>Hegelian Dialectic: The Master and the Slave

>Hegel’s interest in the dialectic lies in his attempt to codify the process by which human’s come to self-consciousness, to an understanding of themselves. Thus, he begins his Master-Slave Dialectic with the assertion that “Self-consciousness exists…only in being acknowledged,” and the twisting path which leads us all to a recognition of this fact is what comprises the rest of the passage (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Edition, p. 541). My chief goal in this post is to attempt an untangling of the relationship that Hegel describes.

He presents us with a self-consciousness. Hegel’s self-consciousness is a negatively defined entity. That is, self-consciousness is “simple being-for self, self-equal through the exclusion from itself of everything else. For it, its essence and absolute object is ‘I’…it is an individual. (542). Hegelian self-consciousness defines itself by excluding everything ‘other’ than itself. This self must be very Kantian in nature, taking no interest in the material world, and existing in a state of pure reason. It is an appeal to the pure “Spirit” of the being. (Because Hegel thus puts it, and because it might help understanding the interaction that must take place, I will henceforth place myself, my ‘I’ in this role)

Suddenly, I am faced by an other (presumably another human being like me), and because the other is obviously another self-consciousness, I am faced with a host of difficulties. It seems like some of these difficulties arise because, as the editors of the excerpt suggest, “selves do not take their fundamental dependence on others kindly” (538). I am disposed to think of myself as an independent identity, existing eternally, but the confrontation of another self, and the realization through that experience that this other self must feel the same way that I do about its independence and identity, I feel that my independence, and thus my identity (my self-consciousness, at least so far as I have developed it up to this point) is threatened. Hegel suggests that my first reaction, when faced with this threat, is to supersede the other:

[I] must supersede this…other independent being in order thereby to become certain of [myself] as the essential being. (541)

However, by attempting to supersede the other, which I recognize as independent – a veritable mirror of my own self-consciousness – I realize that I myself have also been superseded, both in my attempt to position myself above the other, and in understanding that the other is invariably doing to me just what I have done to him. Hegel addresses the double nature of this interaction, which makes it essentially different than the interaction I might have with other objects:

[I do] not have the object before [me] merely as it exists primarily for desire [as perhaps other objects in the world might exist], but as something that has an independent existence of its own, which, therefore, [I] cannot utilize for [my] own purposes, if that object [the other self-consciousness] does not of its own accord do what the first does to [me] (542).

This back and forth between denial-of-other and denial-of-self goes on until I am faced with a realization: if I am to preserve my self as independent and eternal, I must destroy this other.

(I must say, though I think I sorta’ get this, it doesn’t come out much clearer from my pen then it did from Hegel’s. Ever thus…)

Hegel’s “life-and-death struggle” heightens the interplay between the two self-consciousnesses to the highest degree. What began as mere “supersession” becomes destruction. However, the paradoxes inherent in the first situation have not diminished. By seeking the death of the other, I necessarily put my own life on the line, and by recognizing the opportunity to kill the other, I necessarily recognize my own inherent killability. Hegel says, rather cryptically, that “it is only through staking one’s life that freedom is won” (543). It is in this moment of staking my life that I realize “that there is nothing present in [me] which could not be regarded as a vanishing moment” (543). Essentially, it seems that by staking my own life on my perceived self-consciousness, I necessarily recognize that my idea of an eternal self independent of external factors is a flawed conception. I begin to realize that my only consciousness is one “entangled in a variety of relationships” (543).

If the battle ends in death, by the same paradox that Hegel has been following, it ends in the death (quite literally) of the other self-consciousness, and the death also (though implicit) of my own. However, Hegel suggests that this battle might end otherwise: in a relationship he considers as Master (Herr, which Norton translates as “lord”) and Slave (Knecht, translated here as “bondsman”).

A note: I have been using myself as the subject of this interaction, supposing as the ‘other’ another human being like me, and until the moment that he introduces Lord and Bondsman, it seems as though Hegel, too, considers this an interaction between two separate human beings. However, this does not necessarily hold true hereafter. Look at the way Hegel leads up to the idea:

In the immediate self-consciousness the simple ‘I’ is the absolute object which, however, for us or in itself is absolute mediation, and has as its essential moment lasting independence. The dissolution of that simple unity is the result of the first experience [of the life-and-death struggle?]; through this there is posited a pure self-consciousness, and a consciousness which is not purely for itself but for another, i.e. is a merely immediate consciousness, or consciousness in the form of thinghood. Both moments are essential. Since to begin with they are unequal and opposed, and their reflection into a unity has not yet been achieved, they exist as two opposed shapes of consciousness; one is the independent consciousness whose essential nature is to be for itself, the other is the dependent consciousness whose essential nature is simply to live or to be for another. The former is lord [Herr], the other is bondsman [Knecht] (544).

Suddenly it seems as though Hegel has moved inside the mind of one of his individuals, in order to discover a split which has occurred within the self-consciousness (within me), rather than between it and another. It’s as if the dialectal struggle between self and other (which culminated in a life-or-death struggle) is synthesized in an understanding of self as self and other. Suddenly, the ‘I’ that at first comprised my entire self-consciousness – built as it was on my understanding of being-for-self, now comprises a single dialectical aspect of my self-consciousness; the other aspect is understood as being-for-another.

So the Master-Slave dialectic, which for Hegel is the ultimate struggle, is perhaps one that takes place within my own mind. I preserve my sense of self-consciousness as being-for-self (that Kantian Ideal of mind free from all interest in the world, negatively defined as only that which is not external to me) by supplicating the second self-consciousness (the being-for-another) to the role of Slave. The former takes the role of Master, and mediates its interaction with the world of things through the latter.

Of course the Master finds his role to be empty, for the reason that he is now necessarily determining his own self-consciousness in relation to a self-consciousness in the Slave that, while he may have dominion over it [the Slave], loses its being-for-self precisely because he has dominion over it: It is now a thing, a being-for-another, and because the Master can only measure himself in relation to the Slave, he finds himself to be lacking as well. Hegel says, “What now really confronts him is not an independent consciousness, but a dependent one. He [the Master] is, therefore, not certain of being-for-self as the truth of himself” (545). (It strikes me that while the Master sees his complete dissociation from the world of things as an ultimate goal, this dissociation necessarily sends him wheeling into disconnectedness. Either he has nothing to measure his self-consciousness by but itself [which induces a circularity], or he must measure it by something self-consciously inferior).

The Slave, on the other hand, has a golden opportunity. Remember that it, too, faced its death and so understands itself as a vanishing moment:

In that experience it has been quite unmanned, has trembled in every fibre of its being, and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations. But this pure universal movement, the absolute melting-away of everything stable, is the simple, essential nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity, pure being-for-self, which consequently is implicit in this consciousness (546).

The Slave is not conscious of this capacity within itself, but, Hegel maintains, can become conscious of it through the work the Slave does on things:

…work forms and shapes the thing…the formative activity is at the same time individuality or pure being-for-self of consciousness which now, in the work outside of it, acquires an element of permanence. It is in this way, therefore, that consciousness, qua worker, comes to see in the independent being [of the object] its own independence (546).

So through the act of creating, of working on the natural world, the Slave becomes conscious of himself as other than the natural world (i.e., he can set himself up once again as a negatively-defined self-consciousness). In what he makes, he sees the permanence that is then reflected back onto himself. Does that make sense? (I’m afraid not.)

Hegel seems to suggest that through their dialectical relationship the Master is naturally diminished and the Slave is naturally empowered. How this comes to a dialectical synthesis, however, in which the opposition itself is superseded, is not clear. (Perhaps because it hasn’t?)

Taken this way (as a manifestation of inner conflict), the Master-Slave Dialectic presents us with a self at odds with itself, a consciousness at once dominant and submissive. The delineation of the Slave suggests that our interactions with objects, with the external environment, is at once somehow barbaric and redemptive. It also paints a picture of our higher faculty (what I might characterize as our sense of reason) as both domineering and distant.

There is also the possibility of taking the Master-Slave Dialectic as an external conflict, between two individuals (or even two groups of individuals). It seems, in this case, that the Master’s crisis, his recognition of the Slave, and thus himself, as something less than being-for-self, might result in the sort of moral imperative that has ended slavery in the past. There comes a point when the Master “stops fooling himself” and recognizes in the Slave another independent self-consciousness. I’m not sure, however, what necessitates this shift, except to point to historical examples as proof that it happens. It seems like it might be just as easy for the Master, who has reduced the Slave to just another object, might achieve the same level of self-consciousness through his manipulation of the Slave as the Slave receives through his manipulation of other objects.

As Nausheen Eusuf pointed out in our class discussion, one might take the Slave’s interaction with the world as analogous to that of the Artist, realizing his self-consciousness in the work he does on the material world:

The bondsman labors to fashion the world of objects and imprint upon it the mark of his own subjectivity, through which he gradually gains self-definition and authority. SImilarly, the young writer labors to fashion language into shapes that are uniquely his, and as he finds language bending to his will, he gains confidence through the permanence of his art. (Eusuf, Nausheen. From lecture notes entitled “Hegel, Consciousness, Creativity.” 3 Sept. 2010)

Nausheen positions the Artist Slave in relationship to the Master that is the weight of artistic tradition, but I wonder if the Master couldn’t equally well be positioned within a Kantian critical art community. That is, perhaps the Master which the Artist Slave works under is the Ideal of artistic aesthetic, certainly bound to a great degree by ideas of beauty that have been handed down, but ultimately determined by a critical ‘disinterest’ in Kant’s sense.

It is telling that this Masterly critical viewpoint is rather empty. Kant’s aesthetic judgment needs necessarily hold no interest in the object, and the effects of this, as I have explored them previously, seem to align with the ultimate self-conscious dissatisfaction that the Master experiences by distancing himself from the world of objects.

One of the beauties of Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic is its ambiguity. Finally, I don’t feel like I’ve fully come to grips with Hegel’s concept of self-consciousness, nor with the implications that his Master-Slave dialect suggests, and I don’t (wholly) blame Hegel’s confusing and difficult language. In a certain sense it feels deliberately left unfinished. What, after all, is the use of a theory that answers all the questions?


About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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