Hegel – Phenomenology of Spirit – Master / Slave

I decided to write my own “translation” of Hegel for this reading because Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is one of the most difficult philosophical works ever written. It is one of the most important philosophical works ever written, so it is worth struggling through in one form or another.

Phenomenology of Spirit is a weird book because Hegel communicates as if the concepts he is describing have personalities and desires of their own. Each section begins with a concept described in its primitive form. As that concept becomes aware of the internal contradictions within it, it anxiously seeks a resolution to the internal contradictions. Once it finds a resolution it rejoices in its achievement, only to discover that the resolution has imbedded in it new contradictions that cause anxiety again.

Another way of describing it: the human mind accepts that it is unable to explain apparent contradictions in the truth, but eventually a crisis is arrived at, and some one decides that he or she must resolve the contradiction. Once an explanation is offered that resolves the conflict in the truth everyone praises the genius that resolved the solution, but after some time passes new contradictions arrive, causing us to repeat the cycle.

In this reading, the “Master / Slave,” the concept we are exploring is “self-consciousness.” It begins in a primitive form, merely a possibility within consciousness, but slowly develops into fruition as the contradictions are overcome. The first “contradiction” in this piece is more than just a contradiction in truth, but is also a power struggle. At the beginning of the reading it starts out with the truth as understood by a primitive consciousness (in some ways like man in the state of nature, and in other ways like any infant child today). This consciousness expects that the world exists for it, and the fact that other consciousnesses exist, also believing that the world exists for them, appears to be a startling contradiction in truth. “How can the whole world exist for me, and yet, that thing over there is saying ‘No!’ to me?”

I have “translated” Hegel paragraph by paragraph in order to capture as much of the nuance as possible, while making it somewhat readable. It still isn’t easy, I’m sure in part due to my lack of ability. One thing to remember: although I have identified specific examples at time, Hegel almost always speaks in the most abstract language in order to allow for all possible applications of his theory. This is why he is so difficult to understand, and why there are so many different interpretations of Hegel. Initially I was going to defend my method of interpretation to you the reader, but realized that you don’t care, and that it was more confusing than helpful. All you need to know is that because Hegel is hard to understand, there is no such thing as an unbiased reading of Hegel. There is significant disagreement on how to read Hegel, so we’ll be discussing Elton’s Hegel.

  1. One does not become conscious of oneself as a self until one is recognized as a self by someone else. (Reread that a few times if you need to. It is a concise summary of this reading.) There are many ways in which this is true, so it requires one to be very articulate about the different stages that lead to self-consciousness, while recognizing that these stages are often happening simultaneously in any human relationship in many different forms.


  1. Man in the state of nature, pre-social, like in Rousseau, is conscious of the world around him, but he is not conscious of himself as a self. His primary concern is fulfilling his drives. He is indifferent to that which cannot fulfill his drives. When another pre-social person appears on the scene they ignore each other as if the other were merely an object, albeit a living, self-moving object. (NOTE: I am interpreting this in the context of “man in the state of nature,” but it is kind of prior to the state of nature because it feels as though this consciousness has never seen another human being before, and man in the state of nature would have, at least, been raised by a mother. There is still a lot that can be applied to the state of nature though. Also, we should consider that this whole reading may apply to other contexts, such as different parts of one’s consciousness battling itself, or people groups battling eachother. And even though this describes man in the state of nature, each moment in Hegel’s narrative describes an aspect that could appear in every human relationship today.)


  1. This indifference is only temporary because each is a latently self-conscious individual. There is something identified in the other that appears to be more than an object, but each previously believed themselves to be the entire source of truth. This new threat requires a death struggle (sounds a bit severe!). Each must prove to himself and the other through this death struggle that each is the source of truth. (Of course this does not mean that they understand the definition of the term “truth.” As pre-social creatures they are not asking questions like, “What is truth?”). They are battling because the other is challenging their understanding of reality, and this makes each of them anxious. Prior to discovering the other, each of them was comfortable accepting that their understanding of the world was entirely accurate and sufficient. The death struggle gives them back their sense of control over their lives. By being willing to sacrifice their lives, by showing that they view their lives as unessential, it shows that they are willing to enforce their truth. (At this point Hegel states that “[t]he individual who has not risked his life may well be recognized as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.” Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense why he says this. This does not actually make sense until we read 196, but it is important to note that it is said here. Although there is no fear at this point in the narrative, fear of death becomes one of the important motivating factors that moves the narrative along.) Right now it just appears that each seeks the death of the other in order to rid itself of the threat of a consciousness outside of itself. In fact, one of the problems with the existence of the other is that it presents the self with the possibility, as it becomes more social, that it is an “other” (to the other self), and it begins to experience itself outside of itself. This, I presume, is the most terrifying thought yet.

EDIT: It is probably more accurate to say that the winner of the struggle is the one who confronts his or her fear of death, and can be called human, while the slave submits in fear, unwilling to accept the possibility of death. It is not until the slave confronts death that he or she becomes “human.”

  1. This death struggle was meant to return consciousness back to the peaceful existence it led prior to coming into contact with another self, but it does not. The old truth, that I am the source of all truth, has been put into question, and there is no going back. By risking their lives they have realized that there is something they desire in being recognized by the other that they could not experience if one of them were to die. And so, when one is at the point of killing the other, it backs off, and lets the loser live.


  1. The death struggle teaches man in the state of nature to value life. (Of course this is not the first death struggle between humans. There have been thousands, if not millions. And the lesson of learning the value of life is not learned in one struggle, nor is it learned permanently. It is learned slowly over time, over millions (billions?) of battles.) By being recognized, man finds something worth living for, above being the source of truth. But the death struggle, along with introducing “society,” has also introduced “inequality.” Each seeks the recognition of the other, but the victor of the battle is the lord (master), and the loser is the bondsman (slave). The lord is independent consciousness (a decent substitute for being the only consciousness, which had been the original intent of the struggle). By being an independent consciousness he is free to behave like before, as the source of all truth. The bondsman (who is just happy to be alive) submits to the truth expressed by the lord.


  1. The lord is not yet self-conscious, though now it is conscious of itself through the consciousness of the bondsman (or tens or hundreds or thousands of bondsmen) as an independent consciousness. The bondsman is conscious of himself as a thing, merely an object, albeit a living object, because that is how the lord views him. This is the chain that holds the bondsman in bondage. This is the conclusion he arrives at by losing the battle. And just as the lord has power over the bondsman, so the lord has power over other things through the work of the bondsman. The work of the bondsman is an extension of the power of the lord’s, for the enjoyment of the lord’s. This allows the lord to enjoy the fruits of the bondsman’s labor. The lord does not need to worry himself with the problems and anxieties that may arise from the hands-on interaction with the world. The bondsman is the one who must do this.


  • 191 & 192. The domination of the lord over the bondsman gets them closer to becoming self-conscious beings, but they are not there, nor are they conscious of not being there, nor that there is anywhere to be. The lord sees himself as powerful because this is how the bondsman views him, but he does not view himself as a self (because the bondsman does not see himself (the bondsman) as a self, which is necessary before he can see the lord as a self, an equal self, allowing the lord to view himself as a self-conscious self – this is in parentheses because it is not explained in these paragraphs). The bondsman does not view the lord as a self. Instead the bondsman views the lord as the source of its truth, a less articulated concept than a “self.”


  1. Just as the servitude of the bondsman doesn’t actually give the lord the recognition he was looking for (to be treated as a self (he doesn’t realize this is what he wants)), the servitude turns the bondsman into the truly independent one because of his hands-on experience with the world which has given him the confidence to become independent.


  1. In servitude the bondsman understands himself as a slave due to his relationship to the lord. The bondsman lives in fear that the lord will stop meeting his needs, or that the lord will punish him, or think less of him, if he challenges the lord in any way. “[The bondsman’s] whole being has been seized with dread. 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.” This fear is what eats away at the bondsman’s identity until he loses all motivation to serve. The bondsman sees the way in which the lord lives for himself, and the bondsman starts to get ideas. The bondsman begins to recognize that his hands-on work in the world has given him the ability to meet his own needs.


  1. The lord is enabled to experience enjoyment of the natural world because the bondsman does his work for him, making the objects in the natural world sufficiently submissive to his will. As the bondsman becomes more independent, the lord sees how his (the lord’s) enjoyment is temporary and dependent upon the will of the bondsman, while the bondsman has the potential to experience sustainable enjoyment of the world through his own hands, his own labor, his own work. In contrast to the lord who finds enjoyment through having the bondsman prepare the world for his enjoyment, as if he has complete domination over nature, the bondsman finds satisfaction through nature’s resistance to his work, for it is through work that the bondsman gains his independence and sense of self. The bondsman understands himself more as he understands the otherness and struggle in the natural world through experience (work) that the lord does not have the opportunity of having.


  1. Eventually this new understanding of himself causes the bondsman to realize he must overcome his fear of the lord. By overcoming his fear he becomes someone existing on his own account. It is through his work, which alienated himself from himself previously, that he discovered himself, where he discovered the confidence to have a mind of his own. He discovers that the lord’s will is not his. He doesn’t have to do what the lord wills. It was by doing the will of the lord that he learned he had his own will, and was not fulfilled by fulfilling the will of the lord. Fear of and service to the lord were central to this transformation. If the bondsman had not performed the lord’s work for him, he would have continued to fear the lord, without the chance to gain self-confidence. If the bondsman had not properly feared the lord, and had only served without self-reflection, there would have been nothing propelling him to reject the lord, and become self-reflective. The bondsman could have thought he was thinking for himself, but he would remain “enmeshed in servitude.” The bondsman becomes free through confronting the reality of death, the source of fear, the fear that made him a slave. By understanding why he does the things he does, he understands himself and the world around him and his relationship to the lord.



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