On Hegel, Marx & Du Bois
The commonalities and differences between the ways in which Hegel, Marx & Du Bois see self-conscious thought as impacted by social standing
Though all three of our philosophers see self-conscious thought as impacted by our social position, their particular way of expressing this varies. In the case of Hegel, he exemplifies his ideas with what is now called the Master-Slave Dialectic. In this piece, Hegel argues that when two individuals meet one another, a battle ensues between the parties to see who will become subservient to the other (who will become the master and who will become the slave to the master). In this process, the master establishes his self-conscious by imposing himself upon the slave, who in turn establishes his own self-conscious through his subservience to the master. However, one finds a paradox immediately in the idea of establishing a self-consciousness in relation to the subservience of one to himself - and on the other hand, establishing a self-consciousness in relation to being subservient to the other - as the self-conscious of an object necessarily implies some awareness of self, as a subject, which is separate from the perceived object. Hegel is aware of this contradiction, and so requires that a change in the relationship between master and slave must take place. He does so by stating that the
“[battle of master-slave] is an abstract process, and when this abstract process is developed and finds differences in itself, this differentiation does not leave an objective and intrinsic essence to it. Accordingly, this self-conscious does not become an “I” that truly differentiates itself in its simplicity or remains identical to itself in its absolute differentiation. On the contrary, the consciousness is forced back into itself becomes an object to itself in seeing its own formative activity, as the form of the thing to which it gives shape - and at the same time, it sees the master’s being-for-self as consciousness” (Hegel, 28). In other words, defining your self-conscious as the relationship between you and another, where you are subservient to the other, or, the other is subservient to you, reveals that you are really the formative action of defining yourself in the aforementioned way, and thus not truly self-conscious. Hegel continues on, describing that the contradiction that arises from the master-slave relationship describes a kind of Stoicism of the master and the slave respectively, that results in a divide of two consciouses.
Marx, too, believes that self-conscious thought is impacted by our social standing, but he exemplifies this idea by means of examining wage labor. In this particular example, Marx claims that wages are determined through the antagonistic struggle between capitalist and worker. As the capitalist needs the worker - though Marx claims the worker needs the capitalist more than the capitalist needs the worker - and vice versa, their self-conscious is only in relation to the other. Specifically, the capitalist’s self-conscious is defined by the capable output of the worker in regards to goods, while the worker’s self-conscious is defined by the wage the capitalist pays him. The reason for the strictness on self-conscious,i.e., “only in relation”, has to do with the fact that the worker is dependent upon the wage for survival, and that the capitalist is dependent upon the profit he acquires from the worker’s output for survival. Marx further expounds upon his idea that the worker is more subordinate to the capitalist by claiming that “The worker need not necessarily gain when the capitalist does, but he necessarily loses when the latter loses” (Marx, 3). Additionally, Marx claims that, because of the worker’s subordinate role to the capitalist, the worker is the first to suffer, and because of economics (implies Marx) the worker is the one to lose all and most necessarily. Thus, forcing him to submit to every demand of the capitalist.
Finally, Du Bois, too, finds that self-conscious is impacted by social standing, though this is exemplified by means of racial self-awareness. In particular, Du Bois opens his On Our Spiritual Strivings with asking the reader how it feels to be a problem. Du Bois claims that this question is not one that is carried with an individual inherently, rather, “[it] is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were” (Du Bois, 363). After realizing this apparent veil between he and the ‘others’, Du Bois is motivated by the fact that his blackness is only defined in relation to the majority’s whiteness, specifically, how his blackness is different from their whiteness. More generally, the opportunities that are afforded to the whites are they themselves defined in relation to whites, and thus are excluded from the blacks by definition. It is this split in self-conscious that Du Bois is lamenting against. That one cannot be black and also an American. Thus, the lack of self-conscious in America of a black person is defined in relation to the struggle between their skin color and the lack of opportunities afforded to them because of their skin color; in particular, because of their lack of whiteness. Then, self-conscious, according to Du Bois, must be the rectification of being American and being black, at the same time. Self-conscious, for Du Bois, is the merging of two identities. It is not the struggle between one or the other, but rather, the synthesizing of both into one.
A commonality between these three exemplifications of self-conscious is immediately identifiable as the struggle between two objects, be them master-slave, capitalist-worker or black-American, creates something antithetical to the self-conscious that is attempting to be created or explained. This is true, as when one considers that self-conscious is some awareness of self, as a subject, which is separate from the perceived object, it is then tautological to say that a self-conscious expressed as an awareness of self, which is subject to the perceived object, is not self-conscious, by definition. For Hegel, this antithesis is exemplified through the master’s pursuit of establishing his own self-conscious through the subservient relation of the slave. For Marx, it is exemplified through the worker’s pursuit of establishing his own self-conscious through the reliance upon the wage given by the capitalist. For Du Bois, it is exemplified through the black American establishing his own self-conscious by attempting to be black as well as being afforded the opportunities, which are defined in relation to whiteness only. All of these relations are self-defeating, and all of our authors recognize this (though perhaps Du Bois’ exemplification is the one in which this is most easily seen).
It is here that we will turn to Hegel, as his writings are obviously the most general, and as such, will encapsulate both Marx’s and Du Bois’ exemplifications. According to Hegel, the master-slave exemplification (which is the general idea of all three, and therefore encapsulates all three) “is an abstract process and when it is developed and finds differences in itself, this differentiation does not leave an objective and intrinsic essence to it. Accordingly, this self-conscious does not become an “I” that truly differentiates itself in its simplicity or remains identical to itself in its absolute differentiation.” (Hegel, 28). In other words, the abstract process of this is self-defeating. Thus, according to Hegel, we’ve arrived at a new form of consciousness. One that sees its essence as an infinitude. That is to say, consciousness is the movement of the “I” itself. It would then seem that one is not able to pin down a specific form of self-conscious, as it has already been demonstrated that this is self-defeating. Then, it would seem that self-consciousness cannot be exemplified at all. One can see this not only in Hegel’s much more abstract writings, but in Marx’s and Du Bois’ very much concrete writings. Take for example, what Marx wishes to accomplish with his exemplification of the capitalist-worker self-conscious: he means to say that the antagonistic struggle between the two are self-defeating, and necessarily in conflict with the worker’s best interest. Thus, the workers must rebel against the capitalists if they wish to establish their self-conscious. Likewise, Du Bois argues that to establish the self-conscious he seeks, one must synthesize his skin color with the ideas and opportunities afforded to Americans. For all three, it does not make sense to try and establish a self-conscious by relating it to another thing. Thus, in order to establish a self-conscious, one must describe the conscious itself as the flux of self-conscious. It is then apparent that self-conscious is not exemplified by master-slave, or capitalist-worker or black-American, but by the constant changing of the “object 1-object 2” itself.