's own image, humanity now creates a world in its own image: "the self-knowing Spirit, just because it grasps its Notion, is the immediate identity with itself which, in its difference, is the certainty of immediacy, or sense-consciousness -- the beginning from which we started."

This is the step from one level of the self-map of England to the next deeper level, to the next map within the map, which has to be brought into focus (made accurate with respect to England). It's as if Spirit drew a perfect map of England inside England, and as soon as it was done it had to step into that map of England to draw a perfect map of England within the perfect map of England.

The Absolute contains the whole series of maps within maps at once; but not so Spirit. Spirit moves from one map to the next, and as it does so it reveals itself as God in motion.

God created humanity in the image of God; humanity becomes divine and creates (say) robots in the image of humanity; the robots become divine and create subrobots in their image. This process goes on forever. It's the infinite self-extension of the finite.

Drawing the New Map inside the Old Map

Spirit now sets about drawing another map of the previous map that corresponds to the Absolute, that is, to the whole series of maps of England. Of course, Spirit can never just draw a map and then stop, since it always ha to step into the map it just drew and draw the next map.

807. Yet this externalization is still incomplete; . . . The self-knowing Spirit knows not only itself but also the negative of itself, or its limit: to know one's limit is to know how to sacrifice oneself. The sacrifice is the externalization in which Spirit displays the process of its becoming Spirit in the form of free contingent happening, intuiting its pure Self as Time outside of it, and equally its Being as Space. This last becoming of Spirit, Nature, is its living immediate Becoming; Nature, the externalized Spirit, is in its existence nothing but this eternal externalization of its continuing existence and the movement which reinstates the Subject.

808. But the other side of its Becoming, History, is a conscious, self-mediating process -- Spirit emptied out into Time; but this externalization, this kenosis, is equally an externalization of itself; the negative is the negative of itself. This Becoming [History] 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 [substance is becoming Subject]. As its fulfilment consists in perfectly knowing what it is, in knowing its substance, this knowing is its withdrawal into itself in which it abandons its outer existence and gives its existential shape over to recollection. Thus absorbed in itself, it is sunk in the night of its self-consciousness; but in that night its vanished outer existence is preserved, and this transformed existence --the former one, but now reborn of the of the Spirit's knowledge -- is the new existence, a new world and new shape of Spirit [Absolute Knowing]. In the immediacy of this new existence [the immediacy of sense-consciousness mentioned in 806] the Spirit has to start afresh to being itself to maturity as if, for it, all that preceded were lost and it had learned nothing from the experience of the earlier Spirits. But recollection, the inwardizing, of that experience, has preserved it and is the inner being, and in fact the higher form of the substance. So although this Spirit starts afresh and apparently from its own resources to bring itself to maturity, it is none the less on a higher level that it starts. The realm of Spirits which is formed in this way in the outer world constitutes a succession in Time in which one Spirit relieved another of its charge and each took over the empire of the world from its predecessor. Their goal is the revelation of the depth of Spirit, and this is the absolute Notion. This revelation is, therefore, the raising-up of its depth, or its extension, the negativity of this withdrawn 'I', a negativity which is its externalization or its substance; and this revelation is also the Notion's Time, in that this externalization is in its own self externalized, and just as it is in its extension, so it is equally in its depth, in the Self. The goal, Absolute Knowing, or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit, has for its path the recollection of the Spirits as they are in themselves and as they accomplish the organization of their realm. Their preservation, regarded from the side of their free existence appearing in the form of contingency, is History; but regarded from the side of their [philosophically comprehended organization, it is the Science of Knowing in the sphere of appearance [Phenomenology].

Return to the Cave

When Spirit steps into the map it just finished drawing, it finds that that map does not contain a map within itself. So it has to draw one, but it can't get out and look at England. It has to draw the map from memory. Lucky for the Absolute, the memory of Spirit is perfect. Spirit sets about doing this, REMEMBERING or RECOLLECTING or REFLECTING. It thus converts the Substance at this level (it's unconscious memories of the structure of the Absolute, the structure of England in the map example) into Subject: a new map into which it will step.

Spirit has to return to the cave, as Plato said. You're out, now go back. You've advanced from natural consciousness to philosophical consciousness, because I led you out of the cave by leading you through a reading of the Phenomenology of Spirit. So, now you've seen two things: you've seen that there is a way out of the cave, and you've studied the road map (the Phenomenology). So now you have to go back into the cave and lead others out. Welcome to the club. You're enlightened. Congratulations. Now your job is to enlighten others.


1. J. Royce, The World and the Individual (Supplementary Essay). (New York: Dover, 1959), pp. 504-507. Original work presented 1899.

William Paterson University Philosophy Department