How Would Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit Be Relevant Today?

Frank M. Kirkland


As we scome to the end of the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Phenomenology of Spirit (PhS),[1] I am reminded of a remark made a decade ago by the noted Hegel-scholar Robert Pippin. He then entertained the possibility of what a sequel to the PhS would look like were Hegel able to complete one. In his mind, the sequel would present two new chapters, which “would have to include oddly parallel accounts of both [a] the great expanding confidence and influence of modern science and technology…and [b] the coincident ever-growing pessimism that all of that, and much of anything else, matters all that much….”[2] Pippin rightly recognized the need of new “shapes of Spirit” relevant for at least a 1997 PhS. He had seen in the trajectories of these two large-scale cognitive and ethical enactments “contradictory” outcomes in which the success of (a), in fulfilling ideals that have been set for modern science and technology, comes at once with (b), with a disposition that ever loosens the normative grip their ideals are to have on us.

I myself admit that Pippin’s selections to a hypothetical sequel to the PhS and his evaluations for those selections are on point. However, I would like to make a suggestion of my own to such a sequel. With all the discussion, both critical and uncritical, on racial oppression and cultural diversity over the distant and recent past, a shape of spirit accounting for a conceptualization of these matters appears to me quite apropos.
Nonetheless there has been, generally speaking, an ambivalent reception to what is taken to be Hegel’s thoughts on these matters. On one side, many point to Hegel’s famous section “Independence & Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship & Servitude” in chapter 4 of his PhS as a place for imagining, at least, a fruitful source for examining historically and sociologically the American slave experience[3] or fruitful connections with African-American literature[4] or, more broadly, with matters of “blackness” and identity.[5] On the other side, many point to Hegel’s infamous remarks on non-western cultures generally and on Africa and Africans particularly[6] in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History as well as his infamous comments on race and so-called “Negroes”[7]  in his Philosophy of Subjective Spirit as sites for justifying the alleged absence of history or the alleged arrested development, both intellectually and culturally, of African and African-descended peoples. However, since the latter set of annotations does not arise from the PhS, they shall not be examined here.[8]

Still there is something puzzling about using chapter 4 of the PhS to highlight modern racial slavery. There are many who believe that Hegel gets philosophically right the historical experience of servitude; that the servant/slave (via enslavement), not the lord/master, becomes aware of both life and freedom; and that the servant/slave is involved in struggle to acquire recognition of one’s identity from the other.[9] This position stands in contrast to the result of more recent, historical and sociological studies on American slavery, which would insist that Hegel’s account is inadequate historically on the “details” of the experience of enslavement and would thereby claim that Hegel’s philosophical account has nothing to offer intellectually, say, to the understanding of ‘slave culture.’[10]

What is fascinating here, when framed in this way, is that both sides share a common presumption, despite their difference. They both take for granted that Hegel’s discussion of lordship and servitude in chapter 4 entails an institutional arrangement for enslavement and a history of the practice. There is something common at work on both sides concerning the action of the servile mode of self-consciousness—customs or ethos of a community, historical tradition, membership in a community—which lead it to seek recognition. As a consequence, the difference between the sides is whether Hegel’s philosophical account of the experience of servitude in chapter 4 carries in a sufficient or an insufficient way a historical background to establish the appropriate dialectical advance of the servant’s/slave’s cultural integrity and socio-psychological strength in the struggle with the lord/master for recognition.[11]

But herein lies the rub. There is not even an allusion to any kind of historical experience or cultural arrangement in Hegel’s chapter that contributes to or is the outcome of (a) his analysis of lordship and servitude or (b) the possibility of any comparative work with any historically extant slave experience. Let me bring in two examples. (1) Hegel succeeded in speculating (with an adequate historical background), according to Patterson, that “the slave never internalized the degraded condition of himself held by the master.”[12] (2) Hegel failed (with an inadequate historical background), according to Patterson again, “to take account of the free non-slaveholding members of the master’s society and thereby failed to conclude that a “[vibrant slave culture] is possible only where slavery does not totally dominate the society.”[13] These two points may be true, but neither statement is pertinent to Hegel’s chapter given the strictures of his analysis, because they are extraneous for the appearance of the so-called “master-slave dialectic”.

Even if true, they would still be violating Hegel’s phenomenological rule[14] of allowing, in this case, the conditions for the appearance of the “master-slave dialectic” to develop directly from the context-demanding character in which that dialectic emerges. (Otherwise negation would not be determinate.) Hegel himself would consider that dialectic as partial and wanting with respect to the question of reciprocal recognition. But he would not see its deficiency turning on the sufficiency or insufficiency of a historical background he provides in his analysis of that dialectic because, at this juncture of the PhS, history is neither epistemically nor ethically criterial for that dialectic. What is of criterial significance here is the certainty of self-consciousness, which appears generally and immediately in the form of desire. The question for Hegel is whether anything else renders the criterial character of that certainty defeasible.


Briefly stated, the certainty of self-consciousness as desire is the concern an individual has toward itself in its regard of and its behavior toward a virtually indeterminate domain of objects as both wholly reducible to and immediately identical with its concern ad libitum, ad infinitum. Nothing stands as recalcitrant to or as independent of the desiring individual’s projects and their fulfillments; thereby nothing is at odds with its sheer or immediate self-assurance. All things are evanescent for it. However, for that self-assurance to be intensely ever present, it requires the persistence, not evanescence, of an indeterminate domain, which Hegel calls “life.”

Moreover, life is not only the required counterpart to self-consciousness as desire; it is also (1) that within which desiring self-consciousness subsists and (2) that in the face of which desiring self-consciousness constantly presents itself as life’s measure. As one can see, the domain of life takes on a determinate form as well as an integral and mediating role for desiring self-consciousness. At the same time, however, desiring self-consciousness must either nullify or render inessential anything other than itself that could undermine its venture of making its self-assuring concern exclusively criterial for knowledge and action. Nothing else is on the table.

Self-consciousness seems here paradoxical. How can it claim to subsist in life while simultaneously certifying that the domain of life matters only through projects motivated by its own desires and that its dependent, mediating attachments to life are inessential to such projects? Hegel’s answer—“only in another self-consciousness” [PhS, §175] or, better said, only in another mode of self-consciousness. There is a mode of self-consciousness (1) which, despite its attachments to life in the conduct and preservation of its life, has another mode of self-consciousness (2) and acknowledges that the independence and certainty of (2) is fulfilled through ventures fueled essentially by its own desire and that life and anything therein offer no resistance to those ventures. In this schema, (1) refers eventually to the servile mode of self-consciousness and (2) eventually to the lordly mode.[15] How and why does this take place?

Since self-consciousness is essentially marked by desire, each mode appears independently to the other as so marked. Since each presents itself to the other as independent in the life of the other, each makes life totally subject to the projects each has set self-consciously for itself in life regardless of life’s constraints, including and especially each other. Each serves as a living constraint on the other, but not like anything else in life, because each designates the other as a living constraint not instinctively, but self-consciously. Each presents itself to the other as the negation of the other’s life, viz., death. But death here is not simply the boundary of that negation distinctive of the process of life; it is, more importantly, the negation of life as what self-consciousness projects for itself in life. So each does not just stake its so-called “biological” life, but its life as set and enacted independently by itself and self-consciously for itself. Two consequences issue from this “risk of life”—either both modes die, in which case the experience of self-consciousness as desire in PhS ceases, or one subdues the other or one gives in to the other in fear of risking life, in which case the “victor” obtains from the subdued acknowledgement of its certainty, independence, and projects, while the subdued accepts “that life is as essential to it as pure-self-consciousness” [PhS, §189].

As we know, the latter consequence, issuing from the “risk of life,” leads to the elementary form of interaction that has been called the “master-slave dialectic” or what can be called the experience between the lordly and servile modes of self-consciousness. We also are familiar with the paradoxes which emerge from that experience. On the one hand, the lordly mode, in risking life, overcomes its dependence on life. But it sustains its independence over life only through the mediation of one which is for the lordly mode no more than an inessential living being, and as such at one with life, viz., the servile mode. Yet the servile mode “is the object which constitutes the truth of the lord’s self-certainty” [PhS, §192]. The lordly mode, then, is not as it seems to that mode itself, an immediate and self-certain mode of independence. Moreover, the lordly mode cannot be the successful culmination of an independent self-consciousness, because it gains acknowledgement from another that it cannot regard as a self-consciousness.

On the other hand, the servile mode, in not risking life, places its desire in abeyance, first through fear, then through work, and treats itself as one living being among others. In holding its desire in check, it (a) desists in making its self-assurance a measure for life, (b) suspends its claim for independence, and (c) establishes the lordship-servitude relationship. Although Hegel states that the servile mode “will in its culmination become the contrary of what it is immediately” [PhS, §193], that does not mean that it will culminate in independence under the conditions set for self-consciousness in chapter 4 of the PhS, viz., desire and life. So neither the lordly nor the servile mode of self-consciousness are the appropriate modes in and through which the independence of self-consciousness can be realized in another self-consciousness. Under the sole conditions of desire and life, both modes lead to cul-de-sacs with respect to addressing the issue of how an independent self-conscious individual finds satisfaction in another such individual.

What is the upshot of all this? Notice that under this reading the issue pivots on the feasibility of self-consciousness’ position that its self-assuring concern alone is sufficient to confirm that life is what desiring self-consciousness projects for itself in life regardless of life’s own process and constraints. Furthermore “self-consciousness finds its satisfaction only in another self-consciousness” [PhS § 175], because the self-assurance of its concern cannot be sufficiently criterial for defining life and everything therein solely in terms of what a desiring self-consciousness sets for itself in life. Only another self-consciousness, Hegel maintains, can and will be so criterial. Only another self-consciousness offers the measure for testing the feasibility of a self-consciousness dealing with life immediately and solely in terms of the fulfillment of its desire. Hence it is implausible under this reading to make the sufficiency or lack thereof of historical information about the institution of slavery criterial for establishing the appropriate dialectical advance of lordship and servitude. The dialectic here is found wanting, because the condition for the certainty and independence of desiring self-consciousness cannot be met.[16]

Furthermore there is nothing available to each mode of self-consciousness—neither laws nor customs of a community, nor membership in a community, nor historical tradition, nor reciprocal recognition—to settle the threatening conflict engendered by the self-presentation of each to the other in risking life. Spirit has not yet emerged on the scene in the form of reciprocal recognition.[17] Or, better said, it has appeared on the scene only in the very elementary form of interaction that is the risking of life in the face of the other wherein nothing reciprocal is reached. The issue, then, for Hegel, given that neither mode can rely on an already extant life of spirit with a historical orientation and background, is working out and through the conditions in which the life of spirit and history’s role therein fully obtain self-consciously in cognitive and ethical endeavors. Consequently spirit and its concomitant history can be neither presupposed nor achieved in the “master-slave dialectic.”



Most read chapter 4 of the PhS as if the life of spirit and its historical orientation and background are fully extant. It is the reason why many assign to Hegel a belief that he is couching lordship and servitude in some kind of historical background (either adequately or inadequately.).  But if that were so, desire and life would not be the only strictures to the structure of self-consciousness. Thus besides my concern to provide to a “PhS sequel” a shape of spirit dealing with the conceptualization of racial oppression and cultural diversity, I have expressed the view that Hegel’s phenomenological account of the experience of lordship and servitude is historically groundless, that history is not one of the conditions of that dialectic.

But my concern and my reading of chapter 4 are not at cross-purposes with each other, because they are both spurred essentially by the matter over where history and historical investigations must enter in the PhS. For me, they must enter not in chapter 4, but in chapters 6 and 7, i.e., “Spirit” and “Religion.”

What is the meaning of this “must”, i.e., with respect to what must history and historical investigations enter in, and into what kind of analysis or account must history and historical investigations enter? I shall not delve into a full answer here, for it would take us too far afield. Nevertheless, the well-qualified candidate, I believe, for the point at which history and historical investigations must enter in would be that “shape of consciousness,” which would enable us to distinguish those shapes in the PhS whose epistemic or ethical conditions either precede or express the becoming of the life of spirit and those shapes whose epistemic or ethical conditions have the life of spirit as their presupposition.

Be all that as it may, the new shape to the hypothetical sequel as well as the appropriate entry of history in the extant PhS would be on much more solid ground if chapter 6 were made the target of our case. For I would argue that African-American history and historical investigations on, say, American slavery could definitely operate within that chapter. Most Hegel-interpreters take for granted the historically European content and focus of the chapter as necessary, sufficient, and essential to the development of spirit in which the notion of reciprocal recognition is self-consciously realized.[18] The oft-cited racist remarks, usually attributed to Hegel, about the unhistorical character and impoverished culture of peoples of African descent clearly add emphasis to the necessity of the Eurocentric character of the life of spirit. However, despite that view imputed to Hegel about the absence of history in African and African-diasporic cultures,[19] his PhS does not and cannot commit him to an Eurocentric history. The strictures of the PhS bind neither Hegel nor us to the historically European content that comprise the chapter entitled “Spirit,” because that content and focus are not constitutive, but illustrative, of the life of spirit.

What the strictures of the PhS do bind us to are simply a history and historical investigation which illuminates and illustrates the development of the life of spirit as chiefly undergoing destabilizing cognitive and ethical setbacks whose possible resolutions in reciprocal recognition are understood as spirit’s own self-conscious yet historically conditional achievements. This phenomenological claim about what history elucidates and embodies is not supposed to be a local claim whose validity is confined to a particular life of spirit, e.g., European culture. Nor is it a universal anthropological claim whose validity extends to all human groups. It is rather a philosophical claim expressing constitutive conditions for the life of spirit being present in any way at all.

If this is the case, then the life of spirit can be rethought and illustrated through African-American history. Clearly the way in which the life of spirit appears in African-American history is different from the manner of its appearance in European history. But that the life of spirit in African-American history has involved an interminable quest through destabilizing cognitive and ethical conflicts and setbacks for some cognitively and ethically restabilizing yet historically provisional like-mindedness with others as a self-conscious achievement is beyond doubt.

Although the details for reconstructing chapter 6 of the PhS along the lines of African-American history is an endeavor that cannot be pursued here, the historical phenomenon of and the historical investigation into American chattel slavery would predominate here and not in relation to chapter 4. They would enable “Spirit” to be weaved from incidents such as the corruption of motherhood as exhibited in the Margaret Garner story (a story given mythic significance in Toni Morrison’s Beloved[20]); the terror of the slave regime and, for example, the San Domingo Revolution;[21] the struggles of Douglass and Covey as well as Harriet Jacobs and Flint; the opposition between African-American intellectual enlightenment and the “observational” protocol for disconfirming the intelligence of Africans; the tension within African-American intellectual enlightenment regarding the merits between abolition and violent resistance; the hampering of rational action in the face of the Fugitive Slave Laws and the Taney decision; the Civil War; the views of “beautiful souls” represented by Crummell and Douglass and the call for reconciliation between those views; and the ever present religious call for reconciliation among the legatees of modern racial slavery. These are just a few 19th century examples from which material could be drawn for reconstructing the chapter “Spirit.”

Indeed, if those examples were weaved together in the light of Paul Gilroy’s work on, say, “modernity in black,”[22] we would go a long way toward a successful reconstruction of “Spirit” along African-American or African-diasporic historical lines in the PhS. Such a reconstruction, I would claim, of this chapter along these lines not only would add a new or modify an old chapter to a hypothetical sequel with a certain mode of relevance for today. But it would also be both a significant task and a welcome innovation, especially in the face of the already numerous and ever-increasing analyses constantly revisiting the celebrated “master-slave dialectic” to make all kinds of oppression cogent.

Nevertheless this reconstruction would not need a “second dialectic,” as some have submitted. Although the historical content and focus would differ from Hegel’s, they would not deviate from the condition that makes the life of spirit what it is. But that comes with a price, perhaps too high to pay for those subscribing to the PhS as some kind of social theory. It would mean that “Spirit” illustrative of African-American history would still be consonant with the overall task of the PhS, viz., delineating the matter of “Absolute Knowing.”[23]


[1] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977). Hereafter cited as PhS. All references are to sections and are to be found in the body of this essay.

[2] Robert Pippin, “On Not Being a Neo-Structuralist: Remarks on Manfred Frank and Romantic Subjectivity” in Common Knowledge, vol. 6, no. 2 (Fall 1996), pp. 148-49.

[3] Cf. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982. David Brion Davis’ The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975) and Stanley Elkins’ Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1959) also make use of the so-called “dialectic” found in the “Lordship and Servitude” section of Hegel’s PhS. For an intriguing account that argues that historical and sociological studies on the “plantation ethos” or the “slave culture” in American slavery dispute and are an advance over what Hegel claims is involved in the “slave experience” in chapter 4 of his PhS, see Cynthia Willett’s Maternal Ethics and Other Slave Moralities (New York: Routledge, 1995.)

[4] Cf. Charles Johnson, “The Education of Mingo” in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Tales & Conjurations (New York: Plume Books, 1994), pp.3-23.

[5] Cf. Franz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, trans. C.L. Markmann, (London: Pluto Press, 1986).

[6] Cf. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and The “Racial” Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 19-27.

[7] Cf. Robert Bernasconi, “Hegel at the Court of the Ashanti” in Hegel After Derrida, ed. S. Barnett, (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 41-63.

[8] I am currently investigating these and other similar remarks for the purpose of providing, contrary to the views of Bernasconi and Gates as well as a host of others, an idealist, yet anti-racist, defense of Hegel in a monograph tentatively entitled “Africa and Hegelian Like-Mindedness: The Vanishing ‘We’ and ‘We,’ The Underdeveloped.”

[9] For example, this view can be found in texts as varied in their ends as Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, op. cit., p. 99; Charles Johnson’s “The Education of Mingo,” op. cit., p. 5; and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, op. cit., p. 217.

[10] Some representative texts would be John Blassingame’s The Slave Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), Eugene Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll: The World The Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975, Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), Jacqueline Jones’ Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1985), Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), Sterling Stuckey’s Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), Mechal Sobel’s The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in 18th Century Virginia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998) and Generations of Captivity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[11] See the thought-provoking essay of Susan Buck-Morss, “Hegel and Haiti” in Critical Inquiry, vol. 26 (2000), p. 844. See also the fascinating book of Sibylle Fisher, Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), pp. 24-33. Buck-Morss argues for the plausibility that Hegel’s inspiration for drafting the “Lordship & Servitude” section in the PhS may have been the San Domingo Revolution. Fisher accepts Buck-Morss’ hypothesis but, in the end, takes Hegel’s silence on that revolution’s success as a contribution to a widespread European disavowal of that revolution itself.

[12] Orlando Patterson, op. cit., p. 100.

[13] Ibid.

[14] For a very worthy assessment of this rule, see Kenley Dove, “Hegel’s Phenomenological Method,” op. cit., p. 616.

[15] I speak here of “mode of self-consciousness,” because Hegel virtually marks self-consciousness in general as desire. So it is important, I believe, to see that the difference between the self-consciousness described in (1) and in (2) is one between modes or cognitive modalities of self-consciousness rather than between kinds.

[16] Indeed there is a piece of evidence in the PhS to suggest that this section of chapter 4 has nothing to do with slavery whatsoever. In §187, Hegel states the following. “It is only through staking one’s life that freedom is won; only thus is it proved that for self-consciousness, its essential being is not just being, not the immediate form in which it appears, not its submergence in the expanse of life, but rather that there is nothing present in it which could not be regarded as a vanishing moment, that it is only pure being-for-self. The individual who has not risked life may well be recognized as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.” (My italics.) Although rarely cited, this statement points to the possibility that the dialectic of “lordship and servitude” is played out among persons. This would mean that the aforementioned dialectic neither needs the historical institution of slavery to be operative nor needs to be reflective of such an institution.

[17] Although I cannot address the matter here, Hegel’s introduction of “reciprocal recognition” (PhS, §178-183) is that of a promissory note that shall be cashed out subsequent to, not within, the so-called “master-slave dialectic.”

[18] Despite the excellence of the work, a good example is Terry Pinkard’s Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Even some of Pippin’s work is prone to this tendency.

[19] Cf. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History—Introduction: Reason in History, trans. H.B. Nisbet from the Johannes Hofmeister edition, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 190.

[20] Cf. Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Random House, 1987).

[21] Cf. C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London: Allison & Busby, 1980). James himself was a crackerjack Hegelian. See also note 11.

[22] Cf. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993). See also Frank M. Kirkland, “Modernisms in Black” in The Blackwell Companion to African-American Philosophy, eds. T. Lott & J. Pittman, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2003), pp. 67-84. It should be noted, however, that Gilroy too falls victim to making the “master-slave dialectic” in chapter 4 of the PhS the point d’appui for his conception of “modernity in black.”

[23] Many have long held and still hold that “Absolute Knowing” refers to a metaphysically or theologically based knowledge, proffering total, unconditional, and invariant truth about all reality. Such a metaphysical position has contributed to the view that Hegel is anachronistic. But there is ample evidence to provide a non-metaphysical view of “Absolute Knowing” relevant to the contemporary scene, if it is taken to be our or spirit’s ongoing justification of our or spirit’s conceptual obligations to and within experience. Hegel refers to absolute knowing in terms of “spirit knowing itself as spirit.” This entails 3 things for him. First, the ongoing elimination of conceptual standards as independent of human knowledge, yet serving as grounds for such knowledge; second, the ongoing establishment of conceptual standards serving as grounds for knowledge, which are achieved as outcomes dependent on what we or spirit count as objective and desiderative in the deliverance of and responsiveness to reasons for knowledge; and third, the comprehension of (1) and (2) as elements in the manner in which conceptual standards as grounds for knowledge are formed and operative.