Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Two Wrongs? Or the Opposite of an Opposite?

Note: This post originated as a comment on LMagee’s post on Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondage” discussion, but grew too long to post directly as a comment, so I’ve lifted it here… Following the convention in these discussions, quotations and references are taken from the source text here, problematic as that might be…


Okay. What to do with this passage… Perhaps perversely, I’m inclined to read this section as a critical text – as something concerned with setting out what I would tend to call a standpoint of critique to ground the normative evaluation of the social relationship being described. Of course, within Hegel’s framework, critique is never abstractly negative – it never moves through the simple and direct rejection of what is being criticised. Instead, critique moves, in the first instance, precisely through a recognition of the necessity of what it criticises. Critique thus first seeks to make sense of its target – to move beyond the object of critique by first grasping it, and then demonstrating how that object is inadequate to a certain standard (generally, a standard that can understood to be immanently implied by the object itself, so that the target of critique can be criticised for the way in which it fails to achieve its own goals…).

On one level, of course, this critical dimension of Hegel’s text is quite clear and explicit (inasmuch as one is ever safe using these particular words to describe Hegel…). The discussion of lordship and bondage in a narrow sense is situated within a longer series of reflections on self-consciousness, which centre on the need for acknowledgement or recognition by another self-consciousness, and which outline what is intended, I think, to be a normative ideal of uncoerced mutual recognition. Hegel describes this normative ideal of recognition in the following terms:

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.

It must cancel this other. To do so is the sublation of that first double meaning, and it 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.

This sublation in a double sense of its otherness in a double sense is at the same time a return in a double sense to 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.

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 of 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 as 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. (179-182)

My temptation is to take the passage above as a sort of preliminary determination of a critical ideal – an ideal pointing to the potential for mutual intersubjective recognition. This ideal then provides a critical standpoint against which the forms of intersubjectivity outlined in the subsequent passages can then be assessed, to determine how well they enable the potentials for such mutual recognition to be expressed. Having set out this ideal, Hegel next moves from the ideal to an analysis of specific forms of intersubjectivity – with the intent, I believe, of evaluating these forms of intersubjectivity against the critical standard he has articulated. He flags this move in the text:

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 had 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.

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. (184-185 – bold text mine)

Where Hegel goes next, as I read the text, is to an analysis of various forms of intersubjectivity – each of which, I think, he analyses in order to measure them against his “pure conception” – his critical ideal – of the potential for mutual recognition.

He begins by analysing a form of intersubjectivity that reads, to me, a bit like a Hobbesian state of nature: a form of “intersubjectivity” in which subjects confront one another essentially outside the realms of established social (intersubjective) relationships. I read Hegel here as trying, essentially, to embed this conception of the state of nature within his framework – reframing the concept of the war of all against all, within his own account of how self-consciousness attempts to achieve self-certainty. Hegel thus interprets the forms of subjectivity expressed in the war of all against all as attempts by self-consciousness to affirm its own existence by risking its own life, and by trying to annihilate the life of the other – both of which Hegel interprets as attempts by self-consciousness to assert its lack of dependence on life – its potential to exist even outside of and beyond life. In these passages, Hegel seeks to make sense of this form of intersubjectivty within his system, while also judging it as a failed attempt, as attempt that could never have achieved its aim:

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” 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. (188 – italics mine)

So the goal here, as I read it, is to understand a particular form of subjectivity – to position that form of subjectivity with a theoretical system, so that it becomes clear this theoretical system can grasp that form of subjectivity in its qualitative specificity, without abstracting or generalising those qualitative characteristics away, as would be the case if the specific form of subjectivity were merely grouped into some higher and more formal category – while also making a clear judgment that this form of subjectivity, while comprehensible, can also be criticised for its inadequacy to its aims.

I take the same strategy to be in play, as the discussion moves more directly into the topic of lordship and bondage: I think that the intention is to hold this form of intersubjectivity (and the forms of subjectivity associated with it) up to critique, where critique will follow the same form of showing that this form of intersubjectivity can be comprehended, but is also inadequate to what it intends to achieve.

Hegel suggests that the attempt to affirm self-consciousness through the war of all against all, while inadequate to its aims, nevertheless led to the achievement of an historical insight: the insight that life, as well as “pure” self-consciousness, is essential to self-consciousness (83). What follows the achievement of this insight is the emergence of a new form of intersubjectivity – expressed in the lordship and bondage relationship – that Hegel characterises as an attempt to distribute different aspects of self-consciousness across hierarchical social roles. In Hegel’s account, this new form of intersubjectivity appears to create a situation in which the Master achieves recognition – and therefore self-certainty – through the subordination of the bondsman. Hegel argues, however, that the essential inequality of the relationship undermines the Master’s ability to achieve any genuine self-certainty:

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 other also. On that account a form of recognition has arisen that is one sided and unequal. (191)

This one-sided and unequal form of recognition Hegel then judges as inadequate – immanently – because “this object does not correspond to its notion” (192).

Hegel then moves from analysing bondage as it appears in its relationship to lordship, to analysing the form of self-consciousness generated by bondage, as it is “in and for itself” (194). Here Hegel moves into a complex discussion of how the formative experience of fear on the one hand, and service on the other, generate the historical conditions of possibility for an awareness that desire can be restrained and directed into the transformation of nature. In Hegel’s account, this combination of fear and service transforms the nature of desire, making it possible for the bondsman to become aware of “having and being a ‘mind of his own'” through the externalisation of self in the purposive transformation of nature (196).

The question then becomes whether Hegel, having established the necessity of the experience of bondage as a formative moment in the constitution of self-consciousness, intends to suggest that the form of intersubjectivity that gave rise to this formative experience remains essential. Does Hegel believe, in other words, that a social context characterised by class domination continues to be necessary – such that his theoretical system then serves as a rationalisation for such domination by offering the bondsmen the consolation that, in spite of appearances, this social arrangement is better for them than for the Master…

Hegel’s text, I believe, suggests that he does not believe this form of intersubjectivity must – or should – be preserved. Instead, the text suggests (at least to this point – I’ll want to revisit this passage again, from the standpoint of the work as a whole) that he accords the master-bondsman form of intersubjectivity the same status that he accorded the form of intersubjectivity expressed in the war of all against all: that he regards it as a constitutive moment for the realisation of self-consciousness, in that it leads to the historical achievement of a particular insight about self-consciousness, but that he also regards this form of intersubjectivity as, in itself, a failed attempt to achieve self certainty. He flags this, I believe, at the conclusion to the section on lordship and bondage, by setting up an explicit contrast between a vision of the kind of freedom that could be achieved by intersubjective relationships grounded on mutual recognition, and an inferior vision of freedom that “does not get beyond the attitude of bondage” (196). Hegel argues:

For this reflexion into self the two moments, fear and service in general, as also that of formative activity, are necessary: and at the same time both must exist in a universal manner. Without the discipline of service and obedience, fear remains formal and does not spread over the whole reality of existence. Without the formative activity shaping the thing, fear remains inward and mute, and consciousness does not become objective for itself. Should consciousness shape and form the thing without the initial state of absolute fear, then it has a merely vain and futile “mind of its own”; for its form of negativity is not negativity per se, and hence its formative activity cannot furnish the consciousness of itself as essentially real. If it has endured not absolute fear, but merely some slight anxiety, the negative reality has remained internal to it, its substance has not been through and through infected thereby. Since the entire content of its natural consciousness has not tottered and shaken, it is still inherently a determinate mode of being; having a “mind of its own” is simply stubbornness, a type of freedom which does not get beyond the attitude of bondage. As little as the pure form can become its essential nature, so little is that form, considered as extending over particulars, a universal formative activity, an absolute notion; it is rather a piece of cleverness, which has mastery within a certain range, but not over the universal power nor over the entire objective reality. (196)

Is this formative experience of fear and service, though, something Hegel sees as essential only as a moment in the process of historical development? Or does he see it as something that must be reconstituted historically, even within a society predicated on a very different form of intersubjectivity? My sense – because this would be consistent with what seems to be Hegel’s notion of transcendence as a process whereby something is both cancelled and preserved, as well as from more direct flags within his text – is that he does not believe that the original historical conditions for generating an insight must be replicated, in order for the insight itself to be preserved within the new form of intersubjectivity that has transcended the old. The form of intersubjectivity characteristic of the lordship and bondage, for example, does not replicate the specific form of social relationship (intersubjectivity) characteristic of the war of all against all; it does, however, reconstitute – in a different way – a means of achieving the same fundamental insight that self-consciousness requires life (although in the new form of intersubjectivity, this insight is preserved unequally – not available to the master). My sense would be that a new society, founded, along the lines suggested by Hegel’s critical ideal, on forms of intersubjectivity predicated on mutual recognition, would, in Hegel’s view, preserve the insights historically achieved through the experience of lordship and bondage, without the replication of the historical conditions or social hierarchies through which such insights were generated…

But my laptop battery is flashing an angry red warning signal at me – further discussion will need to await a moment when I am more… plugged in… ;-P

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