The Life, Work and Death of Self-Consciousness in Hegel's Master-Slave Dialectic
As presented in the Phenomenology of Spirit, the aim of Life is to free itself from confinement "in-itself" and thus to become "for-itself." Not only does Hegel place this unfolding of Life at the very beginning of the dialectical development of self-consciousness; Hegel characterizes self-consciousness itself as a form of Life and even refers us to the development of self-consciousness in the Master/Slave dialectic as an essential moment in the fulfillment of this aim of Life to become 'for-itself.' The following paper delineates this overlooked thread of the dialectic. The central thesis is that each step along the path of self-consciousness' attempt at making the truth of its unity with itself explicit, is simultaneously a step in the realization of the aim of Life: to become 'for-itself.' In the review of the Master/Slave dialectic, it reveals itself that the necessary condition for the fulfillment of Life's aim lies in work. Yet work itself has its ground in the central notion of death in the Master-Slave dialectic. In a nutshell, Hegel has articulated a vision of the place of human self-consciousness in the process of Life as a whole and thrown light on the role of death as an essential ingredient in an epic drama of Life's struggle and Spirit's birth.
Much attention has been paid to the notion of Recognition in the Master-Slave dialectic. However, the beginning of the path towards true recognition is marked itself by the recognition of finitude or death. The very freedom from embeddedness in natural origins of which self-consciousness is capable is intimately tied to its confrontation with the "absolute Master," death. In this dialectical move, Hegel has articulated one of the most profound and paradoxical truths of human existence, namely that an awareness of death and finitude is the inception of man's potential differentiation of self from his natural origins and the beginning of man's self-consciousness. Not only that: by the cunning of reason man's mortality is the vehicle through which natural Life redeems itself from its incarceration 'in-itself.' Thus, the very actualization of man's differentiation of self from nature which takes place in work is, as I shall show, a kind of internalization and transformation of that very finitude. Only as such, can self-consciousness realize its true self.
In the stages leading up to self-consciousness, consciousness placed the locus of truth into that which it took to be other than itself. The particular and immediate being of the 'This'(Sense-Certainty), the universal Thing with its many properties (Perception), and the self-eliciting forces (Understanding) were all dialectical consequences of consciousness' certainty regarding the Truth of this other. Now, as Hegel words it, "the Notion of this truth vanishes in the experience of it" (166). All the ways in which the object appeared as in itself manifest themselves now in Truth as merely the guises of the object as for an other, i.e. as for consciousness. Only at the end of "Force and the Understanding" does certainty become identical with truth, "for the certainty is to itself its own object"(166). Through the negative experience of the diremption of its certainties of external truths, consciousness has come to see that it itself is the Truth of these certainties. Thus, when consciousness becomes Self-consciousness, it has entered "the native realm of truth"(167) and the earlier moments are nothing but abstractions from this self-relation, vanishing due to their irreality for consciousness.
Hegel asserts, however, that there still remains an otherness in all this. Consciousness posits a distinction within itself, which, however, for consciousness is not a distinction at all. Because self-consciousness distinguishes itself from itself, it is a distinguishing movement for which this distinction is irreal. As such, "the difference, as an otherness, is immediately superseded for it"(167). The irreality for consciousness of this distinction is quite important for everything that follows, for this differentiation, by the very tautologous nature of its movement, comes to be continually superseded because the difference lacks being. The difference is not a true difference and self-consciousness has the form of a "motionless tautology," an "I am I." Yet, it stands to reason that if the difference is as such nothing, and self-consciousness is thereby deflated into a vacuous tautology of I=I, then "it is not self-consciousness" (167). In other words, the other of which it is aware cannot yet truly be consciousness; rather "the otherness is for it in the form of a being, or as a distinct moment"(167). This means that self-consciousness has not yet worked off consciousness as such, i.e. the various forms of the sensuous world still accompany this deficient self-consciousness. Yet, simultaneously, this first stage of self-consciousness knows that this difference is not a true difference. Thus, this initial preservation of the sensuous world is only an apparent preservation for the unity of self-consciousness with itself:
In its initial genesis, self-consciousness inherently sets itself the task of actualizing or making real its self-unity. The overcoming of the antithesis between an apparent world of sensuous otherness and the truth of self-consciousness is the 'movement' of self-consciousness in making explicit its own unity with itself (167). We can already see that, for Hegel, all self-conscious desire is desire of self. Since the unity of self-consciousness is the true unity underlying the apparent difference between self and sensuous world, the negation of the apparent difference through a negation of the immediate object constitutes the attempted realization of self-consciousness' unity. As such, all "desire for the immediate object" is truly a self-conscious desire for the unity of self-consciousness.
At this stage, Hegel abruptly introduces the notion of Life. As he says, for 'we phenomenologists' or 'in-itself', when mere consciousness became self-consciousness by returning into itself, so did the object return into itself. As such, "the object has become Life"(168). The general relation of being "that which is reflected into itself" is therefore a defining feature of Life (168), and not only is self-consciousness living as such, but its immediate object is alive as well. The latter, however, is not yet a self-consciousnes. It remains an object, but a living one. A living object, on the one hand, and a self-consciousness, on the other, are manifestations of one and the same relation, Life or reflection-into-self, a relation which first manifested itself at the stage of Understanding. Both Life, self-consciousness, and their relation are a direct consequence of their genesis out of the relation of the Understanding to the inner essence of things as force. In brief, the universal consequence of the Understanding's relation to Force is "the distinguishing of what is not to be distinguished, or the unity of what is distinguished"(168). I have already noted how this takes shape in the initial phase of self-consciousness. To continue with the category of Life, the 'unity of what is distinguished' is, as force, likewise "a repulsion from itself"(168). This unity which dirempts itself into many forms, and yet consists of no real diremption, hence retaining its many forms as differences in a simple universal medium, is itself a diremption into the apparently antithetical extremes of Self-consciousness and Life:
Thus, the initial appearance of Self-consciousness necessarily implies that to Self-consciousness there is correlated Life. The latter is a "simple fluid substance of pure movement within itself" (169). In section 171, Hegel reviews the constitutive moments of Life, wherein the essential import of its existence is that Life is a "process" of consumption of itself, an infinite self-diremption and active reabsorption. After its inital self-diremption and re-absorption, Life has gone beyond its "simple original substance," having now achieved a "reflected unity" of these two moments and thus constituting a universal "simple genus" (172). To paraphrase Whitehead, Life is eating. Fundamentally, it eats itself and thereby achieves a kind of transcendence of itself, which, however, does not yet "exist for itself" as the simple unity that it is(172). In a crucial move, Hegel states that "this result," i.e. the fact that Life's self-reflected transcendence of itself lacks existence for-itself, "points to something other than itself, viz. to consciousness, for which Life exists as this unity, or as genus"(172). Therefore, Life has a kind of teleological termination in a Self-consciousness. Of course, self-consciousness is not a result of Life, but both are so intimately correlated that the one implies, or better, needs the other. Hegel's insight astounds all the more when he goes on to remind us that Self-consciousness is itself a Life:
The 'course of its experience' which Hegel mentions is nothing other than the dialectical struggle of consciousness both in desire and in the Master-Slave dialectic to achieve true self-consciousness. Self-consciousness, then, is a redemption of Life from its incarceration 'in-itself.' Self-consciousness is not in truth an 'alien' being in a completely 'alien' world, with natural life set over and against it. Rather, the very drive of self-consciousness to assimilate life into its own being, which we shall consider shortly, is itself an inherent and necessary moment in Life itself. In short, the secret of life is that in self-consciousness, Life can be for-itself. By way of prefacing a consideration of the Master-Slave dialectic in this connectection, the fact that Life's redemption from its pure being-in-itself occurs only in self-consciousness' complete transformation of the natural in work is itself an instance of the addum 'nature requires art.' As we shall see, to achieve its ends, Life also requires death. The full exposition of this necessity will reveal itself only at the end of our investigation and should be held in mind.
The relationship between consciousness and life is at first much more abstract, that unity with itself not yet being given in self-consciousness. We saw earlier that the abstractness of this 'I,' which can express only a tautologous relation of 'I am I,' saddles consciousness with the appearance of its self as a sensuous other. Now, we know that this sensuous other is simply the unity of life existing for consciousness, but not for itself. It is the sheer unity of a living object. As such, self-consciousness is immediately aware of Life, in the form of an object over and across from it, yet takes this object to be nothing, an appearance of its self, and hence it must negate and destroy this independent manifestation. Self-consciousness' supersession of the object is thus a supersession of an abstract form of its own self. As mentioned above, the desire of self-consciousness for the object is truly a desire for itself, a desire to find satisfaction in a unified self-certainty. Nevertheless, self-consciousness is in truth radically dependent upon the object whose negation it requires for the very self-certainty it seeks. The object continues thus to re-appear, as it must if self-conscious desire is to maintain the possibility of its satisfaction:
Here, self-consciousness is caught in a particular bind. The object, which self-consciousness took to be a pure nothing, gains the character of independence precisely in the movement of self-consciousness to negate and destroy it. Nevertheless, it must continue to supersede and thus negate the object, for self-consciousness must realize itself as the unity underlying the difference between itself and the apparent otherness. Self-consciousness remains stuck in a vicious circle of desire, destruction, and the resurgence of desire. True satisfaction eludes it, and its unity with itself in the other cannot be made explicit. Thus Hegel can say that "it is in fact something other than self-consciousness that is the essence of desire," because the living object, now independent, is only a stubborn unity only for self-consciousness and not for itself. Only as a unity for itself could the object properly serve to make explicit self-consciousness' unity with itself in this other and not through a negation of this other. It would be free from having to negate the object only if the object could negate its own self. Now, that object, which in order to be wholly for-itself must negate itself, is nothing other than consciousness:
The force of this necessary requirement ushers in a new stage in Hegel's phenomenological reflection, and it marks the beginning of true self-consciousness in the process of leaving behind the sensuous world. The Notion of self-consciousness is to achieve satisfaction by making its unity with itself in its other explicit. Therefore, only a self-consciousness can be the true other of a self-consciousness. Just like itself, the other self-consciousness, "in being an object, is just as much 'I' as 'object'." (177) The possibility has arisen that self-consciousness can know itself in its other, for its own other is just itself while still remaining independently other:
The dialectic which develops from here constitutes the true realm of Spirit. At first, however, Spirit is a fledgling and remains saddled with the problems of desire and Life. From the point of view of the self-consciousnesses themselves, each still sees in the other a sensuous and natural form of itself. The struggle for recognition between the two will take on at first the character of an inequality. This inequality arises out of the necessity of each to rid itself of its abstract relation to itself in the form of its embeddedness in a merely apparent sensuous reality. At first each relates to its other in the mode of Desire, whereby each seeks to detach itself from "any specific existence..[viz.].that it is not attached to life"(187). It seeks to destroy the other, which is for it only an inessential form of itself appearing in the shape of pre-conscious life: "each seeks the death of the other"(187). Likewise, the reciprocity inherent in self-consciousness entails that what the one does to the other it also does to itself: self-consciousness risks its own life (187):
We know that self-consciousness must attain certainty of the fact that it is the Truth of all previous certainties. Oddly enough, self-consciousness knows this Truth but it is not yet certain of itself as that Truth, for it has an other appearing as an immediate sensuousness. It sees in the other only an abstract form of itself and its attempt to destroy this abstract otherness is only for it an attempt at self-redemption. Ironically, the attempt of each to attain self-certainty through fearless battle results in a mutual (although ultimatly a-symmetric) dialectical repulsion away from nature into a higher phase of self-consciousness.
Initially, however, when each risks its Life in attempting to negate the other's Life, any absolute success on the behalf of either results in the death of both, for "death is the natural negation of consciousness, negation without independence, which thus remains without the required significance of recognition"(188). Out of this develops on the behalf of one self-consciousness the awareness of essentiality of Life to self-consciousness' aims(189). In other words, one self-consciousness has feared death, seeing as it makes impossible self-consciousness very purpose in Life (pun intended) and hence clings to Life. There arises now a new relationship of inequality between the two self-consciousnesses: one has become slave, the other master.
The dialectic that ensues between the Master and the Slave has been much discussed in the literature and I will not pursue any of its main developments here. Instead I will focus on two elements particularly relevant to my thesis: death and work. Death has already made an appearance, and although Hegel turns to a detailed discussion of the Master's slavish relationship to the Slave, death resurfaces as the 'condition for the possibility' of the Slave's freedom through work. In anticipation, we can already see the very relationship to death which first enslaved one of the self-consciousness will constitute its implicit freedom.
Although the Slave possesses a thingish existence, the Truth for slave consciousness is actually pure being-for-self. The seed of negativity and being-for-self has been implicitly sown within slave consciousness, neither because it happens to exist as a slave, nor because, as a slave, it looks to the master as its essence. Rather, the slave already carries within it the truth of self-consciousness, because
Fear of death first arose in the life and death struggle of the two self-consciousnesses to achieve self-certainty. Such a certainty could only be attained, however, by fighting the other self-consciousness in a mortal combat. Why such a mortal combat? The fight has to be to the death, for in being able to risk its life, self-consciousness shows its ability to detach itself from life. It is not the case, as Gadamer supposes (Gadamer, 70), that the slave consciousness failed in risking its life. It succeeds in risking its life just as much as the Master. Otherwise it would not have confronted the "absolute Master," its own death, and "its whole being" would not have been "seized with dread"(194). Hegel asserts as much when he writes that, although the slave has the master's independence for it as an essential reality, this truth is already contained within itself(194). As we have seen, the seed of the slave's pure being-for-self, the very truth of its self-consciousness, was planted there by its fear of the absolute Master:
In the fear of death, consciousness has experienced the dissolution of its self-externality, the "melting-away" of being "entangled in a variety of [natural] relationships"(187), and has tasted the reality if its true self. This taste of freedom and substantial selfhood remains only implicit, however. This truth of all self-consciousness achieves its explicit realization only in the slave's work, for in work "he rids himself of his attachment to natural existence in every single detail; and gets rid of it by working on it"(194). In the next section (195), Hegel goes on to qualify the the power of death and service to the master as merely necessary conditions of self-consciousness' true freedom:
It turns out that work is the only sufficient vehicle of the self-revelation of self-consciousness' truth. The slave's new position with regard to the object of the master's desire puts himself in a new relationship to desire in general:
This taming of instinct in work and the forming activity give to the object a new, permanent form and slave-consciousness comes to recognize his own pure being-for-self in the object. The slave, in fearful work for the master, achieves self-mastery. Hegel explicates also a negative function to work as a formative activity. This negative aspect of work is intimately related with the absolute negativity of death which the slave has experienced, such that, in working on the object, the slave's own negativity, his pure being-for-self, becomes an object for him "through his setting at nought the existing shape confronting him"(196). The astounding claim is that this "negative moment" is in fact nothing "other than the alien being before which it has trembled"(196).
In a sense, therefore, work 'works off' the alien nature and fear of death. However, Gadamer does not thematize in a sufficient way that Hegel conceives of the slave's being-for-self as the counterpart to the absolute negativity of death. Each formative activity as negative is a repetition and internalization of death itself in the work, for death was a first dissolution of the slave's entanglements in sensuous nature. The formative activity is, therefore, a kind of assumption of finitude and transformation. The difference is that in work, the slave now replaces the "alien negative moment" by positing "himself as a negative in the permanent order of things, and thereby becomes for himself, someone existing on his own account"(196). Work is the proper means by which the Slave plucks the fruits of its own mortality. The independence and freedom possible in self-consciousness are due to death and work, in that order:
The fear of death is such a crucial premise for the possibility of the slave's recognizing himself that Hegel claims, "If consciousness fashions the thing without that initial absolute fear, it is only an empty self-centred attitude; for its form or negativity is not negativity per se, and therefore its formative activity cannot give it a consciousness of itself as essential being"(196). This should now be understandable in light of the fact that the original, earth shaking fear of death was the factor that first implanted an implicit consciousness of being-for-self in the slave. Hence, the always intimate connection between death and the truth of self-consciousness, its freedom, self-recognition, and work.
In conclusion, the driving forces of the dialectic at the stage of self-consciousness, viz. recognition and work, have the negativity of death as their not so secret middle term. The fight for recognition is a fight to the death and death first sows the seeds of the slave's freedom. Indeed, it is fear of death that first makes one self-consciousness into a slave and the other into a master. The seed of death, i.e. the slave's implicit consciousness of being-for-self, came to bear fruit in the work it performs on the independent object. The slave has its negativity and being-for-self within it; it makes death become powerful in the depths of its being, checking its instinctual desires, and giving an objective 'mirror' of its true self in the objective shape of the thing produced, only in and through its work. Ultimately, work itself has proven to be the appropriation of death, and thereby a transformation of it into the objective recognition of self-consciousness as being all reality. Indeed, the natural finitude of man constitutes the dialectical possibility of man's freedom from slavish nature in and through his work, and the latter is likewise the means by which Life as self-conscious redeems itself from its own slavish 'in-itself'. On a broader scale, work, which takes place in the consciousness of death, is truly the work of Spirit freeing itself up from its frozen state in nature.