Hegel, Sartre, and Identity

So much philosophy depends on what Hegel called the “master-slave dialectic”. It’s central to the arcane field of phenomenology, and informs a lot of the Continental (read: European) tradition. Once you get it, so much drops into place – unfortunately, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is really tough, and most phenomenological philosophers seem to delight in obscurantism. I’m going to try explain clearly what Hegel meant and why it’s important.

“Dialectic” just means “conversation”. In this case it’s a metaphorical conversation. You could think of it as a series of stages of development.

Stage one is the “primal” state of consciousness. Very early childhood is a good example of this, but the same state also occurs to us each day (although it’s less prolonged). In this stage, your mind perceives the world as a set of objects for your disposal. You’ve got no concept – either you’ve forgotten or you haven’t learnt yet – of other people. What this means, Hegel said, is that you’ve got no concept of yourself either. You’re acting on animal instinct, on reflex, just letting your impulses drive you. Sartre’s example was of a man peering through a keyhole at a fascinating scene – we might think of somebody spacing out in front of the television – completely lost in what he’s observing, not thinking about himself at all.

What happens now? Well, somebody else ‘shows up’. Whether they physically arrive or you just learn they’re there, it’s a massive shock to your system. Sartre called it an “internal hemorrhage”: the moment when you get thrown back into your body, when you realize somebody’s been watching you peer through the keyhole and you go “oh right, I exist as a self, and there are other people who aren’t me.”

This begins stage two. Hegel and Sartre agreed that our initial reaction (after the shock) is hostility: we can’t handle the fact of other people, the idea that they have ideas and thoughts just like ours that we can’t alter. Think of an immature child who can’t understand that he’s not getting his own way. This stage is characterized by conflict – we ‘attack’ the newcomer, physically or just psychologically, trying to exert our control over them and bring ourselves back to the comfort of stage one.

Somebody’s going to win this conflict. Now we enter into the master-slave relationship, where the winner dominates the loser, forcing them to acknowledge the winner’s superior power. Not just power but identity: the winner is trying to erase the loser’s status as a human being, to treat them like a slave, like something to be used. We can see this dynamic in plenty of abusive relationships, domestic or work.

But stage two is unstable. It’s unsatisfying to have your power acknowledged by somebody you’ve forced to acknowledge it. If your slave is an extension of you, using them is as unsatisfying as masturbation. So, according to Hegel, this eventually collapses into stage three: mutual recognition. In stage three both people acknowledge each other’s humanity and appreciate each other as a person with thoughts and feelings and a complicated inner life. In this way they’re both properly satisfied.

Again, this isn’t some account of the beginning of human consciousness thousands of years ago. This process occurs to us multiple times a day, every day. In a very real sense Hegel’s series of stages is an account of the way empathy works. It’s also an account of the way consciousness works – it needs to be around other consciousnesses in order to be a ‘self’, to have the boundaries that define it.

When I reflect, I find this accounts for my experience far better than the traditional model of selves existing independently and maturing over time.  Think about the people you recognize as human and the people you don’t. Think of the conflicts in your life and how many of them can be expressed as conflicts over identity.


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