Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Hegel on the Master-Slave Relation

Ludwig Siep

Certainly one of the most famous chapters of the Phenomenology of Spirit is the one on “lordship and bondage” or master and slave (“Knechtschaft” in German is not necessarily slavery, but Hegel’s bondsman has no rights and no contract with his master). Marxists (not Marx himself) understood the reversal of the master-slave relation as one of the central messages of the book. In contrast, recent Hegel-scholars have argued that the chapter is not about social practices or historical processes at all. Some claim that the social phenomena are only illustrations of the logical categories developing “behind the scene”. For others the relation between master and slave is meant to signify a relation within self-consciousness itself, namely between pure reason and the “inferior” faculties. Indeed, the young Hegel criticized Kant’s moral philosophy as demanding an internal servitude of the sensual and emotional faculties under the “tyranny” of pure practical reason.

However, if one places the relevant passages in chapter IV of the Phenomenology within the context of Hegel’s numerous treatments of the subject from his early manuscripts up to the last Berlin lectures – frequently referring to the Phenomenology of 1807 – several points seem to me clear: First, Hegel does indeed treat social phenomena occurring within history and at the same time concepts and theories of classical authors in the history of political philosophy (Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau etc.). Second, the self-consciousness of the lord and the bondsman or slave are two ways of understanding freedom and recognition – and third, slavery belongs to a necessary stage of history before the formation of states. It has to be replaced by legal relations between equal “persons” (cf. Philosophy of Right, § 57).

The abolition of slavery is accomplished as a result of the progress of reason and the consciousness of freedom.

The abolition of slavery is accomplished as a result of the progress of reason and the consciousness of freedom. Hegel does not understand relations between capital and labour as lordship and bondage. However, he realizes the emergence of class struggles within market societies. Although necessary for the execution of individual life plans, market economies are bound to run into crises which might dissolve the loyalty of the poor to state and law. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right discusses these possibilities but offers no systematic solutions and refrains from any particular historical prognosis or prophecy. This to some extent contrasts with his view that the rational institutions of the modern state are in principle irrevocable and that the rational tendencies of history will in the end prevail.

His own interest, at least in the Phenomenology, does not seem to be historical in the first place. It lies mainly in the overcoming of the opposition between self-consciousness and nature, individual and general will. At this stage of the development nature is the natural side of the human being itself. The famous “struggle for recognition” is a process of the self’s “emancipation” from nature and reconciliation with it. It starts with one human being seeking recognition for its independence from fellow human beings and at the same time from its own natural inclinations. This includes mastering one’s interest in self-conservation. Risking one’s own life is, however, not natural for human beings and many prefer servitude compared with death. Thus in the history of political thinking slavery in two forms has been considered as justified:  either “natural” slavery between rational and “semi-rational” beings or slavery by submission in war. The latter holds not only in the relation between individuals but also between a conqueror and a whole nation, as in Hobbes’ (or Grotius’) justification for a tacit “contract” of submission. Regarding this question, however, Hegel sides with Rousseau and Kant: Both private slavery and political domination by submission are against reason. But this is only the result of historical experiences as reversals of the “shapes” of collective consciousness.

In the Phenomenology this experience starts with the failure on the side of the master to attain unforced recognition for his own claim to freedom from nature. Without it, there is no “real”, socially confirmed freedom. At the same time his freedom from nature is reversed into the dependence on his own desires for pleasure and on the natural forces of his slaves. The slave passes through the opposite reversal from dependence to freedom, but not yet all the way down. His fear is transformed by his labour for the needs of other human beings and the discipline and skills required. He realizes his faculty to master the natural resistance both of his own body and the natural resources by transforming instead of subjugating them. However, he equally lacks the recognition of his freedom from natural constraints. Thus the whole relation is bound to be overcome, both in history and in philosophical justification. It is “sublated” in the mutual recognition of citizens in a state of law. “Sublation” in Hegel’s sense, as is well known, has to be understood as abolition, but also as conservation of some true “moments” of the former stage in the higher one.

The sense in which the higher form of mutual legal recognition contains elements of the masters and the slaves consciousness may be specified in the following way: As regards the master, his understanding of freedom as being independent from all his natural inclinations, including the conservation of his life, has to be maintained. The true essence of human beings lies in their spiritual interests, namely in their autonomous and rational decisions and actions. These have to be recognized by every other human being. The defence of these rights is a higher value than life and must be “proved” by the risk of one’s life for the defence of the community. As to the slave, his working for a community (already in the Greek “oikos”) and his following of rules are the first forms of a common consciousness and general will. In addition, his faculty of transforming his plans into lasting objects and instruments of human culture is an important step to “objective spirit” and its reconciliation with nature.

The new “synthesis” of the true contents of the master’s and the slave’s experiences in a state of mutual respect for equal rights is reached in the Phenomenology only much later in the chapters on Spirit. However, in Hegel’s other writings on practical or “objective” spirit he makes clear that this is the true consequence of the experience of the struggle for recognition and the master-slave relation. Historically there are many ways to this overcoming of domination by force – and it seems that Hegel considers slave rebellions mostly as premature in the course of rational progress in history.

In this interpretation I draw a lot on later Hegel texts, especially from lectures on the second (“spirit”) part of the Encyclopedia. I do not see a contradiction or incoherence between these and the Phenomenology chapter. In general I consider as justified Hegel’s conception of overcoming all forms of “personal” or “private” domination based on physical force by a rule. It can be supported by different positions in modern philosophy of law (for instance Rawls, Pettit, Habermas etc.). However, there are some critical points regarding Hegel’s theory. Some of them I mentioned already in my last blog: Hegel’s theory of recognition ends with an asymmetrical relation between citizen and state. Risking one’s life for the state is not restricted to defensive acts of the state against aggressors. To secure the freedom of its citizens from their private interests and the loss of their “communitarian” values the state may even provoke wars periodically. This cannot be defended any more in times of modern warfare and regarding the supreme duty of the state to protect human rights

Another weakness is Hegel’s emphasis that the fight for domination and the subjection of individuals and groups is the necessary beginning of all human states and their transformation into more equal and rational institutions. As John Locke had already argued, different forms of the development of larger human associations are possible and have been reported in historical documents and narratives. The unforced consent of human beings regarding temporal leaders responsible for executing tasks is among them – as is the restraining of the power of fathers or chiefs of clans by an agreement or “trust”. If this has been possible in early stages of human culture, it can serve as model for later stages as well. Hegel’s conception entails the risk of too sharp a contrast between a developed state and the “pre-state” level. If for instance he regards slave rebellions in colonies of the West-Indies (Domingo, Haiti) as premature (as he does in some marginal to § 57 in the Philosophy of Right), he seems to imply that these are not yet true states. Given the discussions at the beginning of the 19th century on the abolition of slavery throughout the world – or at least the European dominated world – this seems to lag behind the progress which reason and the collective outrage regarding slavery hat already accomplished.

As stated regarding the Phenomenology as a whole, I think Hegel’s concept of “lordship and bondage” can inspire modern thinking – for instance in view of criticizing more subtle forms of enforced recognition or new forms of slavery (child labour, criminal forms of prostitution etc.). To effectively deal with these problems, however, new legal and political efforts beyond the state level are required.

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Ludwig Siep

Ludwig Siep is the author of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit....

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