Can someone briefly explain to me how self consciousness 'Ich bin Ich' becomes the master/slave dialectic and then how this transforms into a self consciousness in general?

  • 2
    I doubt that anyone can really explain that "briefly". But Wikipedia tried, so did Cultural Reader, there is even a youtube video, more can be easily found by googling. To make it an answerable question for us you'll have to provide context on what this is for, and make it more narrow and specific. We discourage one-liners.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 23:19

2 Answers 2


There are two points I have to make before I get into this:

  1. The story about the Master and Slave that Hegel spins out is allegory, almost a kind of creation myth. I've seen people try to apply it as though it were purely psychology, sociology, political philosophy, or etc, but those should be seen as extensions of the allegory, not its intention.
  2. Hegel is primarily trying to get at the way self-consciousness develops dialectically from mere consciousness. That's a central move in his philosophy.

Keeping that in mind, Hegel's first position (the thesis) is that consciousness (what I'm calling mere consciousness) involves perceiving the world as an assortment of 'things' separate from the self. In this mode, the self is not a 'thing' in that same sense. The self is a separate entity with dominion over the things of the world — to use them, discard them, destroy them... — in that same 'Edenic' sense that Adam (as the sole human in that story) was given dominion over all the animals, plants, rocks, and seas. Note that the relationship of (mere) consciousness to these 'things' is ephemeral — it perceives a thing, it uses the thing, the thing is gone from perception — and so consciousness only has an ephemeral relationship to any notion of 'self'.

Now Hegel creates the problem (the antithesis): a second (mere) consciousness appears in the world. This causes a problem because each consciousness feels its sole dominion over the world is challenged; there is the potential for conflicts of interest. So in the allegory one consciousness doubles down on its right to dominion — its freedom — and becomes the lord or master. The other consciousness feels a fear of losing its freedom through death, submits to the will of the first consciousness, and becomes the servant or slave. The master becomes 'master' because it reduces the other to a 'thing' in the world (that can be used, discarded, destroyed...); the slave becomes 'slave' because it acknowledges the other as having sole dominion.

But note: here the master effectively retreats to the pre-conflict state, in which he has no relationship to his own self, but merely uses the things that present themselves in the world. The slave, by contrast, is forced to interact with the world as just another thing in the world, and is forced to interact with the master as a separate consciousness, and as such the slave is obliged to develop an established and continuing sense of 'self': self-consciousness. This self-consciousness arises as a result of the slave's role as a mediator between 'things' and the master's desires; this self-consciousness is the root of science, art, philosophy, and etc as the slave is obliged to produce things not for his own immediate use, but for the potential use of someone else. And as this self-consciousness and all its benefits grows in the slave, the master becomes progressively more infantile and dependent on the slave. The tables are turned, and eventually the master is forced to recognize the consciousness of the slave as co-equal, and thus start to develop self-consciousness in its own right.

In other words, the dialectical moment spawned by this confrontation of two (mere) consciousnesses forces both towards self-consciousness.

  • I couldn't have explained it better
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 22:33

This is a partial answer only focusing how self-consciousness might become a master-slave (or lord-bondsman) dialectic.

Wikipedia may be able to provide a brief description of the narrative in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit on "Lordship and Bondage":

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.

The tension begins in paragraph 178:

Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.

The other self-consciousness brings the first self-consciousness out of itself and they mutually recognize each other. The problem of these two is stated in paragraph 180:

It must supercede this otherness of itself. This is the supersession of the first ambiguity, and is therefore itself a second ambiguity. First, it must proceed to supersede the other independent being in order thereby to become certain of itself as the essential being; secondly, in so doing it proceeds to supersede its own self, for this other is itself.

From mutual recognizing the lord-bondsman relation occurs when this splits into

...one being only recognized, the other only recognizing. (paragraph 185)

Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translator A. V. Miller. (1977) Oxford. Retrieved on August 13, 2019 at Internet Archive at https://archive.org/stream/HegelG.W.F./Hegel%2C%20G.W.F.%20-%20Phenomenology%20of%20Spirit%20%28Oxford%2C%201977%29#page/n3/

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, April 14). Master–slave dialectic. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:29, August 13, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Master%E2%80%93slave_dialectic&oldid=892392581

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