At least since the publication of Alexandre Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel in 1947, the best-known moment of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, not to say of all his works, is Chapter IV A, “Independence and Dependence [Unselbständigkeit, literally, non-independence] of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage,” more familiarly known as the master-slave dialectic. No doubt Kojève had political reasons for singling out this text, which can be read as an originary analysis of the Marxist category of exploitation. But a more universal explanation of its popularity is that it is the only moment in all of Hegel that can genuinely be called a scene. However abstractly Hegel describes their interaction, in this chapter two distinct persons of flesh and blood confront each other, not a couple of antithetical ideas ready to be “lifted up” into a new synthesis.
In my student years, Hegel was my favorite philosopher; I admired his ability to make a story of the progression of consciousness continually enriching itself with new layers of self-knowledge. Last year, I was privileged to be lodged in Berlin only a few yards from Hegel’s (austere) grave in the Dorotheenstädtische Friedhof, which I visited with some emotion. But I must admit that with the years I find myself preferring the dry rigor of Kant’s critiques to Hegel’s flights of dialectical imagination. Kant’s ideas remain, however ahistorically, those of human minds; Hegel, in his admirable desire to situate ideas within history, makes the ideas do combat in the place of living (and dying) individuals. My own thinking remains more Hegelian than Kantian, but it is a Hegelianism stood back on its feet, not by Marx’s historical materialism, but by originary anthropology.
This being said, the master-slave moment, which substitutes a historically conceived minimal human relation for the Enlightenment’s loosely defined states of nature, has no equivalent in Kant. Hegel’s unique scene explains the origin of the internal differentiation that is essential to his model of human self-consciousness as well as of human society. Once this is done, all subsequent concepts such as the “unhappy consciousness,” the “beautiful soul,” or the state of “culture,” remain inhabited by this differentiation without having to refer to it explicitly.
The appearance of self-consciousness sets the stage for this unique Hegelian scene. Consciousness of self is not mere negation of the object of knowledge, but the return of its otherness into the self. The “unity of self-consciousness with itself” does not simply exist; it is something desired by the subject: “self-consciousness is the state of Desire in general” (Phenomenology IV, Introduction). As the dialectic develops, it appears that the object of the subject’s desire must be another self-consciousness:
. . . [S]elf-consciousness is thus only assured of itself through sublating [its] other, which is presented to self-consciousness as an independent life; self-consciousness is Desire. Convinced of the nothingness of this other, it definitely affirms this nothingness to be for itself the truth of this other, negates the independent object, and thereby acquires the certainty of its own self, as true certainty, a certainty which it has become aware of in objective form.
In this state of satisfaction, however, it has experience of the independence of its object. Desire and the certainty of its self obtained in the gratification of desire are conditioned by the object; for the certainty exists through canceling this other; in order that this canceling may be effected, there must be this other. Self-consciousness is thus unable by its negative relation to the object to abolish it; because of that relation it rather produces it again, as well as the desire. The object desired is, in fact, something other than self-consciousness . . . At the same time, however, self-consciousness is likewise absolutely for itself, exists on its own account; and it is so only by sublation of the object; and it must come to feel its satisfaction, for it is the truth. On account of the independence of the object, therefore, it can only attain satisfaction when this object itself effectually brings about negation within itself. The object must per se effect this negation of itself, for it is inherently (an sich) something negative, and must be for the other what it is. Since the object is in its very self negation, and in being so is at the same time independent, it is Consciousness. . . . The above general independent nature, however, in the case of which negation takes the form of absolute negation, is the genus as such or as self-consciousness. Self-consciousness attains its satisfaction only in another self-consciousness. (IV, Introduction)
The otherness of the object of consciousness that one is conscious of grasping as other can only maintain itself if it is in fact another self-consciousness. This is Hegel’s way of dealing with the mimetic nature of human interaction. Instead of beginning with a community of subjects, he evolves interaction from within the individual subject, whose desire Hegel sees not as an appetite (which would simply be satisfied by production of its object) but as a self-perpetuating oscillatory process such as Kant’s sublime–or aesthetic experience in general. But this oscillation is not attributed, as in Kant, to an experience of representation. Desire runs up against the independence of an other that it must continually subdue and regenerate. This process is embodied in the recognition that the self demands of the other.
In order for me to be conscious of myself as a self, I must compel another self to recognize my unique selfhood, which can only be accomplished by eliminating the independence of this other, that is, by killing him. The symmetrical battle for recognition is the Hegelian version of mimetic rivalry: each subject attempts to compel the recognition of the other. But no outcome of this war of all against all can provide a satisfactory resolution, since once I have killed my rival, he can no longer recognize my selfhood. A society of such rivals will necessarily reduce itself to a single individual.
The master-slave relation is the solution to this dilemma, one that alone, Hegel insists, permits true, “absolute” self-consciousness to manifest itself. Despite the reduction of the cast of characters to two, Hegel’s scene is indeed a scene of origin, not merely of political economy, but of humanity, whose “absolute” self-consciousness can only emerge from the death and rebirth of sublated/transcended conflict.
The slave is he who renounces mastery to preserve his life, who grants recognition to the other before he is compelled to this recognition by death. Like that of Hobbes, Hegel’s originary society is hierarchical, the difference being that Hegel generates the hierarchy from within the community of equal warriors rather than bringing the sovereign in from without as rex ex machina. The key point in Hegel’s analysis is that it is not the master but the slave who emerges from this experience with a genuine human self-consciousness.
If, however, we read this passage as describing a historical originary scene, the asymmetry between the participants is unsatisfactory. Either this asymmetry is truly absolute, and the “master” becomes God, or it is contingent and oscillating, and the human participants are engaged in the reciprocal exchange that is the model of moral interaction. To affirm that the bondsman finds in the lord “the moment of pure self-existence” reduces the sacred to the anthropological, but fails to account for the persistence of this moment as the foundation of the self beyond the moment of fear and trembling that Hegel describes. “Consciousness” cannot absorb this moment and go on to other things; it must be able to represent it, both to itself and to others. Hegel’s vision of originary human relations lacks the mediation through the representation of the central object of desire that determines these relations as equal. Instead, the deferral of violence results from an absolute subordination of one man to another that excludes the possibility of reciprocal communication, and therefore of language and culture. The self-consciousness that passes through this revelatory moment has no one to share it with.
Yet the labor through which the slave will attain what Hegel will call “a mind of his own” is not simply the “negation” of the worldly object in a purposeful act of production; in order for the emergence of true self-consciousness to take place, the element of “absolute fear” in service to the master must be perpetuated:
Hegel is the first philosopher to preoccupy himself with the historical evolution not merely of institutions but of concepts. But it is not the lack of a Darwinian model for the origin of the human that prevents him from adapting to his schema the originary scenes of Rousseau or Condillac. What limits him is the historical circumstance that still conceives of a definitive end to the dialectical process. The Spirit that was there in the beginning finds in the completed dialectic its full realization. The intellectual preformism that guarantees the Hegelian system is incompatible with a truly radical anthropology, for which the dialectic itself emerges only within human society. Although we cannot blame Hegel for the philosophical crudity of Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, the latter’s “error” is only an extrapolation of the master’s method, one whose implicit political focus makes clearer its anthropological limitations. Marx’s transformation of Hegel’s ideal dialectic into the “materialist” one of “scientific socialism,” far from being a simple vulgarization, renders in political terms the dialectic’s utopian intellectual aspirations. This vision of the final utopia, the “end of history,” is one that nascent market society could reject only out of a historical experience that, precisely, could not have been anticipated in Hegel’s day. The human subject that is coeval with the transcendental dialectic can have no end within this dialectic; historical thinking cannot generate within itself the closure of history.