The master–slave dialectic is the common name for a famous passage of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, though the original German phrase, Herrschaft und Knechtschaft, is more properly translated as Lordship and Bondage. It is widely considered a key element in Hegel's philosophical system, and has heavily influenced many subsequent philosophers.
The passage describes, in narrative form, the development of self-consciousness as such in an encounter between what are thereby (i.e., emerging only from this encounter) two distinct, self-conscious beings. The essence of the dialectic is the movement or motion of recognizing, in which the two self-consciousnesses are constituted in being each recognized as self-conscious by the other. This movement, inexorably taken to its extreme, takes the form of a "struggle to the death" in which one masters the other, only to find that such lordship makes the very recognition he had sought impossible, since the bondsman, in this state, is not free to offer it.
"Independent and Dependent Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage" is the first of two titled subsections in the "Self-Consciousness" chapter of Phenomenology. It is preceded in the chapter by a discussion of "Life" and "Desire", among other things, and is followed by "Free Self-Consciousness: Stoicism, Skepticism, and the Unhappy Consciousness".
Hegel wrote this story or myth in order to explain his idea of how self-consciousness dialectically sublates into what he variously refers to as Absolute Knowledge, Spirit, and Science. As a work, the Phenomenology may be considered both as an independent work, apparently considered by Hegel to be an a priori for understanding the Science of Logic, and as a part of the Science of Logic, where Hegel discusses absolute knowledge.
Crucially, for Hegel, absolute knowledge, or Spirit, cannot come to be without first a self-consciousness recognizing another self-consciousness. Such an issue in the history of philosophy had only ever been explored by Johann Gottlieb Fichte and its treatment marks a watershed in European philosophy.
In order to explain how this works, Hegel uses a story that is in essence an abstracted, idealized history about how two people meet. However, Hegel's idea of the development of self-consciousness from consciousness, and its sublation into a higher unity in absolute knowledge, is not the contoured brain of natural science and evolutionary biology, but a phenomenological construct with a history; one that must have passed through a struggle for freedom before realising itself.
The abstract language used by Hegel never allows one to interpret this story in a straightforward fashion. It can be read as self-consciousness coming to itself through a child's or adult's development, or self-consciousness coming to be in the beginning of human history (see hominization) or as that of a society or nation realising freedom.
That the master–slave dialectic can be interpreted as an internal process occurring in one person or as an external process between two or more people is a result, in part, of the fact that Hegel asserts an "end to the antithesis of subject and object". What occurs in the human mind also occurs outside of it. The objective and subjective, according to Hegel, sublate one another until they are unified, and the "story" takes this process through its various "moments" when the lifting up of two contradictory moments results in a higher unity.
First, the two abstract consciousnesses meet and are astounded at the realisation of the self as a foreign object. Each can choose to ignore the other, in which case no self-consciousness forms and each views the other merely as an animated object rather than an equivalent subject. Or, they become mesmerized by the mirror-like other and attempt, as they previously had done in controlling their own body, to assert their will.
According to Hegel,
When initially confronted with another person, the self cannot be immediately recognized: 'Appearing thus immediately on the scene, they are for one another like ordinary objects, independent shapes, individuals submerged in the being [or immediacy] of Life'.
A struggle to the death ensues. However, if one of the two should die, the achievement of self-consciousness fails. Hegel refers to this failure as "abstract negation" not the negation or sublation required. This death is avoided by the agreement, communication of, or subordination to, slavery. In this struggle the Master emerges as Master because he does not fear death since he does not see his identity dependent on life, while the slave out of this fear consents to the slavery. This experience of fear on the part of the slave is crucial, however, in a later moment of the dialectic, where it becomes the prerequisite experience for the slave's further development.
Truth of oneself as self-conscious is achieved only if both live; the recognition of the other gives each of them the objective truth and self-certainty required for self-consciousness. Thus, the two enter into the relation of master/slave and preserve the recognition of each other.
However, this state is not a happy one and does not achieve full self-consciousness. The recognition by the slave is merely on pain of death. The master's self-consciousness is dependent on the slave for recognition and also has a mediated relation with nature: the slave works with nature and begins to shape it into products for the master. As the slave creates more and more products with greater and greater sophistication through his own creativity, he begins to see himself reflected in the products he created, he realises that the world around him was created by his own hands, thus the slave is no longer alienated from his own labour and achieves self-consciousness, while the master on the other hand has become wholly dependent on the products created by his slave; thus the master is enslaved by the labour of his slave. According to Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History, "The humankind has not liberated itself from servitude but by means of servitude".
One interpretation of this dialectic is that neither a slave nor a master can be considered as fully self-conscious. A person who has already achieved self-consciousness could be enslaved, so self-consciousness must be considered not as an individual achievement, or an achievement of natural and genetic evolution, but as a social phenomenon.
As philosopher Robert Brandom explains:
"Hegel's discussion of the dialectic of the Master and Slave is an attempt to show that asymmetric recognitive relations are metaphysically defective, that the norms they institute aren't the right kind to help us think and act with—to make it possible for us to think and act. Asymmetric recognition in this way is authority without responsibility, on the side of the Master, and responsibility without authority, on the side of the Slave. And Hegel's argument is that unless authority and responsibility are commensurate and reciprocal, no actual normative statuses are instituted. This is one of his most important and certainly one of his deepest ideas, though it's not so easy to see just how the argument works."
Alexandre Kojève's unique interpretation differs from this. For Kojève, people are born and history began with the first struggle, which ended with the first masters and slaves. A person is always either master or slave; and there are no real humans where there are no masters and slaves. History comes to an end when the difference between master and slave ends, when the master ceases to be master because there are no more slaves and the slave ceases to be a slave because there are no more masters. A synthesis takes place between master and slave: the integral citizen of the universal and homogenous state created by Napoleon.
The master and slave relationship influenced numerous discussions and ideas in the 20th century, especially because of its supposed connection to Karl Marx's conception of class struggle as the motive force of social development..
Hegel's master–slave dialectic has been influential in the social sciences, philosophy, literary studies, critical theory, postcolonial studies and in psychoanalysis. Furthermore, Hegel's master–slave trope, and particularly the emphasis on recognition, has been of crucial influence on Martin Buber's relational schema in I and Thou, Simone de Beauvoir's account of the history and dynamics of gender relations in The Second Sex and Frantz Fanon's description of the colonial relation in Black Skin, White Masks. Susan Buck-Morss's article Hegel and Haiti argues that the Haitian revolution influenced Hegel's writing of his slave-master dialectic.