The "unhappy consciousness" is a phrase Kantian philosopher G.F.W. Hegel uses repeatedly in his famous and very dense Phenomenology of Spirit, (originally in German). Hegel, like Kant, was a German idealist, so he believed reality to have some ideal nature about it that transcends the physical world. (I find the similarity to Hinduism to be uncanny in light of the fact that Hegel is said to have had no contact with Eastern religious thought). The "unhappy consciousness" is what Hegel supposes to be the result of a mind which is unwittingly at war with itself, and which Hegel alleges is the only possible destiny of the philosophies of Stoicism and Skepticism.

The phrase, "unhappy consciousness" comes from the most famous 1977 English translation of the Phenomenology, by A.V. Miller, and, as I shall explain below, Miller's translation is faulty.

While "unhappy consciousness" is one legimitate translation of Hegel's phrase, unglückliche Bewußtsein, the word unglückliche can mean something other than "unhappy" as well. Upon dissecting the word, its relationship with the English word "lucky" becomes apparent:

un = not
glück = luck, fortune, fate
liche = equivalent of the English affix "-ly"

So unglückliche's most straightforward literal translation is "unlucky". And though unglückliche can also mean “sad” or “melancholy”, these senses are inappropriate to the context of Hegel's fixation on self-contradiction rather than mood. Consider Miller's translation of Hegel's writing in the following passages in the Phenomenology, with close attention to how "unhappy" is used:

The Unhappy Consciousness* is the counsciousness of self as a dual-natured, merely contradictory being (§206)
This unhappy, inwardly disrupted* consciousness, since its essentially contradictory nature is for it a single* consciousness, must for ever have present in the one consciousness the other also (§207).
I think it's pretty clear that what Hegel's getting at here has nothing to do with the lack of happiness, merriment, or joyousness in one's soul. Rather, what he cares about is its 'unfortunateness' - the fact that a Skeptical soul is destined to fight with itself forever.

For this reason, I think what Miller translated as "unhappy" should instead have been translated as, "ill-fated", a term I borrow from this passage in the journal CLIO,

[translating unglückliche as] 'unhappy' has some misleading connotations. Glück is not a word signifying transient cheerfulness or merriment, but has the sense of good luck or fortune. Hence the unglückliche Bewußtsein is an ill-fated consciousness, one of misfortune, rather than a dejected, melancholy consciousness (Flavour, 193).

* Italic emphasis in original.


Flavour, Fivel. "Hegel's Eudaemonia." CLIO 29.2 (2000): 193

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.