March 31st, 2010

Mind/Spirit or, Philosophy as a Tool for Visual Interpretation

By Joel Speasmaker


There seem to be two modes of thought currently in the “graphic design” and “graphic design as art” worlds. One prescribes to the process of quick and constant creation, the formation of a set visual language, and repetition. The other relies on an investigation into thought processes, the exploration of concrete ideas and concepts, and offering visual interpretations as such. While by no means an expert, and not to belittle the other process, I personally lean towards the latter of the two, and find it much more interesting. I recently exhibited a small body of work that allowed me to explore this process as much as my free time would allow. I treated it as an experiment, and it truly helped me define the reasons why I enjoy what I do. Thinking For A Living has been kind enough to allow me to publish the essay I put together for the exhibit in its original form.


Mind/Spirit is a brief investigation into Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit. In short;

“’Phenomenology’ comes from the Greek word for ‘to appear’, and the Phenomenology of Mind is thus the study of how consciousness, or mind, appears to itself. In Hegel’s dynamic system, it is the study of the successive appearances of the mind to itself, because on examination each one dissolves into a later, more comprehensive and integrated form or structure of mind.” 1

I first read about this idea almost two years ago, and soon after came up with the concentric circles graphic, a much simplified visual interpretation of how I see Hegel’s theory operating in each of us. When the opportunity came to put together this exhibit, I knew I wanted to explore Hegel’s ideas further, and the output is simply that: my own exploration into the workings of human consciousness, filtered by what I have read and what I have seen and what I have experienced, and presented as such. My philosophy of art making is the same: interpretive, concept-based, process-oriented, and having little to do with myself.

“Art is not about the singular hand of the artist; it is the ideas behind the works that surpass each work itself.” 2

And it is in that same vein that this essay was created—a collection of words, thoughts, and primarily quotations that I’ve struggled with for some time.


It is rare when I don’t think about what it is that connects us all, though much more apparent in my every day is what doesn’t, or more appropriately, what is uniquely different about each of us. In the most simplest of things we can find ways to argue and clash, and these feelings are only intensified when paired with things of more personal importance. It might be easiest then to describe the unifying factor in the form of the question ‘why are we here?’ (and it’s related ideas ‘what is real?’, ‘what does it mean to exist?’, etc.) and how we each come to terms with the impossibility of answering it. But that is what we are all faced with, the cause and not the effect. The effect, or rather, the answer to the question, can never be the same for all of us. Our consciousness won’t allow it. Could there be some sort of Absolute?* I think so, but it is absurd to think that everyone will come to the same realization at once about what it is, or even more laughable that it will reveal itself.

And that typically leads me to this conclusion: we are connected by our differences. In some almost incomprehensible way our consciousness is something utterly personal and completely universal at the same time.

Not in the sense that each of our mind’s are one in the same – a shared consciousness – but rather that we are so impossibly different, and there are infinite factors that will effect each of our thoughts uniquely, that we are unified in that.

I represent this graphically with the spiral, a never-ending cycle of both preserving and changing an idea or concept, and look to Hegel’s approach, referred to as the Hegelian method, to help clarify it.

*The Absolute is the concept of an unconditional reality which transcends limited, conditional, everyday existence. it is often used as an alternate term for “god” or “the divine”, especially, but by no means exclusively, by those who feel that the term “god” lends itself too easily to anthropomorphic presumptions. the concept of the absolute may or may not (depending on one’s specific doctrine) possess discrete will, intelligence, awareness or even a personal nature. It is sometimes conceived of as the source through which all being emanates. It contrasts with finite things, considered individually, and known collectively as the relative.


In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel’s approach “consists of actually examining consciousness’ experience of both itself and of its objects and eliciting the contradictions and dynamic movement that come to light in looking at this experience. Hegel uses the phrase “pure looking at” to describe this method. If consciousness just pays attention to what is actually present in itself and its relation to its objects, it will see that what looks like stable and fixed forms dissolve into a dialectical movement. Thus philosophy, according to Hegel, cannot just set out arguments based on a flow of deductive reasoning. Rather, it must look at actual consciousness, as it really exists.

In the Introduction, Hegel addresses the seeming paradox that we cannot evaluate our faculty of knowledge in terms of its ability to know the Absolute without first having a criterion for what the Absolute is, one that is superior to our knowledge of the Absolute. Yet, we could only have such a criterion if we already had the improved knowledge that we seek.

To resolve this paradox, Hegel adopts a method whereby the knowing that is characteristic of a particular stage of consciousness is evaluated using the criterion presupposed by consciousness itself. At each stage, consciousness knows something, and at the same time distinguishes the object of that knowledge as different from what it knows. Hegel and his readers will simply “look on” while consciousness compares its actual knowledge of the object –what the object is “for consciousness” — with its criterion for what the object must be “in itself”. One would expect that, when consciousness finds that its knowledge does not agree with its object, consciousness would adjust its knowledge to conform to its object. However, in a characteristic reversal, Hegel explains that under his method, the opposite occurs.

As just noted, consciousness’ criterion for what the object should be is not supplied externally, rather it is supplied by consciousness itself. Therefore, like its knowledge, the “object” that consciousness distinguishes from its knowledge is really just the object “for consciousness” – it is the object as envisioned by that stage of consciousness.

Thus, in attempting to resolve the discord between knowledge and object, consciousness inevitably alters the object as well. In fact, the new “object” for consciousness is developed from consciousness’ inadequate knowledge of the previous “object.” Thus, what consciousness really does is to modify its “object” to conform to its knowledge. Then the cycle begins anew as consciousness attempts to examine what it knows about this new “object”.

The reason for this reversal is that, for Hegel, the separation between consciousness and its object is no more real than consciousness’ inadequate knowledge of that object. The knowledge is inadequate only because of that separation. At the end of the process, when the object has been fully “spiritualized” by successive cycles of consciousness’ experience, consciousness will fully know the object and at the same time fully recognize that the object is none other than itself.

At each stage of development, Hegel, adds, “we” (Hegel and his readers) see this development of the new object out of the knowledge of the previous one, but the consciousness that we are observing does not. As far as it is concerned, it experiences the dissolution of its knowledge in a mass of contradictions, and the emergence of a new object for knowledge, without understanding how that new object has been born.” 3


I’ve read and re-read that summation many times, and it is still difficult to wrestle with. And that’s not even the actual text by Hegel, which, when read, is probably one of the most difficult philosophical works to comprehend. Which then naturally leads to many different interpretations of the work, and both positive and negative appraisals.

My interpretation is as follows. Each of our consciousness’ can be represented as the spiral. Beginning at birth, we are constently and without control presented with countless pieces of information and data, experienced through each of our senses of hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste. Each piece of information is continually processed and reprocessed, as it interacts with all other data you have experienced. Logically, no two people will ever be presented with the same sequence of data. The sequence is never-ending and unstoppable, and like I stated before, is both preserved and changed as it continues.

In my piece Some Appropriate Dialectics, I represented this “data” as either shapes (circles of varying color and pattern combinations) or words. There are hundreds of words and hundreds of shapes that appear, and not one of them will elicit the same response for you as they do for me. Your ideas could be somewhat similar, or they could be entirely different, but in each case our “spiral of experience” is so unique, thus making our own meaning unique. It’s baffling to really sit down and think about how all things we have experienced will affect all forthcoming experiences.

If simply one word’s personal meaning is rooted in such an elaborate sequence, imagine concepts much more complex, or much more personal (or better, emotional). There are certainly going to be common threads shared by anyone, but the differences in your experience are staggering. I won’t even go into this effect on things such as politics, religion, and the like, but you get the idea.


The word dialectic “is rooted in the ordinary practice of a dialogue between two people who hold different ideas and wish to persuade each other. The presupposition of a dialectical argument is that the participants, even if they do not agree, share at least some meanings and principles of inference.

Hegelian dialectic, usually presented in a three-fold manner, was stated as comprising three dialectical stages of development: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction, an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two being resolved by means of a synthesis.

Although this model is often named after Hegel, he himself never used that specific formulation. Hegel ascribed that terminology to Kant. On the other hand, Hegel did use a three-valued logical model that is very similar to the antithesis model, but Hegel’s most usual terms were: Abstract-Negative-Concrete. Sometimes Hegel would use the terms, Immediate-Mediated-Concrete. Hegel used these terms hundreds of times throughout his works.

The formula, Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis, does not explain why the Thesis requires an Antithesis. However, the formula, Abstract-Negative-Concrete, suggests a flaw in any initial thesis—it is too abstract and lacks the negative of trial, error and experience. The same applies to the formula, Immediate-Mediated-Concrete. For Hegel, the Concrete, the Synthesis, the Absolute, must always pass through the phase of the Negative, that is, Mediation. This is the actual essence of what is popularly called Hegelian Dialectics.

To describe the activity of overcoming the negative, Hegel also often used the term Aufhebung, variously translated into English as sublation* or overcoming, to conceive of the working of the dialectic. Roughly, the term indicates preserving the useful portion of an idea, thing, society, etc., while moving beyond its limitations.

In his work The Science of Logic, for instance, Hegel describes a dialectic of existence: first, existence must be posited as pure Being; but pure Being, upon examination, is found to be indistinguishable from Nothing. When it is realized that what is coming into being is, at the same time, also returning to nothing (in life, for example, one’s living is also a dying), both Being and Nothing are united as Becoming.” 4

*Sublation is an English term mainly used to translate Hegel’s German term aufhebung. the german word aufhebung literally means “out/up-lifting”. In sublation, a term or concept is both preserved and changed through its dialectical interplay with another term or concept. Sublation is the motor by which the dialectic functions.


A central concept to Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit is “Geist”, translated as “spirit-mind” in English.

“Spirit may be defined (in contrast to matter) as that which has its center in itself… This self-contained existence of Spirit is none other than self-consciousness – consciousness of one’s own being… It involves an appreciation of its own nature, and also an energy enabling it to realize itself; to make itself actually that which it is potentially.” 5

For Hegel, the mind is not simply a passive absorber of the external world, but actively organises it. As the mind can not know things-in-themselves, what becomes the real is Geist. As Hegel says, “The Real is the Rational and the Rational is the Real.”

Hegel sees Geist developing through history, each period having a Zeitgeist (spirit of the age). These stages will eventually reach the end of self-understanding, that is when Geist comes to know itself.

It is only when Geist comes to know itself that we can be free: it is only possible to be free if we understand reality. If we do not understand reality we are not in a position to make a free judgement, we struggle in vain against that which we do not understand.

For Hegel each person’s individual consciousness or mind is really part of the Absolute Mind, it is just that the individual does not realise this. If we understood that we were part of a greater consciousness we would not be so concerned with our individual freedom, we would agree with to act rationally in a way that did not follow our individual caprice. By following the Real or the Rational, each individual would achieve self-fulfilment.” 6


Though a fascinating idea, this is where myself and Hegel differ. His Absolute is what would unite us, but for Hegel the Absolute is God.

“What God creates he himself is… God is manifestation of his own self. God is… the absolutely true, that from which everything proceeds and into which everything returns, that upon which everything is dependent and apart from which nothing else has absolute, true independence.” 7

This idea almost seems to render everything else discussed insignificant, which, to me, is a common problem when religion is incoporated into philosophical thought. Ideas and theories are constructed around an existing concept (God, for example), rather than in and of themselves. Their value is upheld merely by association, or as means to an end (a “divine” one, no less).

For purposes of the exhibit, I adapted the concepts of Geist into my own visual translation. In a series of four images, you are taken from nothing, Geistlos (“without spirit”), to becoming, Geist (“absolute spirit”), with Weltgeist (“world spirit”) and Volksgeist (“folk spirit”) in-between. Except for the obvious difference between nothing and something, the variations are so abstract as to remove all distinction between them.


But for Hegel, there were specific stages of development to attain this Absolute Knowing, which included Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, Reason, Spirit, and Religion. The chapters of The Phenomenology of Spirit are separated into these categories, to great effect:


Contemplating Hegel’s stages of development lead me to work in an even more structured and mathematical sense, and how to apply that to processes and modes of thinking. At the same time, while reading Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, I found myself incorporating both of their ideas into some sort of unified method. Synergetics,* a concept coined by Fuller as a metaphoric language for communicating experiences using geometric concepts, could be applied to my earlier spiral and sequence of events idea. In the piece Comprehension, I represent seven different events as circles (see Fuller’s book for a much more detailed representation). The lines show the potential ways to connect each dot to the other (or “minimum number of interconnections of all events”). On such a small scale of seven, it is possible to visualize the connections, but imagine applying this to every single persons sequence of events.

Fuller says “The universe is the aggregrate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience with the nonsimultaneous, nonidentical, and only partial overlapping, always complementary, weighable and unweighable, ever-omnitransforming, event sequences.” 8

Though each person’s consciousness is absolutely unique, it is that which can connect us all. In the final piece, Synergetics, the seven events become completely connected. And like Fuller’s geodesic dome, the larger it gets, the stronger it becomes.

*Synergy is a term used to describe a situation where different entities cooperate advantageously for a final outcome.


This is almost two years of thinking condensed into a short essay, and as such can only be a brief look. I highly recommend the original sources (see References), as well as any works from Hegel, Fuller, and an obvious visual (and art making) influence, Sol Lewitt. These same ideas were also incorporated into a motion/sound piece entitled We Are All Doing The Same Things, Differently, also shown during the exhibit:

1. Wikipedia. The Phenomenology of Spirit
2. Weinberg, Adam D. “Backstage Stars.” Culture+Travel, 21 Aug 2007.
3. Wikipedia. The Phenomenology of Spirit
4. Wikipedia. Dialectic
5. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philsophy of History. New York: Dover, 1956.
6. Jones, Roger. Romanticism
7. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philsophy of Religion. Hamburg: Meiner, 1983.
8. Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969.