Lordship and Bondage: Perspectivism, Empricism and Mindblindness

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman

Conversation – Instalment 4: Perspectivism, empiricism & mindblindness

Chapter 3. Proving Hamlet Wrong                                                   


Howard Adelman

 Now a Jew by decree, AH found himself in Paris neither as a refugee nor as an immigrant but as a student soon enrolled in the École des hautes etudes commerciales de Paris (HEC) instead of the École libre des sciences politiques (Sciences Po). On the advice of the future Gaullist Prime Minister, Michel Dupré (appointed 8 January 1959), AH was told that, as a refugee, he would get no benefit from Sciences Po which served as a training ground for civil servants and politicians, positions to which AH could not aspire.  AH instead faced the boredom of studying business and accounting rather than economics and diplomacy, but he did learn about inter-state trade and regional commerce which freed him from the narrow dogmas of the labour theory of value, class conflict and world disequilibrium. Even boring inadequate schools can have unintended and unexpected benefits.

However, his reaction to his studies as largely useless was not what preoccupied him. On p. 96, Jeremy writes, “the passage from the Phenomenology about the dialectics of the master-serf relationship (in which the former depends on the latter’s recognition as a condition of his full consciousness, while the latter possesses only the power to deny this) had of course been the subject of endless scrutiny in Berlin.” The sentence comes near the end of a paragraph of Hegelian length of almost two pages. What follows is the comment that this section served as the explanation for his malaise and guilt about leaving his family behind and that the words for this explanation came forth unconsciously, “without me knowing it or wanting it”. That was why he had to know it and his mother had to be told. What precedes the sentence is the introduction which insisted that the troubled memories of his last year in Berlin served as an undertow. As Jeremy writes, the letters that survive from that long ago period are replete with efforts to come to terms with his family’s past. So the structure of the paragraph is a triptych: a) a reference to his family and their troubles; b) the reference to the Lordship-Bondage section of the Phenomenology and c) the comment that this section offered an unsought for and unreflected reference to explain the malaise and the reason for it.

What is the malaise and the wallowing in guilt that is the explanans in the paragraph? It is Albert’s mother’s disapproval of the academic path he chose. Economics was déclassé. Albert had failed to live up to his mother’s expectations. Albert was proposing an alternative to his relationship based on guilt on one side and resentment and bitterness on the other. Instead, he desired one based on mutual love and respect. And, of all things, he quotes the bible. “The bible says: God made man in his own image. Maybe. But man definitely can’t do the same.” His mother should not and cannot make her children in her own image. The paragraph then reverses track and goes back to the malaise, suggesting that April was always a horrendous month for bad memories to haunt him – the month of his mother’s birthday, of his father’s death and of his exit from Berlin, inspiring his thoughts about parent-child relations and recalling both his thesis on Hegel and the insights reading Hegel gave to his understanding of that relationship. Parents will always be disappointed when, in the critical age of an adolescent’s Bildung, his education and development, parents will always be disappointed when their children, if they are at all reasonable and independent, make choices that disappoint their parents, wanting an identity without difference precisely at a stage when the child is asserting his independence.  

Let me start deliberately with a double negative. I am not unacquainted with such a situation. Like Jewish, and many other mothers all over the world who have smart sons who do very well in school, my mother wanted me to be a doctor. I always said I wanted to be a doctor. I even manipulated my older brother who had been in the same grade with me to apply to medical school as well. He previously wanted to be an engineer. He eventually became a very well-known and highly reputed cardiologist. I had, I believed, delivered a double reward to my mother who as a single mother had dedicated her life to her sons. She would get two doctors not just one.

Medicine was not for me. My brother was a very good student, though he did not get the marks I did. He had athletic hands and could do an angioplasty, a technique he introduced to Canada, with finesse and speed. Much more importantly, he was a brilliant diagnostician and would defy logic as we did rounds in Mount Sinai Hospital as students. When symptoms of a case presented a number of possibilities, he would ignore the doubts of reason, choose one cause and hone in on one condition. The exasperating quality was that he was always correct while I protested that the answer could not possibly follow definitively from the evidence. I left medicine.

I was a lousy observer of fine anatomical and physiological details. Reason inhibited rather than helped in the art of diagnostics. And I continued to faint at the sight of blood. I had tried to leave two or three times earlier in my medical schooling, but always returned haunted by the thought of failing my self-sacrificing mother, my own ideals and the prospect of earning a secure and good source of income. I left when I went to see the Dean of Medicine and he gave me three hours of his time to discuss my conundrum and told me of how he had left medical school for three years to return to farming in Saskatchewan. He told me that I was a very smart student and I could come back anytime in the next three years, take up where I left off and finish my final two years. Shocking to me from a source that I thought saw me as a rebellious young student whom he disliked and resented, he gave me the confidence to leave even though I had no idea how I would support myself or my mother as she grew older. I faced myself with the invented line I used for the rest of my life: “I left Medical School to save lives.” Neither the Dean’s support nor my supposedly witty line helped to erace the clear and deep disappointment of my mother. “You are leaving medical school to study philosophy!” pronounced with a guttural contempt as if philosophy was an alien giant lizard from outer space. However, she was never overbearing in her disappointment and she was quick to forgive.

So though both my mother and the context were very different, I understood Albert’s struggles with guilt over disappointing his mother’s wishes and dreams, a disappointment which was doubly palpable since he had always been the dream son in his mother’s eyes. But what has this to do with the section of Lordship-Bondage in the Phenomenology? Why and how could that section explain either his guilt or his insistence on expiating that guilt by referring to it in a letter? The possibly tenuous link was the issue of “recognition”. His mother recognized him as one thing whereas AH was coming to the recognition of himself as a different person. But what has this to do with the Lordship Bondage section as Hegel wrote it or as AH interpreted it?

Let me first deal with Jeremy’s interpretation of AH’s interpretation of the section. First, and I presume he follows AH in his usage in his letter, the section is referred to as the passage on the dialectics of the “master-serf relationship”, though Hegel makes no explicit reference to serfs. AH had obviously been brought up with the Marxist legacy of interpreting the section in terms of class warfare. Even then, what did the master-slave (as it is usually called by Marxist and neo-Marxist interpreters of this section) relationship have to do with parent-child relations? Even in the relationship interpreted as a master-slave one, if the explanation of AH of the section is as AH understood it, and not Jeremy’s interpolation, then it makes no sense. In the predominant interpretation along these lines so influential on French intellectuals at the time, in Paris Alexandre Kojève, fourteen years senior to AH, was presenting his famous lectures on Hegel from 1933 on. The weird thing was that there is no mention of Kojève in the book, possibly the most influential Hegelian thinker of all time and one who shared with AH an identical vision of Europe after the war. Both men were very influential in creating the intellectual foundations for the European community, yet, according to the biography, they never seemed to have crossed paths physically or intellectually. I will come back to the latter issue in a later blog.

In Kojève’s interpretation, the master and slave relationship develops out of a competition between male peers for superiority. That superiority can be gained in a duel if one defeats another. But in defeat, the winner also loses for he gains a corpse who cannot give the recognition of the superiority that he is seeking. He demonstrates the superiority but does not have the Other remaining around to recognize that superiority. The situation changes when the victor in the battle holds a sword to the neck of his supplicant and offers him a deal. The victor will spare the life of the loser on two conditions, the loser recognize the victor as his master and the loser works as a slave to provide the necessities of life needed by the master. The master, thereby, gains both recognition and the labour of a slave. The servant in return gets to live and also has the protection of the master. This account seems to have little to do with the dialectic as Jeremy presented it in which the master depends on the latter’s recognition as a condition of his full consciousness. However, we are in a section on self-consciousness where the Other must be an individual self who offers the recognition and not a slave or serf from the get-go, and because the master never develops any “full” self-consciousness. In any case, the section is not about consciousness. Further, the slave only possesses the power to deny this recognition if he refuses to be a slave and is willing to die and, in that case, there would be no master-slave relationship at all.

Finally, the dialectic struggle for recognition is not only between the self who becomes the master and the self who becomes the slave, but there is a dissonance within each of them. The master is not really independent for he needs the slave in two radically different ways that are at odds. The master wants to be recognized as a self-made God, totally in control of himself and the world around him, but for that recognition he depends on someone who has surrendered heroism, has surrendered Desire, has surrendered Passion, in the trade for survival and self-interest. Thus, once the recognition comes, it no longer comes from an independent other self. Further, in wanting to free himself from mundane labour, the Master is now dependent on the slave for fulfilling those tasks. He is not a God who does not need the material world to live forever.

The slave is also internally divided. He must labour on the world and obtain material goods for the master’s benefit and for his bare survival. Second, though he works for his survival, that survival depends entirely on the whims and good will of the master who can dispose of him at will, especially if he refuses to provide either the proper respect and recognition and the labour to produce the luxuries to be enjoyed by the master.  The slave’s power to dent that recognition is a totally empty threat and possibility. That is why the only outlet for both the slave and the master, for both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, is stoicism as the route forward out of the master-slave relationship – at least, according to Kojève.

In sum, either AH’s account of the Lordship-Bondage section is very askew or Jeremy’s interpretation of it is. Further, it has no apparent connection with the issue with his mother and only a slender connection with the theme of recognition which manifests itself in other forms throughout the rest of the Phenomenology. Why spend so much time discussing one long paragraph? Because it is about one of AH’s favourite and most influential thinkers. Understanding distortions, misinterpretations and misapplications are crucial to a critical analysis. 

This does not even consider the fact that the scholarship of the last thirty years on Hegel has demonstrably discarded the Marxist interpretation of Hegel. Hegel was a religious man and a religious thinker. The Lordship Bondage section, in my writings, is a philosophical interpretation of the biblical text getting to the basic forces at work in both the human psyche and the development of our social fabric. It begins with man torn between his consciousness that looks at the world as objects (Adam names things) and his self driven by both the need to survive – by Life – or what AH will call interests, and by Desire, what AH will call Passions. This is how the section on self-consciousness in Hegel’s Phenomenology begins. Man’s desire is not, according to the labour theory of value, the desire both to survive and to acquire goods ad infinitum in accordance with possessive individualism, but to be like a God, pure consciousness without a body to feed but, like a scientist, can bring things into being by recognizing and naming them.

However, man is embodied. He needs to eat. He wants to have sex even if as a self of consciousness, this is not recognized. So he is torn between his self as a conscious being in relationship to objects, and a self-conscious being, and within self-consciousness, between Life (interests) and Desire (passions). This is a conflict in which man is riddled with conflicts, but conflicts which are external as well, external both as independent of the self and external as that which is rejected of the self and projected onto an Other. The dialectic within and between Adam and Eve morphs into the dialectic of Lordship and Bondage in their children, not in the relationship of the children with one another, but in the relationship between two sons, in this case, Cain and Abel.

Both strive to be close to God and want recognition from God of their almost divine status. They also work on the world. Cain is a farmer. Abel is a hunter. There is a conflict between two ways of life. The farmer and the cowboy cannot be friends. Each sacrifices the best of his labour to God to earn His recognition, the best of the crop or the best animal trapped. God recognizes Abel. Cain kills Abel. What is at stake is not recognition by the other but recognition by The Other. They sacrifice the produce of their labour to gain that recognition. The Lord in the section is God. The two competitors offer themselves in bondage to their Lord. They are not coerced to do so. The agents, the dialectical development and the critical elements in tension are all radically different than the Marxist interpreters of Hegel thought.

We will have to see how and whether this misinterpretation of Hegel affected the intellectual development and insights of AH. In the meanwhile, the burning of Berlin was followed by the smouldering in Paris. Yet the disease of the “:disappearance of hope” never affected AH. For a better understanding of the political dialectics of hope and despair and some insights if not explanation of why AH always landed on the side of hope, we could read Ron Aronson’s 1995 book, After Marxism and his article in the New School for Social Research Journal on “Hope After Hope” in the spring of 1986, and the article by Jeremy’s Princeton colleague, Patrick Deneen, who wrote not the Odyssey of one Worldly Philosopher but The Odyssey of Political Theory. His 1999 article on “The Politics of Hope and Optimism: Rorty, Havel, and the Democratic Faith of John Dewey” reinforces the understanding of “hope” as a central concept in studying political theory in juxtaposition against despair.

It means that the class struggle is not primary in understanding the political economy. It means that possibilism, the capacity to apply intellectual prowess to political conundrums to create active options for the future becomes a derivative concept. So is the obsession with observing and collecting facts, the foundation of empiricism, and the understanding that in order to do this we have to discard our blinkers that become limitations for nourishing hope. We have to overcome our ideological mindblindness. This does not mean a common understanding will emerge, but it does increase the possibility that different and perhaps complementary ones will. Bromides about inevitable laws of history, the sterile polemics around and about them and the didactic certainties promulgated by men such as Heinrich Blücher, Hannah Arendt’s future husband and Ursula’s beau for a short while, helped insure mindblindness. That is why men like AH’s eventual brother-in-law, Eugenio Colorni, with his stress on observing everyday life, were so important for the development rather than closing of Albert’s mind. Colorni also introduced Albert to Benedetto Croce and Erich Auerbach. From the latter, AH inherited the propensity for searching the classics to understand the roots of the present. From Auerbach, AH also learned that the comprehension that each era and each culture had its own unique perspective and understanding of the surrounding world. Most importantly with respect to the politics of hope, it was important to prove Hamlet wrong and ensure that doubt was not immobilizing but rather a foundation new beginnings. “Uncertainty means that you think you may be wrong; doubt means that you are not sure you know.” (p. 116)