Hegel: The Master-Slave Dialectic

This is the third is a series of three sketches of the modern problem of the relation between empirical fact and moral value. The first sketch looked at Kant’s question, How are synthetic a priori judgments possible? Though the language used to formulate the question was highly technical, we saw that question got at the nature of our confidence in assumptions and methods of natural scientific study. The question, we also saw, framed the world in such a way that it was incapable of dealing with the concrete character of moral judgments. These are always crossing the supposed gap between an objective fact and a subjective value by ascribing a moral value to objects in the world, including, and especially, human bodies.

The second sketch looked at Hegel’s initial formulation of response to Kant’s question: in a little studied section of his Phenomenology of Spirit called ‘Sense-Certainty.’ Hegel’s response was at the same time more straight-forward and more difficult to grasp than the formulation of Kant’s question. He argued that persons carried around in their heads a complex, concrete universal idea of an ‘I-This-Here-Now,’ into which they fitted their thoughts of particular things. For example, I might think about this tree, this building, or this sentence on the computer screen. Regardless what it is that I think about, it remains ‘I’ who think about ‘This,’ which is locatable in some ‘Here’ and ‘Now.’ By tethering the ‘I’ to ‘This-Here-Now,’ we saw that Hegel, in effect, showed how moral judgments were possible.

This is all well and good, someone might say, but what does any of this have to do with actual moral judgments? The ‘I-This-Here-Now’ does seem a rather uninspiring framework in which to analyze the moral character of human thought and action. I grant the point. Hegel’s response to Kant, however, is significant both for what it affirms and for what it denies.

The essence of Hegel’s response is concentrated in a much studied section of the Phenomenology titled the ‘Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage.’ I have here identified it here by its better known moniker ‘the master-slave dialectic.’

Hegel’s arguments begins by assuming that human being are always and everywhere self-consciousness. This is the moral ideal, the end of human nature. Persons are self-conscious, but they may not themselves be conscious of that fact. It makes little sense, after all, to say a new-born baby is actually self-conscious. So instead we say that a baby is potentially self-consciousness — which is to say, self-conscious by nature, something which they can achieve in the course of their lifetime, though not in present actuality. Similar considerations can be offered for the infatuated teenager, the inebriated party-goer, or the distracted mother. These people are self-conscious, in the sense that they have the potential capacity for rational self-reflection. But they aren’t always — or even ever — realizing their complete self-conscious potential. They might be thinking about this, that, or the other thing. Just not their ownmost selves everywhere and all the time.

Hegel’s idea of self-consciousness also has the important feature of being intrinsically communal. Using his own technical philosophical vocabulary, we would say: ‘Self-consciousness exists in and for itself, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.’ Persons achieve self-consciousness only to the degree that they also think of other persons as self-consciousness like themselves; or to the degree, if you will, that they see themselves in other persons. The obvious example here is an encounter between two adults in full possession of the rational faculties that come together for some purpose like marriage, a business deal, or some other sort of collaboration. The ideal of self-consciousness holds that persons deal with each other as if they were dealing with themselves.

Encounters between social equals, of course, will obviously apply to a very limited portion of encounters in any given population. As likely, or even more likely, are encounters between persons whose differing social standing, which introduces elements of authority in the relation. The time and energy that parent’s pour into their children or that teacher’s give to the education of their students are good examples of this second case. Authority clearly rests in the hands of one of the parties and not the other. Yet, Hegel will claims, the nature of these relationships is such that they aims at the eventual dissolution of authority — or, at least, at the dissolution of the minor party’s dependence on major party’s authority. And, in this sense, we may say in every case the end goal is that ‘they recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another.’

What Hegel terms ‘the master-slave dialectic’ is symptomatic of the failure to see other persons as essentially like one’s own self. By this, of course, Hegel means something more than merely thinking positive thoughts about other persons. Thought is always implied in a person’s course of action. How a person thinks will therefore inform how they act towards other persons.

Usually dialectic arises as a consequence of one person usurping another person’s ‘labour’ for their own gain, with little or no recompense. Hegel understands ‘labour’ to be an investment of one’s very self into some material reality. One imparts an intelligible form to a material medium: by planting a field, building a shelter, domesticating animals, or, to bring things into our virtual age, designing a website, auditing a set of financial books, or setting instructions assemble a car. People perform these sorts of labour, of course, to secure the means for life: food, clothing, shelter, and the like. But, in the case of the master-slave dialectic, the master takes the products of the slave’s labour, with little or no attention to the slave’s need to secure the means for live. The master fails, in other words, to recognize the slave as a being like themselves, and sees them merely as a means to their own end. If any of this is beginning to sound at all like Karl Marx’ critique of capitalism, then you are getting warm.

Let’s take a second look at things and get a little more precise with our description by re-introducing some of the terminology from the previous reflection on ‘Sense-Certainty.’ A self-conscious person thinks about themselves through in terms of the complex, concrete universal idea of ‘I-This-Here-Now.’ They are conscious of themselves as being this body, here and now (perhaps sitting somewhere like a living room or a library in front of a computer). A person who is not mere self-conscious by nature, but actually thinks of themselves on such terms, will also think of other persons in the same way: as other ‘I-This-Here-Nows’ (perhaps sitting in another living room or another library in front of a computer). Suffice it to say that the self-conscious person knows themselves to be this body, and knows that other self-conscious persons are those bodies.

The master-slave dialectic, it will follow, arises as a consequence of a very natural two-fold mistake. First, they will fall into a primitive version of Kant’s mistake : they will distinguish absolutely between what they themselves necessarily are (the ‘I’) and their contingent existence (the ‘This-Here-Now’), which is always changing with the passage of time and with different sets of circumstances. And second, they will consequently they will think about and act towards other persons as if they were merely ‘This-Here-Nows,’ or merely objects to be manipulated. Since there is no room for other persons in each other’s heads, the others will be objectified and reduced to the status of a merely contingent existences, who one encounters from place to place and time to time.

Both the master’s consciousness and the slave’s consciousness, Hegel insists, are incomplete by finding in the other only half of a whole. The slave is nevertheless closer to the truth of self-consciousness than the master ever can be. The reason why should be the case is quite straight-forward. By comparison to the master, who steals the products of the slave’s labour, the slave is actually labouring; they are actually imparting an intelligible form to a material medium. The slave, therefore, thinks about something through the complex, concrete universal idea of ‘I-This-Here-Now.’ Whatever the something is, of course, it will at the very beginning be something other than themselves. But the more the slave labours for the master, the more of themselves they will find in the products of their labour. In time, this dialectical line of thought continues, the slave will accumulate such knowledge of themselves that they will rise up against their master. And when that happens, the master will find themselves entirely defenseless, because their life has been perpetuated by the slave’s labour all along.

Hegel’s account of the master-slave dialectic reconnects the modern problem of the relation between empirical fact and moral value with the longer Western intellectual tradition. The account clearly owes something to Aristotle’s Politics, where the master is described as the slave’s soul, making use of the slave’s body for their own purpose. It also owes something to the long tradition of Christian reflection on Jesus’ command to love God and one’s neighbour as oneself. In his On Christian Doctrine, for example, Augustine argues that the love or self and love of neighbour are properly ordered by the love of God because one sees God in one’s neighbour. And it possible now to see God in one’s neighbour because God has revealed himself in Jesus (which was not unimportant to Hegel.)

The dialectic also informs subsequent generations of thinkers like Karl Marx, who adapts the master-slave relation to the relation between capital and labour. The classless communist utopia, in this picture, is simply Hegel’s communal ideal of self-consciousness turned on its head. The ideal of mutual self-recognition has been replaced by the ideal of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’ And it influence can be found in the work of the arch-anti-humanist Friedrich Nietzsche, who absolutely despised slave-morality, proposing instead the ideal of the Overman, who would surpass all merely human limitations. The progress of 20th century Western thought can be discerned in broad outline from there.

The important point to take away from all this, it seems to me, is that Hegel has never not been talking about how people make sense of their bodily lives. Even if you are inclined to think of his ideal of communal self-consciousness as more than a little hopeful, you are still compelled to admit that you live an embodied life, something you share in common with every other human being who has ever lived.