Masters and Slaves

2012 November 26
by roots

I’ve continued to slowly work on Fanon when I have time.

It is difficult to understand Fanon’s concept of race without grasping his methodology. The terms through which he thinks about race are drawn from a number of sources. Fundamental to Fanon’s approach, and most important for the purposes of this essay, is his engagement with Hegel. While a student in post-war France, Fanon encountered the Hegelian inflected existential phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre. It was during this time that France experienced a Hegelian revival while Fanon was a young man recently discharged from the military and pursuing a degree in psychiatry. Influential in the return to Hegel was Alexandre Kojève’s lectures, later published in English as Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1947). These lectures interpreted Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit through a Heideggerian and Marxist lens. Kojève lectures had an important impact on Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s development of existentialism in post-war France. It was from Sartre and Merleau-Ponty that Fanon gathered and adapted many of the basic phenomenological concepts with which he theorized race.

A critical component of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is the section called “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage,” which appears in the second chapter on the origin and developing “movement of self-consciousness” [1]. There are number of considerations here. First, for Hegel self-consciousness arises as a result of the coexistence of human beings and the world around them. The relation between the two is defined by the appropriation of the object of nature and the creation of new objects by human beings.

The concept of self-consciousness as a developing process that emerges from the relation between human beings and the world is an important one. As Herbert Marcuse writes, for Hegel “the subject of thinking is not the ‘abstract ego’ but the consciousness that knows that it is the ‘substance’ of the world.” When true self-consciousness is achieved, Marcuse continues, “thinking consists in knowing that the objective world is in reality a subjective world, that it is the objectification of the subject. The subject that really thinks comprehends the world as ‘his’ world” [2]. For Hegel, Marcuse concludes, this state of freedom is achieved when humanity “abandons the abstract freedom of thought and enters into the world in full consciousness that it is ‘his own’ world” [3]. Self-consciousness is no longer a negation of something that lies outside of oneself and, instead, becomes a positive actualization of the world as an extension of the self. Only then is there is a complete correspondence between the self and world. For Hegel the development of self-consciousness towards the unity of the world and self is the process of history itself.

A second consideration concerning Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness is that it is a social process. In the “master-slave dialectic,” as the “Lordship and Bondage” section is often called, the development of self-consciousness emerges only in the process of mutual recognition between human beings. By definition it is impossible to consider a single consciousness since human beings only emerge socially. Hegel describes this inter-subjectivity as “recognition.” The development of self-consciousness can therefore only occur through the recognition of others. The changing forms of self-consciousness is a mutual act and by definition can never be achieved alone. As Hegel writes, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” [4].

Hegel views the relation between the self-awareness of individuals as a necessary unity. However, at the same time, each exists separately as “distinct moments” and in conflict with all others [5]. In Hegel’s language, people cannot help but be a “being-for-others,” and yet must seek to be a “being-for-self.” In other words, in Hegel’s dialectical conception, human beings exist as a contradictory unity. Each person must be oneself through another and see oneself through another’s eyes. Each consciousness knows that it is not universal, “aware that it at once is, and is not, another consciousness”:

Each is for the other the middle term, through which each mediates itself with itself and unites with itself; and each is for itself, and for the other, an immediate being on its own account, which at the same time is such only through this mediation. They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another. [6]

The contradiction between being “immediately” oneself and “mediated” by another must be resolved. “Self-consciousness is, to begin with, simple being-for-itself, self-equal through the exclusion from itself of everything else. For it, its essence and absolute object is ‘I’…But the ‘other’ is also a self-consciousness; one individual is confronted by another individual” [7]. Inevitably, then, there must be a struggle between people. This struggle ensues because each are in danger of losing their own distinctiveness in the other. On the other hand, each person can only see in the other their own distinct self. Consequently, each “does not see the other as an essential being” and, believing that their own self is universally representative, they struggle to achieve recognition from the other [8].

At this point one becomes two and “self-consciousness,” which mediated the unity of people now “splits into the extremes.” Each person now relates to the other through their own “determinateness” to the exclusion of the other person. They no longer recognize each other as mutually constitutive and “each extreme is this exchanging of its own determinateness” [9]. They now lack self-conscious of each other as a unity, as distinct and yet belonging as two sides of each other. Each person now becomes “two self-conscious individuals” and must “prove themselves and each other through a life-and-death struggle” [10]. They do so because they must have “certainty of being for themselves” and can only sense and conceive of themselves as the “truth” in exclusion of all others. They must establish the truth of themselves “both in the case of the other and in their own case” in “absolute negation” of the other [11].

The victor of the ensuing struggle becomes the “master” and the loser finds himself a “slave.” The master is now a being reaffirmed in his determinateness. While the master achieves self-certainty the slave is reduced to a thing, a mere extension of the will of the master. As Hegel says, the master ends up being “recognized, the other only recognizing” [12]. Importantly, the master not only achieves subjective certainty, but also establishes his certainty as objective truth since the slave exists as the master’s will. The outcome of the struggle has established a reality in which the world in which the slave exists expresses the master and not himself. The slave has become a mere object of the master.

Nevertheless, after the struggle is over the new relationship of the master and the slave submerges itself into a deadening, unreflecting habit. Now each person is “done away with as extremes wanting to be for themselves, or to have an existence of their own” and their relationship “collapses into a lifeless unity which is split into lifeless, merely immediate, unopposed extremes.” They are no longer directly conscious of each other as two distinct subjects and “leave each other free only indifferently, like things” [13]. The moment of rupture between the protagonists has now receded and the new relation of master and slave appears as if it is the natural order of things.

Although the master establishes subjective certainty as objective truth, his relationship to the world is mediated by the slave because the slave now labors for him. The slave, like the master, “also relates himself negatively to the thing,” but, unlike the master, he actually “works on it.” The master, on the other hand, simply experiences the world passively, consuming what the slave works on and changes. Though it appears that the objective world is an expression of and exists for the master, it is the slave who actually works and changes it. The master “has interposed the bondsman between it and himself,” and, therefore, the object of world’s “independence he leaves to the bondsman, who works on it” [14].

The master is passive and his recognition is established through the active slave. The master’s recognition does not, therefore, come from his own activity, as it did is the initial struggle for mastery, and is instead mediated through the activity of the slave. Although it is a “recognition that is one-sided and unequal,” since the slave works on the object for the master, the recognition of the master by the slave is now based on the dead objective truth previously achieved [15]. The slave, who “constitutes the truth” of the certainty of the master, has subsequently turned into “something quite different from an independent consciousness.” Since the slave is now a mere thing, a simple extension of the master’s will, the master’s self-certainity is founded on the “unessential consciousness and [ ] unessential action” of the slave. He is no longer a “being-for-itself” because he is no longer active and thus his truth is an empty objectivity [16].

Just as the consciousness of the master turns into its opposite, the consciousness of the slave does as well. Though subdued by the master and turned into a thing, the slave now becomes a “consciousness forced back into itself.” Given his active, self-constituting relationship to the world, the slave will “be transformed into a truly independent consciousness.” It may appear that the world is the master’s reality, but the slave has “within itself this truth of pure negativity and being-for-self” because of his active relationship to the world [17].

However, the slave is not yet “aware that it is a being-for-itself.” Nevertheless, because he must confront the world through his work as an independent reality the slave slowly comes to realize his own particularity. For the master the object “lacks the side of objectivity and permanence” because he simply passively consumes it. On the other hand, the slave’s relation to the object becomes active as his “work forms and shapes the thing.” The slave confronts what seems like an external reality, which gives rise to a new “negative relation.” This new negation arises from the “formative activity” of the slave that transforms him from nothing into a new positive—a new “being-for-self of consciousness”—in which he discovers his “own independence” [18]. Despite his state of non-recognition the slave is eventually transformed as a result of his relation to the world. The independence of the object gives rise to his own determinate existence, rupturing his objectification, or “thingness” with his own activity. The slave is no longer an object, but becomes a self-active subject who internalizes the world as his own and, in the process, realizes that he is subject to change according to his own will.

Hegel describes the rupture with the dead objectivity of the master as a loss of the fear of death. Hegel is focused here on the moment when the slave emerges from an immediate existence with the object in which he was simply reproducing his given needs. As Hegel puts it, “his attachment to natural existence” is dissolved and the consciousness of a “being-for-self” arises [19]. Charles Taylor argues that for Hegel the desire to risk death comes about when the slave can no longer “undergo the life-process unconsciously” [20].

At this point, consciousness becomes itself and cannot exist as another. The slave’s fear is an expression of his objectification by the master’s will and the slave’s immediacy with the world as an object among objects. However, this fear becomes negated as the slave works on the object, altering it and thereby internalizing it. It must be remembered that while his “formative activity” takes on an objective character, it does so through confronting the world as an expression of the master, including what is his own false “slave” self. By positing himself as an active subject the dead objectivity of the world no longer constitutes him passively. The objectivity of the world, which includes the master and his false self as a mere extension of the master’s will, appears external to the new determination that has emerged from the slave:

this objective negative moment is none other than the alien being before which it has trembled. Now, however, he destroys this alien negative moment, posits himself as a negative in the permanent order of things, and thereby becomes for himself, someone existing on his own account…this shape that is his pure being-for-self, which in this externality is seen by him to be the truth. [21]

Now the slave must, once again, come into conflict with the master. For the first time the slave has become aware that the dead objectivity of the world, an expression of the will of the master, is now subject to change by the slave because he is the source of its creation. The slave begins to grasp that the world is potentially his own and, as a result, there is an “absolute melting-away of everything stable.” The slave has now become an “absolute negativity,” a “pure being-for-self” whose has attained his own determination alongside that of the master [22]. The slave seeks to reappropriate an alien world and self. The struggle for reappropriation is critical because it signals a new consciousness that explodes the objectification of the slave. Hegel argues,

Without the formative activity, fear remains inward and mute, and consciousness does not become explicitly for itself. 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. If it has not experienced absolute fear but only some lesser dread, the negative being has remained for it something external.[23]

Finally, the overthrow of the master can just as well lead to the rise of new masters and slaves. Hegel presented a dialectical to grasp the abstract movement of what he believed was the meaning of human history: the development of self-consciousness towards a state of freedom in which thought became universal and was not tied to any particular form of existence. Therefore the slave, like the master and all particular existences, must be negated. For only then will a “universal formative activity.” As Hegel puts it at the end of his master-slave dialectic, it is not the mastery of particular kinds of being that is at stake. What is needed is not “skill which is master over some things,” but, instead, the goal is the mastery of “universal power and the whole of objective being” [24]. The rupture with the dead objectivity of the master is accomplished through a negation by a new determining subject. Yet, as Hegel argues, this new determination is still a particular existence posed against another. The universal potential of human consciousness remains in contradictory unity, divided against itself. It is only when the negating new particular is itself negated that a universal consciousness emerges, one that is in immediate unity with itself.

Next up: Fanon, Hegel and Race


[1] G.W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. by A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 111.
[2] Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999), 118.
[3] Ibid., 119.
[4] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 111.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 112.
[7] Ibid., 113.
[8] Ibid., 111.
[9] Ibid., 112.
[10] Ibid., 113-114.
[11] Ibid., 114.
[12] Ibid., 113.
[13] Ibid., 114.
[14] Ibid., 116.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., 116-117.
[17] Ibid., 117.
[18] Ibid., 118.
[19] Ibid., 117.
[20] Charles Taylor, Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 153.
[21] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 118.
[22] Ibid., 117.
[23] Ibid., 119.
[24] Ibid.

One Response leave one →
  1. 2013 January 21

    Truth of oneself as self-conscious is achieved only if both live; the recognition of the other gives each of them the objective truth and self-certainty required for self-consciousness. Thus, the two enter into the relation of master/slave and preserve the recognition of each other: the master will recognize itself via the slave, and the slave, via the master. A distinction arises here, however. For the master, the slave is but an object forced to do what the master wishes of it to do; for the slave, the master is an independent self-consciousness.

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