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Dialectic of the Master and the Slave by Hegel

A critical review.

Hegel says that it is not easy to become a “self”, people envision themselves as being something. Every person goes through many stages during his lifetime, these stages are the ‘Phenomenology of the Spirit’. The “I” has the desire for appropriation; it wants to encompass everything. I realize that I am the subject and I am different from the objects but I also realize that there are other subjects and that is the difficulty. It is pointless to be a subject in the world full of objects. I want everyone to conform to my will hence the other subjects are both an instrument and an obstacle to my will. The paradox is that the self wants to deny other subjects their subjectivity yet needs the other subjects to validate the identity of the self. At the same time the other subject wants to deny me of my subjectivity. The dialectic of the master and the slave is the collision of two wills where both the wills want to dominate but there will only be one winner. This is the reason for violence, all the subjects fighting to dominate. The essence of violence is not in utilitarianism. The other will is an obstacle to my desire to will, there is an inherent collision in this unstable relationship where both the subjects are trying to prove their subjectivities. The essence of that subjectivity is the will hence the self will be willing to sacrifice the body for the will to triumph. Eventually the one who will be victorious will be the one who will be willingly to do so and the person scared for his life will lose out because of his cowardice and concern for his life. Hegel says that we have to show that we are not afraid of our bodies, my deepest aspiration is to assert my will. The structure of consciousness is self centered. The will is not satisfied after it has conquered certain beings because those slaves are no longer regarded as subjects by the master and hence there is no apparition because the master wants to be recognized by his equals. The conflict will never end.

Hegel adopts a different approach in explaining the origin of violence in terms of the collision of the wills for the sake of domination. However, the basis of the theory is still found in nature and based on certain assumptions that cannot be proved. It cannot be said that it is the desire of every will to dominate the other, psychology has proven that certain people are naturally more submissive. In devising a universal theory, Hegel has not considered that individuals may differ in their approach. Hegel states that this relation is unstable hence it in inevitable for the wills to collide, however, we have seen that people are able to live on an equal basis without conflict. Hegel’s theory can be discredited by such examples. Hegel does not effectively target the question of whether the will dies when one of the beings loses and hence his subjectivity is gone or the will can re-surface at a later time to potentially overthrow the master. In conclusion, Hegel has presented a very interesting idea as to the origin of violence but its universality can be challenged.

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  1. ericheav

    On February 9, 2009 at 1:56 pm


    Everything is conflict. If equals are seen to operate together in peace, it is only because they take turns being master and slave. It’s not just violence, but every interaction which implies a hierarchy. If there were no hierarchy, there would be no interactions, but interactions also imply the hierarchy is constantly changing. If the slave could not eventually become a master, or the master a slave, the relationship would not work… it has to have a dynamic tension. Everything is dialectic because everything is in flux and our knowledge of everything is our understanding of relationships and interactions. That’s how Hegel gets around the Kantian paradox–we try to think about things in themselves as though they were phenomena, i.e. easily identifiable, static, self-enclosed entities, when really the things in themselves are the relationships between those phenomena which in turn define them.

  2. ericheav

    On February 9, 2009 at 2:00 pm


    I feel like I should slightly clarify that last point–The Master and The Slave are phenomena, and as such take many different forms. If we think of Master and Slave in abstracted form as noumena we run into a lot of trouble, because the myriad Masters can’t necessarily be reduced to one archetypal Master, each has their own qualities and among them they probably have conflicting qualities. However, on some level the Master-Slave relationship is the same between all masters and all slaves. Hence this can be noumenal, and ‘birth’ a colorful spectrum of phenomena.

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