Dispirited: the reification of the Other in Kojève, DeBeauvoir
explanatory power of the concept of the Other has led to its broad
adoption in cultural and social criticism. Like all concepts the
concept of the Other can illuminate, but it can also obscure meaning.
Routine application of a received idea can become a barrier to
thinking. Specifically in the case of the concept of the Other,
as a consequence perhaps of its promiscuous reproduction in the
social sciences, the unspoken presuppositions in the theory of
the Other are rarely made explicit.
we trace the intellectual development of the theory of the Other
we can see that it always contained an absolute opposition that
could not be overcome. The theory of the Other is in essence a
revision of Hegel's 'Master-Slave dialectic'. It was from Hegel's
account of the clash between Master and Slave that Simone De Beauvoir
and Jean-Paul Sartre took the categorical opposition of Self and
Other and made it into an absolute.
dialectic of Master and Slave is a philosophical account of the
emergence of the Subject as the outcome of a struggle that he
idealised in the 'Master-Slave dialectic'1. There are a great many
subtleties to these passages in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit,
but the relevant stages in the argument can be summarised as follows.
meet on the battlefield in a struggle to the death. The victor
in such an encounter is the one who risks death. For him honour
is more valuable than mere animal subsistence. His selfhood is
emerging as something higher, an ideal, realised in his new status
as Master. The vanquished has preferred survival to honour and
pays by being reduced to a slave, little more than a beast of
far, the clash has only produced Slave and Master in opposition.
But Hegel intends to show how this relationship transforms its
two terms. In the first instance the slave is the Other to the
master, the Self. The slave makes himself the corporeal body of
the master's will - 'your wish is my command'. However, the relationship
is unsatisfactory for the master. He has domination over the slave.
What he wanted, though, was honour, or recognition of his mastery.
The love owed him by his slaves will never satisfy him, because
it is not freely given. Furthermore, the master, having made himself
master through action has become lazy. Superficially it appears
that he calls the shots. But already the slaves are, without realising
it, the active parties. Their labour creates all the possibilities
available to the court. If they would but realise the fact that
they make everything happen, they would shake off the mantle of
slave. Then they would cease merely to be the Other, and attain
the character of Selves.
Hegel achieves the relativisation of the Self-Other opposition
by making both into expressions of the development of the Idea,
or Spirit. In other words the different social positions that
people occupy are not intrinsic to them. They are just vessels
for the underlying spiritual development. By manifesting itself
in these successive shapes - Master, Slave, mutually recognising
selves - the Spirit develops and comes into consciousness of itself.
transformation of human history into the development of the Spirit
is unconvincing to modern sensibilities, and certainly was in
pre-war Paris. But Hegel, not yet published in French, had a useful
interpreter in the Russian émigré Alexandre Kojeve.
The trend to secularise Hegel begins with Alexandre Kojève's
celebrated lecture series on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.
most influential part of Kojève's telling of the master-slave
dialectic was its secular humanistic reinterpretation of Hegel's
religious spirituality. Kojève 'read' Hegel to be describing
the development of human institutions 'in the guise' of describing
a spiritual progression. Where Hegel's book is a Phenomenology
of Spirit, Kojève's lectures describe an anthropogenesis 2.
In Kojève's version the subject is Man ('Man is self-consciousness'3
), in Hegel's the subject is Spirit. We merely have to shed the
arcane language of 'spirit' to understand Hegel's real humanistic
message, Kojève is saying.
difference between Kojève's anthropogenesis and Hegel's
Phenomenology of Spirit is this: Hegel relativises the independence
of the self-consciousnesses as so many subordinate terms in the
movement of Spirit. Hegel writes: 'What still lies ahead for consciousness
is the experience of what Spirit is - this absolute substance
which is the unity of the different independent self-consciousnesses
which, in their opposition enjoy perfect freedom and independence'4
. It is because the substance of the independent self-consciousnesses
is Spirit that the different structures of consciousness, of master
and of slave, can be superseded as merely intermediate manifestations
Kojève, however, Spirit has been banished in favour of
Man. What, then, allows 'the "dialectical overcoming"
of both' Master and Slave? The corresponding concept to Hegel's
Spirit in Kojève is society: 'the human reality can come
into being only as social reality' though 'society is human -
at least in origin - only on the basis of its implying an element
of Mastery and an Element of Slavery'5. The nearest thing then,
to the over-arching concept of Spirit that could allow a movement
beyond the entrenched positions of Mastery and Servitude in Kojève,
is society. But this universal is underdeveloped, appearing to
be little more than the reiteration of the clash of Master and
stripped out the Spirit to put Man in its place. His was a secular
humanism, which shared something of Hegel's optimism. Later Hegel
scholars shared Kojève's resistance to the Spirit, but
were cautious, too of his humanism, thinking it shared something
of the religiosity of Spirit. In principle though, whatever the
subsequent differences, this one underlying project to strip spirituality
out of Hegel is the enduring theme of Hegel scholarship in the
period after the Second World War.
dispirited Hegel, secularised and rendered more prosaic seems
to fit our times. But there is a difficulty in this re-reading
of Hegel. The passage of the Spirit is so fundamental to Hegel's
phenomenology that tinkering with it must have some dramatic results.
Most pointedly, Spirit is the concept to which all other forms
are subordinate. Hegel's method of relativising specific positions
and stances depends upon their being partial, one-sided expressions
of an over-arching totality: Spirit. The historical overcoming
of these specific forms of being is only possible by virtue of
these forms being made the subordinate clauses of the central
proposition. Historical transition, the transcendence of each
and every specific manifestation of Spirit is possible because
they are only partial expressions.
sits uneasily with us, but without it, Hegel's historical movement
stands in danger of being jettisoned. Unless a more prosaic substitute
can fulfil the same goals of relativising contingent positions,
then these necessarily must solidify into absolute polar opposites,
without the possibility of being transcended. The forms of being
that in Hegel are merely staging posts on the way will ossify
into insurmountable barriers. The antagonisms of Master and Slave
will simply fall asunder into mutually exclusive oppositions without
any possibility of their supercession. Alienation ceases to contain
the possibility of its own overcoming, but is arrested at the
point of mutual incomprehension and hostility. Roughly speaking,
this is what has happened with the secularisation of Hegel's thought.
secularised, Hegel made his most important bequest to twentieth
century philosophy, the mutually defined concepts of self and
other. Self and Other are categories of the Master Slave dialectic,
whose opening line is 'Self-consciousness exists in and for itself
when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another'6 . In the
subjugation of slave by master 'there is posited a pure self-consciousness,
and a consciousness which is not purely for itself, but for another
... The former is lord, the other is bondsman 7.' In particular
the concept of The Other has been so woven into contemporary social
and philosophical thought that it appears to be unremarkable,
an ordinary part of the language. Of course, 'the Other'. But
this is a concept with an origin, and its origin is in Hegel's
dialectic of Master and Slave, as read by French philosophers
after the war.
Kojève the categories of Self and Other took on a life
of their own first in the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone
De Beauvoir, and extending outwards to become the commonplace
terminology of a large body of social and philosophical writing.
What is the meaning of this transformation of the Hegelian categories
in the hands of these post-war French philosophers? We can say
that the Master Slave dialectic has been removed from its pseudo-historical
context and made mundane. In the place of the historically specific
relations of Master to Slave, we now have pseudo-universal relations
of Self and Other.
De Beauvoir first transformed Hegel's categories of Self and Other
into the modern concept of the Other. For her groundbreaking book
The Second Sex, De Beauvoir is much praised as the first person
to insist that one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman. 'The
biological and social sciences no longer admit the existence of
unchangeably fixed entities that determine given characteristics,
such as those ascribed to woman, the Jew, or the Negro,' she writes 8.
With such a non-biological approach one would think that the eternal
status of woman is to be dislodged.
having downgraded the biological differentiation, De Beauvoir
rehabilitates the opposition in as trenchantly enduring terms.
category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself.
In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies,
one finds the expression of a duality - that of the Self and the
it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at
once setting up the Other over against itself. ... Jews are 'different'
for the anti-Semite, Negroes are "inferior" for American
racists, aborigines are "natives" for colonists, proletarians
are the "lower class" for the privileged.'10
biological differences between men and women are inserted into
this eternalised psychological form: 'Here is to be found the
basic trait of woman: she is the Other in a totality of which
the two components are necessary to one another.'
Sartre followed De Beauvoir in elevating the Self/Other distinction
into an absolute. He rejected Hegel's resolution accusing Hegel
of an 'ontological optimism'.11
when Hegelian monism [i.e. the monism of Spirit] considers the
relation of consciousness, it does not put itself in any particular
consciousness. Although the Whole is to be realised, it is already
there as the truth of all which is true.'
is saying that in making Spirit the substance of the particular
figures of consciousness from the outset, Hegel is smuggling the
conclusion to the problem in at the beginning. Sartre answers
should not ... "surpass" the Other toward any inter-monad
totality. So long as consciousnesses exist, the separation and
conflict of consciousnesses will remain'.13
Sartre's Being and Nothingness, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit
must founder on the 'Reef of Solipsism', along with everyone else.
Separation and conflict are an ever-present condition of the existence
of consciousnesses. As Self and Other, Master and Slave are trapped
in their conflict, and their mutual incomprehension for all time.
unbridgeable opposition between Self and Other appeared to be
radical in the face of the apologetic social pacifism of the day.
While government spokesmen and ideologues promoted an unproblematic
harmony, Sartre's insistent problematisation of human relations
pointed up the shortcomings. The embrace of the case for the Other
took on a radical significance.
while the Self/Other opposition was radical in its rejection of
ameliorative reforms, it does not readily lead to radical solutions
either. Rather the whole point is that the Reef of Solipsism cannot
be crossed. Self and Other are radically incommensurable. The
tension is relocated from a specific and historically transient
form of social organisation to the human condition itself. It
cannot be overcome.
the secularisation of Hegel's Master Slave dialectic achieves,
then, is not finally a humanisation of Self and Other, even though
it appeared to be that way. Rather it is the removal of the Subject
from the master-slave dialectic. This is the case because Hegel's
idealised Subject is the Spirit. Subjectivity overcomes the condition
of Otherness. The elevation of the Other into the dominant principle
is an effect of the demotion of the Subject.
'Following Hegel, we find in consciousness itself a fundamental
hostility towards every other consciousness; the subject can be
posed only in being opposed - he sets himself up as the essential,
as opposed to the other, the inessential, the object.' Simone
De Beauvoir, The Second Sex, pref.
Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures
on the Phenomenology of Spirit, Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
3. Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading
of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991 p3
4. GWF Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford:
University Press, 1977, p110
5. Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading
of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1991 p8
6. GWF Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford:
University Press, 1977, p111
7. GWF Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford:
University Press, 1977, p115. The editors of the Miller edition
of Hegel's Phenomenology do not capitalise the Other, but in Kojève's
Introduction, Queneau does, thereby promoting it from adjective
8. De Beauvoir The Second Sex, pref
9. The Second Sex, pref
10. The Second Sex, pref
11. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness,
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966, p328
12. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness,
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966, p329
13. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness,
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966, p329
and lecturer James Heartfield lives in north London. He is author
of The Death of the Subject Explained (Sheffield Hallam University
Press, 2002), and can be contacted at James@heartfield.demon.co.uk