|G. W. F. Hegel|
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Gottlieb Fichte
|Phenomenology of Spirit
Science of Logic
Philosophy of Right
Lectures on Aesthetics
Philosophy of History
British / German idealism
The Secret of Hegel
||This article may be confusing or unclear to readers. (January 2012)|
Hegel's master–slave dialectic (also called lordship and bondage) is almost certainly the most widely discussed passage of Hegel’s magnum opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit. Although master and slave actually is a thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic, it was only recently recognized as such; earlier interpreters used the term “dialectic” loosely and inappropriately to refer to whatever section or passage of Phenomenology they were discussing. The master-and-slave dialectic is in the form of a three-stage parable whose climax anticipates and symbolizes the “self-realization” climax of an overarching dialectic that unfolds over the entire length of Phenomenology. In three places, the last four paragraphs of Phenomenology describe the achievement of “self-realization” by Spirit (Hegel’s ersatz God) as the simultaneous achievement of “freedom.” In the parable, the slave’s ultimately achieving freedom symbolizes Spirit’s – and part of humanity’s – achieving freedom. Hegelian freedom is release from bondage to God, to religion, and to religious superstition. Freedom arrives when man becomes an atheist, finally recognizing that he and not the supernatural God of “picture-thinking” is the true God.
Background: Hegel’s atheism
To understand the master-and-slave dialectic, one must first understand that Hegel was an atheist and that Phenomenology is a work that covertly espouses atheism – covertly because an open display of atheism would have constituted professional suicide.
Most interpreters agree that Hegel was an atheist. Though indoctrinated in Lutheranism as a child, Hegel rejected Christianity in his college years. In his early religious writings, he inveighed against religion. But for professional reasons (beginning around 1800), he tried to create the impression that he was a believer. Solomon explains why: “Hegel really did have a secret, and . . . it has been well kept. The secret, abruptly stated, is that Hegel was an atheist. His ‘Christianity’ is nothing but nominal, an elaborate subterfuge to protect his professional ambitions in the most religiously conservative country in northern Europe.” What has Hegel’s atheism to do with his need for subterfuge? Pinkard enlightens us: “Hegel was desperate for a position [a professorship], and to get a position he needed a book.” But writing a book that openly espoused atheism would have destroyed Hegel's career almost before it began.
Solomon elaborates: “Hegel had seen Spinoza’s Ethics condemned in Germany. He had seen Kant, whom he considered to be unquestioningly orthodox, censured and censored by the narrow-minded regime of Frederick Wilhelm II. He had seen Fichte dismissed from the University of Jena for views that were (incorrectly) considered atheistic.” The University of Jena, incidentally, is where Hegel was seeking a professorship. And the book he was writing, the book that became Phenomenology of Spirit, was a book that espoused atheism by covertly redefining God as, in essence, humanity. Solomon puts it this way: “What then does Hegel’s conception of God [in Phenomenology] admit which any atheist would not? To say that God exists is no more than to say that humanity exists. That is atheism.”
Hegel redefined God by creating a character he usually called Spirit but sometimes called God. He tried to make “God” sound theistic by giving God a mind. In some passages, this mind was made to resemble the transcendent (existing apart from the universe) mind of Christianity’s theistic God. But careful interpreters recognized that Spirit’s mind was actually nothing but the collective mind of man. For this reason, and also because Spirit had a physical aspect of which man was a part, God/Spirit was essentially humanity. And Hegel’s occasional references to Spirit as “God” were deliberate attempts to deceive readers into believing he was a theist. Findlay explains: “Hegel’s philosophy is . . . one that remains most within the pale of ordinary experience, and which accords no place to entities or properties lying beyond that experience, or to facts undiscoverable by ordinary methods of investigation. Hegel often speaks the language of a metaphysical theology, but such language, it is plain, is a mere concession to the pictorial mode of religious expression. As a philosopher, Hegel believes in no God and no Absolute.”
Although some interpreters, particularly religious ones, have given credence to Hegel’s use of the word "God", Hegel’s atheism is widely recognized. Tucker (1961) writes: “The whole system is spun out of a formula concerning man’s self-elevation from finite to infinite [divine] life. The finite mind [man’s] is seen as aggrandizing itself to infinity, becoming universal [God’s] mind. . . . From the standpoint of the Hebraic-Christian theology, . . . this would of course have to be qualified as ‘atheism.’” Kaufmann (1966) remarks that Hegel’s discussion of Spirit “should have caused no misunderstanding, had it not been for Hegel’s occasional references to God.” He later adds that “his [Hegel’s] religious position may be safely characterized as a form of humanism.” Hyppolite (1974) says that, in Hegel’s “Revealed Religion” discussion, “the death of Christ is not only the death of the God-man [God incarnate on earth], but also the death of the abstract God [God in heaven] whose transcendence radically separated human existence from his divine essence.” Kojeve puts it this way: "If one wants to talk about 'God" in Hegel, therefore, one must not forget that . . . it is a Man who has become 'God.' . . . . Thus the Phenomenology ends with a radical denial of all transcendence."
Interpretations written since 1990 reinforce the preceding ones. Beiser (1993) says this: “Schelling and Hegel . . . insist that their metaphysics has nothing to do with the supernatural. Their conception of metaphysics is indeed profoundly naturalistic. They banish all occult forces and the supernatural from the universe, explaining everything in terms of natural laws.” Pinkard (1994) and Westphal (1998) don’t explicitly call Hegel an atheist but in effect do so by interpreting Spirit as society and its institutions.> These two authors are wrong about specifics – Spirit isn’t society – but they are right in relating Spirit to humanity (human society) and in rejecting the notion that Spirit is a supernatural entity. Wheat (2012) writes: “Hegel transmogrifies (as a Christian might view this development) the Holy Spirit, which supposedly repossessed the resurrected Jesus and thereby united him with God in the Trinity, into just plain Spirit, a radically different concept. And instead of possessing God-Jesus, who is dead and stays dead, Spirit possesses all human beings. All humans become part of Spirit. Man becomes God. This is atheism, pure and simple.”
Spirit’s dialectical self-realization
Hegel’s Spirit, occasionally called God (to deceive readers), is an atheistic redefinition of God, not a belief. (Hegel pretended to ‘’believe’‘ in Spirit but always knew that Spirit was his own invention.) Spirit is defined as “reason, which in turn is defined as “all reality” As such ("all reality") it consists of all “objects” in the universe, both natural (planets, mountains, blackberry bushes, bears, humans) and artificial (plows, houses, ships, shoes, biscuits). Spirit also has a mind, which is nothing but the collective mind of all humans, not the transcendent supernatural mind that interpreters who have taken “God” literally have assumed Spirit’s mind is.
The metaphorical “life of the Spirit” is a three-stage dialectic that spans the entire length of Phenomenology. There is an unconscious thesis stage, a conscious non-self-aware antithesis stage, and a conscious self-aware synthesis stage resulting from “self-realization.” Hence Tucker can write: “God [Spirit] passes from primal unconsciousness in the form of nature [thesis] to ultimate self-consciousness in the person of historical man [synthesis].”
Hegel was aware that humans did not always exist. In his Philosophy of Nature he said “the first organism [earth]does not exist as a living creature.” But “after the creation of nature appears man” (italics added). In other words, Spirit in its first stage exists in its physical aspect but does not yet have a mind, hence lacks consciousness. Only when humans arrive does Spirit acquire a mind and consciousness. Hegel puts it this way: “The first stage [thesis] is the immersion of Spirit in natural life, the second [antithesis] its stepping out into . . . consciousness.” Pinkard is one of the rare interpreters who recognize that Spirit undergoes a prehuman state of unconsciousness: “God, as spirit, is already metaphorically asleep [unconscious] in nature, and . . . ‘spirit’ comes to fruition only as humans appear on the planet and create religions.” Then “spirit . . . wakes up from its natural slumber and becomes conscious.” But in its mindless prehuman state of unconsciousness, Spirit is unified as a single entity, because it lacks a mind with which to see its many parts, the “objects” that comprise the universe. And so we have the thesis: unconscious + union.
When humans arrive and give Spirit a mind, hence consciousness, the human minds (Spirit’s mind) see all sorts of external “objects” that each human views as “alien.” “Alien,” not used here as a pejorative term, simply means the object is something other than the viewer. The humans are judging the objects by their outer appearance, whereas the objects should be judged by their inner reality, which is Spirit – because everything that exists is part of Spirit. (This inner-outer dichotomy is the basis for Hegel’s physiognomy-phrenology dialectic, but that’s another story.) Hegel: “The object is revealed to it [the human observer] . . . and it does not recognize itself.” This misinterpretation by “subject” (the observer) of the “object” (the observed) causes Spirit to become separated or “estranged” from itself. This state of separation is the state of self-estrangement. Self-estrangement is the antithesis stage of Hegel’s overarching dialectic: conscious + separation.
Finally, a very special person, Hegel, arrives on the planet. He becomes part of Spirit, hence part of Spirit’s mind. Hegel suddenly “realizes” – consciously – (but has really known all along) that the external objects he sees are not really alien; they are himself. Hegel’s realization is Spirit’s act of “self-realization.” The unconscious unity of stage one of the dialectic has become conscious unity. Self-realization is stage three, the synthesis stage, of the dialectic: conscious + union. The complete dialectic is the following:
- Thesis: unconscious + union
- Antithesis: conscious + separation
- Synthesis: conscious + union
This dialectic displays Hegel’s principal dialectical format. The format has four characteristics: (1) Each stage consists of two simple concepts that can usually be stated in one or two words. (2) Each antithesis concept is the opposite of, not just different from, its thesis counterpart. (3) The synthesis truly synthesizes (combines), borrowing one concept from the antithesis (“conscious” here) and one from the thesis (“unity” here). (4) The dialectic embodies the Bible’s Johannine theme of “separation and return,” separating from and returning to something in the thesis – just as God in the gospel of John separated from himself in heaven (by incarnating himself as the God-man Jesus on earth) and then returned to himself in heaven (after Jesus’s resurrection). As Tillich puts it: “Obviously – and it was so intended by Hegel – his dialectics are the religious symbols of estrangement [separation] and reconciliation [return] conceptualized and reduced to empirical descriptions.” Hegel simply says that Spirit “becomes estranged [separated] and then returns to itself from estrangement.”
Self-realization, whereby man realizes that he is Spirit (sometimes called “God”), elevates man to from “finitude” (particularity) to “infinity” (universality, or divinity -– godhood). Kaufmann: “The Phenomenology of the Spirit ends with the death of God. . . . For Hegel the infinite God is dead.” When this happens, man escapes from his enslavement by the God of theism, elevates himself to infinity, and thereby achieves “freedom”: “This release of itself from the [self-estranged] form of its Self is the supreme freedom.”
In Hegel’s vernacular, “unconscious” is equivalent to “potential” and “conscious” is equivalent to “actual.” And in the above dialectic, “separation” (where man doesn’t recognize himself as God ) is equivalent to “bondage” (to God). So the above dialectic can be restated in the form that will be seen in the master-and-slave parable, where man separates from and returns to freedom:
- Thesis: potential + freedom
- Antithesis: actual + bondage
- Synthesis: actual + freedom
The essence of Hegel’s overarching Phenomenology dialectic, and of Phenomenology itself, is this: man can escape from the bondage of religion – from being a slave of God and superstition – by becoming an atheist and redefining God as himself. Man becomes a figurative God. The master-and-slave parable encapsulates and previews this message in a shorter dialectic (nine pages). In this dialectical parable a person who becomes the master (Baillie translation) or lord (Miller translation) encounters, defeats in combat, and enslaves a person who becomes his bondsman. But the master ultimately becomes dependent on the slave (God’s existence depends on man’s belief), so the slave becomes the master (man becomes God). In this manner, the master “thus lets the other again go free.”
The parable begins when a person who later becomes the slave (but is called “self-consciousness” at the outset) exists alone. Being alone, the person enjoys freedom; nobody is around to enslave him. But this freedom is only potential. Actual freedom requires the presence of another person who might subjugate the first person: the first person must have overcome any threat of – or actual – enslavement by a second person. The slave-to-be soon meets that second person, the master-to-be. They fight: “each seeks the death of the other.” But the slave-to-be soon realizes “that life is as essential to it as pure self-consciousness.” So the slave-to-be surrenders and becomes the actual slave of the second person. The master-to-be becomes the master.
The master then “holds the other in subjugation.” But “servitude in its consummation will really turn into the opposite [mastery] . . . and [the slave will] be transformed into a truly independent consciousness [person].” Correspondingly, the master ultimately becomes dependent on the slave. “The lord, who has interposed the bondsman between it [independence] and himself” carelessly “takes to himself only the dependent aspect of” the master-slave relationship. Consequently, “the aspect of its [the relationship’s] independence he leaves to the bondsman,” while the master sits back and revels in “the pure enjoyment of” the relationship." When this happens, the slave “becomes aware that being-for-self [independence] belongs to him": the master is has now become the dependent person. The slave “receives back its own self” (becomes independent – free – again), because “the other self-consciousness [the master] saw itself in the other [as the dependent person].” Realizing his own dependence, the former master “lets the other again go free.”
A parable is a story with a moral and in which characters sometimes symbolize other characters and events sometimes symbolize other events. (In the Bible’s parable of the prodigal son [Luke 15:11-32], the son symbolizes a repentant sinner, his forgiving father symbolizes God, and the reunion feast symbolizes heaven.) In the master-and-slave parable the slave symbolizes man, the master symbolizes God, the slave’s state of bondage symbolizes a believer’s enslavement by religious superstition, and the slave’s gaining his freedom symbolizes a person’s becoming an atheist and thereby escaping from bondage to God. Hegel’s moral is that you can escape from the burdens of religious superstition by becoming an atheist. This is a moral that Hegel obviously could not state openly.
The parable contains several hidden dialectics. The most basic one is identical to the freedom dialectic that runs through the entire course of Phenomenology and ends with Spirit’s achieving self-realization. In the parable’s thesis stage, man is potentially free, but he is not actually free because actual freedom requires the presence of a possible enslaver. In the antithesis stage, man becomes actually enslaved. And in the synthesis, man gains actual freedom. The dialectic:
- Thesis: potential + freedom
- Antithesis: actual + bondage
- Synthesis: actual + freedom
The above dialectic uses Hegel’s two-concepts-per-stage format, wherein the synthesis borrows one concept from the thesis and one from the antithesis. In Hegel’s alternate format, the synthesis reveals that the antithesis, ostensibly the opposite of the thesis, is really the thesis in disguise. The next dialectic reveals that man is really God in disguise. The dialectic:
- Thesis: man (the slave)
- Antithesis: God (the master)
- Synthesis: man = God (slave becomes master)
Before Hegel’s dialectics recently came to light, the master-and-slave narrative received many conflicting, and sometimes extremely imaginative or even fantastic, interpretations. The narrative was sometimes taken literally as a commentary on slavery, although just what it was saying about slavery was unclear. (It surely wasn’t saying that all slaves ultimately gain their freedom. Neither could the parable mean that, in a fight that threatens to end in your death, you should always surrender and submit to enslavement—no matter how noble your cause—because you might ultimately get lucky and turn the tables on your enslaver.)
Some other interpretations, taken from an earlier version of this article, follow. One interpretation of this dialectic is that neither a slave nor a master can be considered as fully self-conscious. (Here the author misinterprets "dialectic" by using the term to refer to a passage or section of a work by Hegel rather than to a thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad.) A person who has already achieved self-consciousness could be enslaved, so self-consciousness must be considered not as an individual achievement, or an achievement of natural and genetic evolution, but as a social phenomenon. (The author of this interpretation doesn't realize that achieving self-consciousness is another way of saying achieving self-realization, which in turn means that the person has become an atheist and cannot be enslaved by religious superstition.)
Philosopher Robert Brandom asserts, "Hegel's discussion of the dialectic of the Master and Slave is an attempt to show that asymmetric recognitive relations are metaphysically defective, that the norms they institute aren't the right kind to help us think and act with--to make it possible for us to think and act. Asymmetric recognition in this way is authority without responsibility, on the side of the Master, and responsibility without authority, on the side of the Slave. And Hegel's argument is that unless authority and responsibility are commensurate and reciprocal, no actual normative statuses are instituted. This is one of his most important and certainly one of his deepest ideas, though it's not so easy to see just how the argument works." (Abstraction, vagueness, and pretentious academic jargon bordering on gobbledegook muddle the argument. "Asymetric recognititve relations"? "Metaphysically defective"? "Normative statuses"? Just what are these "defective" norms that the parable supposedly recommends for a person with authority [the master] or responsibility [the slave]? And does a slave actually have moral "responsibility" to accede to whatever his owner demands, or is fear of death or punishment the only valid reason for a slave's doing what he is told to do? Does ownership of slaves--"authority"—validate "might makes right"? What is Brandom saying?)
Kojeve's unique interpretation differs from this. For Kojeve, people are born and history began with the first struggle, which ended with the first masters and slaves. (However, Marx and Engels have argued more realistically that early conflicts led to the killing of the losers—read Joshua:6-12, for example—and that it was only when history moved from primitive communism to the later era of slavery that labor acquired value and a demand for surplus labor arose: conquered people were then—not after the "first struggle"—enslaved instead of killed.) A person is always either master or slave; and there are no real humans where there are no masters and slaves. (This interpretation is preposterous and could not be what Hegel meant: Hegel grew up and later was educated and still later taught in places where there were no masters or slaves in anything approaching the literal senses of those words.) History comes to an end (what does this mean?) when the difference between master and slave ends (abolishing slavery will precipitate Armageddon?), when the master ceases to be master because there are no more slaves and the slave ceases to be a slave because there are no more masters. (History ends when slavery ends?) A synthesis takes place between master and slave: the integral citizen of the universal and homogenous state created by Napoleon. (Can Kojeve or his interpreter be saying that history ended when Napoleon created a "universal" state, or that there was slavery in France or Germany that Napoleon brought to an end?)
A different reading of Kojeve's interpretation is this: Kojève argued that Hegel's intentions were to illustrate that overcoming the fear of death was the only way to achieve true freedom. (In the parable, the slave-to-be overcomes the fear of death by surrendering. But by surrendering, the loser achieves enslavement rather than "true freedom." Is Kojeve arguing that enslavement is always only temporary?) Hegel did not actually state that "fear of death is the only way to achieve true freedom" (in truth at points in this work he makes a direct argument against the use of force as the manner in which history develops). A recent work that uses this argument is Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama admits in the work that his understanding of Hegel is mostly Kojèvian, in particular his conception of the end of history as an ultimate stage of history, while it is, according to Georg Lukács' interpretation, not a transcendent end but an aim immanent to the never-ending process. (Kojeve and his interpreters fail to recognize that Hegel's concept of the end of history comes from his Philosophy of History, not from Phenomenology or from its master-and-slave parable. Hegel's "end of history" means the end of dialectical history. Dialectical history ends with the synthesis stage of a history dialectic that moves from (1) a thesis of Oriental despotism to (2) an antithesis of Greco-Roman slavery to (3) a synthesis of Germanic monarchy, meaning Hegel's Prussia. But, although there is no further dialectical movement of history after Prussia arrives, ordinary history continues. In short, Hegel never said that history—things that occur with the passage of time—is coming to, or has come to, an end.)
Hegel's master–slave dialectic has been influential in the social sciences, philosophy, literary studies, critical theory, postcolonial studies and in psychoanalysis. Furthermore, Hegel's master–slave trope, and particularly the emphasis on recognition, has been of crucial influence on Martin Buber's relational schema in I and Thou, Simone de Beauvoir's account of the history and dynamics of gender relations in The Second Sex and Frantz Fanon's description of the colonial relation in Black Skin, White Masks. Susan Buck-Morss's article 'Hegel and Haiti' considers how the Haitian revolution greatly influenced Hegel's writing of his slave-master dialectic. Andrew Cole, conversely, explores how contemporary relations of domination in Germany, or Herrschaft, influenced Hegel's conceptualization of the struggle between Herr (Lord) and Knecht (Bondsman).
- G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), paras. 178-96
- Leonard F. Wheat, Hegel’s Undiscovered Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Dialectics: What Only Marx and Tillich Understood (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012) 135-39, 154-61;
- Robert C. Solomon, From Hegel to Existentialism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 57.
- Terry Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography(Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 224.
- Robert C. Solomon, In the Spirit of Hegel (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 582.
- Robert C. Solomon, From Hegel to Existentialism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press,1987), 67.
- J. N. Findlay, The Philosophy of Hegel: An Introduction and Re-Examination (New York: Collier, 1958) 353.
- Robert Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 43, 47.
- Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: A Reinterpretation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1966), 273.
- Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and the Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Samuel Cherniak and John Heckman (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974), 567.
- Alexandre Kojeve, Lectures on the P:henomenology of Spirit, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1980), 167.
- Frederick C. Beiser, “Introduction: Hegel and the Problem of Metaphysics,” in Beiser, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 5.
- Terry Pinkard, Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1994) and Merold Westphal, History and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology, 3rd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).
- Wheat, 97.
- Hegel, Phenomenology, para. 438
- Hegel, Phenomenology, paras. 233, 235, 374, 438.
- Hegel, Phenomenology, para. 77.
- Tucker, 46.
- G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Nature, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), 277.
- G. W. F. Hegel, “Lectures on the Philosophy of History,” in ‘’Reason in History’‘, trans. Robert S. Hartman (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1915), 12.
- G. W. F. Hegel, “Lectures on the Philosophy of History,” in ‘’Reason in History’‘, trans. Robert S. Hartman (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1915), 70.
- Terry Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 580.
- Hegel, Phenomenology, para. 771.
- Wheat, 121, 131
- Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, v. 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 329.
- Hegel, preface to ‘’Phenomenology’‘, in Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: Texts and Commentary (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966), 56.
- Kaufmann, 147
- Hegel, Phenomenology, para. 806.
- Wheat, 137
- G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie [New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1967, first published 1910], 234-37
- Hegel, Phenenology,paras. 189-94)
- Hegel, Phenomenology, Miller trans., para. 181; Baillie trans., 230
- Wheat, 156
- Wheat, 158
- Philip Moran, Hegel and the Fundamental Problems of Philosophy, Holland: Grüner, 1988.
- Robert Brandom, Interview, Summer 2008. Video: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1034802594689246468. 15m:25s.[dead link]
- Wheat, 246-47.
- Alexandre Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel, France: Gallimard, 1947. Translated as Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, New York: Basic Books, 1969.
- Julia Borossa and Caroline Rooney, "Suffering, Transience and Immortal Longings: Salomé Between Nietzsche and Freud," Journal of European Studies 33(3/4): 287-304 London, 2003.
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove Press, 1967: 62.
- Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel and Haiti, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 4. (Summer, 2000), pp. 821-865.
- Andrew Cole, "What Hegel's Master/Slave Dialectic Really Means," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3. (2004), pp. 577-610.