The Subject. Philosophical Foundations. Andy Blunden 2005/6

Hegel: The Subject as Self-consciousness

In their activity, people create artefacts and institutions, and through their use of these artefacts and their interaction with each other as determined by these institutions, they create forms of consciousness. The mind reflects what it finds in the world but in doing so it reflects an objective reality which is the product of subjective activity. These two sides of activity – respectively the creative subjective reflex and the real products themselves (whether material or ideal), constitute the Subjective and Objective Spirit. Being each other’s content, these two systems of activity are inseparable and their unity Hegel calls Absolute Spirit, but at any given time, there will be a dissonance between the free development of self-consciousness in and for itself, and the forms it creates in the world, thus generating the kind of telos which Hegel sketched in the System of Ethical Life.

Subjective Spirit and Objective Spirit give us two distinct concepts of the Subject, concepts which have an empirical content in a way in which the Logic did not. Furthermore, whereas the Logic had dealt with the universal and necessary, ‘supernatural’ forms of the Spirit, as valid on Mars as on Earth, the Subjective Spirit is concerned with the specific form in which the Spirit appears on Earth, that is, in the shape of human beings, with two legs, with flesh and blood human beings.

In Subjective and Objective Spirit, Hegel returns to his original theme of the interplay of Intuition and the Concept; broadly speaking, in Subjective Spirit, the Concept is subsumed under Intuition, – the Subject knows intuitively, and intuition rises to theoretical and practical intelligence, whereas the Objective Spirit is Intuition subsumed under the Concept, with institutions and ‘discourses’ conditioning the activity of subjects and providing the subject with the material of consciousness. The terminology has changed since Hegel first put forward this idea in 1803, and the concepts have developed. We will deal with Subjective Spirit and Objective Spirit separately.

Subjective Spirit

The Subjective Spirit culminates in the sovereign, rational individual, taken as given in the Kantian philosophy as indeed in the entire tradition of Western philosophy from Descartes to the present day. But what distinguishes Hegel’s concept of the Subject as Subjective Spirit (which I will henceforth refer to as ‘self-consciousness’) are:

Hegel poses the development of consciousness as the unity of intuition and concept, in which attention is turned to objects having an independent existence outside oneself. Self-consciousness arises on the basis of consciousness, when cognitive activity is turned upon itself. But the content of self-consciousness can be nothing other than consciousness of objective activity, but not activity understood, as before, as having an independent existence, but as my activity.

Hegel outlines two processes which go to the construction of Self-Consciousness, each of which are well-known as they have been taken up by other authors.

The Dialectic of Labour and Desire

Not only the civilised world that we inhabit, not only our ideas, but even our human bodies and our senses are the product of labour down the ages and throughout our lives.

Hegel agreed with Fichte, that what we see when we look into ourselves is shaped by what we see in the world around us, and thus in a sense, the world provides a mirror in which we see ourselves. But this process of reflection is an active process, not a passive mirroring.

In his usual manner, Hegel analyses the process of development of self-consciousness into innumerable stages; the earliest stages in this process begin with immediate satisfaction of our desires from the world around us. Initially, human communities do not distinguish themselves from Nature just as the human individual does not distinguish themself from the immediate environment into which they are born. Human beings are part of Nature and the infant child only gradually gets to know the difference between their own sphere of influence and an objective world; but these two concepts, that of self-consciousness and that of an objective world, grow up together. The dialectic (according to Hegel) begins as one of appetite and desire, as need is superseded in the satisfaction of need, and appetite expands. In taking things from the world, the subject makes the world, bit by bit, its own, subjective, and at the same time, in taking in the material of the outer world, their body adapts to the world around it.

As the subject becomes conscious of the distinction between themself and the objective world (natural or artificial) a labour process ensues. In the dialectic of labour, human beings use parts of the objective world as tools or ‘handles’ by which to grasp things and work with them, and this includes tools as well as words, the ‘tools of reason’. Thus the subject also objectifies themself by impressing their subjectivity on to the world. The labour process itself generates new needs (for example for tools, materials), and with the aid of tools and words, material ‘symbols’, the senses change and become attuned to use of these artefacts in the mastery of the outer world. The stone axe is an objectification of the powers of the hand, and the hand a product of using stone axes. Benjamin Franklin had before Hegel already named human beings as homo habilis (tool-using ape), though ‘homo symbolis’ may have been strictly speaking more accurate.

This is a process which never stops; the youngsters of the current decade who played with a laptop computer in their cot and took their mobile phone to kindergarten have completely different mental processes going on in their heads, than those of us older ones who still remember how to add up without a calculator and don’t see the need for SMS messaging.

Obviously mobile phones and laptop computers are social products, and the people who use them generally have no idea what goes on behind the screen, far less have ever made one. Objective Spirit provides the material elements of the subjective dialectic of needs and labour. The modern youngster of today probably couldn’t light a fire, but are very skilled in laying out MS-Word documents and navigating the ever-changing urban landscape. These social products are the intuitive content of their self-consciousness; when youngsters objectify themselves, they do so in a modern way, and what they internalise are the symbols and activities of modern life. This process of needs and their satisfaction and the supersession of needs by appetite, the dialectic of labour, objectifying subjectivity and internalising objects, is the substance and foundation of Subjective Spirit, self-consciousness.

I am tearing Hegel up into bits here to highlight just three concepts of subjectivity, but it is in the very essence of Hegel’s idea, that these concepts have always to be taken together as part of a single process.

The point is though, that the foundation of self-consciousness is the practical usage of the artefacts and symbols of the world immediately surrounding the subject and the modification of that “habitat” by the objectification of their own activity in it. This is worth mentioning because it is sometimes wrongly thought that self-consciousness begins with the dialectic of recognition.

Before the dialectic of recognition, that is to say, an unmediated confrontation between two independent self-consciousnesses, is possible, there must already be two independent self-consciousnesses. Hegel began his work with the idea of dealing with the problem of ethical life having its foundation in not-ethical life, as the only way in which it is possible to show how ethical life comes into being and what it is. Likewise, the self-consciousness which arises on the basis of the dialectic of needs and labour, a direct relationship to nature (including our ‘second nature’) mediated only by the activity and products of the subject itself, and does not yet know of any other self-consciousness, is not yet really a self-consciousness, not yet ‘ethical life’. For the full development of self-consciousness, interaction with other self-consciousnesses is necessary. The dialectic of needs and labour, the dialectical relation of a subject to Nature, is the foundation and precondition for the dialectic of recognition, or “Reflective Self-consciousness,” without which it makes no sense.

The Dialectic of Recognition

The dialectic of recognition (the “master-servant dialectic”) is today by far the most famous passage of Hegel’s works, and this despite the fact that it makes up just 19 of the 808 paragraphs of the Phenomenology, was never taken up by the Young Hegelians, is never mentioned by Marx or Engels in their entire oeuvres and the British and American Hegelians had passed over it more or less without comment until Alexandre Kojčve’s famous 1937 lectures on Hegel.

This dialectic is best understood if the reader has in mind two communities living in ‘absolute ethical life’ in Nature, isolated from other human communities; thus they are products of the dialectic of needs and labour just described, though a new-born infant works just as well. For such a community, other human beings hardly differ from wild animals; the appearance of a stranger on their perimeter would constitute a threat similar but greater to that posed by a pride of lions; strangers do not recognise their ‘property rights’ (this term is of course an anachronism) and threaten havoc. Imagine how a fleet of Europeans arriving by boat are seen by a community of indigenous people in Africa or the New World? The relation is mutual, for the indigenous people appear to the Europeans as wild animals, just as they seem to the indigenous community.

What follows is an unmediated interaction between mutually independent self-consciousnesses. A battle for survival ensues and there can be only two results: either neither can triumph and both sides withdraw and peace is renewed on the basis of renewed mutual isolation, or one party conquers the other.

(There is a third possibility, namely when neither side is able to destroy the property rights of the other, instead of withdrawing into mutual isolation, trading relations can be established, with merchants mediating further contact, but this presumes that the parties already produce a surplus product from their labour for which the other party has a need, whereas our assumption was that of absolute ethical life, which presupposes that there is no social surplus. However, this third option arises again at a later stage in the development of self-consciousness within modern society. The production of a surplus develops together with trade, which presupposes mutual recognition. On a similar note, the dialectic of recognition also presumes that both self-consciousnesses are at least self-sufficient; a subject which is unable to produce the means for its own life is already ‘unreal’ and cannot constitute a self-consciousness in any real sense.)

Conquest entails the ‘ideal’ destruction of the defeated subject, that is to say, their culture, language, property rights, political system, religion, etc., etc., is destroyed and supplanted by that of the conquering subject, and it therefore ceases to exist as an independent subject. On the other hand, the ‘second nature’ of the conquered subject is ‘colonised’ – their herds, land, mineral resources, factories and labour-capacity are appropriated and turned, where possible, to meeting the needs of the conqueror.

What follows then is a process in which the conquered people reconcile themselves to their subordinate position within the new subjectivity, but struggle for rights within it; having lost political power, but with the great advantage that it is their labour which satisfies the needs of the ruling subject, whose independence is then compromised by the fact that they can live only by enslaving others. From this dialectic, modern self-consciousness will arise.

The brilliance of Hegel’s insight here lies in the fact that he shows how mediation arises out of what was to begin with an unmediated conflict, and it is precisely this form of mediation which is the foundation of self-consciousness. Mediation is possible because the reflecting subjects have objectified themselves and are therefore already ‘subject-objects’. Before outlining Hegel’s idea, I will take a brief detour to deal with one particularly ill-informed exposition of the master-servant dialectic, that of Francis Fukuyama.

Fukuyama is widely known as an ‘Hegelian’, but by his own admission he can at best only be described as Kojčvian, and I have no evidence that Fukuyama has ever even read Hegel. He accepts as good coin that the only thing of value that Hegel ever wrote was the 19 paragraphs of the Phenomenology which Kojčve relies on, and ‘interprets’ these paragraphs in a thoroughly anti-Hegelian spirit. According to Fukuyama, the origin of the master-servant-dialectic is thymos, a drive to dominate others which is innate in the human soul, – a convenient myth for a neo-conservative American, of course. By an equally creative ‘interpretation’ of Aristotle, Fukuyama is able to trace the idea of thymos back to the Greeks and claim that all philosophers have recognised this innate drive to dominate others, a drive which is the foundation of modern capitalism, the only form of society which is capable of harnessing this drive for the social good.

Hegel is however, the social constructivist par excellence, and had no truck with the kind of metaphysical drives, popular amongst natural philosophers of his own time, which Fukuyama resurrects in a day when such ‘essentialist’ ideas are thoroughly passé.

Fukuyama transforms Hegel’s idea into a kind of Adam-and-Eve foundation myth with claims like:

“By Hegel’s account, the desire to be recognised as a human being with dignity drove man at the beginning of history into a bloody battle to the death for prestige. The outcome of this battle was a division of society into a class of masters, who were willing to risk their lives, and a class of slaves, who gave in to their natural fear of death.” [The End of History, p. xvii]

Claims like:

“For Hegel, the primary motor of human history is not modern natural science or the ever expanding horizon or desire that powers it, but rather a totally non-economic drive, the struggle for recognition.” [The End of History, p. 135]

are pure fiction. Hegel would have responded Fukuyama’s idea in the same way as he responded to contemporaries who saw gravity as a universal force (we had to wait for Einstein to explain this in scientific terms), and those, for example, who claimed that people moved to the cities because of the ‘attractive force’ exerted by cities,

“The formal ground-relation contains only one content for ground and grounded; in this identity lies their necessity, but at the same time their tautology.” [Science of Logic, § 1010]

A tautology because the ‘drive for recognition’ is simply posited and then explained by its own presupposition: people struggle for recognition because they have a drive for recognition. For Hegel’s part, it was of course Spirit which was the ‘driving force’ of history, but that is another story altogether. I have dealt with Fukuyama’s work at somewhat greater length in a separate review, Fukuyama on Trust and Recognition, 2003.

The mediation exhibited by the dialectic of recognition is possible because the subject has both a Subjective Spirit and an Objective Spirit, or to put it differently, the subject is both an ideal system of needs, beliefs, laws and so on, and a material system of labour power and humanised nature, both subjective needs and an objective capacity for labour, inclusive of the tools, domesticated animals, crops, etc., that are theirs.

The mediation takes place as follows: the objective labour of the conquered subject mediates between the needs of the master subject and their satisfaction. That is, the objectification (Object) of the new, class-ridden subjectivity is the practical activity of the subordinated subject. On the other hand, the needs of the enslaved subject its the entire culture (Subjective Spirit) are replaced by that of the master-subject into which they have been drawn in a subordinate position; it is the consciousness of the master-subject which controls their labour mediating between their consciousness and their material activity. The subject becomes a unity of theory and practice in which the dominated subject is absorbed in practice while the dominant subject is absorbed in theory, i..e, the direction and organisation of labour. Each mediates the other.

As has been noted by modern writers, this relationship is consonant with the I-me dialectic first discovered by Fichte, and taken up by the George Herbert Mead and others, in which each subject in the relationship sees an image of themself in the material activity of the other subject. The dialectic of needs and labour now plays out on a higher plane, with the Concept of the dominant subjectivity forming the basis for Intuition of the dominated subjectivity. By practical mastery of the colonialists’ subjectivity, the colonial subject may emancipate itself from slavery. The master, on the other hand, discovers that it has failed in its quest for recognition so long as it rules only over an inferior being; true recognition is possible only on the basis of free reciprocity between equals.

The same master-servant relation is experienced by a worker who goes to work under the direction of an employer, it is a relation which is simultaneously exploitative and developmental, and fundamental relation in the development of subjectivity at any level.

I will return to a further consideration of the dialectic of recognition in a later chapter, where we can deal with the interpretations of the French Hegelians, including the impact of the idea of Recognition in international law and in the national liberation movements of the post-World War Two period, and those of the Critical Theorists such as Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth and Nancy Fraser.

Universal self-consciousness

The unity of these two basic processes of development of self-consciousness Hegel calls ‘universal self-consciousness’:

“each knows itself recognized in the other free man, and is aware of this in so far as it recognizes the other and knows him to be free. This universal reappearance of self-consciousness ... is the form of consciousness which lies at the root of all true mental or spiritual life – in family, fatherland, state, and of all virtues, love, friendship, valour, honour, fame.” [The Philosophy of Spirit, §436]

It is obvious enough that the content of the dialectic of needs and labour and the dialectic of recognition is filled by the “Objective Spirit,” so in no way can Universal Self-consciousness exist in abstraction from the creation of the institutions, practices, ethics and spiritual life which are the substance of the self-consciousness of a modern citizen.


What we have then in Hegel’s outline of Self-Consciousness in the Subjective Spirit is a form of subjectivity which is fundamentally intuitive; it “rises to” intelligence, but even in the most developed society, the subjectivity of the citizens apprehends the culture of the broader society in a physical, sensual, intuitive, practical and taken-for-granted interpersonal way.

This is not to say though that the notion of Self-Consciousness is an inherently individual concept. As we remarked above, this process of the development of Subjective Spirit is Hegel’s description of the emergence of the sovereign individual, the presupposition of Kantian philosophy. But whereas the modern individual always confronts the institutions of the broader society as something alien (that is, according to Hegel, until the World Spirit has done its work and established a rational ethical order); in the Subjective Spirit, however, the individual actually identifies themself with a habitus. The Subjective Spirit constitutes a principle which is apprehended intuitively through participation in a shared form of life.

‘Habitus’ is a term popularised by Pierre Bourdieu as the unifying principle which generates the tastes, dispositions, preferences, skills, body-language, prejudices, etc., characteristic of a given class or class fraction, across all the different fields of practice – art appreciation, making conversation, life-style, eating, etc., etc.. It is the acquisition of a class habitus which gains an individual recognition as a member of a given class, and determines their likely place and trajectory in social hierarchies.

Habitus is the Latin translation of the Greek hexis (exiς) by which Aristotle meant those acquired virtues which were the prerequisites for a virtuous life: temperance, fortitude, justice and prudence. St. Thomas Aquinas used the term to refer to accomplishments in art, science, understanding and philosophy, necessary for participation in society. The term was introduced to modern usage by the anthropologist Marcel Mauss to mean those aspects of culture that are anchored in the body or daily practices of individuals and groups, including the learned habits, bodily skills, styles, tastes, and other non-discursive knowledges that “go without saying” for a specific group.

Habitus, in the original Aristotlean sense, differs from ‘habit’, a word which originally referred to the clothing characteristic of one’s social position, but came to refer to the whole way one carried and presented oneself to the world, and eventually “habit” in the common sense of actions carried out without thinking. The term “habit,” had acquired all these nuances in the Latin languages before the word entered the English language.

We will look at Bourdieu’s contribution in a later chapter. At this point, suffice it to say that in our view, Subjective Spirit (which we are referring to as ‘self-consciousness’ as a matter of convenience) broadly corresponds to Bourdieu’s concept.

Objective Spirit

Under Objective Spirit, also known as the Philosophy of Right, Hegel deals with Property, Contract, Morality, the Family, the System of Needs, Labour, Capital, Class, Law, Justice, Police, the State, International Law, and much else besides.

These objects differ from cultural products like crops, factories, buildings, books and so on, the material objectifications of human activity, because they are themselves, nothing but thought and human activity governed by those ideas. There is nothing in ‘the state’ other than an idea shared by lots of people, whose activity is coordinated by their shared acceptance of the objectivity of ‘the state’. In relation to the individual, or for that matter, any number of individuals, the state is indeed an objective thing, without ceasing to be the activity of living human beings.

There is nothing of ‘idealism’ in these observations, unless you confine the use of the word ‘thought’ to something existing only within your head. The institutions and discourses of civilised societies and the material artefacts used within the same activities are ideals in the sense that they are what they are only within the context of certain forms of human activity; they are things with meaning.

In the context of the Objective Spirit in Hegel’s writing, the place of the Subject is taken by the State; the world is made up of states relating to each other as in a ‘state of nature’, and representing ‘the march of God in the world’. As in the other sections of Hegel’s system, the preceding categories of the Objective Spirit constitute the genesis of the state; in the Family, the State exists ‘in itself’; Civil Society constitutes the ‘middle term’ between the immediate solidarity of the Family and the political solidarity of the State. Thus, outside of the state, Subjectivity exists in various stages of development towards the State.

The thing to remember however, is that Hegel never knew a social movement (the Chartists and the early communist movement in Paris are all after his death, and with some good reason, Hegel regarded all the kind of harbingers of these movements as nothing more than ‘rabble’ lacking in self-consciousness). Outside of the USA, where there was already a ‘free market’ in religion, the Church was the established church, institutionalising the religion of a whole people. Capitalist enterprises were almost entirely family firms, and the ‘companies’ of late mediaeval to early modern times, derived from town corporations and trades guilds, were tied, in Hegel’s view, to particular interests. All these latter kinds of entity Hegel subsumed under Civil Society, and it was out of this jungle of particularity that Hegel saw the state arising, not as something standing above civil society like the state of Hobbes and Rousseau, but rising up from society as an expression of the Universal Will and the foundation of freedom. That is, for Hegel, the State was the outgrowth and culmination of ‘civil society’, it was the Universal, the unification of the blood-loyalty of the family with the competitiveness of bourgeois society.

Hegel’s aim in the Philosophy of Right, was to “acquire a rational form for a content which is already rational implicitly” [Preface], not to rationalise what existed as is often claimed, but to discover what was rational in the real. Consequently, he began from what existed, and the only form of social subjectivity that he knew was the modern State and its historical predecessors and subordinate forms.

To appropriate Hegel’s insight here we have to generalise from Hegel’s conception of the State to incorporate the range of “social subjects” which represent the “march of God” in this modern world. We read the Philosophy of Right, therefore, as an exposition of the Social Subject. [See my article From Secret Society to Identity Politics, in For Ethical Politics]

Hegel has already outlined the genesis of the social subject in abstract terms in the Logic, and we have already pointed out the structure of the Subject of the Logic in an earlier chapter, where we indicated throughout two basic interpretations: on the one hand, the Concept as an element of the social consciousness of individuals, and on the other hand, the Concept as a social subject.

Let us return to the original definition I gave of ‘subject’: (1) the moral agent, which does things in society, (2) the cogito or knowing subject, and (3) the continuing sense of identity. It is my contention that a social subject fits every component of this definition.

One could argue that a subject is an individual, by definition, and for that reason alone a social subject cannot be counted as a subject. But in the first place, no writer at any time has simply identified the subject with the individual. Secondly, Hegel’s critique of the Kantian notion of the subject stands up, even if his own definition leaves much to be desired. Thirdly, many contemporary writers claimed to have ‘deconstructed the subject’ by which they mean the Lockean, Cartesian, Kantian or Fichtean subject – whether the individual material system of interaction, the individual agent, the individual substance, the transcendental subject or the ‘I’. This individual agent simply does not stand up today. And yet other writers, such as Aristotle, Machiavelli and Hegel, who proposed a different definition of the subject, one in which the individual is a component of the subject, but not its unique correlate, used a definition which is consistent with the concept of ‘social subject’.

There can be no talk (at least here on Earth) of a self-consciousness other than that of a living human being, but as Aristotle, Machiavelli and Hegel believed, a subject essentially cannot exist outside of a certain kind of active relationship between an individual and a human community. Fichte had it right when he claimed that the Ego is ‘pure activity’, and he was right when he claimed that a subject could not exist other than in a relationship with other subjects. But in beginning from the cognitive activity of the ‘I’ rather than from the system of collaborative activity of a human community – not necessarily, at first, self-conscious – he could not bring to light how such a subject could come into being in the first place; he failed to escape from the infinite regress of the interdependence of self-consciousnesses.

The definition of subject which I propose is that the subject is a self-conscious system of activity. An individual fits this definition, insofar as the individual, self-evidently a system of activity, is a self-conscious, sovereign and rational person; a social subject fits this definition as well, insofar as the system of activity acts as a moral agent in the world, has corporate knowledge, and has a continuing (corporate) identity.

The self-consciousness discussed above also qualifies as a subject. Here again we have a specific kind of collaborative activity amongst individual human beings. But the relation between the individual and the individual’s ‘human habitat’ is different. A self-consciousness in this sense can only be conceived of in isolation from Objective Spirit by throwing one’s mind back to the Stone Age. Here, as we discussed earlier in relation to Hegel’s early work, the individual does not distinguish between themself and the community. We see this type of consciousness expressed in Aristotle’s definition of the Subject, even though Aristotle is light years beyond the Stone Age: that is, that the subject is an individual of the community, alike but independent; she has no reason to suppose that what goes inside someone else’s head is any different from what goes on in her own, even if people are outwardly different (gender and age differences and the natural division of labour aside).

No habitus can be imagined today in which individuals do not distinguish themselves as individuals from their habitus, because we live in modern times. Thus self-consciousness in the sense we are using the word, is a shared self-consciousness, it is a ‘we’ that is uttered by ‘I’s’.

In self-consciousness, the concept is subsumed under intuition, so in coming to make a judgment about agency, cogito and indentity this must be taken into account. Self-consciousness, as such, is only fully developed when it has become identical with the practical rationality of the social subject of which it is a part.

The unity of the habitus is not an abstract, external unity of like-minded people, but a unity constructed and reconstructed continuously through cooperative labour and reflective recognition: it is an active principle, concretised by the life activity of its participants. Self-consciousness is a knowing individual, and a number of such individuals acting cooperatively, united by the principle of the habitus, is also self-consciousness. The characteristic knowledge of the self-consciousness is immediate, intuitive, not mediated by concepts. Moral agency rests on the spontaneous rapport guaranteed by the habitus, though such moral agency may be strong or weak. And the habitus is identity par excellence. So the relation between the individual and the class-fraction in this instance is immediate, rather than mediated as it is in the case of the ‘social subject’.

This brings us to the Subject as Concept, in its interpretation, not as a social subject, but as a system of activity which forms the real basis for a concept.

There is no concept without the activity of a social subject at some point in the development of a concept. And for every new system of activity or new development in the social division of labour, there will be a corresponding self-consciousness. But once a concept is realised it enters into the general social consciousness and become objectified, it becomes a component part of the consciousness of all the individuals in a society to a greater or lesser extent and is incorporated in some way into the activity of all social subjects. But the particular social subject, the self-conscious system of activity, which gave birth to itself and the concept at some time, may dissolve or transform itself. As universals, concepts continue to exist, but as was argued earlier, only to the extent that they are active in some system of activity. They survive the passage of their birth only as a component of general social consciousness, sometimes in the form of artefacts or tools, and associated norms of activity, rather than as social subjects. Thus we should refer to this kind of Concept as ‘Subjectivity’.

In summary, Hegel has contributed three concepts of the subject:

There are problems with Hegel conception though, chiefly that the entire system rests on the concept of Spirit. Other problems originate in the simple fact that Hegel died in 1831, before the most important features of modern subjectivity had manifested themselves.