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Master-Slave Dialectic

Page history last edited by Robert Goldman 15 years, 6 months ago


The Master-Slave dialectic is an idea put forth by Hegel in his book The Phenomenology of  Mind. The dialectic is part of a passage in the book that is intended to tell the history of how human reason and consciousness developed.


Before describing Hegel’s model it is important to preface it with the conclusion of his theory. Eventually, according to Hegel, the development of human consciousness and reason leads to human freedom. Hegel’s vision of freedom is when Geist, or the spirit of humanity, becomes one with ultimate truth and reason. Hegel, therefore, does not see freedom as existing in a state of nature.  Rather, he sees freedom as being achieved through a dialectical process of sublation where the contradictions inherent in all relationships slowly and methodically work themselves out.


In order to understand how Hegel comes to the idea of ultimate freedom through the ideas of dialectical processes and sublation, it is necessary to start with the way in which Hegel uses a hypothetical model to show how these relationships work. This model begins with a self and an other. The self can only recognize himself, or realize his own self-consciousness, in opposition to the other. Conversely, the other can only recognize himself in opposition to the self. In the struggle for recognition, the two men start to fight to the death. During the struggle, one man submits to the other man when he realizes that he would rather give up his power to another man then to lose his life. The more powerful man becomes the master and the less powerful man becomes the slave. Their unequal relationship illustrates Hegel’s theory that most relationships begin as unequal and unstable. The master, with his new power, then imposes himself as an objective and external authority and he refuses to recognize the slave as an individual or a subject. However, as the slave does labor for the master and creates himself through working on the earth, the slave realizes his own self-sufficiency and individuality. The key point in this formation of self-consciousness is labor. In serving the master, the slave must transform nature, and in his/her ability to transform nature, the slave recognizes it has an identity outside the master. Now the slave is bonded to itself with internal contradictions that occur in four stages: (1.) Stoicism: enduring the relationship, (2.) Skepticism: questioning the relationship, (3.) Unhappy Consciousnes: recognizing aspects of the master within the self, and (4.) Mutual Recognition. The slave sees itself as an undivided object, but as soon as the slave becomes aware of him/herself as a subject, she/he becomes liberated and internally divided at the same time. In this way, self-contradiction becomes the force of change through sublation. This process is what propels the slave towards liberation in self-recognition and eventual freedom from the master. The contradiction in this relationship lies in the fact that the slave had to be oppressed by the master and treated as an object before he could realize himself as a subject.


Therefore, consciousness, and the process of human liberation from inequality are rooted in contradictions. Also, all relationships have contradictions within them. These contradictions are what move history progressively towards human liberation. Without the conflict and inequality that existed between the master and the slave, the slave would never have realized his own abilities.


 In this context, the dialectic is the process in which contradiction is the driving force that creates change through relationships. Sublation describes the action of these contradicting forces reaching a higher level. In Hegel’s view, as this process is repeated multiple times throughout history, inequality in relationships will diminish more and more and equality, or mutual recognition will eventually be achieved. Thus, the freedom that Hegel envisions involves a realization of absolute knowledge, interconnectedness with the spirit of humanity, and a sense of mutual recognition and equality among all people.



Comments (1)

jessicah@... said

at 9:09 pm on Dec 5, 2008

A minor addendum: The whole reason for the confrontation of the two self consciousnesses is because each self considers the other in terms of the self. Each wants to become certain of itself as an essential being and in order to do so, needs recognition from the other. This leads to the fight.

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