Master Slave Dialect

The insightful analysis of Hegel in his ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ concerning the development of self consciousness revolves around the important impulse to “Self Consciousness” in which he details the master/slave dialectic. Contrary to preceding German Idealists, Hegel does not hold the assumption that the conscious agent is self conscious a priori; rather, the agent must establish this notion of self-conception through experience.

This experience become developed through time and is therefore associated with the concept of “history”. It can even be claimed that any development of self consciousness must be conditioned historically as much as it draws upon the demands of desire and the means to its sating.

Self consciousness is therefore far from innate with regard to individual agent. This break with tradition appears to be in arguing that self consciousness emerges out of non-self consciousness over time in a process which is conditioned historically.

Commentators are however not in agreement in regard to the specifics of this historical process and its holistic ontological location, particularly in the nature of the process which underlies the development of self consciousness.

Alexandre Kojeve finds Hegel’s dialectic of the mater/slave relationship to be referring to historically conditioned, material processes.

The basic question concerns the amount of historicity required for the development of self consciousness: is it a purely external process brought about by the conflict between two living beings, or is it an internal struggle that encompasses the conflict between various faculties? Kojeve argues for the former interpretation. Kojeve on the Historicity of the Master/Slave Dialectic Kojeve’s analysis of the master/slave dialectic integrates Marxist conception of class struggle with Hegel’s phenomenological account.

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Beginning with Hegel’s view of desire, Kojeve holds the assumption that the physical creature is the basic unit of consciousness and the locus of desiring. It is from this foundation that humans, together with animals, have desire referred to as the drive to alter external shapes or forms of being to that which would suit their own interests and being. Desire seeks to transform the world, to negate the external object in its own existence and put it to the use of the desiring being.

Kojeve, for instance, points to the desire of hunger as a clear example of a desire that a being has that negates the very existence of an object through radical change. The essence of human being lies in this power of negation; he argues that man is negating action, which transforms given being and by transforming it, transforms itself (Kojeve, 1980: 38). The difference that lies between human desire and animal desire is that human desire goes so far as to surpass itself. Humans possess desires that result in the negation of their conception as natural beings.

This leads to the possibility of self consciousness which needs “transcendence of self with respect to self as given” (ibid 39). The key to this transcendence could be human desire if it focuses on that which liberates oneself from that mode of being. The ability to desire non-being is characteristically human and enables an individual to free himself from the concept of being that so enslaves human life. Instead of corresponding to the pulls and pushes of nature, humans can employ desire to transcend the mere “freedom of the turnspit” and achieve self consciousness.

Kojeve is stressing on the biological basis of the master/slave relationship by labeling biological drives “desires”. The major difference between humans and animals is the ability of humans to desire non-being or death. According to Kojeve, the ability to desire non-being is the extreme limiting case of human freedom. Humans are free from their essence in the most basic way possible; they can opt to end it through their own desires. It is at this point that a desiring consciousness makes the realization that there are more than objects of desire in the world.

The desiring subject becomes cognizant of other conscious beings in the world. According to Kojeve, a conscious being can only be satisfied when the other desiring conscious meets its desire for recognition. This is not a natural reciprocation from other beings, and the consequent lines of action are competitive in nature. There exists a struggle between the two agents in a life and death fight for recognition of the other. It appears that since humans demand recognition from the other being and possess the capacity to transcend natural animal desires through the desire of non-being, a struggle ensues between these desires.

It seems as if Kojeve is arguing that freedom and ultimate worth reside in the ability of the being to defy nature and desire, and risking destruction in the face of inclinations towards natural preservation. Why is this risk being taken? The non-essential end of this endeavor is identification from another desiring consciousness. The only moment that animals seem to risk their lives is when they are pursuing the means to preserve their life. Humans on the other hand can defy nature to achieve desired recognition from other creatures of the same capabilities.

Recognition cannot be gained from any animal in this scheme. It must be from a being that can also risk all of its natural prerogatives in the pursuit of the same end of recognition. Kojeve conceives of Hegel’s transition from a life and death struggle to one in which no being dies as a last and irreducible premise in the Phenomenology. It appears to be a mere assumption that the deadly struggle ends in one being assuming the role of the master and the other of the slave. According to Kojeve, this results from the ability of the master, and the inability of the slave to resist his natural instincts for survival.

The master was strong enough to continue risking his life, while the slave eventually succumbed to his natural desires and attempted to preserve his life through assuming the role of the slave. Kojeve suggests that, “the vanquished has subordinated his human desire for recognition to the biological desire preserve life. The victor has risked his life for a non-vital end” (ibid 42). At the beginning of the struggle, the two agents appear to be unequal with regard to resolution and stamina.

The one who is to be the slave is not capable of continuing the struggle and is therefore forced into subjection as the only way of preserving his life. It must be judged therefore that if both agents had similar resolution and power, the struggle could possibly and with both being slain. This is of course a condition that would not aid the establishment of self consciousness or the extension of biological life, perhaps explaining which Hegel stresses on the ascendance of one master and the servitude of one slave.

The work of the slave is the intermediary between the master and the world of nature. According to Kojeve, it is this work that enables the master to satisfy all his needs without personal expectation; the master desires while the work of the slave bends nature to meet these desires. From the master’s perspective, desire is followed by immediate satisfaction. From the perspective of the slave, the desire of another is answered with their labor, which then results in the other’s desire being satisfied.

In this scheme, the master is tied to the drives of nature; while he could risk his own natural drives to secure recognition from the subjugated other, his courage and freedom then faded into a mere pursuit of particular biological desires. According to Kojeve, the master remains a natural being, an animal since he maintains this state of egocentric desire and the satisfaction of desire. The actual action of negation and transformation that is achieved in the instantiated relationship of the master and the slave appears in that of the slave.

He is the one that is acting and transforming the world, whereas the master merely has desires qua natural being. Given this foundation, Kojeve realizes that the base is set for the possibility of a historical process which is holistically the history of the Fights and the Work that finally ended in the Napoleonic wars and the table on which Hegel wrote the Phenomenology so as to comprehend both those wars and the table. History starts with the resolution of the initial struggle into two classes, those of the master and slave.

All material products and future struggle are to be comprehended within this simple framework of master/slave dialectic. History is nothing but a product of the master/slave struggle, made up of entirely of such struggles, and is no more when such struggles end physically. The materialist tendencies in such a conception is quite evident especially when Kojeve remarks that man must always be either master or slave, and that beings must be in a relation with each other for them to be at least considered human.

The extreme historicity of the master/slave dialectic is obvious in this conception which is important in describing not only the progress of world history but also the universal history, offering in details the interaction of humanity with the rest of the natural world. According to Hegel, the slave interacts with nature. It therefore follows that natural history details the progress of slave overcoming nature and bending it to its will. The will of the slave is however not the operative force here; instead, it is the master’s mediated will that drives the slave to his interaction with nature through his labor.

According to Kojeve, it is this fundamental interaction with nature that enables the dialectic reversal of the master’s dominance and the slave’s subservience in the Phenomenology. The reading of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic by Kojeve is quite materially founded in its historicity. It involves conflict of individuals or groups, and requires that they resolve into two groups; those that fear death and become the slaves and those that can surpass this fear of death by risking their life and become masters.

History starts with this struggle, and the entire history is the continuation of this struggle until the slaves are finally freed from the tyranny of the masters. The sources of this ultimate freedom are work, fear, and service, but only after the slave journeys through a series of ideologies, by which he seeks to justify himself, his slavery, to reconcile the ideal of freedom with the fact of slavery (ibid, 53). The final point of history, according to Kojeve, is when the physical struggle between mater and slave ultimately ceases. History reaches its final point since it is nothing but the constant struggle between masters and slaves.

It is in this note that Kojeve ignores much of Hegel’s true purpose behind Phenomenology. Inadequacy of Kojeve’s formulation The materialist reading of the master/slave dialectic has been characterized by much criticism owing to what it has ignored concerning Hegel’s phenomenology. In emphasizing on the purely external struggle between two agents, such a reading simplifies the integral, internal role of another in the establishment of the subject’s self consciousness. Kojeve unduly restricts the master/slave analysis in Hegel’s Phenomenology to the external struggle between two creatures.

The true reading of this dialectic must encompass other perspectives as well. The master/slave dialectic can be explicated from three perspectives. The first is the social which is exclusively adopted by Kojeve. This reading focuses on the physical, actual struggle of persons or groups to acquire recognition and power. It is however not enough to take this social perspective for the entire master/slave dialectic. The psychological perspective complements it, which regards the dialectic as an interpersonal struggle within the individual ego. With this regard, the master and slave are various powers or patterns of the mind itself.

The latter perspective is one of fusion between the previous two perspectives; the ego is changed by internal processes that are set in motion due to the external struggle between agents. As far as the limitations of the social perspective is concerned, there is no problem with Kojeve’s analysis. The actual disagreement with Kojeve is enabling the historicity of the psychological account of the master/slave dialectic without reducing it to material conflict between physical agents. The heart of Hegel’s though is the Platonic parallel between conflict in the stater and conflict in the individual agent.

According to this interpretation, the quest for harmony will enable the master/slave dialectic on the levels of both the social and the psychological. The psychological perspective on this dialectic is required to comprehend the succeeding development of self consciousness. Vital to this conception is the idea that the faculties of the ego must contend in order to act because a single comprehensive faculty, regardless of the number of egos, would render them either completely static or completely destructive. Therefore, internal conflict must underlie any external conflict.

There is thus the possibility of giving a psychological interpretation of the master/slave dialectic as a struggle within the soul, of the ego striving for self consciousness. Problem with Kojeve according to Carl Schmitt and Emmanuel Levinas The fundamental commonality between Schmitt and Levinas is their replacement of a Hegelian conception of politics as a struggle for recognition emanating from an originary battle to the death with the view that the originary relationship is rather between the rescuer and the victim, always in the presumed presence of some third whose ethical position is not known.

At the end of a century that is characterized and dominated by the dialectic of revolution and counter revolution, a shift to Levinas and/or Schmitt can help in understanding the post cold war linkage between the global and the local as a humanitarian relation between the rescuers and the victims and a political doctrine of preemptive third party intervention. Lavina argues that, by relating to beings in the openness of being, understanding finds a meaning for them in terms of being (Lavina, 2006: 87).

With this regard, understanding does not invoke them but only names them. Understanding therefore carries an act of violence and of negation. Violence is therefore a partial negation. This partial negation can be defined by the fact that without disappearing, beings are within ones power. Violence denies the independence of beings. Possession is the means whereby a being, while existing, is partially denied. Lavina holds that it is not merely a fact that the being is an instrument and a tool, that is, as a means, it is also an end.

According to Lavinas, peace is the paradigmatic ethical relation between one and another in proximity. As a relationship of pure exteriority of two neighbors, each of whom is incapable of knowing the other’s inner life, peace is entirely different in its origin and demands from the political pursuit of justice. Lavinas sees the responsibility for other human being as anterior to every question. Lavinas acknowledges politics as involving comparison, reciprocity and equality which is external to ethics and is always about peace rather than justice, and presumes human incommensurability.

The specific political distinction to which political actions can be reduced is that between friend and enemy according to Schmitt (Schmitt, 1996: 26). The antithesis of friend and enemy does not contradict to the relatively independent criteria of other antitheses. He conceives of the distinction between friend and enemy to denote the utmost degree of intensity of union or separation, association or dissociation. It can exist both in theory and in practice without having to draw from other distinctions. His view shifts from that of Kojeve in the sense that he conceives of the other not to be necessarily an economic competitor.

In other words, he does not view master/slave dialectic in the sense that Kojeve views it. According to him, a political enemy does not necessarily have to appear as a competitor. According to him, only the actual participants can correctly identify, comprehend and judge the concrete situation and settle the extreme case of conflict. Each participant, he argues, is in a position to judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence (Schmitt, 1996: 27).

Terrorism as it pertains to master slave dialect Terrorism is an ideology of violence meant to intimidate or cause terror for the aim of exerting pressure on decision making by state bodies. It encompasses a series of acts that are meant to spread intimidation, panic, and destruction in a population. These acts can either be carried out by individuals and groups that are opposing a state or acting on behalf of the state. The question of violence is closely connected with sovereignty.

The master slave dialectic must be a violence that makes sense, violence that results in the production of sense in the form of man and history. Terrorism on the other hand is a senseless violence that lays waste without recognition. In order to produce history, the master slave dialectic must produce the positions of master and slave. Because the master has not encountered death in all its terrifying reality as the absolute master and the slave has, the slave possesses the power over the master. In this situation, the act of terrorism is a struggle between masters and slaves.

The terrorists have confronted the reality of death. Having defeated the slave, the master forced him to work. This labor implies that while the master is idle, the slave labors at transforming the world. The transforming labor of the slave eventually gives it the power to take up once the liberating Fight for recognition that he refused initially for fear of death. Terrorism thus becomes an element of a struggle between the master and the slave. According to master slave dialectic, the course of history is determined by this struggle.

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Master Slave Dialect. (2016, Sep 07). Retrieved from

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