Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hegel on Master-Slave Dialectic explained

One of the most important and famous ideas introduced by Hegel in his The Phenomenology of Spirit is the idea of master-slave dialectic, relationship or dynamics. The issue at hand is self-consciousness and the way it is formed through meeting the other. The master is the one in the interaction who succeeds in obtaining recognition from the other in the sense that he imposes himself as the slave’s value. The slave is the one who sees his own true self in the other (master).

Paradoxically, this original situation changes and it must do so, Hegel claims, because there are contradictions in it. On the one hand, by not recognizing the slave as a real person the master deprives himself of the recognition of his own freedom which he originally demanded and which is a requirement of his own self-consciousness. The master precisely in being the master therefore debases himself to an infra-human condition. On the other hand, by simply carrying out the master’s will the slave objectifies himself through labor in which transforms material things (manufactures and builds), and thereby gives form to himself and rises to the level of true existence.

Meaning of master-slave dialectic

The concept of the master-slave relationship has two aspects. (1) It is a stage in abstract dialectical development of consciousness and (2) it must be considered in relation to the course of history. The two dovetail. Human history itself reveals the development of Spirit, the work of the Spirit on the way to its goal – and Hegel calls this particular historical stage “Stoic” consciousness.

However, Stoic consciousness contains inherent contradictions and the master-slave relationship is not really overcome. Rather both Stoics, Marcus Aurelius (master) and Epictetus (slave), must take flight into interiority and exalt the idea of true interior freedom, self-sufficiency (inward turn), leaving their concrete relationship unchanged. Here we see that the negative attitude towards the concrete relational easily passes into skeptical consciousness for which the self alone remains while all else (relationship) is subjected to doubt and negation.

The trouble is that skeptical consciousness contains an internal contradiction – that is the skeptic cannot eliminate natural consciousness, and hence affirmation and negation exist in the same attitude (free to seek my satisfaction in the other yet not free in that I am dependent on the other for satisfaction). When this happens, we pass into “unhappy consciousness” which is divided consciousness. At this level the master-slave relationship which was not successfully overcome either by Stoic or skeptical consciousness returns in another form as follows.

Thus, in the master-slave relationship the recognition of selfhood and freedom both in oneself and the other were divided between two consciousnesses (master and slave): the master recognizes freedom and selfhood only in himself while the slave recognizes freedom and self only in the master. However, in “unhappy consciousness” this division occurs within one (consciousness) self; that is, in  the tension between the fickle and changing (desiring) self and the ideal changeless self, where the first is something to be denied or repressed and where the second cannot be attained. The latter ideal or true self is then projected into an other-worldly sphere and identified as absolute perfection (e.g. as God existing apart from the world and the finite self), which results in unhappy alienated and divided consciousness.