The Origin of Self-Consciousness and the Desire for Recognition

As Kojeve tells it, Hegelian history is the story of the necessary development and expansion of self-consciousness, which is to say, of man. “Man is Self-Consciousness”; to understand the coming into being of self-consciousness, then, is to understand the coming into being of human being as distinguished from animal being (ILH 11 [3]). Self-consciousness finds its origin in desire, not in thought, reason, or understanding. “Contemplation reveals the object, not the subject” (ILH 166 [37]). Only a desire—for instance, the desire to eat, drink, mate, and so on—calls a being back to itself; only a desire refocuses the being’s attention from the external world of objects to the internal world of the subject and its needs. Clearly, it is not desire qua desire that distinguishes human being from animal being—animals too desire, a fact that points toward the conclusion that we necessarily exist both as human beings and at the same time as animals, that “the human reality can be formed and maintained only within the biological reality, an animal life” (ILH 11 [4]). Natural desires give rise only to the sentiment of self, the sentiment of oneself as distinct from other things, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition of our self-consciousness. Whereas contemplation entails a passive disposition, desire reveals the insufficiency of the one who desires, an insufficiency that “dis-quiets him and moves him to action” (ILH 11 [4]). Action can address this insufficiency only by destroying, transforming, or assimilating the desired object (e.g., food must be eaten). Thus, “all action is negating;” all action changes, and thus negates, the given (Kojeve’s term for existing substantial reality), and in doing so creates a new reality (ILH 12 [4]). Since qua desiring, the desiring I is “an emptiness” or incompleteness, “the positive content of the I, constituted by negation, is a function of the positive content of the negated non-I” (ILH 12 [4]). To clarify, desire is the desire for a particular thing that is distinct from the I that desires; this thing has a specific positive content in and of itself, a positive content that is distinguishable from but related to the desire directed toward it; as a result, in fulfilling its desire, the newly created satisfied-I is a function of the thing that is desired (e.g., the hungry animal becomes the beast with the full belly).

Natural desire is the desire for something given, something already present within the here and now. Desire itself goes beyond the given; it transcends or negates the given insofar as it seeks to assimilate to itself that which is there. In other words, the natural desire of an I seeks to make the thing desired identical to the I, to assimilate it to the I’s innate character—the food or drink becomes part of the I, identical to the I, when the I consumes and assimilates it. Natural desire, then, can be thought of as the inverse of contemplation (wherein “the ‘knowing subject’ ‘loses’ himself in the object that is known”); rather than the object absorbing the subject, the subject absorbs the object (ILH 11 [3]). This is obviously the case for food and drink, but what of sex? Human beings do not consume or assimilate the one with whom they mate, nor do they merely seek sexual gratification. Rather, as Kojeve explains, while “an animal desires the female (sexuality), a man desires the desire of the woman (eroticism)” (HMC 350 [29]; cf. ILH 13 [6]). Love, as a desire for desire, is akin to the desire for recognition; however, love (unlike the desire for recognition) is essentially limited, because (like natural desire) it is related to a given being: “one loves someone ‘without any reason,’ that is to say, simply because he is, and not because of what he does” (HMC 350 [29-30]). Love seeks not desire qua desire, nor the desire of any given being, but rather the desire of the particular given being as that being is given. Love does not seek altogether to negate or transform its object. While in the case of recognition one can be transformed so as to be made worthy of recognizing, in the case of love one cannot. Either one is loveable or one is not. Love cannot be transferred to another subject, nor can the desire of an unloved subject satisfy the one loved. To borrow Kojeve formalistic mode of expression, if A loves B, A will be satisfied only by the desire of B and not by the desire of C or even of C transformed through action, C’. Thus, love “remains eternally limited by the static limits of the being to which it is related” (HMC 350 [30]; cf OT 156). While human, love is not humanizing.

In order for full rational self-consciousness to come into existence, the particularity of the dialectic of love must be universalized; it must be replaced by the dialectic of recognition. As we have seen, desire qua desire is an emptiness that derives its positive content from the content of that which is desired. Thus,

Desire directed toward another Desire, taken as Desire, will create, by the negating and assimilating action that satisfies it, an I essentially different from the animal “I.” This I, which “feeds” on Desires, will itself be Desire in its very being, created in and by the satisfaction of its Desire. And since Desire is realized as action negating the given, the very being of this I will be action. (ILH 12 [5])

The newly formed desire for desire—separated now from the particularity of love and universalized in recognition—has made the human I its own product; it has moved it from a spatial existence to a temporal one: “it [i.e., the human I] will be (in the future) what it has become by negation (in the present) of what it was (in the past), this negation being accomplished with a view to what it will become” (ILH 12-13 [5]).[1] The mode of being of a human being, thus, is future-oriented; it is becoming:

In its very being this I is intentional becoming, deliberate evolution, conscious and voluntary progress; it is the act of transcending the given that is given to it and that it itself is.

This I is a (human) individual, free (with respect to the given real) and historical (in relation to itself). And it is this I, and only this I, that reveals itself to itself and to others as SelfConsciousness. (ILH 13 [5])

That self-consciousness arises out of the desire for recognition indicates that human beings are at the very least social (even political or legal) beings (i.e., to desire the desire of another necessarily implies the existence of the other).[2] And yet, while necessary, the desire for recognition (what will be termed the anthropogenetic desire) is insufficient to constitute a human I, an anthropogenetic I. Rather, the anthropogenetic desire must first overcome and rule the animal (i.e., biological) desires in the human being. Because all merely biological desires, according to Kojeve, can be ultimately understood as a function of self-preservation, to be a human being means to be prepared to risk one’s life in the service of a nonbiological or nonvital end. Kojeve explains what occurs in satisfying the anthropogenetic desire through action:

Now, to desire a Desire is to want to substitute oneself for the value desired by the Desire. For without this substitution, one would desire the value, the desired object, and not the Desire itself. Therefore, to desire the Desire of another is in the final analysis to desire that the value that I am or that I “represent” be the value desired by the other: I want him to “recognize” me as an autonomous value. In other words, all human, anthropogenetic Desire—the desire that generates Self-Consciousness, the human reality—is, finally, a function of the desire for “recognition.” And the risk of life by which the human reality “comes to light” is a risk for the sake of such a Desire. Therefore, to speak of the “origin” of Self-Consciousness is necessarily to speak of a fight to the death for “recognition.” (ILH 14 [7])

  • [1] The question of what man will become is of obvious importance.
  • [2] As Kojeve explains in “Hegel, Marx et le Christianisme,” the struggle for recognition implies not only “an essential social reality,” but also “a political reality,”and even “a legal reality” (353-354 [32]). The desire for desire that is love, however, “can at the very most found a human Family with a limited natural foundation (barely enlarged by a ‘circle of friends’) which, in the course of history,narrows as it evolves” (351 [30]).
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