The I in We
The I in We
From Desire to Recognition: Hegel's Grounding of Self-Consciousness
Hardly any of Hegel's works have attracted as much attention as the chapter on 'Self-Consciousness' in the Phenomenology of Spirit . As difficult and inaccessible as the book may be on the whole, this chapter, in which consciousness exits 'the nightlike void of the super-sensible beyond, and steps out into the spiritual daylight of the present' 1 (111), finally offers something that we can understand. All of a sudden, his account of the mind's experience of itself takes on more striking colours, the lonely self-consciousness unsuspectingly encounters other subjects, and what was previously a merely cognitive matter is transformed into a social drama consisting of a 'struggle for life and death'. In short, this chapter brings together all the elements capable of supplying post-idealistic philosophy's hunger for reality with material for concretion and elaboration. Hegel's first students seized the opportunity offered by this chapter and took his speculative philosophy out of the ethereal sphere of ideas and notions, pulling it back down to the earth of social reality. And ever since, authors from Lukács and Brecht to Kojève have sought unceasingly to uncover in the succession of desire, recognition and struggle the outlines of a historically situatable, political course of events.
However, by sharpening Hegel's considerations into concrete and tangible concepts, we risk losing sight of this chapter's argumentative core in the face of all this conflictual interaction. After all, Hegel intended to do much more than merely prove that subjects must necessarily enter into a struggle once they have realized their mutual dependence. By employing his phenomenological method, he sought to demonstrate that a subject can only arrive at a 'consciousness' of its own 'self' if it enters into a relationship of 'recognition' with another subject. Hegel's aims were much more fundamental than historicizing or sociological interpretations cared to realize; he was primarily interested in elucidating not an historical event or instance of conflict, but a transcendental fact that should prove to be a prerequisite of all human sociality. If any description of an historical event is to be found at all in the chapter on 'Self-Consciousness', then it is only after the event that Hegel is truly interested in has already occurred: that is, after the subject has emerged from the self-referentiality of mere desire and become aware of its dependence on its fellow human subjects. Hegel thus seeks to do nothing less than explain the transition from natural to conscious ( geistig ) being, from the human animal to the rational subject. The social conflicts that follow in this chapter are merely intended as a processual articulation of the implications this consciousness ( Geistigkeit ) has for human beings.
In what follows I will attempt to reconstruct the decisive step in Hegel's line of argumentation: the transition from 'Desire' to 'Recognition'. The difficulty of this endeavour is clearly demonstrated by the long list of interpretations that, by failing to pay any real attention to Hegel's own formulations, have arrived at quite wilful and even absurd understandings of his text. 2 One reason for this tendency might lie in the quantitative imbalance between the length of the chapter on 'Self-Consciousness' and its central line of argumentation. Of the nearly forty pages comprising the chapter, Hegel dedicates only one and a half pages to his claim that self-consciousness requires the recognition of another self. I want to place these few pages at the centre of my reconstruction by first of all clarifying Hegel's concept of desire (I), in order to then elucidate his internal transition to the concept of recognition (II). My interpretation, which focuses strongly on Hegel's precise wording, will demo