“No mistake or crime is more horrible to God than those committed by power. Why? Because what is official is impersonal, and being impersonal is the greatest insult that can be paid a person.” — Kierkegaard (quoted in Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity)
In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Mikhail Bakhtin writes of Dostoevsky’s novels that “the heroes suffer destruction because they cannot wholeheartedly affirm the other, “thou art.” (5) The tragedy, in other words, occurs when the “I” of the hero fails to recognize the “I” of the other.
The theory of inter-subjectivity has its roots in the German Idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. However, it was fully developed by G.W.F. Hegel. The basic idea of an inter-subjective theory of consciousness is that one must first recognize an “other” before it can recognize itself. There is no I without a thou. How this happens, according to Hegel, will be explained in the following excerpt from a paper I wrote over the subject. (Quotations are taken from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by J.L.H. Thomas, reprinted in part in Philosophic Classics Volume IV: Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, ed. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann).
In the Hegel’s master-servant dialectic, the thesis and antithesis which must be synthesized are “self-as-self” and “other-as-other”, respectively. The synthesis, Hegel declares, is “other-as-self”. How this comes about is not quite as complicated as Hegel’s jargon would suggest. Essentially, the single existing self-consciousness initially inhabits a world comprised of self and other, i.e. the world of objects. Inevitably, this self-consciousness will meet another self-consciousness, whereupon an interesting process of recognition ensues. When the self-consciousness first comes into contact with another self-consciousness, the first immediately recognizes that the second is not simply an other (i.e. a rock, tree, etc.); not only is it not simply an other, but it is, in fact, a self, and in so being, is so similar to the first self-consciousness that the first, upon recognizing that the second can clearly not be categorized as “other”, can see only one other option: the second self is self, meaning that the first self’s self is projected onto the second, whereby the first self is no longer self, but other. And while this is taking place in the consciousness of the first, the second is having exactly the same experience. In the midst of this, each consciousness is essentially having an existential crisis: as Hegel says, “self-consciousness has lost itself, for it finds itself as another being” (36).
What is to be done? The two must fight to the death: “it must set out to do away with the other independent being in order thereby to become certain of itself as the essential being” (36). From the standpoint of the first self, the second must be destroyed so that selfhood can be re-appropriated upon the first self. Almost immediately, then, one self (we’ll say the first) achieves victory over the other (the second), and the second has already accepted that it must be defeated. However, “[t]his proving through death does away… with the truth that was to result from it” (38), for, while the first has the second in a death-grip, it realizes that, per the inter-subjective theory of self-consciousness, if the second is destroyed, the first can no longer recognize itself as self, and will experience alienation without an other to recognize it as a self. In lieu of destruction, then, the first simply dominates the second and forces the second to become a servant. In this way, the first – now, the master – can exist for itself, but also has the second, which only exists for the other, to recognize the first as such.
However, this master-servant relationship does not last forever. While the master does nothing for itself, but demands absolute servitude of the servant, it grows dependent upon the servant. And the servant, in the meantime, works and masters the earth, and, “attains as a consequence a view of independent being as itself” (40). Eventually, this results in an over-turning of the master-servant relationship. In order for the master to regain mastery, it must also become a worker, living alongside the servant, who has also attained mastery. And when this happens, the relationship is no longer one of master-servant, but rather, we might say, one of worker-worker. Domination is no longer possible and the new relationship is predicated upon mutual exchange and equality.
In other words, any relationship predicated on the domination of one self over another will necessarily result in Dostoevskian tragedy for the dominating party. According to the inter-subjective theory of consciousness, a proper I and Thou relationship is not possible so long as one I dominates the other. Thou cannot be truly recognized as an I in such a relationship, and, by extension, I cannot be truly recognized in the absence of the recognition of Thou. The two must be equal in order for this to happen.
Ergo, the inter-subjective theory of consciousness precludes the possibility of human beings existing in any real relationship to one another so long as hierarchical structures predicated on domination exist. As Kierkegaard says, the relationship of the powerful to those over whom power is exercised is necessarily an impersonal one, and, therefore, in his own view, such relationships are actually sins against God, who created us as social creatures. Hence, in destroying the possibility for proper social relations, we are sinning against God in that we are destroying the image of the one in whom we are made — namely, an image predicated on communality.
Consequently, Marx took many of Hegel’s ideas and ran with them, throwing out the metaphysical aspects and postulating a strictly atheist-materialist understanding of the historical dialectic. Nevertheless, it seems that he, as a social holist, would agree with Kierkegaard insofar as he saw the domination and exploitation of capitalist society as unnatural and, quite simply, bad.
Human beings are naturally social creatures, who are meant (whether because of God or historical materialism, or both) to live in community with one another, rather than in dominating relationships which destroy the I and Thou.