The Phenomenology of Spirit

by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

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Can you elaborate on Hegel’s "master/slave dialectic"?

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To get you started on this assignment, let's review some key aspects of this concept. G. W. F. Hegel’s “master/slave dialectic” details the tense, intricate, and topsy-turvy struggles between two self-consciousnesses. The examination unfolds in Hegel’s 1807 book The Phenomenology of Spirit under a section titled, in Michael Inwood's translation, “Independence and dependence of self-consciousness: lordship and bondage.”

For Hegel, the appearance of another self-consciousness makes it necessary for each self-consciousness to try and “prove themselves.” To demonstrate that their understanding of being qualifies as the true understanding, they engage in “life-and-death combat.”

The winning self-consciousness (the lord/master) gains freedom and independence; they are an example of “Being-for-itself.” They don’t exist for anyone else; they live according to their dictates and standards. The losing self-consciousness (the slave/bondsman) doesn't die, because the master needs them to exist to affirm their superiority. Thus, the defeated self-consciousness finds themselves “Being for another”; their slavish position supports the masterful identity of the prevailing self-consciousness.

Hegel then highlights the paradox of this relationship. If the master requires the slave to validate their superior position, the master is not genuinely independent, as the master’s identity depends on the presence of someone slavish. Alternately, if the slave has the power to make someone a master, they can’t be all that slavish or powerless.

Ultimately, the lord/master realizes they are “the inverse” of what they want to be. Likewise, the slave/bondsman discovers they are “contrary” to their role. After facing the struggles of enslavement, the slave consciousness is “driven back into itself” and “converted into true independence.” In other words, the slave becomes the free being.

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