Phenomenology of Spirit: B. Self-Consciousness (until paragraph 190)

B. Self-Consciousness

Overview (until the end of ¶190):

Consciousness is characterised in all its stages by trying to know an object that is “outside” consciousness, but finally it is forced back on itself and we reach self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is desire and as such sustains itself only in the face of an outside (“life”) that must constantly be negated so that self-consciousness can be itself. However, self-consciousness only attains its truth in being the object of another self-consciousness. This recognition of two self-consciousness causes a battle almost to the death, the result of which is a winner (the lord or master) and the loser (the bondsman or slave).

A Brief History of Self-Consciousness?

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the place of self-consciousness in philosophical history before Hegel. We could go right back to Socrates’s oft-quoted injunction: “Know yourself.” In the case of Socrates, this command is a reminder to behave or comport oneself well; at the same time, the maxim is a way of discrediting those who would try to understand obscure topics without adequate preparatory reflection. Thus, Socrates’s call to self knowledge is primarily ethical in nature. Skip ahead to Descartes and it takes on a mainly epistemological character. “I think there for I am” is the one indubitable truth Descartes discovers that allows him to ground his entire system of thought.

In Kant, the epistemological character remains, but it becomes more deeply intrenched in his concept of transcendental or pure apperception (i.e., the perception of perception). In the The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant claims that there must be some some unifying consciousness that lets us have distinct cognitions instead of a flood of disconnected impressions.

“The I think must be able to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me that could not be thought at all, which is as much as to say that the representation would either be impossible or else at least would be nothing for me. I call [this unifying subject of the various intuitions] the pure apperception [. . .] because it produces the representation I think, which must be able to accompany all others [i.e, other cognition]”

In other words, in order for there to be any cognition, it must be somebody’s cognition, and the function of this somebody is to unite and structure all of those diverse cognitions. For Descartes, “I think there for I am” is the conclusion of particular skeptical line of thought. However, what Kant is saying is that apperception is the beginning of any thinking. Whenever I have a thought, I know that thought and I know that I have that thought. Basically, we can included a bracketed “I perceive that” before any factual statement: “(I perceive that) two plus two equals four,” “(I perceive that) airplanes are faster than cars,” “(I perceive that) I think therefore I am,” and so on.

From Socrates to Kant, the trajectory of self-consciousness is, on the one hand, to become more internal to the mind and more immediate to experience, and on the other hand, to move away from action, deeper and deeper into knowledge. We will see in Hegel something of a reversal in this trend. To put it briefly, self-consciousness is the conclusion of a certain process, not an absolute beginning. More importantly, self-consciousness is not primarily epistemological; rather, it is practical–it is concerned with action.

Why a New State?

A wary reader might begin this section by wondering what justifies the movement from consciousness to self-consciousness. Hegel’s basic methodological device is the movement in which X posits Y, Y undermines the certainty of X, and X’ results. For example, in sense certainty, consciousness posits the pure This, the This reveals itself as not what I meant, and consciousness must revise itself. The same process applies again to perception and again to understanding. What is stable in these movements is that these three movements all take place within the field of consciousness. The wary reader might wonder why we now get to the new field of self-consciousness. Why do we not instead just get another step of consciousness?

A justification can be found in Hegel’s reflections on the relationship between the quantitative and the qualitative in the paragraph 11 of the Preface:

“Spirit is indeed never at rest but always engaged in moving forward. But just as the first breath drawn by a child after its long, quiet nourishment breaks the gradualness of merely quantitative growth–there is a qualitative leap, and the child is born–so likewise the Spirit in its formation matures slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of the previous world, whose tottering state is only hinted at by isolated symptoms. (6)”

In other words, the same dialectical device can keep working as always, but eventually the result is a tipping point. In the same way that a nuclear reaction can only occur once there is a critical mass of fissile material, so self-consciousness results after a certain accumulation of dialectical operations in consciousness.

What is Different between “A. Consciousness” and B. “Self-Consciousness”?

Consciousness can be said to participate in the traditional characterization of truth as the adequation of an idea to its object. That is, consciousness continually seeks to find some “in itself” of its objects; however, what it finds continually redefines the relationship consciousness has to its objects. We (Hegel’s implied community of philosophers) know that consciousness is in fact positing its objects, but consciousness does not originally realize it is doing that–it thinks it is discovering properties of the object.

In the opening paragraph of “IV. The Truth of Self-Certainty,” Hegel briefly summarizes the results of The Phenomenology thus far:

In the previous modes of certainty what it true for consciousness is something other than itself. But the Notion of this truth vanishes in the experience of it. What the object immediately was in itself–mere being in sense-certainty, the concrete thing of perception, and for the Understanding, a Force–proves to be in truth, not this at all; instead, this in-itself turns out to be a mode in which the object is only for an other.

It’s important that the word “truth” appears several times in this passage. Recall once again that for Hegel, “truth” designates the full accomplishment of a thing’s growth, but keep in mind that this truth can be seen from two opposite sides. From any particular stage, everything that came before was untruth leading toward the current truth, but most of the states are unaware of their own impending death, their own giving way to a new stage. Thus, consciousness has it’s own truth in the correspondence of subject and object, and this correspondence takes place by means of the passive capacity of knowing.

As a qualitatively new stage, self-consciousness will alter the experience of truth as described thus far. Briefly put, self-consciousness will give a practical conception of truth in that consciousness will no longer be content simply to recognize its objects. Rather, it will act on its objects, change them, devour them. In “Consciousness” truth is passive; in “Self-Consciousness” it is active.

“Self-consciousness is Desire in general” (167, page 105)

Whereas for Kant, apperception grounds experience, for Hegel self-consciousness is the product of a certain kind of experience. By the time we get to self-consciousness, all that was known in consciousness had ceased to be true of self-consciousness’s other (that is, sensuous objects)–sense certainty, things, and forces have all been revealed as inflections or states of consciousness. It would seem, then, that objects have ceased to exist and that we are back to a radical egoism. In fact, self-consciousness does not show the objects of consciousness to be illusory. On the contrary, it needs them so that it may negate them and thereby reveal itself to itself: “Thus it seems that only the principal moment itself has been lost, viz. the simple self-subsistence existence for consciousness. But in point of fact self-consciousness is the reflection out of the being of the world of sense and perception, and is essentially the return from otherness.” (¶167, page 105)

Self-consciousness is the identity of the knowing with the known, of subject with object. It would thus seem that self-consciousness is the simple formula I = I. However, such a formulation is too static, focusing only on the result while ignoring the movement of negation. Perhaps a better formula is (I ≠ other) = I, or “I am not the negated other, and am therefore I” or rather “In negating the other, I am I.” Self-consciousness thus has two moments:

As consciousness: “otherness is for [self-consciousness] in the form of a being [. . . ] self-consciousness is in the form of consciousness, and the whole expanse of the sensuous world is preserved for it” (¶167, page 105)

As unity with itself (i.e., as self-consciousness proper): “the sensuous world is for it an enduring existence which, however, is only appearance, or a difference which, in itself, is no difference.” (¶167, page 105)

Thus, self-consciousness is not the abolishment of an object such that the I is immediately to itself, nor is it the shifting of the object, such that previously the object was “out there” but now it’s “in here.” On the contrary, in self-consciousness there is a doubling of objects such that the first one is posited only to be negated by the second: “Consciousness, as self-consciousness, henceforth has a double object: one is the immediate object, that of sense-certainty and perception, which however for self-consciousness has the character of a negative; and the second, viz. itself, which is true essence, and is present in the first instance only as opposed to the first object” (¶167, page 105). (This theme of duplication-as-negation will appear again when we get to the mortal struggle.)

This negating power of self-consciousness should be thought of in the most material sense. That is, the negating is not just conceptual (as opposed to the concrete); it is actual transformation of material things themselves. Self-consciousness finds itself in consuming the objects of consciousness. What is eating if not the destruction of the world in order to preserve myself? The fruit that is eaten loses its being, and consciousness is consumed by the fruit. However, consciousness comes back from the fruit to itself in the process of devouring it. It should be noted that self-consciousness is not merely animal appetite; however, it begins in animal appetite.

Hegel and The Lion King: The Circle of Life

Immediately after introducing desire, Hegel outlines a theory of life in a handful of dense paragraphs beginning at ¶168, page 106.

Self-consciousness is consciousness’s turning back from the sensuous world, but parallel with this movement is the turning of that world into itself. That is, consciousness becomes an object for itself, and the world of things that self-consciousness negates acquires its own being in itself: “Self-consciousness which is simply for itself and directly characterizes its object as a negative element, or is primarily desire, will therefore, on the contrary, learn through experience that the object is independent” ¶168, page 106). The name for this object of desire that is in itself is life. Many scholars have been fretted over why Hegel calls this object of desire “life”, but there might be a simple answer: everything that a human must negate in order to sustain itself is alive: fruits, grains, animals, and so on are all living things–we cannot get by eating rocks and dirt (with the exception of salt).

In fact, “life” has two senses for Hegel, just as it does for English. On the one hand, there is the substantive meaning: life is the uncountable totality of all processes of living—the substance of living, as in the question “Is there life on Mars?” On the other hand, there is the countable “a life” and “lives” that designate the specific life of a particular being. For our purposes I’ll write Life and life. The former sense is characterized thus:

“Essence is infinity as the supersession of all distinctions, the pure movement of axial rotation, its self-repose being an absolutely restless infinity; independence itself, in which the differences of the movement are resolved, the simple essence of Time which, in this equality with itself, has the stable shape of Space.” (¶169, page 106)

This is a key characterization, but a murky one that is worth reading in detail. On the one hand, the essence of Life is to be unlimited, unending, infinite. While particular lives are born and die, Life as such does not. That is, particular lives are a kind of movement, a bubbling up of this primordial Life, but in Life these individuals lives are homogenous. Time is the medium of change, difference, and non-identity (because what was past is not any longer). However, in the perpetual moment of Life, all these changes in Time seem superficial; in the primordial substance of Life, they have the same degree of being, just as various things that exists in space all at the same moment have equal being. On the one hand, Life is the constancy, the identity of all living things; on the other hand, lives are the distinct moments of Life that hold themselves apart from all other living things. From the perspective of a single life, death is the end, but from the perspective of substantial Life, death is just a becoming one with other lives. As Jean Hyppolite puts it,

“Although death appears to arrive from outside and to be the result of an alien negation, as though the universe were suppressing a living individuality, as though the universe were suppressing a living individuality, it originates in fact in the living entity itself. Insofar as this entity is the process of life, it must die in order to become; its emergence vis-a-vis the whole is its own negation and its return to unity” (154)

In proper Hegelian fashion, these two moments cannot be separated in that Life never appears in it’s purity–it only appears in distinct lives; likewise, lives are never the be-all-and-end-all that they imagine themselves to be–they are just moments in a bigger flux: “The fluid element [i.e. Life] is itself only the abstraction of essence, or it is actual only as shape; and its articulation of itself is again a splitting-up of what is articulated into form or a dissolution of it. It is the whole round of this activity that constitutes Life” (¶171, page 108).

Desire and Life

Why does the other of self-consciousness need to be life? Why can it not just be some generalized object? The answer lies in the claim from the Introduction about the inseparability of knowledge and object: “[I]n the alteration of the knowledge, the object itself alter for it too, for the knowledge that was present was essentially a knowledge of the object: as the knowledge changes, so too does the object, for it essentially belonged to this knowledge” (¶85, page 54 [emphasis added]). The subject and the object evolve together. As Hyppolite puts it, “What self-consciousness discovers as its other can no longer be the merely sensuous object of perception, but must be an object that has already reflected back on itself” (161). Self-consciousness is a mirroring of consciousness to itself, and this self-reflexivity in (self-)consciousness must find a similar self-reflexivity in the object.

Self-consciousness is desire: self-consciousness can only be itself through the negation of another. A problem appears: if the object is negated, what happens to self-consciousness. In fact, as soon as an object is negated (that is, consumed), self-consciousness risks vanishing, so it must find a new object to negate, and then a new one, and so on.

Thus self-consciousness, by its negative relation to the object, is unable to supersede it; it is really because of that relation that it produces the object again, and the desire as well. It is in fact something other than self-consciousness that is the essence of Desire; and through this experience self-consciousness has itself realized this truth. (¶175, page 109).

The satisfaction self-consciousness gets from objects is always partial and temporary. In effect, self-consciousness is only engaging it’s conscious aspect through this appetite. What it really seeks, though, is self-consciousness itself. That is, self-consciousness does not merely search for consciousness; self-consciousness desires self-consciousness. Where can it find this? It can only be in an object that is self-conscious. In other words, “self-consciousness “can achieve satisfaction only when the object itself effects the negation within itself [. . . .] Self-consciousness achieves its satisfaction only in another self-consciousness” (¶175, pages 109-110).

By taking self-consciousness (that is, the self-consciousness of another living thing) as it’s object, self-consciousness becomes properly itself, so much so that the distinction between subject and object becomes tenuous: “A self-consciousness, in being an object, is just as much ‘I’ as ‘object’.” (¶177, page110). In realizing it’s own truth, self-consciousness must become an object to self-consciousness; I am myself only by being recognized by another. At this point, “consciousness first finds its turning-point, where it leaves behind it the colorful show of the sensuous here-and-now and the nightlike void of the supersensible beyond, and steps out into the spiritual daylight of the present.” (¶177, pages 110-11)



Self-consciousness can only be truly be itself in and through an other. In an other, self-consciousness finds itself (rather than material sensuous objects). In this sense, self-consciousness is always outside itself—it loses its own immediacy by being in the other, but the other loses its pure alterity by containing self-consciousness: “first, it has lost itself, for it finds itself as an other being; secondly, in doing so it has superseded the other, for it does not see the other as an essential being, but in the other sees its own self” (¶179, page 111)

Until now, we are taking the single consciousness as our point of reference. However the other self-consciousness is doing the very same thing to me. In other words, just as the other is the ‘object’ that mediates my own self-consciousness, so I am the object for it, mediating its self-consciousness. Recognition is thus necessarily mutual: “They recognise themselves as mutually recognising one another” (¶184, page 112). Although “recognition” has become one of the key words of a pluralistic society in our own time, in Hegel there is nothing comforting in the idea of recognition. That is, whereas we talk about recognition as a manner of respecting another person, in Hegel recognition leads to a fight.

The fight stems from the immediate certainty self-consciousness has of itself, the moment that looks more like consciousness. Recall that this moment is one that takes all of the sensuous world first as being and second as mere appearance that must be negated. When the other self-consciousness first appears, it seems to be one of these appearing objects and is thus unessential and needing to be negated. However, that self-consciousness is also me, and thus I find myself as an object of nature needing to be negated: “Appearing thus immediately on the scene, they are for one another like ordinary objects, independent shapes, individuals submerged in the being of Life—for the object in its immediacy is here determined as Life” (¶186, page 113). In confronting the other, self-consciousness confronts itself as something merely alive, as no higher than the world that it must negate. Self-consciousness imagines itself to be a higher, better thing than mere life, but the appearance of the other in the world undermines this image: “Each is indeed certain of its own self, but not of the other, and therefore its own self-certainty still has no truth” (¶186, 113).

Self-consciousness reaffirms its place in a higher order than life by negating that which pulls it back down to mere life, but this is a two-fold action by both parties. In other words, it’s a fight, an attempt by both to negate the other: “In so far as it is the action of the other, each seeks the death of the other” (¶187, page 113). Not only is this an attempt to end the other, but also it is a staking of one’s own life (remember, “I” try to prove myself to be more than life) Thus, “it is only through staking one’s life that freedom is won” (¶187, page 114). Concomitantly, the other must die because “[t]he other is an immediate consciousness entangled in a variety of relationships, and it must regard its otherness a pure being-for-self or as an absolute negation” (¶187, page 114).
There is a twist in the plot at this point. The battle was meant to prove self-consciousness belongs to a higher order than life, but just the opposite happens. Hyppolite again summarises the reversal nicely:

One of the self-consciousnesses rises above animal life; able to confront death and not fearing the loss of its vital substance, it poses abstract being-for-itself as its essence and seems thereby to escape the enslavement of life. This is the noble consciousness, that of the master, and it is recognized in fact. The other self-consciousness prefers life to self-consciousness: it chooses slavery. Spared by the master, it is preserved as a thing is preserved. It recognizes the master, but it is not recognized by him (171)

In other words, the trial by death reveals not that self-consciousness is above life, but rather that it is based in life—for one of the self-consciousness, anyway: “In this experience, self-consciousness learns that life is as essential to it as pure self-consciousness” (¶189, page 115). The trial by death still results in negation, but it is no longer the erasure or consumption effected by consciousness upon its object (when that object is eaten). Rather, “[t]heir act is an abstract negation [. . .] which supersedes in such a way as to preserve an maintain what is superseded, and consequently survives its own supersession (¶188, page 114-115)

Immediate self-consciousness was animal desire—the negation of sensuous things by the “I.” After the trial by deaths, we have the bondsman/slave interposed between material things and the lord/master. That is, the master wants to enjoy and negate the sensuous world, and he now does this via the slave whose jobs is to work on the sensuous world for the master’s profit. For the master, the slave’s consciousness becomes thingly: it is no more important than the sensuous things in the world. On the other hand, the slave maintains something of that original relationship between self-consciousness and sensuous world, but he must now work on the world. That is, he must negate sensuous things not in the satisfaction of his own desire, but in offerings for the master’s desire (¶190, pages 115-16).

Next time we will see the implications of this relationship (from ¶191 onward). In short, by enjoying the labor of the slave and negating his self-consciousness, the master will lose his own self-consciousness. On the other hand, the slave who must constantly attend to the master’s desire will achieve true self-consciousness and their relationship will actually reverse. The master’s independence and the slave’s bondage will lead to the development of Stoicism, which maintains the “I” in the face of a harsh and changing world, and the Skepticism, which negates the world’s certainty. The conclusion will be the Unhappy Consciousness, which is both certain of itself and aware of the emptiness of this certainty.


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