No Bro is an Island (of Consciousness)

Philosophy Bro’s summary of Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondage” is a little thin compared to some of his others, but as usual he is on target with the major landmarks:

So why is self-consciousness so fucking tricky? Because its opposite is just other self-consciousnesses.

Philosophy Bro points out here the big difference between Hegel’s analysis of consciousness (i.e., object-consciousness) and self-consciousness in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The book traces a series of cognitive oppositions, but self-consciousness is the first opposition wherein cognition is able to grasp that there can be correspondence or coincidence between object and concept.

In sense-certainty, perception, and (force and) understanding, consciousness is dealing with objects that don’t quite correspond or coincide with its concept of those objects. In that excess or absence of exact coincidence with its object, consciousness finds that it can’t quite get rid of itself or lose itself in the object. Some difference or desire remains left over even after consciousness has tried to absorb itself in its object or absorb its object into itself.

In Hegel’s phenomenological analysis there’s a critique of representationalism in empirical science going on. No matter how much one tries to give a pure representation of an object of knowledge one can’t get rid of the knower in the act of putting it together. And this makes the object-consciousness of empirical science fundamentally inadequate for the purpose of understanding human beings.

Now, in self-consciousness, unlike in sense-certainty, perception, or in (force and) understanding, we arrive at an object that actually does correspond or coincide with its concept! How did that happen?

To become aware of ourselves, something else has to be aware of us, too – otherwise, we see everywhere but inwards. It’s like having a flashlight that only points away from you and into the world. Sure, it helps you see everything else, but you can’t see yourself for shit because you’re cloaked in darkness.

It’s like those moments where you’re so absorbed in the object of your attention that yourself and the rest of the world don’t seem to exist at all. This may sound cool and Zen-like but it could also be that you’re just an animal chasing some lunch, consuming it, and then going for some more. Desire, satisfaction, desire, satisfaction, desire …

And you can’t infer your existence from everything else; nothing can resist you, since you’re a bro and bros get what they want. You exist for yourself and no one else, and when the entire world also exists for you, the line is blurry. When the world is identical to your desires, you can’t tell the difference between the two.

Here’s the Cartesian ‘problem of the external world’ (that old chestnut of a ‘problem’ which lives a kind of zombie life in academic philosophy departments even though the ‘external world’ has ceased to care). It seems that my own subjectivity is the foundation of everything I know. It seems that ultimately everything I really know is identical with my subjectivity, since it is reflected in me when I think. But if this is true, then how can I be sure that my reflections are accurate? How can I know if my own knowing is reliable? You’re caught in a vicious circle of indeterminacy, i.e., “bad infinity” in Hegel’s jargon.

It’s not until you meet another bro with a flashlight that you becomes illuminated. Self-consciousness absolutely must meet another self-consciousness, or else it can’t exist – it’s just plain consciousness, a bro with a flashlight and no sense of self.

So not only does our own cognitive selfhood ontologically depend on recognition by other bros, but even our ability to attain anything like objective knowledge about the world, which depends on shared reasoning, cooperative verification, language, and dialog through which we can say “bro, you are right.”

But of course primitive consciousness couldn’t have inferred that from the beginning and saved us all the trouble of History. Primitive consciousness hadn’t yet developed a rational social situation where bros recognize and affirm each other’s existence and freedom. No, it had to learn the hard way, through what Hegel sometimes calls “the labor of the negative”.

Once the flashlights meet, two things happen – both bros see each other, and they immediately see themselves. And once one recognizes the other as outside itself, and vice versa, that’s when shit gets crazy. Normally, any bro considers himself the most important fucking thing on the planet; so far, everything he’s encountered with his flashlight, he’s been able to bend to his will. And then he meets another bro, who he realizes is exactly like himself. “Fuck that bro; that other consciousness thinks it’s more real than me. He’s exactly like me, except I’m real and he isn’t. How fucking dare he intrude on my reality like that! I’ll fucking show him.” Bros hate not having control, and the one thing a bro can’t control is another bro.

Read the rest of Philosophy Bro’s summary here:

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