In this section of the Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel attempts to further define what he means by self-consciousness and the freedom of self-consciousness by references to historical philosophical schools such as Stoicism and skepticism. It appears that Hegel wants to suggest that these schools represent instances of self-consciousness and the freedom of self-consciousness, but only incomplete accounts of the latter. By examining how these schools understand self-consciousness and freedom of self-consciousness as well as the limitations of their understanding, Hegel is then able to flesh out his own account.
Hegel begins this section by summarizing his previous definitions. Consciousness becomes self-consciousness when there is a new freedom introduced to consciousness or thinking. It appears that this means that when one also can think about oneself that one’s thoughts truly become free. They are not only limited to thinking, for example, about food or other basic necessities as we may assume animal consciousness does. Consciousness in other words starts to think about consciousness. It finds its freedom in itself, or by discovering or reflecting on itself. On the other hand, this does not mean some type of absolute ego, because consciousness can also think about the reality of which it is apart. There is rather no restrictions to consciousness when it moves to self-consciousness and this is its true sense of freedom.
Hegel states that this is also similar to how the Stoics understood consciousness. For example, Stoics began from the position that such types of self-consciousness are ultimately forms of freedom. When we are no longer occupied by the world around us, when we can say that we are indifferent in light of defeat or sadness, then this also can mean that we are free.
The reason why this is traced to consciousness is that the Stoic finds freedom in his own thought. All our experiences no longer force us to react when we instead concentrate on our position of self-consciousness, when we understand our freedom to ignore the world around us which is granted by self-consciousness.
However, this is where Hegel finds a limitation to the Stoic interpretation. He wants to maintain the freedom of self-consciousness but also detects that the Stoics were unable to proceed further. The Stoics are unable to provide a definition of truth in Hegel’s view. They can only assert the importance of not being so attached to the world and being indifferent to it based on self-consciousness. But they cannot justify this conclusion from some perspective of truth. This is why Hegel then talks about the Skeptics as a further consequence of the Stoics. The Skeptics then deny the possibility of knowledge.
Hegel therefore has the following aim. He wants to keep the idea of the freedom of self-consciousness. However, he also wishes to develop an interpretation whereby this does not mean that we are left with the impossibility of knowing anything, like the Skeptics maintain. This is where Hegel uses his dialectical method. The first step is that the freedom of self-consciousness of the Stoics. This then leads to the Skeptic position, where we essentially cannot know anything, but only remain free. However, for Hegel, this not knowing anything now becomes an objective truth and therefore means perhaps that we now know something.
The freedom of self-consciousness leads to a position where we can declare the truth and that is this very freedom of self-consciousness. This now does not become a blockade to knowledge like the Skeptics but a starting point with which to approach the world: our freedom of self-consciousness does not, like the Stoics’ represent our indifference to the world, but the position from which we can now confront the world from a philosophical perspective.