The Phenomenology of Spirit, B. Self-Consciousness (§§191-196)

This is one of the readings for Saturday, December 14.

Last week, we saw  the passage from being conscious of inanimate objects to being conscious of one’s self via a relation with another person. Self-consciousness can only be self-consciousness when it has a double object: its own independence and negativity and the independence and negativity of another.  Consciousness can negate an apple, but only another person can negate themselves – that is, cry uncle.

Two consciousnesses staked their independence and attempted to negate one another; one was willing to die, and so became the master, an apparently fully-developed self-consciousness.  The other was not willing to die, and so in concert with the master’s negation, partially negated themselves and became the slave.  The slave maintained his “independence” by becoming an inert object merely in relation to other inert objects.  Those other inert objects – like an apple orchard – can be completely negated or enjoyed by the master, while the slave merely works on them.  In short, the slave will find his own form of self-consciousness by picking apples.

Servility In-Itself

So far, the master appears to have the self-certainty we have been searching for.  He has proven that its form of life is inessential to him, so he is entirely independent and capable wielding power over, or negating, anything.  Yet, because his self-consciousness is gained through the negation of the other, it is a self-consciousness that continues to find its truth in that other.  For this reason, the master’s self-certainty will find the rug pulled out from under itself.  The object of the master’s self-consciousness is split between two moments which are both negated: the slave and the orchard.  Since both moments are negated, both moments are inessential, mere objects.  And since the master’s self-consciousness is founded upon these things, the master’s self-consciousness is inessential: “The truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the servile consciousness of the bondsman.”  (§193) 

How is that reversal accomplished?  The master has a sort of independence, but so does the slave, since the slave has the master for his reality.  So the slave has already experienced a sliver of independence.  More crucially, the slave has experienced a deep fear for its own life.  The slave gave everything up in order to survive.  Everything about him has melted away or dissolved.  That total melting away is the absolutely negative, and it is the one edge the slave has on the master.

While the slave works on the orchard, the master sits back and lets the apples roll in.  The apples lack true independence for the master, so the master’s satisfaction is entirely fleeting.  The slave, on the other hand, staves desire off – the apples are not his own, and so he cannot entirely negate them.  He forms the orchard through work, and the orchard retains its independence.  Initially, the slave saw his independence in the master.  Now, he sees his own independence in the independence of the orchard.

That feeling of independence is the positive element for the slave, but we need to return to the negativity mentioned above: fear.  “For, in fashioning the thing, the bondsman’s own negativity, his being-for-itself, becomes an object for him only through his setting at naught the existing shape confronting him.”  (§196)  The slave could not negate the master, but he can form the orchard.  In working on it, he makes himself the negative, and so becomes for-himself.  For the master, that kind of being-for-itself is an other through the slave; in fear, it is a part of the slave.  In the end, the slave has stable forms of independence and negativity, while the master has more fleeting versions of the same.

At this point, the slave reaches a fork in the road.  The slave appeared to have an alienated existence, since it is unable to own and negate the orchard the way the master does.  However, in his work, the slave acquires a mind of his own.  The fear of losing everything and the discipline of work are both essential moments in this acquisition.  In an echo of Kant’s dictum that concepts without intuitions are empty and intuitions without concepts are blind, we see that fear without work remains a vague inward anxiety, and work without fear remains empty, attached to a determinate existence.

What we have here (in §196) appears to be two versions of the slave.  There is a slave which, we might say, has nothing to lose but his chains because he has already lost everything but his discipline.  Alternatively, there is a slave which experienced only a lesser anxiety is still attached to a particular life – it mistakenly believes it has a stake with the master in the orchard.  Both have a mind of their own, but for the second slave, “‘having a mind of one’s own’ is self-will, a freedom which is still enmeshed in servitude.”  (§196)  Both work on the orchard, but the work has a different significance for each slave.  For the first slave, having any notion of ownership or mastery stripped from it, can see the orchard as a truly independent thing which reflects its own independence.  For the second slave, the work is a technical skill applied to certain tasks, not a negative relation of formation to an independent thing.

Is the second slave a spiritual dead end, or a loose end?  This is a question for next week.


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