Master–slave dialectic  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Master-Slave dialectic (Herrschaft und Knechtschaft in German) is a key element in Hegel's philosophy. It is a story or myth created by Hegel in order to explain his idea of how self-consciousness dialectically sublates into what he variously refers to as Absolute Knowledge, Spirit, and Science. It is presented in his magnum opus, Phenomenology of Spirit. It is also known as the dialectic of "Lordship and Bondage", with the name Master-Slave having evolved from a different translation. The Phenomenology exists, for reasons that are part of its nature and place in Hegel's work, in two places - as an independent work, apparently considered by Hegel to be an a priori for understanding the Science of Logic, and as a part of the Science of Logic, where absolute knowledge is explained.



Crucially, for Hegel, absolute knowledge, or Spirit, cannot come to be without first a self consciousness recognizing another self-consciousness. Such an issue in the history of philosophy had never been explored and the conclusion of which, marks a watershed in European philosophy.

Hegel's myth

In order to explain how this works, Hegel uses a story that is in essence an abstracted, idealized history, about how two people meet. However, Hegel's idea of the development of self-consciousness from consciousness, and its sublation into a higher unity in absolute knowledge, is not the contoured brain of natural science and evolutionary biology, but a phenomenological construct with a history; one that must have passed through a struggle for freedom before realizing itself.

The abstract language used by Hegel never allows one to interpret this story in a straightforward fashion. It can be read as self-consciousness coming to itself through a child's or adult's development, or self-consciousness coming to be in beginning of human history, see hominization, or as that of a society or nation realizing freedom.

That the master-slave dialectic can be interpreted in these two ways (as an internal process occurring in one person or externally between two or more) is a result, in part, of the fact that Hegel asserts an "end to the antithesis of subject and object"1. What occurs in the human mind also occurs outside of it. The internal and external, according to Hegel, sublate one another until they are unified.

The story occurs in a number of stages, and proceeds through Hegel's idea of "sublation" (Aufhebung), the lifting up of two contradictory moments to a higher unity.

Initial encounter

First, the two "self-consciousnesses" meet and are astounded at coming to see another person. They can choose to ignore one another, in which case no self-consciousness forms and each views the other merely as another object. Or, they become mesmerized by the mirror-like other and attempt, as they previously did with their own body, to assert themselves.

According to Hegel,

"On approaching the other it has lost its own self, since it finds itself as another being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for it does not regard the other as essentially real [real in the concepts a pre-self-consciousness] , but sees its own self in the other."


The "I" sees another "I" and finds its own pre-eminence and control as compromised. It ignores this other or sees it as a threat to itself. Its own self-certainty and truth has forevermore been shattered. The only means of re-asserting itself, in order to proceed toward self-consciousness, is by entering into a struggle for pre-eminence.

Death struggle

A struggle to the death ensues. However, if one of the two should die the achievement of self-consciousness fails. Hegel refers to this failure as "abstract negation" not the negation or sublation required. This death is avoided by the agreement, communication of, or subordination to, slavery. In this struggle the Master emerges as Master because he doesn't fear death as much as the slave, and the slave out of this fear consents to the slavery. This experience of fear on the part of the slave is crucial, however, in a later moment of the dialectic, where it becomes the prerequisite experience for the slave's further development.

Enslavement and mastery

Truth of oneself as self-conscious is achieved only if both live, the recognition of the other gives each one the objective truth and self-certainty required for self-consciousness. Thus, the two enter into the relation of master/slave and preserve the recognition of each other.


However, this state is not a happy one and does not achieve full self-consciousness. The recognition by the slave is merely on pain of death. The master self-consciousness is dependent on the slave for recognition and also has a mediated relation with nature; the slave works with nature and begins to shape it into products for the master.

The master only has an evanescent desire/pleasure relation to things whereas the slave sees his work objectified in products.

Only when slavery is abolished and there is mutual recognition will both fully achieve self-consciousness. For Hegel, the further development of self-consciousness in history then passes through the stages of the unhappy consciousness before it finally achieves freedom.


One interpretation of this dialectic, is that neither a slave nor a master can be considered as fully self-conscious. A person who has already achieved self-consciousness could be enslaved, so self-consciousness must be considered not as an individual achievement, or an achievement of natural and genetic evolution, but as a social phenomenon.

Another interpretation is that Man was born and history began with the first struggle, which ended with the first masters and slaves. Man is always either master or slave; and there are no real humans where there are no masters and slaves. History comes to an end when the difference between master and slave ends, when the master ceases to be master because there are no more slaves and the slave ceases to be a slave because there are no more masters. A synthesis takes place between master and slave: the integral citizen of the universal and homogenous state created by Napoleon.

Influence of the master-slave dialectic

The master and slave relationship was much discussed in the 20th century, especially because of its supposed connection to Karl Marx's conception of class struggle as the motive force of social development. (Chris Arthur has argued that this connection was falsely instigated by Sartre under the influence of French Hegelian Alexandre Kojève, but it is dubious whether this claim is universally applicable). This idea also provided the inspiration for Søren Kierkegaard's conception of the God – sinful bondsman relationship and for Friedrich Nietzsche's Master-slave morality. It has also been influential in the social sciences and in psychoanalysis. Furthermore, Hegel's master-slave trope, and particularly the emphasis laid on recognition, has been of crucial influence on Martin Buber's relational schema in I and Thou and Frantz Fanon's description of the colonial relation in Black Skin, White Masks.

Kojève argued that Hegel's intentions were to illustrate that overcoming the fear of death was the only way to achieve true freedom. This was not actually stated by Hegel (in truth at points in this work he makes a direct argument against the use of force as the manner in which history develops). A recent work that uses this argument is Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama admits in the work that his understanding of Hegel is mostly Kojèvian, in particular his conception of the end of history as an ultimate stage of history, while it is, according to Georg Lukacs' interpretation, not a transcendent end but an aim immanent to the never-ending process.

Karl Popper criticism

Karl Popper, a critic of Hegel in The Open Society and Its Enemies, suggests that Hegel's system forms a thinly veiled justification for the rule of Frederick William III, and that Hegel's idea of the ultimate goal of history is to reach a state approximating that of 1830s Prussia. Popper argued that Hegel's philosophy eventually inspired both Marxism and fascism.

"Indeed, Hegel points out that all personal relations can thus be reduced to the fundamental relation of master and slave, of domination and submission. Each must strive to assert and prove himself, and he who has not the nature, the courage, and the general capacity for preserving his independence, must be reduced to servitude. This charming theory of personal relations has, of course, its counterpart in Hegel's theory of international relations. Nations must assert themselves on the Stage of History; it is their duty to attempt the domination of the World. --Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies'

See also

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