Hegel moves from the discussion of consciousness in general to a discussion of self-consciousness. Like the idealist philosophers before him, Hegel believes that consciousness of objects necessarily implies some awareness of self, as a subject, which is separate from the perceived object. But Hegel takes this idea of self-consciousness a step further and asserts that subjects are also objects to other subjects. Self-consciousness is thus the awareness of another’s awareness of oneself. To put it another way, one becomes aware of oneself by seeing oneself through the eyes of another. Hegel speaks of the “struggle for recognition” implied in self-consciousness. This struggle is between two opposing tendencies arising in self-consciousness—between, on one hand, the moment when the self and the other come together, which makes self-consciousness possible, and, on the other hand, the moment of difference arising when one is conscious of the “otherness” of other selves vis-à-vis oneself, and vice versa. Otherness and pure self-consciousness are mutually opposed moments in a “life and death struggle” for recognition. This tension between selves and others, between mutual identification and estrangement, plays out in the fields of social relations.
Hegel explains that the realization of self-consciousness is really a struggle for recognition between two individuals bound to one another as unequals in a relationship of dependence. One person is the bondsman and one is the servant. The bondsman, or servant, is dependent on the lord. Because he is aware that the lord sees him as an object rather than as a subject (i.e., as a thing, rather than as a thinking, self-aware being), the lord frustrates his desire to assert his pure self-consciousness. He is stuck in a position of reflecting on his otherness. The independent lord, on the other end, is able to negate the otherness that he finds reflected through the subordinate bondsman, since the bondsman does not appear as a conscious subject to him. As the independent and superior partner in this relationship, his otherness does not bear down on him. The lord occupies the position of enjoying his dominant status, whereas the bondsmen must continuously reflect on his status as a subordinate “other” for the lord. At the same time, the lord does not find his position completely satisfying. In negating his own otherness in the consciousness of the bondsman, in turning the bondsman into an object unessential to his own self-consciousness, he has also to deny a fundamental impulse toward recognizing the bondsman as a consciousness equal to himself. At the same time, the bondsman is able to derive satisfaction in labor, a process of working on and transforming objects through which he rediscovers himself and can claim a “mind of his own.”
This section of the Phenomenology, and for that matter the rest of the book, is difficult because of its abstractness. Hegel writes about lords and bondsmen (or masters and slaves, as it is sometimes translated), and it is hard at first to see whom he is talking about and whether this is meant to describe social relations today or at some period in the past when slavery was more widespread. Precisely because it is so abstract, the section has been interpreted in many different ways. It is possible to view the lord and bondsmen relationship as an early stage of history, since the Phenomenology describes the evolution of Spirit throughout the course of human civilization, culminating in modern society. However, the dialectical evolution of Spirit throughout history may also be seen as a metaphor for the process through which each individual develops psychologically. Thus, the images of the lord and bondsman may be interpreted not literally, but as metaphors for positions in which we all find ourselves throughout life—sometimes as the objectified bondsman, sometimes as the objectifying lord.
The Lordship and Bondage section is among the most widely cited in all of Hegel’s writings. The struggle for recognition between lord and bondsman inspired Marx’s account of how class struggle naturally arises from the exploitation of one social class by another. A diverse array of twentieth-century thinkers, including psychoanalysts and existentialists, have drawn on Hegel’s ideas here. Earlier idealists, such as Kant, pointed out the difference between subject and object, but Hegel believed that the subject, or the self, is aware of its self only as a distinct entity through the eyes of another self. The radical idea inherent in this view is that consciousnesses are inextricably interwoven and that one cannot have any concept of oneself without having actually experienced a moment of identification with the other. Many readers have found his notion of self-consciousness easier to grasp intuitively than many of Hegel’s other concepts. His account seems to ring true with everyday experience. People come to know themselves through the image they suppose others hold of them. This image is positive or negative depending on who that person is, where he or she stands in society, and so forth, and gives rise to familiar stresses as individuals strive to assert their free individuality against the objectifying images that others have of them.