The Necessary Objectification of Subjects
No one lives in a vacuum; nor do they live complete solitary lives without some human interaction; at least mostly. So it is difficult to imagine or experiment how exactly one person would behave not only in complete solitude within nature, but then also in their first interaction upon meeting another person. I argue that in the interaction between our self and others, we necessarily objectify the other, in order to have an efficient, co-existence with others, but also in order to fulfill some meaning within our lives. To do this, I will present a critique of the master/slave dialectic.
The master and slave dialectic was a thought experiment proposed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in his work The Phenomenology of Spirit. It details the process in which Hegel proposes that self-conscious (SC) seeks recognition through self-sufficiency and non-self-sufficiency. It is the idea that when we solely interact with the world, we recognize objects as such, but when we encounter other beings like ourselves, one of two things could happen: 1) we do not recognize the other as a subject, continuing to view them as an object, which in turn opens the possibility that we either enter a mastery over the other, or enter servitude to that other, both as an oppressive regime; or 2) we recognize the other as a subject, insofar as we seek recognition for ourselves, allowing the other to view us as a subject; both subjects recognizing themselves in each other, only then finding fulfillment for the SC.
I have two main problems, and some ancillary one's as well, with Hegel’s proposal: the first being that I disagree that all objective encounters with other beings, such as ourselves, necessarily devolve into oppressive relationships. And secondly, does it really make sense to speak about the SC at all; is the SC as important as Hegel suggests?
I would like address why exactly we objectify things out in the world at all. Trivially speaking, humans make efficient work out of drawing distinctions between ourselves and the rest of the world. It may be an obvious point, but let us linger here for a moment. I would like to know how else we could navigate the world without making distinctions? I can imagine a psyche that doesn’t draw the distinctions that a neuronormative person would, but I would imagine that expected reasons for performing the behavior that we enact would drop to the floor. Would we search out food in the same way, would we have a desire for procreation (as multicellular organisms), what would stop us from confusing our bodies with the earth or air around us? Without debating the metaphysics of what constitutes food, the earth, or our body, I’m not so sure that we would be capable to do such things, let alone recognizing ourselves in others.
While Hegel’s recognition proposal does indeed suppose that we must see ourselves within another, it then requires us that we view that very other as a subject, making a clear distinction between us and them. Hegel says that “for SC, there is another SC; SC is outside of itself. This has a twofold meaning. First, it has lost itself, for it is to be found as an other essence. Second, it has thereby sublated that other, for it also does not see the other as the essence but rather sees itself in the other” (Phenomenology, pg. 109, part B, ❡179). Again, there isn’t necessarily wrong with this idea, however, there are still distinctions being made in order to recognize that there is even an other, where your essence may be found.
Without calling Hegel an essentialist, I think it is important to detail why he focuses on the self, or SC, and why it may be important to dissolve the idea of self entirely, however useful it may be. Because of the necessity of making distinctions between ourselves and the rest of the world, including other people, it makes sense that we feel a strong sense of self. It often feels like we are the authors of our thoughts, and that we are ourselves driving our bodies to accomplish the myriad tasks we set out for every day. But I think speaking as if we are selves, or are our SC’s, is a psychological illusion, and disappears fairly quickly and succinctly after merely paying close attention. One problem arises when we address the continuity of the self. Are you your same self as you were as a toddler, or as an adolescent, or as from yesterday? It may feel that way; we have memory to thank for that. Without getting into the evolutionary reasons for memory, it serves us in such a way that allows us to recall past situations when dealing with problems in the present and future, but it doesn’t mean that we are as we were yesterday, nor does it mean that we are the same as we will be tomorrow.
Our past self did not have the information that we do today. Yesterday me could have been in a state of bliss, having no problems in the world with zero responsibilities; the next day could bring news of a parent dying, ushering in complete misery, or it could deliver the news of a new baby that my present self is nowhere near being capable of bearing that responsibility. Moreover, I do not have information from the future. I can hypothesize what the future may bring, but I will not know for sure until it comes. So how then can we talk about intention or agency without a conception of the self? I think the best way to make sense of human action is by looking at the phenomena of experience as a whole, interrelated within the confines of the driving factors within our world.
The only reason why one may see an object such as a stone, tree, fish, or mountain as such, is that they exist at all. Without outside stimulus, there would be no interaction with the outside world. It doesn’t mean that the inner workings of our biology would have no effect, but the effect would be minuscule with no environment to interact with, as I see both environment and our evolutionary history as necessary conditions for a functioning human mind. More importantly, the answer as to why we do anything at all, is that there are also other goings on that contribute to our actions; nothing truly happens on its own, therefore nothing is free. I eat because I am hungry, I am upset with a coworker because of something inflammatory they said to me, and there is a long chain of causes that bring those actions into existence. Because of this, we cannot choose to avoid seeing others as mere objects.
So what do we do in the face of objectification? Does it necessarily have to lead to an oppressive relationship? I do not think so. I think we should embrace the idea that we, as humans, are mechanistic determined automatons, and that idea should be freeing. If we have no choice in the matter of choice, but can understand how it works, then an entire paradigm of possibilities of behavior and interaction opens up. As for seeing others as subjects, while it doesn’t make sense in the end for that truth, we can still talk about causes, and how our actions affect others. There are larger social phenomena, like resentment, that can be curtailed if we were to have a better understanding of how our psychology is influenced by outside forces. It does not always have to be a master and slave.