Hegel’s “Unhappy Consciousness”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel calls the “unhappy consciousness” a consciousness that experiences itself as divided within and against itself. Arising from the sceptical consciousness, the unhappy consciousness is aware of its duality of ‘master’ and ‘servant’ and aims to find a conception, which reconciles the two. The unhappy consciousness can be described as being two persons in one; it fluctuates between identifying with one or the other and experiences a tension between infinite and finite aspects of itself. This unstable condition is inherited from the sceptical consciousness, as it regards itself as being essentially godlike, but also realises that it is very far from such a condition. After giving an exposition of Hegel’s unhappy consciousness, I will put forward critiques by Philip J. Kain and Howard P. Kainz to address some problems that arise with the unhappy consciousness, and to examine how this notion connects with other philosophers.

Hegel breaks his notion of the unhappy consciousness down into three stages. The first outlines how the universal (master) and individual (servant) are opposed. This is analogous to the idea of an otherworldly God and the earthly human; one’s relationship to God’s otherworldliness is feeling-based and it is through religious devotion directed toward the infinite being that a relationship is made.

The second stage of the unhappy consciousness has the universal and the individual partially identified by being brought closer together. The two are reconciled to the extent that the servant aspect begins to conceive of the master aspect as having some distinct individuality. God is brought ‘down to earth’ and takes the form of an individual person (such as Jesus, a King or an Emperor), a physical object or place, or the earth itself. The servant then tries to become one with this individual aspect of God by worshipping this individual, object, place or earthly thing. If the earth is conceived of as God’s body, then the servant works with nature in order to get closer to God.

As the unhappy-consciousness-as-servant attempts to become one with God by working with nature, the earthly manifestation of God, it surrenders its independence to it. Likewise, God’s manifestation surrenders itself for the benefit of the servant and so the two are unified to some extent. However, there are some frustrations that arise in this situation: the servant surrenders all of itself, whereas God only gives an infinitesimal bit. Secondly, if the servant feels proud or satisfied from their devotion, then they are not in fact being selfless and surrendering. If the manifestation is a religious relic, owning it does not necessarily make one more spiritual or closer to God since it has no consciousness, and merely is an inanimate object. The unhappy consciousness, now totally frustrated with its futile efforts, retreats from identifying with either of its aspects and regards itself as constantly fluctuating between the two and identifies with the point of nothingness between its two inner aspects. It reaches a nihilistic meaningless.

Frustrated with its earthly work to achieve unity with God, the unhappy consciousness realises the full impact of its individuality and the distance this creates in relation to God. This causes the unhappy consciousness to completely despise its own existence. Hegel points out that this extreme negation of individual existence (i.e. asceticism) operates against the background of an awareness of God. The unhappy consciousness now considers itself to be an explicit nothingness, which stands as the mere fluctuation between the two aspects of itself. The explicit awareness of itself as neither fully God nor fully individual generates a triadic relationship within the unhappy consciousness: the (former) servant aspect is regarded as a pure object, the master aspect is regarded as the absolute truth, and the unhappy consciousness takes itself to be the point in transition between the two. The unhappy consciousness now sees itself as a meaningless mediator between the two aspects of itself, neither of which it can regard as completely itself. Since it regards itself as a fluctuating nothingness, it does not assign itself any positive value as a mediator, although it seeks a mediator between its individual and universal aspects in order to reconcile itself. This causes the unhappy consciousness to seek an external mediator, such as a priest.

By completely submitting itself to a priest, the unhappy consciousness reduces itself to an ‘object’ or ‘thinglike consciousness’. It surrenders its autonomy, property and body. There is a turnaround within the servant’s consciousness and there is a point of identification with the priest. As it obeys the priest’s commands, it embodies the priest’s will and thus becomes more like a priest itself. Eventually the unhappy consciousness internalises the external priest and realises that it has a priest within itself and reaches a point where it reconciles the opposing aspects of itself. The third stage of the unhappy consciousness has a transition to reason, which is possible when the individual and the universal are finally identified and reconciled. Hegel refers to this condition as the dawning of reason, of the certainty that, in its particular individuality, it has being absolutely in itself, or is all reality. To the rational consciousness, nothing is essentially foreign and it attains the ‘certainty of being all reality’. It is an idealistic view of the world, which acknowledges the independent existence of the natural world from any particular thinking individual.

Although Hegel’s treatment of the unhappy consciousness alludes to Christianity, Philip J. Kain argues that it also alludes to the section of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason that deals with the postulates of pure practical reason. For Kant, the highest good requires the reconciliation of virtue and happiness. Kain points out what this entails, according to Kant:

Happiness, Kant thinks, requires the regular satisfaction of our needs, interests, and desires. But to be virtuous, we certainly cannot be determined by needs, interests or desires. We must be determined by the moral law. If we lived solely in one world, then, there would be no reason to expect virtue and happiness to be reconcilable. Only if there are two worlds can we imagine such a reconciliation, and only if we postulate – that is, Hegel will insist, only if we construct – a God who will see to it that nature is ordered such that while we act virtuously our desires will at the same time be satisfied so that we can also be happy.

Kant’s discussion of the highest good is comparable to that of the Stoics and Epicureans. Kain suggests that this influenced Hegel’s discussion of Stoicism, leading up to the unhappy consciousness. However, he points out that Kant does not mention scepticism and Hegel does not refer to Epicureanism. Kant argues that both the Stoics and the Epicureans mistakenly identified virtue and happiness. As Kain explains:

The Stoics held that virtue was itself the highest good and they understood happiness merely as a consciousness of the possession of virtue. Epicureanism, on the other hand, held that furthering one’s own happiness was virtue. It held that happiness was the highest good and that virtue was simply the means to achieve it.

Kant does not accept these conceptions of virtue and happiness and regards them as being distinct, each belonging to a separate world, and thinks that God is required to reconcile them. Kain draws connections between parts of Kant’s philosophy to Hegel’s unhappy consciousness: Kain states that what Hegel has in mind in the first stage of the unhappy consciousness is Kant’s notion of holiness, which implies complete agreement of the will with the moral law. Kant claims that we should strive for this perfection (although he admits that it is impossible for anyone to attain). This Stoic position assumes virtuosity and holiness would satisfy our desires and thus make us happy. However, for Kant this is only an ideal and we must only seek virtue. Kain suggests that this is echoed in the first stage of the unhappy consciousness, where the individual attempts to reach the unchangeable (infinite, universal), and to overcome unhappiness. This is attempted through devotion, purity of heart and purity of thought.

The second stage of the unhappy consciousness finds that devotion is not enough and thus adopts a second strategy of work and desire. Kain suggests that this echoes Kant’s discussion of Epicureanism, where he argues that Epicurus identified virtue with happiness (for Epicurus, furthering one’s happiness is a virtue) and happiness is the highest good, with virtue being the means to obtain it. However, Kant rejects Epicureanism entirely as he believes that virtue and happiness are different things; that they belong to two different realms and require a God to reconcile them. Kain points out that Hegel fundamentally disagrees with Kant’s conception of happiness and cannot accept the notion that it is incompatible with virtue. Kant’s idea of happiness involves the satisfaction of inclinations, desires, needs, and so on, whereas Hegel’s conception is more like Aristotle’s. Kain expresses this succinctly:

Virtue is to be sought as an end in itself, but also it is a means to happiness. Happiness is understood as a satisfaction that arises out of activities, activities that are virtuous and that are excellently performed.

Hegel disagrees with the Kantian unhappy consciousness since it does not acknowledge that desire and work can be satisfying and enjoyable. Furthermore, we do not need God to reconcile virtue and happiness for us – it is strange to assume that we are not responsible for reconciling happiness with virtue. Kant misunderstands virtue and happiness since he assigns each to a different realm, so that virtuous activity will not get us to happiness and that we require God to reconcile them. According to Hegel, such a God is a construction to solve a problem we should not have caused in the first place.

As mentioned above in the exposition of Hegel’s unhappy consciousness, the external mediator is thought to be the priest (or the church). Kain suggests that Hegel also wants to allude to Kant’s mediator, the God that reconciles virtue and happiness. An objection to Kain’s suggestion about the external mediator being Kant’s reconciling God is that Hegel’s mediator is the middle term between individual consciousness and the universal, unchangeable being. The mediator would have to be the church which mediates between individuals and God rather than God who mediates between virtue and happiness. Kain points out that Hegel also says, “[t]his middle term is itself a conscious Being [the mediator],” which does make it sound like the mediator is God. What the mediator mediates is consciousness. Kain goes on to say that the three terms ‘individual consciousness’, ‘the mediator’ and ‘the unchangeable’ are constructions within self-consciousness and says that self-consciousness from the start has constructed two worlds. He expresses this as a problem:

The whole problem results from the fact that consciousness posited two worlds and now must bridge them. And it is self-consciousness itself that does the bridging. For Hegel this is to solve a false problem with an unnecessary solution. Except that, without seeing what it is doing (and if it saw what it was doing, it could not accept it), self-consciousness is constructing itself as absolute consciousness, which is to say that God or the absolute, properly understood (in Hegel’s view), is beginning to emerge here.

Furthermore, Kain claims that Hegel’s views about consciousness bears a similarity to Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the superhuman: in order to avoid the emptiness of nihilism, the superhuman must construct value and meaning, otherwise none would exist. The superhuman has to create an illusion. He points out that for Hegel too, consciousness faces the empty void of scepticism without any objective reality. It must construct its own God if it is to have any reality.

Overall, Kain’s argument on the issue suggests that Hegel undermines the Kantian difference between theoretical and practical reason. Kant’s commitment to two worlds causes a tension between these two forms of consciousness since each is regarded as belonging in a separate world, which must be reconciled by God. Kain explains this difference:

Theoretical reason constructs the phenomenal world of experience. Practical reason, on the other hand, has a special relation to the noumenal sphere. For Kant, we cannot say that practical reason constructs the noumenal sphere. Practical reason is extremely modest. It denies that it constructs anything. The noumenal, the thing-in-itself, reality, are all unknown for it. Practical reason simply benefits from the noumenal. For practical reason, the noumenal is the source of freedom, morality, the categorical imperative, the highest good. Practical reason dutifully serves the noumenal – it does not construct it.

In other words, Kain claims that theoretical reason is just as rash as practical reason is modest. Hegel regards the idea of two worlds as a mere construction that is not plausible. Without these two worlds, Kantian practical reason cannot be sustained, as there would be no second noumenal world for practical reason to draw upon, serve, and respect. I agree with Kain’s point here, and think that it is problematic that Kant has conceived of two worlds and claims that only God can reconcile virtue and happiness. I take a stand much like Nietzsche would on this issue and regard the absolute, the otherworldly, as an unhealthy and unfulfilling way of conceiving the world.

Søren Kierkegaard’s essay The Unhappiest Man interprets Hegel’s unhappy consciousness as a situation in which the essence of a self-conscious individual is no longer present to him, but in some manner outside him, such that the individual manifests a dichotomy of temporal alienation. Such a situation develops when a person lives in the past, or in the future, without being reconciled to their present self, their present essence. Howard P. Kainz points out that in Sickness unto Death he examines many other senses in which the individual may fail to be reconciled to his own eternal essence, and thus enter into the various states of despair. This theme of despair appears in Nietzsche’s idea of the death of God, where the once devout believer comes to reject their otherworldly beliefs and ‘kills’ God in the sense of rejecting him as a foundation for belief. Thus there is a nihilistic despair, where the once devout believer has lost a father figure and must overcome this terrible state by adopting life-affirming interpretations of the world and one’s existence. Secondly, Kierkegaard’s notion of a misplaced perspective – one not being reconciled with their present self or essence – is echoed in Nietzsche’s death of God, where belief in an otherworldly God creates a kind of social sickness, along with profound unhappiness and dissatisfaction. What the unhappy consciousness and death of God have in common is the theme of projecting oneself onto an otherworldly Other, however this theme is treated differently by their respective philosophers – Hegel aims to reconcile with the Other, whereas Nietzsche claims that it is dead, illusory and unhealthy to believe in.

Kainz points out that psychological transcendence in psychiatric practice is redolent of Hegel’s analysis of the second stage of the unhappy consciousness:

“…in cases where people were no longer able to project the image of the divinity, and were in danger of dispersion of psychic energy, the ambiguous situation was often alleviated by the dream or vision of the ‘mandala symbol’ – the symbol of deiform completeness (usually a circle containing sets of quaternities). This symbol was found to coincide in major characteristics with mandalas in ancient and modern religions, myth, etc. In the case of the individual patient, this ‘particular revelation’ of the divinity and of one’s own potential self is usually accompanied by a feeling of profound inner peace.”

Kain’s insightful comparisons between Hegel’s idea of the unhappy consciousness and Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason allow us to see that Hegel was very much influenced by Kant, although fundamentally disagreed with Kant’s positing of two worlds in order to reconcile virtue and happiness. Individual consciousness, the mediator, and the unchangeable are all constructions within self-consciousness and when these are divided into two different realms, it creates a problem that need not be created in the first place. Secondly, Kainz’s reference to Kierkegaard allows one to draw connections to Nietzsche’s philosophy of the death of God, which I think puts Hegel’s notion of the unhappy consciousness into perspective and confronts us with the question: do we really want to believe in a God at all?


Kain, Philip J. Hegel and the Other: A Study of the Phenomenology of Spirit. (New York: State University of New York, 2005).

Kainz, Howard P. Hegel’s Phenomenology, Part I: Analysis and Commentary. (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1976).

Houlgate, Stephen. The Hegel Reader. (United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1998).

Russon, John. Reading Hegel’s Phenomenology. (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004).

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