Muhammad Kamal. Hegel Summer School 2004

Master-Slave Relationship in Hegel’s Dialectic

Recognition’ is what Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind is mainly about. Its application in the objective basis for social life and history opens a new horizon for understanding of the historicity of human existence. But the complication, which arises here is that since recognition is reciprocal then it may render an impossible reality. This paper is concerned with this impossible possibility of recognition and argues that at the end of the dialectical process of master-slave relationship the recognition of the master by the slave is jeopardised. To begin with I prefer to discuss the concept of ‘Time’ in Hegel’s philosophy, which provides a clue in understanding of the nature and structure of ‘Consciousness’. In pursuing this, we need to make a distinction between temporality of consciousness and mathematical time of Being. Temporality determines the stream of “World-Spirit” or ‘Consciousness’ and by contrast, mathematical time deals with quantity and lifeless reality. Temporality of consciousness is qualitative and comprises of unbreakable and unrepeatable moments in which each new moment is richer in content than those antecedent to it. This concept of time is central to Hegel’s philosophy and explicit references to this concept of time are found in the Phenomenology, for example Hegel states that,

“Time appears as Spirit’s destiny and necessity, where Spirit is not yet complete within itself.” [1]

The revelation of consciousness in the self-formative process in human history takes place in two different ways. First, consciousness posits itself as something temporal and dynamic, and in the second, it objectifies itself and becomes a lifeless entity or something spatial rather than temporal.

As we see, Hegel’s view of time is distinct from that of Kant described in the first part of the Critique of Pure Reason. For Hegel, time and space are not subjective forms or conditions of sensory experience, but ontological. Time is the formative process of consciousness without which history is unthinkable. One could also argue that since all the categories in Hegel’s logic are ontological and not epistemological and ‘Time’ is one of them, then ‘Time’ is ontological and has its own reality outside the domain of thinking. Temporality of consciousness draws a line of demarcation between human beings and the given objects. Consciousness, on this view, is temporality, and therefore, unlike a given object it is not identical to itself. In other words, consciousness is what it is not, because it is incomplete and dynamic and is in the state of constant change, striving to fulfil itself. This movement of consciousness is also self-determined, as the ‘other’ is nothing more than the externalisation of consciousness. For this reason, there is no distinction between externality and internality for consciousness. This significant characteristic of consciousness provides the ground for freedom, and is essential for understanding of the meaning of the category of ‘True Infinite’ in dialectical logic, where Hegel remarks,

“The Being of spirit may be understood by a glance at its direct opposition-matter. As the essence of matter is gravity so on the other hand, we may affirm that the substance, the essence of Spirit is freedom.” [2]

As I understand Hegel’s notions of consciousness and temporality have had a profound impact on the philosophies of Heidegger and Sartre. Human existence (or Dasein), in Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, has been described as an ability to anticipate and direct itself toward future possibilities. This is what Hegel tries to generalise in his philosophy. But the difference between Hegel and Heidegger arises with the notions of Dasein’s authentic mode of existence, individuality and history. History for Hegel is one of a collective consciousness. It is a public history in which the individuals are subordinated by the universal will and the parts are, therefore, determined by the whole. By contrast, Heidegger distinguishes between public life and the authentic mode of existence. For this thinker public life gives an end to the authenticity of Dasein, and freedom becomes an essential characteristic of the authentic mode of existence. History, in this case, will be of individuals rather than a universal will. The dynamics of human reality or temporality of human existence as described by Hegel also stresses novelty and in this dialectical context no historical event remains eternally true and no moment is repeatable.

As mentioned before, Consciousness and Being stand as oppositions. Oppositions are identical and different and contain each other. This kind of relationship, which is called identity in difference, suggests that consciousness realises its distinction from and identity to Being. As a result the alienated Being from consciousness will be understood as nothing more than another form of consciousness. For this reason its independence should be negated and Being should be transformed by consciousness. The negation of the independence of Being is at the beginning accomplished epistemologically. Consciousness goes through various stages in “Dialectic of Consciousness”, to grasp Being theoretically. After this at the second level in the “Dialectic of Labour” the negation of Being will be accomplished with the help of ‘Desire’ and ‘Labour’ practically. These two different dialectical levels namely, “Dialectic of Consciousness” and “Dialectic of Labour” are necessarily connected and supplement each other. Theoretical appropriation is the conceptualisation of Being for the sake of change. This relationship between theory and practice, however, does not label Hegel a pragmatic philosopher like William James and John Dewey, because all kinds of knowing are not doing. Meanwhile, Hegel does not deny that knowledge could become a force or must become a force for social change.

Generally speaking, Hegel’s view of the unification of consciousness with Being can be understood on three grounds of his ontology, logic and epistemology. If we look at consciousness and Being in the super-triad of Hegel’s ontology, we find them as two main oppositions having a dialectic relationship. They appear to be identical because Being is the self-externalisation of consciousness. Yet, on the other side they are different because Being is the idea in its otherness and alienated from consciousness.

Logical unification is the application of the same dialectic relationship in the realm of logic. Consciousness is taken as ‘thesis’ and Being as ‘antithesis’. Thesis and antithesis are identical because antithesis is derived from thesis, and different as antithesis is something other than thesis. This contradiction between them is, however, resolved and superseded in their unity understood as ‘synthesis’.

Epistemological unification is the theorisation of Being. It is accomplished at the end of dialectic movement of consciousness where Being is apprehended conceptually and transformed into ideality. This movement from reality to ideality renders another movement from ideality to a new reality. The first part of the Phenomenology treats four epistemological stages through which consciousness develops itself and transforms Being. It moves from ‘Sense-certainty’ to ‘Perception’, ‘Understanding’ and ‘Reason’. In each of these epistemological stages Being loses one aspect of its independence until at the final stage of reason or rational knowledge the independence of Being is totally negated and Being becomes idea and the property of consciousness. After achieving the idealisation of Being, the dialectic movement of consciousness integrates into “Dialectic of Labour” or theory into practice with the help of ‘Desire’ (Begierde) and ‘Labour’. This turns Hegel’s philosophy from pure epistemological tendency to a pragmatic approach to reality. In “Dialectic of Consciousness” Being is conceptualised and does not completely vanish. Paradoxically, Being must be both preserved and destroyed. Desire attempts to resolve this contradiction by making Being its own property. With this shift to practical ground consciousness finds itself confronted with a new reality and is more concerned with life and social conflict.

In thinking, consciousness contemplates Being and becomes aware of it. Here, this description of contemplation of consciousness upon Being is Cartesian. But Hegel’s account of consciousness is different from that offered by Descartes. Human beings, in dialectic philosophy, are not only thinking-beings but also self-conscious. Our awareness of the objects in the world should be accompanied by self-awareness. For Hegel, consciousness becomes aware of itself and sets out to prove its possession of Being by finding itself in a state of ‘Desire’, an intentional reflection in which consciousness becomes aware of the objects as well as itself. When I feel thirsty and having desire to drink water, I become aware of two things: the existence of the desired object (water) and that ‘I’ am thirsty.

The concept of ‘I’ is revealed to me through my desire to drink water and at the same time I intend to direct my negative power to possess and assimilate the desired object. In this case, ‘Desire’ becomes a power of negation and modifies the desired object into something mine. Kojčve has described the role of ‘Desire’ for revealing self-consciousness in this way,

“Desire is always revealed as my desire, and to reveal desire, one must use the word “I.” Man is absorbed by this contemplation of the thing in vain; as soon as desire for that thing is born, he will immediately be “brought back to himself.” Suddenly he will see that, in addition to the thing, there is his contemplation, there is himself, which is not that thing. And the thing appears to him as an object (gegen-stand), as an external reality, which is not in him, which is not he, but a non-I.” [3]

The need for a positive content forces consciousness as an emptiness to fill itself and appropriate the desired object, but the absence of that positive content is same in all sentient beings. Then, what is the difference between animal and human desire?

In order to understand the difference between these two kinds of desire, one must make a distinction between two kinds of objects. The corporeal and non-corporeal or as Kojčve says, between Being and non-Being. [4] Animal desire is a biological need for a corporeal object, such as water. Being thirsty and having desire to drink water is an animal act. It negates and destroys the desired objects. But Hegel holds the view that in animal desire consciousness will not go beyond Being and it will also remain dependent on it. For self-consciousness to exist and go beyond Being, consciousness must transcend Being. This can happen when desire is humanised and directed towards another desire or a non-Being, as Hegel says,

“Self-consciousness attains its satisfaction only in another self-consciousness” [5]

To desire Being, for example when I am thirsty, is to fill myself with this given being, and to show my dependence on it. When I desire a non-Being, I liberate myself from this dependence and realise my freedom. In this way, I, as a self-conscious being, for the sake of transcending Being and my animal desire I should desire a non-Being, another greedy emptiness, another self-conscious being like myself. [6] At this stage of dialectical understanding of desire Hegel has aimed at a conclusion that individual’s desire needs another desire for self-certainty and recognition,

“Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness, that is to say it is only by being acknowledged and recognised” [7]

Desire for another desire is, therefore, desire for ‘Recognition’. I desire that my freedom and my values be recognised by others. I want others to recognise my freedom. I am a self-conscious being that seeks recognition by another self-conscious being. Findlay believes that a self-conscious being desires another self-conscious being because it sees itself in the other, the other is “a more adequate exemplification” of the self “where a phenomenal object is living, a living thing has something of the perpetual direction toward self, which is characteristic of the self-conscious subject and therefore serves to mirror the latter.” [8] Marcuse, like Findlay, believes that recognition is important because a self-conscious being can become what it is only through another self-conscious being. Here, the other again becomes a mirror for the self, and the existence of the self becomes a being-for-another. [9]

The human world is the world of multiplicity of self-conscious beings and desires and the demand for universal recognition leads to a conflict or a life and death struggle in history. In this difficult and conflictual situation Hegel believes that a self-conscious being should go beyond the biological life in order to satisfy the non-biological desire or to gain recognition. The self-conscious being that cannot go beyond the biological life and put itself at risk in a fight for recognition is not a truly self-conscious being. It will remain outside the platform of history. Human reality is, therefore, understood in terms of struggle and fight for recognition.

Another motif behind human desire for another desire is that since desire is always desire for something, and makes human beings conscious of themselves, then the moment my desire for an object is extinguished I cease to be a self-conscious being. My animal desire is temporal and ends with the negation of the desired-object. I desire that my desire to persist and that is possible when I have a persistent desired-object, an object that cannot be negated completely. This persistent object of desire is not a corporeal being, such as a glass of water, but another living and self-conscious being like myself. Unlike a corporeal desired-object, another self-conscious being does not vanish and my desire, therefore, continue to exist. Accordingly, animal desire brings frustration to the structure of my existence and that makes me suffer or as Sartre says, become a “useless passion”.

This description of human relationship in the Phenomenology, however, contradicts Hegel’s theory of Right and Duty in the Philosophy of Right. Hegel, in the Phenomenology, portrays terror and fight to death as a necessary condition for human freedom. His interpretation of rights and duty stresses “mutual recognition” and gives no indication to this conflictual situation. [10] Mutual recognition, unlike one sided recognition, is reciprocal through which the individuals are committed to treat each other as ‘persons’ or self-conscious beings rather than objects. This idea has also inspired thinkers such as Heidegger and Sartre, in their interpretation of authenticity and commitment. Sartre, for example, believes that recognition includes freedom of the other people, and in Heidegger’s philosophy, the individuals are authentically bound together only when they recognise each other mutually. The Phenomenology, as a philosophical text is a description of historicity of human existence. It deals with inequality and non-mutual recognition. In this kind of interpersonal relationship, when the recognition is one-sided, the recognised-desire treats the recognising-desire as a mere object and puts itself in a position of a sadist, by forcing the recognising desire to surrender and becoming an object and no longer a threat or a challenge.

Let us say, two self-conscious beings confront each other for the first time. As soon as they meet the problem of recognition emerges, because both of them have desire to desire another desire. But since both of them are self-conscious beings, holding similar claims and demands, recognition will be attained in a serious discord.

In fighting one of the rival desires tries to negate the other by risking life and going beyond the biological state of existence. But the fight between them should not lead to the death of one of the adversaries, because the recognised desire requires a recognition and a witness rather than a corpse. Killing the adversary destroys that witness and thus recognition renders impossible. For this reason the recognised-desire does not kill the vanquished but keeps him alive, subjugated and work for the recognised desire. On the other hand the recognising desire will not able to transcend its animal desire by risking life for freedom. It prefers servitude to death.

An individual’s desire for recognition acts as a necessary impulse. It provides objective certainty for one’s own independence. The existence of the other is essential and at the same time a threat for this recognition. It is essential as one needs the other for recognition, and at the same time the other is a threat and imposes limitation on one’s own freedom. Recognising someone as another human being like myself is an acknowledgement that, this human being has desire to desire me and seek my recognition. This significant characteristic of the other is an ability to both: escape from and challenge me. The best way to understand this conflictual interpersonal relationship is through Sartre’s statement in the play “No Exit”, where it is stated that “Hell is the other people”. [11] The hellish environment and suffering that makes this world a different place for living is created by the invasion of my existence by the other as the result of this one-sided recognition. Hell, as Sartre believes is not a realm that exists beyond the world we live in. It is the world in which my freedom is robbed by the other.

Still one may not understand why a self-conscious being subjugates another self-conscious being for recognition? Why is it necessary for two desires to put themselves into the fight to death for recognition? For Hegel the answer to these questions is simple to understand. A self-conscious being seeks satisfaction only in another self-conscious being, because it needs objective certainty. A human being who lives in solitude or reclusion is independent and free, but how far this reclusive human being is certain about his freedom? As we see the problem of objective certainty gives birth to the conflict for recognition. Recognition, in human history, has not been obtained without struggle, as both adversaries or the multiple desires seek recognition.

At the end of the fight both rival desires will be transformed into two unequal social beings, having different kinds of rights and duties. The recognised desire becomes a master and the recognising desire a slave. The master is a being for himself. He owns Being as well as the being of the slave. He becomes idle and does nothing but gets everything. By contrast, the slave is a being for the master, produces everything and owns nothing. The recognition of the master by the slave enables the master to self-consciously acknowledge his objective certainty and freedom. But what I intend to argue here is that the objective certainty of the master is at risk because his recognition by the slave is one-sided. We realise that at the end of the fight the master is not recognised by another self-conscious being as the slave is de-humanised and the master depends on the slave to exist as a master. However, I have developed five arguments to prove this point:


The master needs the slave for recognition. That is what objective certainty means. But this recognition is not reciprocal, as the master is recognised by someone whom he does not recognise, and recognition from one side is not sufficient [12] The master wants to act as a self-conscious being by directing his desire towards another self-conscious being. This issue as we see is problematic, because at the end of the fight the slave will not be recognised by the master as another self-conscious being, and is reduced to a thing. The desire of the master is directed towards an objectified desire or an object, and therefore, the master is not recognised by another self-conscious being. His objective certainty is not confirmed by another self-conscious being and will never get satisfaction by being recognised by a slave or a thing.


There is no master without a slave. A self-conscious being becomes a master by possessing slaves. Accordingly, the master depends on the slave to become a master. That may be called formal dependence to distinguish it from material dependence.


The master depends upon the slave materially. His superiority over nature is realised in the slave’s labour. Labour is placed between the master and nature and transforms nature into the desired objects of the master. The paradise in which the master lives is bound by the products of the labour of the slave. Whatever the master has is produced by the slave. The master is, therefore, not an independent being, but rather dependent on the slave and slave’s labour.


As mentioned before, the master is idle, his relation to Being is mediated by the labour of the slave. The master remains warlike, and the slave’s existence is reduced to work for the master. [13] The slave is active and has direct relationship to Being. The relationship of the slave to Being is dialectical, because Being is negated and transformed by the labour of the slave into commodities. The slave is the main force behind the negation of Being. It is true that the slave works for the master, but it is the slave and not the master who projects his/her own existence in the work and transcends the given reality. Hegel’s interpretation of labour, which has left a notable impact on Marx’s thought, makes a distinction between human labour and animal work, for example the spider web. This distinction is based on the nature of human labour as a conscious act and the realisation of the end at the beginning before undertaking it. For this reason, animal work is for the gratification of instinct and will not transcend Being. By contrast, human labour is a self-projection towards a realised end, in relation to an idea. In this context, Marx remarks that,

“At the end of every labour process, a result emerges, which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence, it already existed ideally.” [14]

As we see the slave is at an advantageous position. Labour becomes a vehicle for transcending the given reality and transforming Being as well as the essence of the slave.


Human beings become self-conscious through desire and become slaves due to the fear of death. The apprehension of ‘Nothingness’ or ‘Death’ is a necessary condition for the revelation of one’s own existence or authenticity. If we agree with Heidegger, that being towards death or dying is not a communal occurrence, and an individual must die on its own, then the experience of death and the realisation of that experience individualise human existence. [15] In this case, it is the slave and not the master who grasps the meaning of authenticity and becomes aware of his own individuality and the condition in which he is moulded by the master. At this point, Hegel believes that the slave becomes the agent of historical revolution. The slave, therefore, comes to a different conception of individuality and authenticity, but since his product is for the master the slave is still alienated from it.

In Hegel’s philosophy the terror of death or ‘Fear’ has become the source of oppression in human history. It had led to the rise of the institution of slavery and class distinction. The recognising desire or the slave is afraid of death and cannot go beyond his animal desire and biological needs. But labour creates a new existential condition for self-realisation. With this, and under the influence of this new condition, the slave becomes aware of the contradictions between the master and himself, which could be superseded only in a new fight to death. But what happens when the slave is aware of these contradictions and yet not ready to fight?

In this case, according to Hegel, the slave searches for an excuse to avoid fighting and advocates an ideology on which he could justify his indifference towards social responsibility. Hegel calls this ideology ‘slave ideology’, such as Stoicism, Scepticism and Unhappy Consciousness. In Stoicism human freedom is internal as a mental property having no external content. The stoic slave rejects the essentiality of the external content for his freedom and disengages himself with it. For this reason a stoic slave is passive and bored. To abandon boredom the slave must acknowledge the necessity of the external content for freedom. [16] This can be done by solving his contradictions with the master in a new fight to death but as mentioned before the slave is not ready to fight. These contradictions, however, leads to another stage and another form of slave’s ideology known as Scepticism. In Scepticism the slave does not think that the reality of the external content to be essential for freedom but instead he becomes a sceptic about it. [17]

Scepticism also suffers contradictions. It pronounces the non-being of the external content and making it disappear before consciousness. This negation is at the same time an acceptance of that external content. Scepticism is, therefore, alienates consciousness from reality and for Hegel this alienation is a new form of slave’s ideology called “Unhappy Consciousness”, or religion. [18] A religious slave is not interested in solving social contradictions. He believes that true equality, justice and freedom are found in another world in an afterlife where all human beings become equal in the eyes of supreme master. The contradictions in unhappy consciousness arise between eternity and temporality, universality and individuality, which are in Hegel’s view, superseded in the personality of Christ. Another question, which arises here is that how does a religious slave solve the contradictions between the master and himself?

Hegel believes that in human history the war among the states resulted in assimilating the weaker ones. The strongest state among them was able to survive and expand its territory and became an empire. The citizens of this state were no longer obsessed by war as the external threat was eliminated. Since there was no more war, the master did not claim superiority over the slave, because that superiority would be affirmed in the fight to death. As a consequence of this, the master became a peace loving master, accepted slave’s ideology and became a Christian. A Christian master is a master without a slave, and a Christian slave is a slave without master. Since there is no master without slave and no slave without master, the Christian master and slave are, therefore, pseudo-master and pseudo-slave.

A master without a slave or a pseudo-master is what Hegel calls the bourgeois or a business man in a new form of society. A bourgeois is a master because he/she owns property and recognised as a master by the worker. Meanwhile, since the bourgeois does not possess slaves and is not in the fight to death for recognition, then he is not a real master. On the other hand the bourgeois, like a slave is determined by animal desire and works for ‘capital’ and becomes the slave of capital.

The acceptance of the reality of death and risking life is the only way to achieve self-emancipation from slavery. The moment the slave realises this point and is ready for a new fight the possibility of socio-historical changes will be born. According to Hegel, this realisation took place in the history of Europe and was materialised in the French Revolution. With French revolution the historicity of consciousness reached the final stage of integration. History was ended with the rise of bourgeois society, and absolute knowledge was obtained as all distinctions between Consciousness and Being were superseded. [19] The French Revolution, however, disappointed Hegel at the end. The downfall of this revolution was in its failure to do away with despotism. Individuals carried out terror against the state and the power of the state was subordinated by the power of individuals. The state, by contrast, as a universal form of “consciousness (Geist) must be superior to the power of individuals and the individuals must bear the relation of duty to the state.

In the end, after searching for the meaning of recognition more probingly, Hegel has arrived at the conclusion that historicity of human existence is impossible without violence. A thoroughly peaceful world is contradicting the nature of this historicity. Human existence is, therefore, best understood in terms of the fight to death for recognition, but since recognition is not mutual and one sided it will remain unrealised.


  1. Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Mind, translated by J. B. Baillie, New York: Harper Torch Book, 1967. P.800
  2. Hegel, G. F. W. Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences, translated by William Wallace, London: Oxford University Press, 1985. P.141
  3. Kojčve, Alexander. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, translated by James H. Nichols, Jr., London: Basic Books, 1969. P. 37
  4. ibid., pp. 39-40
  5. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, p. 173
  6. Kojčve. Op. cit., p. 40
  7. Hegel. Op.cit., p. 229
  8. Findlay, John Niemeyer. Hegel: A Re-examination, London: George Allen and Unwm, 1958. P. 94
  9. Marcuse, Herbert. Reason and Revolution, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969. P. 114
  10. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, translated by T. M. Knox, Oxford University Press, 1971. PP 17-40
  11. Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit, translated by Paul Bowles. London: Samuel French Inc. 1958. P. 52
  12. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, p.65
  13. Kojčve. Op. cit., p. 42
  14. Marx, Karl. Capital, Moscow: Progressive Publisher, 1974. P. 71
  15. Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, London: Blackwell, 1997. P. 263
  16. Kojčve. Op. cit., p. 53
  17. Hegel. Op. cit., p. 246
  18. ibid., p. 251
  19. ibid., p. 599