In his excellent book The structure of social theory, Anthony King does the social sciences a big favour by taking on the might of the restrictive paradigm that is structure and agency. I’ll come back to some of King’s core ideas in later posts, but for this post I want to focus on the chapter he devotes to Hegel’s concept of Geist. This is also another favour he provides: making some of Hegel’s more esoteric work accessible, although to be fair even King, who writes well, struggles at times to work his way through Hegelian mind games and dead ends. Leaving aside the discussion of the deification of Geist as a transcendental spirit of some kind (an uneasy interpretation that has probably reduced its impact as a theoretical concept in secular science), King delivers what he considers a different translation of Geist, thereby taking on Marx and others over the years. But as King points out, the word Geist is open to different interpretations anyway, as is evidenced in the various English translations – the first for example offering up Die phenomenologie des Geistes as The phenomenology of mind, while its more recent translation is the Phenomenology of spirit (still confusing philosophy undergraduates everywhere).
King argues that Geist as spirit is more accurate as it
expresses the immanence which Hegel intended. Geist is deep within humanity; it refers not merely to cognitive or mental faculties but to emotions as well.
But still King feels neither spirit nor mind do the concept justice, as, according to him,
For Hegel, the Geist referred not to any individual mind or spirit. It referred neither to individual cognition of the world nor to the categories which underlay that individual cognition. For Hegel, individual perception was in fact dependent upon the pre-existing Geist. Geist referred broadly to the consciousness of a people of itself and the world in which they lived. It referred to a people’s self-understanding. It denoted the practices which a people regard as appropriate, the kind of social intercourse in which that people engaged and, finally, the kind of world there was for that people.
Because of this interpretation, King argues that Geist may be more effectively translated as culture, as it
refers to the distinctive lifestyles which various human groups have historically adopted, and to the shared understandings which underpin them … Die phenomenology des Geistes is, therefore, the study of the historical manifestation of human cultures. It examines how human culture has developed in the course of world history.
Interpreting Geist as culture is a reasonable translation to make, and knocks some of the rough edges off the previous efforts. But King could easily be judged guilty of the intellectual monism attached to the other renderings: after all, why can’t Geist be mind, spirit and culture simultaneously? Why should culture be privileged over the other two, when all too often its own intellectual groundings have been found wanting? Geist as culture is a step in the right direction, but for Geist to also reflect the affective domain of human existence (as King desires), it will need something other than culture to do it justice.