By Aidan Campbell '22

Edited by Isabella Smeets '24 and Grace Blaxill '23

In “Lordship and Bondage,” Hegel explores the development of self-consciousness under the ideal circumstances, in an unequal environment, and finally through the activity of labor. Hegel believes that self-consciousness is a social act brought about by a process of mutual recognition. Based on this process, one would assume that self-consciousness could only be realized through another, independent consciousness. However, in his description of the relationship between the lord and bondsman, Hegel contradicts this assertion, offering another mechanism by which the bondsman achieves recognition. Through the dialectic of “Lordship and Bondage,” Hegel contrasts the lord’s dependence on the bondsman for recognition with the bondsman’s ability to realize his independent consciousness through labor. It is through labor that the bondsman “acquires a mind of his own” (196), apparently offering an alternative means to self-consciousness through labor (“formative activity,” 195). In fact, the lord’s presence and interaction with the bondsman proves almost irrelevant except insofar as he inspires fear. Fear forms a focal point for Hegel, and although he never fully accounts for its significance, he sees fear and formative activity as necessities for self-consciousness. In the course of this essay, I will attempt to account for the role of fear and formative activity in the development of self-consciousness.

In “Lordship and Bondage,” Hegel explains the realization of self-consciousness through mutual recognition of another consciousness. An inanimate object only exists in itself but not for itself, since it exists only as an object of desire.  Human consciousness is distinct in that it exists in itself  (it is self-contained), but also for itself, since it is “itself  the origin” and the source from which it derives its existence (181). Consciousness becomes self-conscious when consciousness becomes its own object and it exists for itself as well as in itself (179). It is this moment, when an individual’s consciousness becomes aware of itself that we call the individual “self-conscious.”

However, the process by which consciousness comes to exist for itself does not happen without a mediator (184). In order to achieve a higher form of consciousness beyond simply “self-certainty” (186), consciousness must come out of itself and see itself in the other (179).  In this “duplicating of self-consciousness” (185) as Hegel calls it, the other person serves as a means to an end, allowing the individual to “lose himself” and then “find himself” while remaining the “essential being” (179). The individual only becomes aware of his “essential being” by superseding that of the other. Then, recognizing itself in the other, it receives back itself, and consequently, “lets the other again go free” (181). Through this process of domination, identification, and detachment, one individual becomes self-aware by relating to and interacting with the other, who is also partaking in the same process. It is this “double movement of the two consciousness” (182) that brings about mutual recognition. Each must act together and yet independently, performing the same process simultaneously but each recognizing in the other a will of its own. Hegel stipulates the equality of this relationship, asserting that each must “of its own accord do what the first one does to it” (182), since “action by one side only would be useless” (182).

Both individuals must exist as animate objects possessing an awareness that allows them to “recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another” (184). Although each serves as a mediator or “middle term” (184) for the other, it must also possess “an independent existence of its own” (182) in order to respond in kind. An apple plucked from a tree is only acted upon as an object “primarily for desire” (182), with no independent existence or intention of its own. In contrast, an oarsman in a boat has his own purpose, but acts in accordance with his boat members for the mutual benefit of all.  The coordinated movements of the oarsmen mimics the double movement of the two consciousnesses when “each is for the other what the other is for it” (186). The process of recognition relies on the presence of two consciousness, each acting on the part of the other and thus acting on its own part (187). Thus, each consciousness exists not simply for itself, but for each other (186).

Although Hegel stresses that interdependence is necessary for the achievement of self-consciousness, he does not exclude the possibility of unequal interdependence. He considers two cases: mutual recognition achieved through equality as I’ve discussed above, and recognition achieved through inherent inequality in which “one being is only recognized, the other only recognizing” (185). This second dynamic characterizes the relationship between lord and bondsman, in which self-consciousness is suppressed through the enslavement of one for the purposes of the other. Rather than acknowledging the bondsman as a animate being with freedom and intention, the lord sees the bondsman as an object, enlisted primarily for the lord’s desire and exerting little to no independent existence of his own (192).The lord refuses to identify with the bondsman, but instead objectifies him as he would an inanimate object, using him for his own gains. Ultimately, this impedes the lord’s own path toward true self-consciousness. Although he may appear entirely self-sufficient and the bondsman completely dependent, the opposite is true..

The lord’s essential nature is to exist for itself, giving him apparent self-sufficiency and indicating his elevated independence. In contrast, the slave displays a dependent consciousness whose “essential nature is simply to live or be for another” (189), suggesting the slave’s lack of independent existence. The lord obligates the bondsman to perform labor on his behalf, and out of fear, the bondsman conforms to the lord’s will, providing the lord with the fruits of his labor. The lord interacts with the objects of his desire through the bondsman, while simultaneously relating to the bondsman through his consumption of those objects (190). In his eyes, both are mere objects of his consciousness and may be manipulated and exploited to further his own desires. The lord believes he has achieved essential consciousness through the subjugation of the bondsman and the recognition of his own domination. However, in reality, he has achieved his lordship through a dependent, rather than independent consciousness which cannot be really self-aware because it excludes the possibility of  mutual recognition (192). The slave “only really does the master’s actions” (191), functioning as object of the master and making recognition “one-sided and unequal” (191).  Until they enter into a mutual, reciprocal relationship, the lord “cannot be certain of being-for-self as the truth of himself” (192).  Recognition must be reciprocal. By treating the bondsman as a mere instrument, the lord negates the bondsman’s self-consciousness, and thereby prevents the realization of his own.

Thus, it appears the lord’s dependence on the bondsman is to no detriment but his own. In fact, the bondsman’s self-consciousness doesn’t require the presence of the lord at all:  he encounters his own consciousness through the formative activity of labor. The lord is a pure consumer, so he cannot encounter himself through formative activity. In contrast, the bondsman produces and through the process of production comes to know and understand himself through the objects he creates.  By placing the bondsman between himself and the thing, the lord “takes to himself only the dependent aspect of the thing” (190) as a source of his enjoyment. The bondsman, however, receives the independent aspect of the thing, and “comes to see in the independent being [of the object], its own independence” (195). The bondsman’s independence is achieved through his service when “through work, [he] becomes conscious of what he truly is” (195).” Hegel suggests that the bondsman does not rely on the lord to recognize his independent consciousness. In fact, the lord’s existence appears irrelevant. The bondman is aware of himself, not through the lord, but through the objects he shapes and creates.

Through the process of production, the bondsman finds himself in the object as existing “essentially and actually in his own right” (196). As he fashions the object, he recognizes his own negativity in the negativity of the thing and his ability to shape its direction and independence as he shapes his own. The object is “not something other than himself,” but his consciousness “externalized” (196). The bondman relates to his consciousness as an object.  Through this process of objectification, he comes to see himself within the external object and “becomes aware that his being for self belongs to him” (196).  The objects of his production are no longer shackles tethering him to the lord, but assist in his liberation as, through them, he begins to define himself as an thing with independent existence (190). Work no longer enslaves the bondman; it empowers him: “it is precisely in his work, wherein he seemed to have an alienated existence, that he acquires a mind of his own” (196).

The bondman “rediscover[s] himself by himself” without the presence or participation of the lord (196). Despite Hegel’s official declaration at the start that self-consciousness depends on mutual recognition, it appears that one may achieve self-consciousness through labor and not necessarily through the acknowledgement of another person.

The lord never recognizes the independent existence of the bondsman. The bondsman has to realize it himself. The object is the externalization or exhibition of the bondsman’s consciousness: his capabilities, creativity, vision, and intention. It is proof of his independent existence. He sees himself and aspects of his individual identity in the product in front of him. “Pure being for self” acquires an existence in the object, which, in turn, becomes an abstraction of his consciousness (195). Its presence, permanence, and existence validates the bondsman’s own. Contrary to Hegel’s initial assertion, it appears that “the other” need not be a “self-consciousness” but only an “unessential, negatively characterized object,” capable of being shaped and molded through formative activity (186). The bondsman’s consciousness is not “mediated with itself through another consciousness”(190), but through an object of his own making. Self-consciousness does not require a social act. In fact, it seems that we find ourselves in our own creations.

But, if the bondsman can achieve self-consciousness separate from the lord, what role does the lord play? According to Hegel, it is the bondsman’s fear of the lord that motivates his labor:  “fear of the lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom, but it is through work, however, that the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is” (195).  Hegel’s account suggests that fear serves as little more than an impetus for labor, inspiring formative activity. Work, or labor, plays the central role in achieving consciousness but finds its roots, or “beginnings,” in fear. However, fear does not necessarily originate with the lord nor even any human. If it’s only function is to inspire labor, it could have any number of sources. In Rousseau’s State of Nature, man was a solitary beast yet he, too, felt fear for his life should the natural world (the weather, resources, or animals) turn against him. Fear for one’s survival, excluding any human threat, already motivates labor. The preservation of life inherently requires work with or without the threat of the lord. In fact, his presence appears almost insignificant.

Fear, however, cannot be so easily discounted. Hegel returns to it again at the end of the section, indicating that it may serve a greater function beyond an impetus for labor: “the two moments of fear and service as also that of formative activity, are necessary” (196). Hegel assumes that fear is formative, asserting that “the individual who has not risked his life may well be recognized as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent consciousness” (187). Hegel indicates that by risking one’s life, one comes to recognize the existence of his independent consciousness. Hegel does not include any form of fear of “this or that particular thing,” but the most absolute fear: “fear for one’s life” (194). Fear of death, then, has intrinsic value. Lesser fear is insufficient, since “the entire contents of its natural existence have not been jeopardized” (196). But, fear of death requires the victim to come face to face with his own mortality, leading to a heightened awareness of his own invaluable existence. Fear of death strips away any notion of stability when “everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundation” (194), leaving in its place absolute negativity, pure being for self (194).

Hegel obviously sees fear as necessary, however, how it is necessary is difficult to determine. In my attempt to account for fear, I offer my own interpretation of its significance associated with Descartes’ process in Meditations on First Philosophy. According to my interpretation, fear functions in a similar way to doubt in Descartes’ Second Meditation. With fear comes the “absolute melting away of everything stable,” just as Descartes discards everything that invokes even the slightest doubt (194). Both uproot all previous assertions and, in their place, begin with a blank slate of “absolute negativity, pure being of self” (194). Fear forms the foundation of independent existence, stripping away all previous ideas of stability in order to get at the pure being of self beneath. Perhaps, Hegel like Descartes suggests that it is only after reaching “pure negativity” that we can recognize and gradually reconstruct the rest. Fear connects the unshaped object with the bondsman. The fear the bondsman feels strips him of all stability, rendering him like the matter he shapes: “pure negativity” (194). As he forms the object, he forms himself, turning the pure negativity of both into an independent existence. It is fear that forces him to come out of himself as he pours himself into the object he creates, becoming nothing so he can be anything. Despite this interpretation of the dual role of fear and formative activity, formative activity appears to take precedent as the path toward recognition of self-consciousness. In Hegel’s description of the lord-bondsman relationship, the lord’s role appears as more of a counter to the bondsman, showing the deficiency of a life led through domination. In contrast, the bondsman finds himself and acquires self-consciousness independently from the lord as he recognizes himself in the object he creates. Given this, it appears that self-consciousness may be realized without mutual recognition contradicting Hegel’s previous assertion. Through labor, the bondsman undergoes the same process as he would with another consciousness present. 1) He becomes aware of his “essential being” by superseding the other, or, in this case, projecting himself upon the other. 2) He recognizes his consciousness in the other, and, through this consciousness, receives it back. And 3) He lets the other go free as he sees in his own consciousness an independent existence, thereby becoming self-conscious. The same rules apply. The only difference, is that in the bondsman’s case, the other is the object he creates. The lord’s only practical purpose besides showing a flawed form of consciousness is to inspire fear, which Hegel implies may act as the impetus for the bondman’s labor. However, Hegel’s frequent mention of fear suggests that fear of death may play a greater role, perhaps, per my interpretation, as a reminder of his pure negativity. Although fear’s role in accompanying labor remains unclear, labor appears the essential activity in the realization of self-consciousness allowing the bondsman, and not the lord, to acquire a self-consciousness of his own.

Works Cited

G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.