It’s not at all clear what Hegel is up to with his “Lordship and Bondage” discourse. He might be talking about two people struggling with each other for recognition, or the emergence of an autonomous self-consciousness from within consciousness, or the ability of the underclass to achieve dominance through work. The writing isn’t really technical, but that doesn’t mean it’s clear. It’s idiosyncratic, dense, multilayered. A lot of people dismiss Hegel as a fraud, and maybe they’re right. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt (I’m sure he’d be thrilled) and presume that what he says makes sense. Then I’ll give myself the same benefit and presume that I understand the sense he’s making.
Hegel is talking about consciousness becoming conscious of itself. But consciousness doesn’t reside only within the individual mind; it’s also universal Mind coming to know itself through individuals, groups, social movements, history. What happens inside each individual consciousness mirrors that which takes place universally. But I don’t think Hegel sees human activity as merely reflecting the workings of universal Spirit. Rather, universal Spirit is a decentralized and distributed force that “really” manifests itself in individual minds, in dyads, in class struggles, and the flow of human history. This is a sort of panentheism: individual minds don’t just point to universal Spirit; they are part of it, a localized manifestation of what happens always and everywhere, at every level of abstraction.
The trick for me is to restrain myself. I don’t really want to think about Hegel, or even about philosophy; I want to think about human psychology. So, can I safely ignore the multi-layeredness of the master-slave discussion and limit myself to the self? Self in relation to other; self in relation to self. But I see that I’ve already made an artificial distinction, because all the levels of analysis interact with one another. Self’s relation to self is in large part determined by self’s relation to other, which in turn is largely determined by sociohistorical conditions that no selves can transcend. Self’s relation to self, the most intimate of relations, cannot be understood apart from participation in the collective.
Let’s say my understanding of Hegel is, generally and on this simplest level, accurate. Do I believe it’s true? Hegel presents a kind of reworked synthesis of Christianity and Greek thought that reached its medieval height in Aquinas. He adds a kind of Eastern twist that is even more explicit in his contemporary Schopenhauer – who, it should be noted, was no Hegel fan:
If I were to say that the so-called philosophy of this fellow Hegel is a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage, I should be quite right.
I suppose that Hegel and Schopenhauer are two forks in the broader road that is Idealism, even as Plato and Aristotle were two earlier forks in this same road. It’s the participation of the individual spirit in the universal Spirit, such that the individual is always already determined not just by random, impersonal, material forces but by multiple strands of conscious and unconscious forces that might be called something like transcendent Mind. This basic idealist idea, stripped of any sort of Mastermind – call it God – continues in Nietzsche and Marx, in Freud and Heidegger, in Lacan and Derrida, in Zizek and Baudrillard. This modern-to-postmodern trajectory of European idealism is at its core a secularization of a way of seeing the world that can be traced back to the New Testament. All through the Medieval era the Christian philosophers were working on reconciling (1) the interpenetration of matter and spirit that characterized the Hebrew worldview with (2) the Greek separation into a hierarchy of lower and higher. Which I suppose is why the post-evangelicals resonate with the postmodernists: they’re launched on the same spiritual trajectory.
And so I see that I have failed to zero in on psychology, drifting almost inevitably into the history of thought. I repent. I’ll try to do better next time.