On Hegel’s Claim that Self-Consciousness is ‘Desire in General’ (‘Begierde überhaupt’)

Robert Pippin

University of Chicago


This unusual claim by Hegel occurs in the most well-known chapter of his 1807 Jena Phänomenologie des Geistes, his account of “self-consciousness.” The claim is embedded in a complex and highly counter-intuitive general position on self-consciousness. That position is: from the minimal sense of being aware of being determinately conscious at all (apperception), to complex avowals of who I am, of my own identity and deep commitments, Hegel treats self-consciousness as (i) a practical achievement of some sort. It must be understood as the result of an attempt, never, as it certainly seems to be, as an immediate presence, and it often requires some sort of struggle. And (ii) he sees such an attempt and achievement as necessarily involving a relation to other people, as inherently social. The crucial turning point in his argument for this position is the claim that self-consciousness should be understood as “desire in general.”


Robert B. Pippin is the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, the Department of Philosophy, and the College at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books on German idealism, including Kant’s Theory of Form; Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness; and Modernism as a Philosophical Problem. His latest books are Henry James and Modern Moral Life; a collection of his recent essays in German, Die Verwirklichung der Freiheit; a collection of recent essays, The Persistence of Subjectivity; and Nietzsche, moraliste français. His research interests include Kant, German Idealism, moral and political theory, contemporary European philosophy, modernity theory, philosophy and literature, and theories of freedom. He is a winner of the Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award in the Humanities, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was recently a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.