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Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic: the search for self-consciousness

By J.D. Feilmeier '92

Modern Continental Philosophy

Writing Objective: Write a 1,000-word paper on Hegel’s philosophy based on the passage of the dialectic of self-consciousness and the master-slave conflict. What does this passage show? Why is the struggle necessary? Assume an audience with no background in philosophy.

How does an individual human being become conscious of his place in the universe? How can I become fully aware of what I am, and thereby validate my existence as a dignified human being? Is it possible to discover the true significance of my existence independent of other human beings? In his “Master-Slave dialectic” G.W.F. Hegel answers these questions of self-consciousness by introducing the idea that true self-consciousness is a product of society and culture which cannot be achieved merely through individual existence. Robert C. Solomon explains Hegel’s idea as such: “Human existence is primordially a matter of mutual recognition, and it is only through mutual recognition that we are self-aware and strive for the social meanings in our lives.” (Solomon, p. 68) Only by seeing ourselves in relation to other humans in society can we determine our sense of dignity and establish our place in the world which we live in.

Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic tells the story of two independent “self-consciousnesses” who encounter one another and engage in a life-and-death struggle. The two self-consciousnesses must struggle because each one sees the other as a threat to itself. Until the confrontation, each self-consciousness has seen itself as the measure of all things. Its feelings, desires, powers, etc. have been the objective standard by which all things encountered have been measured. Now, however, the presence of another self-consciousness establishes a new objective standard -the feelings, desires, and powers of each self-consciousness are subjective standards which must be measured against the new objective standards – the feelings, desires, and powers of the other. This affirmation of self-consciousness requires a struggle to the death because each self-consciousness can only become aware of Its limits by exerting itself to a maximum effort. Each self-consciousness must struggle with all its might in order to realize the extent of its strength in relation to the other. Although Hegel refers to each entity as a “self-consciousness”, the more appropriate term to describe each entity appears to be “consciousness”. Self-consciousness indicates that an individual relativizes his perspective and therefore does not see his view as the only point of view. Consciousness, while indicating that the individual is aware of his own perspective, does not concern itself with the perspective of other individuals. An independent consciousness sees itself as a god-like measure of truth while a self-consciousness recognizes that it is relavitized by other individuals. In order to clarify this important distinction, the term “consciousness” will be used to refer to an unrelavitized independent entity throughout the remainder of this paper.

In this struggle to determine the objective truth of itself, each consciousness seeks to establish the certainty of its being not only for itself but also for the other. In other words, each consciousness is trying to prove its worth to the other as well as to itself. Therefore, although the clash begins as struggle to the death, the victor in the battle spares the life of the vanquished so that the loser may provide an external, objective witness to the power of the winner. Out of this life-and-death conflict emerges a master-slave relationship where the victor is master and the vanquished is slave. Through defeat, the loser has become aware that he is not the objective standard of truth in the world; he has achieved self-consciousness. The master, however, has not discovered his limitedness. He continues to see himself as the measure of all things.

Hegel’s clash of the two consciousnesses paints a drastically different picture of the state of nature than we find in either Thomas Hobbes or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For Hegel, the state of nature is neither a setting where chaos and selfishness rule, as Hobbes contends, nor is it a place where “noble savages” go about their business and pleasure without vices such as pride and vanity which Rousseau believes to be the products of civilization. Hegel argues that in the state of nature each consciousness already possesses a sense of Its own status – it is the measure of all things. The encounter with another consciousness must lead to struggle since the other is a threat to its status. At this point, Hegel’s critics might inquire “Why does the presence of an external threat necessarily lead to all-out conflict? Individuals and even nations perceive threats in the form of other individuals and other nations nearly every day, yet conflict is the exception rather than the rule.” Hegel would respond to this charge by pointing out that such individuals and nations are not in the state of nature. Rather, we already recognize ourselves and our nations in relation to other persons and other nations. Furthermore, the pursuit of knowledge and power, which Hegel claims is a fundamental drive in all humans, is the force which makes the clash of the two consciousnesses necessary. Each consciousness has an innate desire to discover objective truths and to achieve as much power as possible. Until their encounter, each consciousness had perceived itself as the standard of truth and power. Now there is an external measure which each consciousness must test itself against in order to become fully aware of itself.

After the struggle has ended and the master-slave relationship Is established, an ironic twist of fate takes place. The significance of its existence which each individual fought so fiercely to establish is fully realized by the slave rather than the master. In winning the struggle, the master has affirmed his power over the slave, yet the master has failed to recognize that he is not god. The slave, however, recognizes his limitedness, slavery to the master “Is his chain, from which he could not, in the struggle, get away, and for that reason he proves himself dependent, shows that his independence consists in his being a thing.” (Hegel, p.405) Only in being subdued and forced to see himself as merely an object, is it possible for the slave to become fully aware of his place in the universe. The slave realizes just how fragile life is and he understands that he is dependent upon the master for his life. Furthermore, the slave sees that the master depends upon him for affirmation of his position as master. The slave shapes the master’s world by working for him and acknowledging him as master. Essentially, the slave recognizes that there is no fundamental difference between himself and the master – they both are finite individuals. The master-slave relationship is now the exact opposite of what the master intended – although the master controls the slave physically, he cannot control the slave’s spirit or sense of dignity. Through his enslavement, the slave has established his dignity and validated his life by becoming fully aware of his place in the world. In contrast, the master cannot establish his dignity or validate his life outside his role as master. Hegel describes the situation as such: “The truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the consciousness of the servant…being a consciousness repressed within itself, it will enter into itself, and change around Into the real and true independence.” (Hegel, p.407)

Ultimately, the master comes to realize his dependence upon the slave for affirmation of his position as master. He discovers that he is in fact dependent upon the slave for determining his place in the universe. This situation of recognized mutual dependence is what Hegel refers to as the “double self-consciousness” – each individual is aware of what it is in itself and in relation to the other. Each self-consciousness knows the extent of its power and how its power measures up to that of the other.

Hegel’s contention that true self-consciousness can only be achieved through mutual recognition is compelling in that it offers an external, objective test for our subjective impressions of ourselves. It seems logical to say that by comparing myself to another, I may more fully realize what I am as well as what I am not. More importantly for Hegel, this Master-Slave dialectic is not only the story of individuals, but of civilization as well. From ancient Greece to the advent of Capitalism and ultimately to the Enlightenment, the world has witnessed the unfolding of this master-slave struggle. Ancient Greek philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) focused on the individual and his relationship to himself rather than his relationship with his fellow man. Philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke moved beyond the individual to address the conflict between individuals within society. Issues such as individual rights within a society and the individual’s duties to society parallel the struggle between the two Independent consciousnesses in the Master-Slave dialectic. Hegel reconciles this conflict in his argument that each individual life has dignity and significance insofar as the individual is aware of his place in the unfolding of history. Not only can the individual discover his significance for himself and in relation to other individuals, he can determine his place In the development of history as well.

Works Cited

Hegel, G.W.F., The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. AV.

Miller Oxford, 1977 Solomon, Robert C, Continental Philosophy Since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self, Oxford, 1988