Desire of the Master

Serious readers of Hegel have long known that he presents the Servant who learns about the world through work in far more positive terms than the Master. Mastery is a false freedom that is actually an obstacle to true freedom.

The Master effectively claims total independence, or authority without responsibility. Brandom renders Hegel’s critique of “the ills of Mastery”, “all these dimensions of defectiveness”, “the subordination-obedience model of normativity allegorized as Mastery” in wonderfully sharp terms. At bottom, “Pure independence is a Bad Idea” (underscore in original). (I would extend this diagnosis to voluntarisms theological, psychological, legal, political, and historical, as well as to claims of sovereign power. I say no power can even possibly be normatively sovereign or unconditional.)

Brandom characterizes Mastery by a second-order desire to have all its desires immediately satisfied (directly constitutive of reality), which ends up leading to a desire for a sort of imperial sovereignty that is inherently in conflict with anyone else having the same desire. Mastery wants its way with no other consideration and is unable to share power, like Plato’s tyrant. (To me at least, this seems a very undesirable sort of desire. All the desirable desires seem to me be sharable. But unfortunately, on a social scale we are still deeply afflicted by the Master’s desire.)

Mastery is thus also the totalizing impulse par excellence. Hegel’s very strong rejection of it is a fortiori a very strong rejection of the desire for totalization that has often been attributed to him, as far back as Kierkegaard. This is a veritable revolution in the interpretation of Hegel’s most fundamental intent, which also seems to be strongly supported by Terry Pinkard’s biography.

Mastery for Brandom is unequivocally an evolutionary dead end, not something to be rationalized and excused as somehow historically progressive. Only the Servant moves forward at all. This is huge. Our troubled potentially rational ape-kind rather desperately needs a bold clarity of this sort. Not only is Mastery not the answer, there is no convoluted path that makes it a justifiable means to an answer. Of course the Trumps of the world will not be enlightened by this, but we can be. (Marx may have been right that the leisure of a few at the expense of the many was a temporary historical economic prerequisite for the emergence of higher culture, but that is an argument in a material register, not a normative one.)

This is helping me with my difficulty over Brandom’s theses about modernity and an ethical importance of the Enlightenment. His usual wordings make me think of what I consider to be highly questionable Cartesian and British empiricist epistemology, then wonder what about this has to do with any new ethical insight. But there was also an important strand of rejection of Mastery in the Enlightenment, especially in France. I think more of the group around the Encyclopedia as documented by Jonathan Israel’s recent trilogy, whereas Brandom through Kant seems to be thinking more of Rousseau’s ideas about equality, and of the general idea of a social contract as partly anticipating Hegelian mutual recognition. (See also Ego; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

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