The Owl of Minerva 26 (1):21-28 (1994)
AbstractThe act of confession plays a crucial and recurring role in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Alienation between individuals, Hegel suggests, can be overcome only through a mutual confessing and forgiving between two alienated consciousnesses. Thus the dramatic climax of the text occurs at the close of the “Spirit” section, with the breaking of the hard heart and the reciprocal acts of confession and forgiveness on the parts of the acting and judging consciousnesses. Leading up to this act of mutual confession are a series of confessional scenes, whose insufficiency arises from one of two failings: Either they fail to be direct, or they fail to be mutual. The paradigmatic cases of each of these types of failure can be found, respectively, in the section on the unhappy consciousness and in the section on the ethical realm. The unhappy consciousness’s admission of misery to the mediating consciousness is a type of confession. Presumably, both the subjugator and the subjugated confess at this point. However, they do not confess directly to each other; they confess only to the mediator. Thus the gesture of confessing to the other remains something merely intended and not yet carried out in the deed. This failure is compensated for at the level of the ethical realm, where the defender of the divine law performs a double deed: First, she carries out the deed of violating the human law, then the deed of confessing directly to the antagonist from whom she is alienated. However, the defender of the human law does not recognize his own guilt and so refuses either to confess or to forgive. The structure of this latter scene of confession is eventually repeated at the level of spirit. For so long as the judging consciousness refuses to recognize his own evil, he remains stubbornly Creonic. Only when he recognizes that he too is evil does the hard heart reciprocate the confession of the other. Mutual and direct confessing now takes place.
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