Apart from the preface, and other famous sections within the Phenomenology of Spirit, the most famous section of Hegel’s Phenomenology is his commentary of lordship and bondage in self-consciousness. For Hegel, self-consciousness is in itself for itself. However, the consummation of self-consciousness—that is, self-understanding—depends on the other. Hegel’s ontology is necessarily dialectic insofar that it depends on the other to be made manifest.
Hegel takes this proposition from the book of Genesis, where Adam is lonely and not fully himself without Eve. Humans are made for each other as social creatures, but Adam does not fully know himself and is not content with his being without Eve. As Hegel says, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it also exists for another.” Self-consciousness, in being for oneself, but consummated through encounter with the other, is Hegel’s means of avoiding solipsism. (A problem he felt was prevalent in Fichte’s ego). As such, Hegel defends the tradition social animus of humanity in asserting that self-consciousness, while for itself, exists for another. Thus, self-consciousness is no fully possible without the other whom allows me to draw the dialectical contrast and opposition with.
This simple proposition of dialectical ontology is one of the most consequential ramifications of Hegel’s philosophy. We already this dialectical ontology known to us in other forms: capitalist vs. proletariat, “left vs. right,” Brexiteer vs. Remainer, male-female, etc. This is due to Hegel’s ontological particularism. We are particular beings belonging to particular tribes, peoples, nations, in-dwellings, religions, biological distinctions, and so forth.
The growth of self-consciousness begins in the double-significance. The two-fold significance, or double-significance, is that in the encounter with the other I have lost my own self-consciousness. In this encounter with the other I know that I’m not the center of the universe anymore (thus this is a rebuttal to solipsism). In this encounter with the other I have become entranced by the other and lost myself in discovery of the other: the foreign, the exotic, the “not-I” that Hamann and Fichte also speak of in their philosophies.
However, in this encounter and discovery of the other I am able to turn inward “into itself” or into myself wherein I can begin to understand myself in contrast to the other I have just encountered. In consuming the other—or coming to know the other—I can come to know myself in contrast to the other I have just encountered. I am akin to the other in X, Y, Z, etc. while also being different from the other in A, B, and C; but Hegel asserts that we first come to know through difference before we reach similarity, “At first, it will exhibit the side of the inequality of the two, or the splitting up of the middle term into the extremes which, as extremes, are opposed to one another, one being only recognized, the other only recognizing.”
Thus, my knowledge of myself rests in coming to know the other for knowing the other is what allows me to better know myself. If, for example, I was alone with nothing to draw a contrast with, I would be lost in universal and homogenous selfhood. I would think that everything in the world is exactly the same as I. However, in difference, and in recognizing difference, we come to grow in knowledge of our particularity. Furthermore, “They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing the other.” What Hegel means by this is that true self-knowledge, self-consciousness, which depends on the other, logically and definitionally means that when I gain self-understanding I also recognize and come to know the other. Since this depends on a dialectic of self-other or other-self, the discovery of myself is simultaneously the discovery of the other.
Plurality and particularity exists within unity (or oneness). The oneness, or unity, that Hegel speaks of in this section on self-consciousness and lordship and bondage is the oneness that comes in relationality; a basic relational unity. Two have become one in mutual recognition (knowledge). This idea of unity in duplicity, or multiplicity, is explicitly Christian in origin. It is a spiritual unity, which is an epistemological reality once you know the actual claims of Christian epistemology (being a pluralistic epistemology uniting rationalism with empirical experience within a united body).
This struggle, or striving, for recognition is the essence of the dialectic of lordship and bondage, or self encountering the other and in the other encountering myself. In this dialectic of encounter we are both struggling to understand ourselves in relationship to the other because not only are we relational creatures, we do not exist merely for ourselves for self-knowledge, as Hegel opened this section with, also exists for another. Thus, there is a back and forth of attempting to understand myself through understanding the other. Only when I understand the other as other, and when the other understands me as its dialectical other, and once the distinctions of particular differences are formed, can I proceed to truly begin to understand myself in relationship to the other. I am Adam, or I am Eve. I am English, or I am Arab. I am Catholic, or I am Muslim, I am German, or I am French, etc.
It is important to remember, or recognize—pardon the pun—that this encounter of self and other is not always peaceful but emerges based on the relationship of encounter. There is a struggle of absorption going on too. I am not X means that I am not X. I will never become X as it is not my essential being but I may begin to adopt the outlook of X in my dependent relationship with X. Hegel’s ontology and self-conscious reality is equally one of essentialism as it is something relational. For example, to be Catholic is to be Catholic and not Muslim. Conversely, to be male is to be male and not female. However, as a Catholic dependent upon Muslims I may begin to see the world as Muslims do while not actually being Muslim. Likewise, I, as female, begin to understand and relate to the world through my dependent relationship to male. In the specific example that Hegel deals with in this section, lord and bondsman, one is lord and the other is not lord—ergo, bondsman. The bondsman exists in relationship to the lord to serve the lord, the lord exists not on his own but in relationship to the bondsman; has his being as lord only through the relationship to the bondsman, and the bondsman has his being in being servant to the lord. Thus, the lord is at the center of things and relationships as all things and relational beings serve the lord.
In being a servant, or bondsman, in relationship to the lord, the bondsman comes to understand himself in relationship to the lord. As such, the experience of bondsman informs the bondsman’s being in relationship to his encountered other (the lord) and his self-consciousness is risen through this coming to know self as bondsman. The bondsman, in Hegel’s example, is being absorbed by the lord in the sense that the bondsman only ever knows himself in the lordship-bondsman dialectical relationship and has become, in worldview, absorbed by the lord. But in the death of the lord something unique happens—the liberation of the bondsman through his increased consciousness that comes from this.
Therefore, in the encounter there is a struggle of attaining self-consciousness while retaining distinctive being and understanding oneself as a distinctive being. This is the “universal movement, the absolute melting-away of everything stable” that allows oneself to understand oneself self-consciousness through relationship and experiences and knowledge of itself in contrast to others. The bondsman realizes the lord is not the center of the universe and, as such, that the bondsman is not tied to being an extension of the lord and the lord’s universe. That comfortable understanding of the world, not yet shaken by death, fear, or anxiety, is wiped away and I develop individuality as a result.
This individuality comes in contrast with the other that I am not like. The stronger the differences, or distinctions, the greater the individuality. Thus, the stronger the differences and distinctions, the greater the self-consciousness and self-understanding through increasing difference and distinctions. The bondsman is not the lord, and need not see and understand the world as the lord does, but is himself (as bondsman, admittedly) and lives in a world entirely different than the lord because of the distinct relationships and encountering relationships through being the bondsman. This allows the bondsman to be more fully the bondsman, or more abstract, allows an individual to be more fully itself in recognizing that it is not the other. This reciprocates. As such, both parties grow in greater individuality and distinctiveness in recognizing the differences and distinctions between each other, and in recognizing the distinctions and differences between each other, more fully come to understand themselves. This may not always happen, however. One party may overwhelm the other and the other becomes completely docile and subservient to the other (master/lord). This marks the elimination or destruction of distinctiveness which turns everything and everyone into a bland sameness which prevents self-understanding, which comes through recognition of the other, from ever really commencing.
Returning to the preface we see the importance of negation, or negativity. In not being X, I more fully understand and become myself as Y. Through that dialectic of negation, dissemblance of that comfortable solipsistic worldview, I become more fully myself as a particular being.