I was asked to read about Hegel on ‘recognition’ in his book Phenomenology of Spirit. At times like these I lament not being in a taught class, since there is so much out there about Hegel, who, as everyone writing and talking about him agrees, explores and posits some of the most difficult ideas to negotiate and understand in the whole of philosophy. I started with Alain de Botton’s short film on Hegel since I like these very much. They may be oversimplified for many but they are always a really digestible introduction. I then listened to a number of lectures, some of which were impenetrable and rambling and long. I have jotted down some notes from Gregory B Sadler’s introduction to Hegel on Youtube below. And finally some short notes by critical theorist, Andy Blunden, who I hope is reliable, since what he has written seems relatively digestible in a few places.

It helped to see the following slide in a lecture on Phenomenology. Here Hegel is placed within a list of philosophers who all contributed ideas surrounding self, subjectivity and identity, and one can see the way in which ideas developed and became more complex over time. I think what I found relevant was the reminder that Hegel’s ideas are important but only part of a much wider discourse.

Figure 1. Slide from Mark Thorsby’s Introduction to Phenomenology Part 1 (2016)

As Sadler says in his lecture says, the Master-Slave dialectic can be used to think about how human beings relate individually and as communities/societies. I am very much reminded of Cane and Able which I think is exploring similar issues about how we recognise who we are in our particular world, and about stages of civility.i.e. humans have to move beyond fighting to the death to progress.

I was also reminded of a book by therapist Patricia Evan’s which I read a while ago, and  which looks at dynamics in verbally abusive relationships. Her work focuses on violence against women. At the beginning she describes two forms of power. One she calls Power Over and the other Personal Power, which as she explains is more conducive to working alongside an Other. Power Over, she says, is the basis upon which the entire history of western civilisation has developed. I’m not sure here is the place to discuss this in more depth but it’s something to hold in mind.

Key points/notes from Sadler’s introduction to Hegel’s self-consciousness and the master-slave dialectic 

  • Human relations in general seen in the master – slave dialectic
  • Some are subordinate, some superior. Not about quality, can be arbitrary
  • Superiors receive recognition, others seen as objects (man/woman, teacher/student, boss/worker, parent/child – note that Derrida doesn’t see this always as negative especially in the teacher/student relationship (Botton, 2016))
  • It is possible to internalise a master’s position if projected on to the slave and be made to feel less
  • Feelings of being less are made real by the conditions one exists in
  • Leads to send sense of alienation (Marx discusses this too)
  • The opposite is recognition (Evident in certain company policies where staff are given stocks, a share of business, made partners – which can lead to intrinsic desire to serve the company)
  • Consciousness comes about when subjects (you) relate to external objects,
  • Reciprocal process
  • You do recognise that the objects are different to you
  • You must adapt yourself to the objects sometimes (relate)
  • Reflexive relations, you can relate to things using memory, imagination, and relate it back to yourself in order to understand it
  • You do this in part through the objects in the world- you do not exist in isolation, you exist in relation to other objects in the environment
  • Human relationships are the most important or have the most meaning because they can relate back – every other human-being is a subject too as well as being another object
  • People do not thrive when treated as an object alone by other subjects
  • If you take away someone else’s subjectivity then you make them less recognisable, they are no longer seen
  • Thesis/Anithesis =  Synthesis (Derrida and Foucault certainly don’t see the simplicity  – life is more complicated)
  • Ego and Desire – leads to knowing things
  • “Self-consciousness we have now passed the native land of truth” You don’t really know things unless you know yourself
  • Why do we learn things? Because we want to know. Either utilitarian purposes (or perhaps extrinsic) or intrinsic desire
  • Finding certainty  – the desire to consume knowledge and make them part of our own consciousness
  • Once we have done that, we want to digest something new, and look for certainty elsewhere
  • Desire and struggle go together
  • We are trying to make an object part of our consciousness
  • Annulling the object/negating the object
  • You can experience something once you’ve bought it into your consciousness and make it part of your subjectivity
  • Life introduces complexity, the desire to consume another object that is also a subject introduces complexity
  • Animals resist their own destruction but are they subjects
  • Life wants to continue, not yet self-consciousness
  • Life – the biosphere is one thing, but each level within that is motivated by certain desires. As you go up the scale wants/desires become more complex? Eg. mammals like to be with other mammals whereas reptiles don’t have that desire. Mammals want to play. Mammals who don’t have these wants met are negatively affected
  • We become aware as living things, we are in continuity with all the other things out there
  • We consume life  – we’re all attempting to negate the other and consume the other to bring the object into our own consciousness in some way, to make it our own
  • We’re unique because we see a much larger world to consume than an insect for example
  • Self consciousness is desire
  • When self-consciousness negates the other it becomes certain of itself, we elevate ourselves,
  • If we’re in a new environment where we have not consumed, made our own environment we feel alienated  – lacking certainty of our own self
  • Back and forth process that has to go on, consuming objects and making them your own, bringing it into consciousness for yourself
  • But the object only remains interesting to you if it retains some form of independence
  • Once an object becomes totally your own you lose desire
  • Desire – re individuals and in general for society

Some key points from Blunden’s 2007 paper on Hegel and Recognition. This is a complex paper which I will undoubtedly gain more from once I’ve understood more.

  • “…if a community is able to produce a surplus and is able to supervise their own labour, then they are candidates for conquest and exploitation or they can exploit others. Along with being able to defend themselves in a fight to the death and repel the attack of others, these are the pre-conditions for recognition.”(Blunden, 2007)
    I am beginning to see that Hegel is tackling how human beings begin to form a society, looking at imagined pre-agrarian situations, and that a society cannot be formed until there is some form of separation of Self from Other.
  • “In order to live in interaction with other subjects, a subject must be able to reproduce itself and defend itself against outside criticism, either alone or together with others, and receive from other subjects a material affirmation of the validity of its way of life”. More recently this is explored over a lifetime’s work by E.O Wilson who’s chapters in The Social Conquest of Earth, “Tribalism as a Fundamental Human Trait”, followed by “War as humanity’s Hereditary Curse” are devoted to explaining this from a more modern, cross-scientific perspective. (Wilson, 2012). Below he outlines what sounds very much like some of Hegel’s ideas pertaining to the master – slave dialectic which I will describe later, and which he concludes is necessitated by the introduction of self and other. Without the realisation of self and other Blunden suggests” outsiders have no more respect for your property rights than a horde of locusts.”

    Passage from E.O.Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, 2012, page 54
  • To summarise previous points, Hegel is suggesting self-consciousness (an awareness of oneself) requires recognition of other. Recognition of other as separate and in relation to self leads to self-consciousness.
  • “Hegel showed in the Phenomenology, such initial subordination to another form of life proves to be the first step towards modernity.” ( I am interested in the different stages of civilisation identified by Wilson in the steps towards modern civilisation – egalitarian, chiefdom and then states and how greater and greater levels of status/hierarchies begin to appear as developments occur)
  • In other words, self-consciousness does not exist in a vacuum
  • Hegel, according to Blunden, suggests that one of the conditions that led to the development of self and other emerging is the fact that humans had begun to arrange themselves and their produce in a way that led to a surplus of goods. “A self-contained community which produces no surplus, or anything of use to anyone else, which is unable to utilise the labor of others, when confronted by an outsider can only fight to the death. No mystical ‘drive to domination’ is required.” As scientific discoveries advance our knowledge of human development along with non-human ‘conscious’ awareness, I think this assertion, if an accurate interpretation, can be challenged. It seems that a deepening awareness of one’s self is part and parcel of an evolutionary development that also resulted in working with and for Others.
  • “Although Hegel says that “Spirit is the nature of human beings en masse,” (Hegel 1821: §264) a large number of individuals do not make “human beings en masse” or any kind of Spirit. Without the use of a shared material culture given meaning in shared forms collaborative activity, a large number of human individuals would be pandemonium, a nightmare worse than “Lord of the Flies.”) Spirit being the collective consciousness of humans en masse seems to be a very modern concept and one that has gained credibility if I am understanding it correctly.
  • “It is undeniable that the prominent role that the labour process had in Hegel’s pre-1807 works was abandoned in the later works. But we do not have to celebrate it. Hegel never knew a social movement like the trade union movement or the modern women’s movement, and like almost all social reformers of his time he believed that social change would come through the agency of leaders, whether military, intellectual, religious or whatever, and never entertained the possibility that the ‘rabble’ could gain an independent self-consciousness. This is one of those weaknesses of Hegel which he inherited from his times and his own social position.” In other words, Hegel, like everyone we are studying is thinking and writing from a subjective place very much influenced by the paradigm in which he exists.
  • “Universals like legal right, property, culture, ethics, and so on are products of the collaborative and conflictual activity of individual human beings. But individual human beings only interact and conflict with one another by means of these universals. Universals are both the product of the activity of individuals in particular forms of activity, and necessary components of that activity, without which they are impossible.”

The School of Life, (2016). Hegel. Available at: https://youtu.be/H5JGE3lhuNo [Accessed 11 Sep. 2016].

Throbs, M. (2016). Introduction to Phenomenology Part 1. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WNs7t7fzXU&feature=youtu.be&list=PLU5GwnUXO_YwePAxtjBUVOdVlIPyUy_WD [Accessed 11 Sep. 2016].

The School of Life, (2016). Jaques Derrida. Available at: https://youtu.be/H0tnHr2dqTs [Accessed 11 Sep. 2016].

Sadler, G. (2013). Intro to Philosophy, G.W.F. Hegel, Self consciousness and Master-Slave Dialectic. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Fi7g5Ncy5U [Accessed 11 Sep. 2016].

Blunden, A. (2007). Mediation and Intersubjectivist Interpretations of Hegel, by Andy Blunden, December 2007. [online] Home.mira.net. Available at: http://home.mira.net/~andy/works/williams.htm [Accessed 11 Sep. 2016].

Wilson, E. (2012). The social conquest of earth. New York: Liveright Pub. Corp.

Evans, P. (1996). The verbally abusive relationship. Holbrook, Mass.: Adams Media Corporation.

Image (c)SJField 2016 – a photograph of a painting by Maggie Neal on the her kitchen ceiling


2 thoughts on “Notes: Hegel on Recognition

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