The Intertwined Origin of Self-Consciousness

The Intertwined Origin of Self-Consciousness, Domination and Work (and what it teaches us about the truth of freedom)

Pause for a moment to reflect on the complexity of your nature; the billions of cells in your brain, nervous system and entire body, all working in concert to create what feels like a unified, seamless, passive experience of yourself and the world. This is an incredible, wondrous achievement of the evolutionary life process.

Our consciousness is an amazing achievement of evolution and human development. It’s a highly complex process that continually projects a world it expects to be there based on what it senses — and it projects it already shaped and colored in ways easier for us to navigate to meet our needs. The richness of our conscious experience is the culmination of the entire span of evolution. What we take to simply be there is the result of a super-sophisticated mental activity.

In the last post, I argued our self-consciousness is a result of this same activity. How we take ourselves to be is something we’ve learned to do, mainly by interpreting how others see us. Self-consciousness is a collective human achievement of mutual recognition. I need you to see me so that I can see myself. But, once I’ve learned to see myself, I see an independent self that appears completely separate and potentially in conflict with you.

Self-consciousness emerges from the interactions between conscious beings that ultimately learn they are like each other. The thought “I am like you” is born long before it can be put into words. This thought teaches two very important, contradictory things: only you can confirm that I am actually like you (so I am dependent on you) and you confirm that, like you, I am an independent being (so I am independent of you). Through our mutual dependence, we learn our independence.

This tension is perhaps the reason why, as I suggested last time, human history is replete with so much domination of others and so little mutual empowerment. As we develop self-consciousness, we are not aware of the process of mutual recognition that created it. Rather, we begin with the thought of our independence which means we begin with the thought of our self-sufficiency, self-creation, self-direction, even if in only primitive form. We don’t appreciate the process of interactions that gave birth to this thought, and the ongoing importance of others to confirm its truth to us.

Just like any conscious experience, the thought of independence needs to be tested for truth against reality. Your eyes indicate to me that I am an independent, conscious being. Now I need to demonstrate this, so that I can be certain of it. How can I prove I am in no way dependent on you? Hegel suggests only a fight to the death can prove this. If I am at all dependent on you, I could never challenge you to such a fight.

This is how Hegel lays the foundation of human self-consciousness in his famous Master-Slave Dialectic. It emerges from the discovery and assertion of independence, which leads to a struggle. If taken to death, however, nothing is gained. After all, we have to stay alive to know anything. And, again, if the other is no longer around to confirm that we are independent, we can’t really be sure we are. Instead, the struggle resolves into a structure of domination and submission, where the one who values life more submits to the other who is more willing to risk it.

This account helps explain why, historically, those willing to use violence despite the risk of revolt have been successful in dominating others, and also why it is so hard for the oppressed to successfully revolt. The structure of domination is deeply rooted in who we take ourselves to be, having origins as old as our self-awareness itself. Perhaps most interestingly, as Prof. Bernstein points out, this means that those who oppress don’t simply mistake others as unequals. They certainly do that, but they also mistake something about themselves: their dependence on those others. This helps explain the viciousness of oppression. As each attempt to prove independence fails, a more vicious attempt follows.

Slavery and all forms of domination that we continue to visit upon each other are heartbreaking and undeniable facts of human history. They teach us something about who we are. In Hegel’s view, they teach us that we are fundamentally insecure beings who strive to confirm our independence and self-sufficiency in the eyes of others. But just like you can’t trust a coerced confession, domination can’t produce trustworthy recognition. Only when others offer their view freely can they provide any meaningful confirmation.

The oppressed, on the other hand, can internalize the other’s view of their lower status, since that is freely given. Domination fails to produce what is sought, but it does cause great harm to the oppressed. Even as it fails it is not easily abandoned, because the oppressors can direct others to labor on their behalf and help them secure a more comfortable life. This fosters powers of denial that obscure the both the ultimate failure of domination and the harm it inflicts.

Independence, self-authorship, security — the highest freedom we can enjoy — must be given by free people to each other. Paradoxically, independence is something we grant to each other. To increase our freedom we must increase the freedom of others. This is the truth of freedom, but one we have yet to fully grasp. The myth of self-sufficiency as something we create for ourselves, by ourselves, is powerfully alive today, especially in the U.S. where “rugged individualism” is prized. This creates a false freedom, a freedom from others, rather than a true freedom through others.

Nonetheless, the structure of domination has taught us something valuable: that we can restrain our desire. Even in the loving context of family, children learn to subordinate their desires because the parents demand it. Through this we learn the meaning of work, which is to resist desire and instead act upon our free will. We learn to see ourselves as in control of desires rather than controlled by them. This allowed for the emergence of social norms to direct behavior regardless of individual desire. A large part of what it means to be human (at least a sane human) today is to act in accordance with these social norms so that others recognize that you have the essential human quality of self-control.

We can have norms that promote freedom, that are anti-racist, that forbid injustice and that uplift individuals to reach their unique and highest potential. This is the vision of a true democratic society that provides the continual expansion of individual freedom through collective support. Our challenge today is to make real that vision, for all people, not just those with wealth, political power or other forms of privilege.

There is much, much more we could say about all the social implications of this picture of human self-consciousness, and we will. But first we must again turn inwards to understand how these external social structures are internalized within our individual self-consciousness. Once we can see ourselves as in control of our desires, what is our sense of self? Are we our desires or only the part that controls them? Do we achieve true freedom from our desires or through them? In the next post, we will look at three early attempts at reconciling our will and our desires — what Hegel calls Skepticism, Stoicism and the Unhappy Consciousness — and we’ll see how they are still part of us today.


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