Thursday, February 2, 2017

Social media and Hegel's Master/Slave Dialectic

Hegel portrait by Schlesinger, 1831
GWF Hegel was the undisputed world heavyweight champion of philosophers and intellectuals in the 19th century. His influence, even while he was still alive, spread throughout the western world. He dined with the rich and powerful, was treated like a rockstar wherever he taught (much to the chagrin of contemporaries like Schopenhauer), and published difficult books that were nonetheless gobbled up by his legions of fans.

And let's be clear here: Hegel's books are difficult, terribly so. They're difficult in the original German and probably even moreso when translated into another language. Hegel has caught a lot of flak for this; many see his writings as nothing more than a diarrhea of the mind, an outpouring of words that really don't say anything worth saying, anything of note. Others allow that there is depth in his writings, but see his style as intentionally obscure. Still, it is indisputable that Hegel profoundly influenced Western thought. Philosophers who coexisted with him or came after him had to account for Hegel, especially German philosophers. His ideas were a sort of pre-history for Marxist thinkers; for many others he represented a philosophical dead end, the pinnacle of German idealism that eventually proved to be desperately wanting.

The last is, in my view, a fair criticism. Indeed, I tend to link Hegel with the great German composer Richard Wagner: both pushed their arts to an extreme, both possessed a totality of vision in this regard. But I digress. The point is that Hegel (like Wagner) left nothing for those who followed, at least from his point of view. Thus, there is implied finality to Hegel's ideas. And this is problematic because we are far from Prussia of 19th century. Hegel's philosophy, fundamentally based in his theory of history—the now-familiar (thanks to Marx) dialectical process of thesis, antithesis, synthesis—is driven by facets of reality taken as a given that no longer are such.

An example of this would be his famous Master/Slave Dialectic, which details the theoretical struggle between two consciousnesses to exert mastery over each other. From Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit:
178. SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or “recognized”. The conception of this its unity in its duplication, of infinitude realizing itself in self-consciousness, has many sides to it and encloses within it elements of varied significance. Thus its moments must on the one hand be strictly kept apart in detailed distinctiveness, and, on the other, in this distinction must, at the same time, also be taken as not distinguished, or must always be accepted and understood in their opposite sense. This double meaning of what is distinguished lies in the nature of self-consciousness: — of its being infinite, or directly the opposite of the determinateness in which it is fixed. The detailed exposition of the notion of this spiritual unity in its duplication will bring before us the process of Recognition.

179. Self-consciousness has before it another self-consciousness; it has come outside itself. This has a double significance. First it has lost its own self, since it finds itself as an other being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for it does not regard the other as essentially real, but sees its own self in the other.

180. It must cancel this its other. To do so is the sublation of that first double meaning, and is therefore a second double meaning. First, it must set itself to sublate the other independent being, in order thereby to become certain of itself as true being, secondly, it thereupon proceeds to sublate its own self, for this other is itself.

181. This sublation in a double sense of its otherness in a double sense is at the same time a return in a double sense into its self. For, firstly, through sublation, it gets back itself, because it becomes one with itself again through the cancelling of its otherness; but secondly, it likewise gives otherness back again to the other self-consciousness, for it was aware of being in the other, it cancels this its own being in the other and thus lets the other again go free.

182. This process of self-consciousness in relation to another self-consciousness has in this manner been represented as the action of one alone. But this action on the part of the one has itself the double significance of being at once its own action and the action of that other as well. For the other is likewise independent, shut up within itself, and there is nothing in it which is not there through itself. The first does not have the object before it only in the passive form characteristic primarily of the object of desire, but as an object existing independently for itself, over which therefore it has no power to do anything for its own behalf, if that object does not per se do what the first does to it. The process then is absolutely the double process of both self-consciousnesses. Each sees the other do the same as itself; each itself does what it demands on the part of the other, and for that reason does what it does, only so far as the other does the same. Action from one side only would be useless, because what is to happen can only be brought about by means of both.

183. The action has then a double entente not only in the sense that it is an act done to itself as well as to the other, but also in the sense that the act simpliciter is the act of the one as well as of the other regardless of their distinction.

184. In this movement we see the process repeated which came before us as the play of forces; in the present case, however, it is found in consciousness. What in the former had effect only for us [contemplating experience], holds here for the terms themselves. The middle term is self-consciousness which breaks itself up into the extremes; and each extreme is this interchange of its own determinateness, and complete transition into the opposite. While qua consciousness, it no doubt comes outside itself, still, in being outside itself, it is at the same time restrained within itself, it exists for itself, and its self-externalization is for consciousness. Consciousness finds that it immediately is and is not another consciousness, as also that this other is for itself only when it cancels itself as existing for itself , and has self-existence only in the self-existence of the other. Each is the mediating term to the other, through which each mediates and unites itself with itself; and each is to itself and to the other an immediate self-existing reality, which, at the same time, exists thus for itself only through this mediation. They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another.

185. This pure conception of recognition, of duplication of self-consciousness within its unity, we must now consider in the way its process appears for self-consciousness. It will, in the first place, present the aspect of the disparity of the two, or the break-up of the middle term into the extremes, which, qua extremes, are opposed to one another, and of which one is merely recognized, while the other only recognizes.

186. Self-consciousness is primarily simple existence for self, self-identity by exclusion of every other from itself. It takes its essential nature and absolute object to be Ego; and in this immediacy, in this bare fact of its self-existence, it is individual. That which for it is other stands as unessential object, as object with the impress and character of negation. But the other is also a self-consciousness; an individual makes its appearance in antithesis to an individual. Appearing thus in their immediacy, they are for each other in the manner of ordinary objects. They are independent individual forms, modes of Consciousness that have not risen above the bare level of life (for the existent object here has been determined as life). They are, moreover, forms of consciousness which have not yet accomplished for one another the process of absolute abstraction, of uprooting all immediate existence, and of being merely the bare, negative fact of self-identical consciousness; or, in other words, have not yet revealed themselves to each other as existing purely for themselves, i.e., as self-consciousness. Each is indeed certain of its own self, but not of the other, and hence its own certainty of itself is still without truth. For its truth would be merely that its own individual existence for itself would be shown to it to be an independent object, or, which is the same thing, that the object would be exhibited as this pure certainty of itself. By the notion of recognition, however, this is not possible, except in the form that as the other is for it, so it is for the other; each in its self through its own action and again through the action of the other achieves this pure abstraction of existence for self.

187. The presentation of itself, however, as pure abstraction of self-consciousness consists in showing itself as a pure negation of its objective form, or in showing that it is fettered to no determinate existence, that it is not bound at all by the particularity everywhere characteristic of existence as such, and is not tied up with life. The process of bringing all this out involves a twofold action — action on the part of the other and action on the part of itself. In so far as it is the other’s action, each aims at the destruction and death of the other. But in this there is implicated also the second kind of action, self-activity; for the former implies that it risks its own life. The relation of both self-consciousnesses is in this way so constituted that they prove themselves and each other through a life-and-death struggle. They must enter into this struggle, for they must bring their certainty of themselves, the certainty of being for themselves, to the level of objective truth, and make this a fact both in the case of the other and in their own case as well. And it is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained; only thus is it tried and proved that the essential nature of self-consciousness is not bare existence, is not the merely immediate form in which it at first makes its appearance, is not its mere absorption in the expanse of life. Rather it is thereby guaranteed that there is nothing present but what might be taken as a vanishing moment — that self-consciousness is merely pure self-existence, being-for-self. The individual, who has not staked his life, may, no doubt, be recognized as a Person; but he has not attained the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness. In the same way each must aim at the death of the other, as it risks its own life thereby; for that other is to it of no more worth than itself; the other’s reality is presented to the former as an external other, as outside itself; it must cancel that externality. The other is a purely existent consciousness and entangled in manifold ways; it must view its otherness as pure existence for itself or as absolute negation.

188. This trial by death, however, cancels both the truth which was to result from it, and therewith the certainty of self altogether. For just as life is the natural “position” of consciousness, independence without absolute negativity, so death is the natural “negation” of consciousness, negation without independence, which thus remains without the requisite significance of actual recognition. Through death, doubtless, there has arisen the certainty that both did stake their life, and held it lightly both in their own case and in the case of the other; but that is not for those who underwent this struggle. They cancel their consciousness which had its place in this alien element of natural existence; in other words, they cancel themselves and are sublated as terms or extremes seeking to have existence on their own account. But along with this there vanishes from the play of change the essential moment, viz. that of breaking up into extremes with opposite characteristics; and the middle term collapses into a lifeless unity which is broken up into lifeless extremes, merely existent and not opposed. And the two do not mutually give and receive one another back from each other through consciousness; they let one another go quite indifferently, like things. Their act is abstract negation, not the negation characteristic of consciousness, which cancels in such a way that it preserves and maintains what is sublated, and thereby survives its being sublated.

189. In this experience self-consciousness becomes aware that life is as essential to it as pure self-consciousness. In immediate self-consciousness the simple ego is absolute object, which, however, is for us or in itself absolute mediation, and has as its essential moment substantial and solid independence. The dissolution of that simple unity is the result of the first experience; through this there is posited a pure self-consciousness, and a consciousness which is not purely for itself, but for another, i.e. as an existent consciousness, consciousness in the form and shape of thinghood. Both moments are essential, since, in the first instance, they are unlike and opposed, and their reflexion into unity has not yet come to light, they stand as two opposed forms or modes of consciousness. The one is independent, and its essential nature is to be for itself; the other is dependent, and its essence is life or existence for another. The former is the Master, or Lord, the latter the Bondsman.

190. The master is the consciousness that exists for itself; but no longer merely the general notion of existence for self. Rather, it is a consciousness existing on its own account which is mediated with itself through an other consciousness, i.e. through an other whose very nature implies that it is bound up with an independent being or with thinghood in general. The master brings himself into relation to both these moments, to a thing as such, the object of desire, and to the consciousness whose essential character is thinghood. And since the master, is (a) qua notion of self-consciousness, an immediate relation of self-existence, but (b) is now moreover at the same time mediation, or a being-for-self which is for itself only through an other — he [the master] stands in relation (a) immediately to both, (b) mediately to each through the other. The master relates himself to the bondsman mediately through independent existence, for that is precisely what keeps the bondsman in thrall; it is his chain, from which he could not in the struggle get away, and for that reason he proved himself to be dependent, to have his independence in the shape of thinghood. The master, however, is the power controlling this state of existence, for he has shown in the struggle that he holds it to be merely something negative. Since he is the power dominating existence, while this existence again is the power controlling the other [the bondsman], the master holds, par consequence, this other in subordination. In the same way the master relates himself to the thing mediately through the bondsman. The bondsman being a self-consciousness in the broad sense, also takes up a negative attitude to things and cancels them; but the thing is, at the same time, independent for him and, in consequence, he cannot, with all his negating, get so far as to annihilate it outright and be done with it; that is to say, he merely works on it. To the master, on the other hand, by means of this mediating process, belongs the immediate relation, in the sense of the pure negation of it, in other words he gets the enjoyment. What mere desire did not attain, he now succeeds in attaining, viz. to have done with the thing, and find satisfaction in enjoyment. Desire alone did not get the length of this, because of the independence of the thing. The master, however, who has interposed the bondsman between it and himself, thereby relates himself merely to the dependence of the thing, and enjoys it without qualification and without reserve. The aspect of its independence he leaves to the bondsman, who labours upon it.

191. In these two moments, the master gets his recognition through an other consciousness, for in them the latter affirms itself as unessential, both by working upon the thing, and, on the other hand, by the fact of being dependent on a determinate existence; in neither case can this other get the mastery over existence, and succeed in absolutely negating it. We have thus here this moment of recognition, viz. that the other consciousness cancels itself as self-existent, and, ipso facto, itself does what the first does to it. In the same way we have the other moment, that this action on the part of the second is the action proper of the first; for what is done by the bondsman is properly an action on the part of the master. The latter exists only for himself, that is his essential nature; he is the negative power without qualification, a power to which the thing is naught. And he is thus the absolutely essential act in this situation, while the bondsman is not so, he is an unessential activity. But for recognition proper there is needed the moment that what the master does to the other he should also do to himself, and what the bondsman does to himself, he should do to the other also. On that account a form of recognition has arisen that is one-sided and unequal.

192. In all this, the unessential consciousness is, for the master, the object which embodies the truth of his certainty of himself. But it is evident that this object does not correspond to its notion; for, just where the master has effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness. It is not an independent, but rather a dependent consciousness that he has achieved. He is thus not assured of self-existence as his truth; he finds that his truth is rather the unessential consciousness, and the fortuitous unessential action of that consciousness.

193. The truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the consciousness of the bondsman. This doubtless appears in the first instance outside itself, and not as the truth of self-consciousness. But just as lordship showed its essential nature to be the reverse of what it wants to be, so, too, bondage will, when completed, pass into the opposite of what it immediately is: being a consciousness repressed within itself, it will enter into itself, and change round into real and true independence.
Yeah, I know, that's a long quote. But one can't read snippets of Hegel if one wants to know what he's saying. However, for those who don't want to slog through the above, allow me to summarize (using people/person in place of "self-consciousness" and "consciousness"):

So, a person doesn't really exist until they come into contact with another person. And when that happens, they see that other person initially as less real, as a secondary kind of person or a reflection of themselves, as a being that lacks true independent thought. This goes both ways, of course. And thus there is conflict. The two people eventually proceed to engage in—in Hegel's words—"a life-and-death struggle."

But actually, the struggle isn't life-and-death, for one person succeeds in achieving mastery of the other, thus becoming the "master" or "lord," while relegating the other to the role of "slave" or "bondsman." Thus, the former is apparently now an independent person (the goal all along) while the latter is a dependent person. However, this is not the end, for the master's independence ultimately proves to be no such thing, as he becomes dependent on the slave. In contrast, the slave's existence—while seemingly dependent on the master—becomes an independent one, by virtue of the work he performs.

Got it? On one level, it all seems kind of silly. Yet what should be readily apparent here are the intellectual roots of Marxism  and communism, along with that wonderful maxim, arbeit macht frei. Still, the idea of two people (consciousnesses) who must necessarily relate primarily through a function pf power, wherein one enslaves the other, this is not consistent with our current views on the human condition (and this points to the reality of the spread of classical liberalism and its impact on the same). Current civil society,—wherein the individual automatically accrues rights simply as a member of that society—doesn't require this kind of explanation at all.

And really, neither does the Hobbesian state of nature, for there is no requirement to impose one's will on others, there is just the potential to do so. But I digress, yet again.

Getting back to the dialectic, I should also probably make it clear why it is a dialectic: the initial person is the thesis (who is neither independent or dependent), the second person is the antithesis, there is conflict as the two come together, followed by the resolution or synthesis, wherein there is now an independent person and a dependent (and really, there's a mini-dialectic after the initial conflict, wherein the master and slave reverse positions, as above).

It's also important to remember that I switched terms in my version. We're not actually talking about people, per se. We're talking about ideas of "self," about how the mind finds itself and realizes it's own existence. For instance, allow that the two consciousnesses in question are a parent and child. The child's consciousness is new to the world and needs the reality of another to understand itself.  And there is conflict here, as babies/young children struggle to impose their will, to get their own way in their relationship with their parent(s). More often than not, the child seems to ultimately lose this struggle, yet actual wins in the long run (or one could flip it and see the reverse).

Hegel's dialectic is not as far out there as it seemed, is it? Because there is something, I think, to this idea of understanding one's own self better because of the impact of other's selves. I mean, it's not quite the answer to life, the universe, and everything, but there is something here.

But hold on to your hat, because there's another way of looking at the Master/Slave Dialectic, a way that has nothing to do with other people, in the least.

Consider, instead, that the entirety of Hegel's dialectic is an internal process for one individual. It's about how we process change, how our "selfs" evolve across time. The dialectic describes a single event between two sides, but it should be understood to reflect a multitude of similar events that occur one after the other. It is not only how we develop but also how we change, with regard to outlook and temperament. Changes in our personal realities create new potential versions of our "selfs," versions that may or may not win out over current versions (lets face it, some people just don't change!). And there's a cost for such changes to a new "self," especially when the new "self" represent a drastic (more or less) change.

What does all of this have to do with social media, you ask? Well, social media critic that I am, I think there's a case to be made for many people having distinctly different online personas and IRL (In Real Life; didn't you see The Net?) personas. Which I guess is no big deal, for the most part, is a sort of role-playing. But it seems to me that in some cases, the online persona is slowly displacing the IRL persona.

These online personas—not everyone's, just some—are a product of a need to achieve mastery over other online personas, i.e. there is yet another Master/Slave dialectic at this level, albeit one that never really comes to fruition. This plays out constantly on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere, as ridicule and snark are wielded to belittle and ultimately dominate to achieve what are, at best, Pyrrhic victories, meaningless in the context of the real world yet sufficient to shape personalities and accrue online "glory," often expressed via "likes," "retweets," or what have you.

And the persona so engorged by its online successes, it naturally seeks to become the dominate persona within the single individual, to assume mastery over the same, as it were. But the costs, oh the costs. Temperament suffers, as does perceived authenticity. The sublimated persona remains, secondary now but in truth independent, perhaps best understood as one's conscience.

Or maybe I've just got a bad head cold and the medicine I'm taking is making me loopy...


  1. I like the idea of the master/slave struggle as a struggle between components of a single consciousness, and I think that would fit into Hegel's story too.

    I agree with you about the effects of online personas, but I wouldn't think of them as slave consciousnesses (because they're not consciousnesses at all). I would think of them in terms of fetishes (more in the Marx line than Hegel maybe). The persona is a little cluster of behaviours/mannerisms that the consciousness fetishises --- treats as a consciousness --- and which then becomes a kind of parasite on the host consciousness.

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