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Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic

What are the reasons for selecting the master-slave dialectic as the key historical example in this work? The master-slave dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology shaped all that came after it, and is the paradigm example of a confrontation as I describe it in Chapter Five.3 It is also the source of great debate and discussion as to its status, and this is true on a number of levels. What is the status of the master and the slave? What do they represent? More broadly and as a question in the history of philosophy, what is the status of the Phenomenology? Answering the former question will help to pin down the usefulness of the dialectic in the current debates in social philosophy, whilst asking the second will show how central (or otherwise) those most famous passages of Hegel’s Phenomenology are to his work in general, to German Idealism and to the current discussion.

The Place ofthe Phenomenology

The Phenomenology is regarded by many scholars ofHegel as aproblematic text. Walter Kaufmann sums up one particular group of objections and general criticisms of the text when he says:

[T]he Phenomenology is certainly unwissenschaftlich, undisciplined, arbitrary, full of

digressions, not a monument to the austerity of the intellectual conscience and to

carefulness and precision but a wild, bold, unprecedented book.4

As Jon Stewart has pointed out, it is the disunity of the text that creates the greatest problems in the minds of many critics.5 In his words, it is seen as ‘an eclectic and at times bizarre collection of atomic analyses on sundry topics’.6 This leads some scholars, such as Poggeler, to suggest we might treat the work in an ‘episodic’ manner, as Stewart puts it - that is, to state that it belongs to a particular point in Hegel’s philosophical development. Stewart correctly points out that the main problem with such an approach is that Hegel himself insisted on the value of philosophy as a system, even going so far as to claim in the Encyclopedia that philosophical truths are meaningless other than in a philosophical system of interdependence and organic union.7 Most famously of all, Hegel claims that ‘the truth is the whole’.8 There can be no truth without system. It is not possible to isolate a part from the whole, and nor should we attempt this with the Phenomenology.

It is at this point we can see a clear division in Hegel scholarship, and one which divides quite sharply down geographical lines.9 Stewart lists several works which place the same emphasis as he does on the unity and holism of the Hegelian system, with such scholars including L. Bruno Puntel,10 Frederic Escaraffel,11 and Gerd Kimmerle.12 This contrasts quite sharply with recent work on Hegel’s work which emphasises aspects of his system in isolation from the system as a whole or develops aspects of his system in ways that directly contradict statements made in other works. In many ways, the division maps on to the division between ‘deflationary’ and ‘non-deflationary’ accounts of Hegelian philosophy as mentioned in the Introduction to this work. In very broad terms, a desire for the holist view of Hegel that Stewart is advocating seems to be far more prevalent in the world of Continental philosophy, particularly in the 1960s and 70s but also, as Stewart’s 1995 work shows, beyond, whereas those accounts that place less emphasis on holism or deny its necessity altogether are more commonly found in the Englishspeaking world. In many ways, as mentioned in the Introduction to this work, Charles Taylor’s 1975 work might also be considered as fitting into this category.13

The way to answer criticisms which see the Phenomenology as hopelessly piecemeal and working in conflict with other Hegel texts is to examine the unity of the system as a whole. The Phenomenology is, entirely explicitly, a science of the experience of consciousness. In this sense, it is not so surprising that there are parts of it that, seen from the point of view of the modern task of constructing ontological and metaphysical systems, seem irrelevant to that concern. Whilst, as J. A. Leighton points out as early as 1896, it is not the case that Hegel tries to create the real world out of abstract thought, there is no starting point for his Phenomenology than the experience of consciousness.14

At this point, it is possible to make two distinctions; firstly, between ‘holist’ accounts such as those of Puntel, Escaraffel and Kimmerle and ‘non- holist’ accounts which deny the importance of system, and ‘metaphysical’ and ‘non-metaphysical’ accounts as mentioned in the Introduction to this work.

A metaphysical account, as defined by Pippin, is one which sees Hegel as having substantive metaphysical commitments, that is, that Hegel is engaged in a metaphysical project concerned with a priori knowledge of substance.15 In this way, ‘metaphysics’ is being used in the same way as in the Introduction to this work.16 A non-metaphysical account could take a number of forms - either that of the work of Pippin himself, who argues for what he calls an ‘idealist’ reading of Hegel, a view of his work as ‘a continuation of the properly critical theme of transcendental apperception in Kant’.17 Such an approach would not have to be a holist approach - indeed, it would presumably involve placing far less emphasis on those aspects of Hegel’s philosophy that are not concerned with the development of the transcendental apperception. There would be no need to spill much (or any) ink on Hegel’s work on, for example, physiognomy and phrenology.

At the extreme non-metaphysical, non-holist end of the spectrum we find work such as that of Arash Abizadeh, who focuses on the possible political consequences of aspects of Hegel’s thought, often his ontology and epistemology, without linking this clearly to his own remarks, for example form the Philosophy of Right.18 Much of the recent work on Hegel and feminism also fits into this category, with many feminist writers arguing that Hegel does have some promising ontological and epistemological concepts in his earlier philosophy whilst acknowledging the illiberal nature of many of his statements on women in the 1821 Philosophy of Right. A typical set of questions runs as follows:

If the difference between men and women is, according to Hegel, essentially physiological, why do women fare so much better in comparison with men in the Phenomenology than the Philosophy of Right, in Greek society than in the modern European state ? Can this difference be explained simply because it is an older, perhaps more conservative Hegel who writes the latter?19

For a true holist, this question could only be asked by one who fallaciously assumes that Hegel could have more than one system, or one system and some other free-floating beliefs that are not part of this system.

Such ‘deflationary’ accounts of Hegel demonstrate that the question of holism is actually two questions, that is, the question of the internal unity of each work and the question of unity between works.20 Almost as a corollary of the latter question is the particular status of the Phenomenology, which I will discuss below. The question of unity between works seems easier to answer, or the problem easier to solve, than the question of the unity of the Phenomenology itself. It is possible to provide a simple and practical threefold answer which runs something like the following: 1. Hegel’s thought did, of course, develop throughout the years of his active philosophical work. Even a strong emphasis on philosophical system does not entail that a systematic work should represent the final comment on a particular concept, that is, that it cannot be revised at all. 2. It seems a simple error to say, as Jon Stewart does, that we must give up on Hegel if we give up on the idea of system.21 Simply because Hegel had a particular view of how philosophy should be done, does not mean we have to share this meta-philosophical (or ontological, in sense (c) of the Introduction) view if we want to appreciate any aspect of his ontology or epistemology. 3. Perhaps the most convincing argument runs as follows: the different statuses of Hegel’s various works are often not taken into account. Only the 1807 Phenomenology and the Science of Logic, written in 1812-16, were ever published during Hegel’s lifetime as substantial philosophical works in the straightforward sense. The Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences and the Philosophy of Right were both originally intended as a kind of student handbook for those attending his lectures in Heidelberg. Any discussion of contradiction and disunity must surely take these facts into account.

Despite the broad analytical/Continental divide as regards holistic/non- holistic and metaphysical/non-metaphysical accounts of Hegel’s work, there are some prominent examples of English-speaking philosophers who chart something of a middle course. Here I am thinking particularly of a 2000 article by Pippin in which he puts forward a view of the concept of recognition that aspires to holism as far as this particular concept is concerned.22 Pippin points out that the standard view of recognition in Hegel’s philosophy, and indeed his view of self and world as a whole, runs as follows:

A widely accepted view had it that while Hegel was originally interested in accounting for the nature and authority of social institutions by appeal to a basic inter-subjective encounter and the ‘realisation’ of such inter-subjective links, he came later to abandon that view about inter-subjectivity, and believed instead that human social and political existence was best understood and legitimated as a manifestation of a grand metaphysical process, an Absolute Subject’s manifestation itself, or a Divine Mind’s coming to self-consciousness.23

This is the ‘repression work’ expounded, in slightly different versions, by Theunis- sen, Honneth and Habermas.24 Such a work supposes that there is an important shift of function and priorities, in this case even within one work, namely the Phenomenology. Pippin, on the other hand, sees the description of Sittlichkeit, the ethical life, in the Encyclopedia and the Philosophy of Right as an extension and development of the Jena period concept of recognition . I claim that this represents a middle course between holism and non-holism because such a view does not necessarily claim that the ethical life and the concept of recuognition are part of the same, complete system, but only that the former is not inconsistent with the latter and that it follows on from it in some important respects.

 
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