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Hegel Dispirited: the reification of the Other in Kojève, DeBeauvoir and Sartre

by James Heartfield

'The 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.

If 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.

Hegel's 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.

Men 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 burden.

Thus 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.

This 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.

The 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.

The 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 of Spirit.

For 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 Slave.

Kojève 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.

A 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.

'Spirit' 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.

Once 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.

After 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.

Simone 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.

But having downgraded the biological differentiation, De Beauvoir rehabilitates the opposition in as trenchantly enduring terms.

'The 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 Other.'9

'Thus 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

The 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.'

Jean-Paul 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

'Thus 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.'

Sartre 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 Hegel:

'we should not ... "surpass" the Other toward any inter-monad totality. So long as consciousnesses exist, the separation and conflict of consciousnesses will remain'.13

In 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.

Sartre's 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.

But 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.

What 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.

1. '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.
2. Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991 p6
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 to noun
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

James Heartfield
Writer 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