Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic in Psychotherapy
Hegel’s three-part, recursive dialectical process provides a framework for explaining the reality of many things. One specific application called, the “master-slave dialectic” elaborates on the individual’s “development of self-consciousness” in terms of desire, recognition and alienation (GIVENS and NUMBERS 200). While this dialectic process may be applied and have practical use in a client-therapist setting, in some cases of therapy it may not be practical given that some psychoanalytic work is not linear and in fact the dialectical process expends more effort for smaller returns (Kronemyer).
The dialectic process is a dialogue or discussion of ideas, between people or even within oneself, which volleys back and forth, and pivots into additional ideas after which the process repeats with subsequent ideas. In each cycle, the first step in the discussion is a proposal or an idea. This introductory idea may be called the thesis or “the moment of the understanding” (Maybee). Following the thesis, the dialogue is met with a reactionary, opposing idea, in which the principal idea is negated. This reaction could be called the antithesis or the “negatively rational moment” (Maybee). However, this second movement does not entirely negate the first, rather it sublates it, which means it “both cancels and preserves” and pushes toward the third moment (Maybee). This third moment is “speculative or positively rational” in which it secures “the unity of the opposition” of the first and second moments and can be termed the synthesis (Maybee). Hegel’s dialectic is usually applied in areas which pertain to the individual or in social environments. One specific example is Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and its application to psychotherapy.
In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the dialectic is used to explain an individual’s “development of self-consciousness” through the ideas of desire and recognition which is “also termed the master-slave dialectic” (GIVENS and NUMBERS 200). In this dialectic, the thesis is desire, as an individual eats and drinks to survive and, in general, yearns for “fulfillment and growth” (200). While pursuing this desire, the individual is confronted by other individuals who also desire the same things, and in this meeting, the individuals seek “interpersonal acknowledgement” and “recognition” (200). The antithesis of desire is recognition, in which the individual moves from self-sustainment “to a struggle to the death for recognition” (205). This conflict metaphorically reaches a pitched battle in which life is risked and one party yields and the other “emerges as the victor” (206). The yielding individual accepts the role of “slave” in order to survive and the victor assumes the role of “master” and “wields power over the slave” (206). Lastly, the synthesis of desire and recognition for the slave evolves into alienation, where the slave is estranged from freedom, and works for the master. Yet in this alienation, the slave “through labor, attains freedom, self-awareness, and the power to transform the natural world” (208).
Practical application of psychotherapy via the master-slave dialectic can be used in each phase of the evolution. One specific application in psychotherapy occurs viz-a-viz recognition and alienation, in which the client suffers “anger, frustration, and self-loathing” in an effort to “obtain recognition from” the therapist (211). While the therapist may be viewed as assuming the role of master, she nevertheless “resists the role” and instead seeks to facilitate the process wherein the client reaches escape velocity and is able to break free of alienation (211). In the client-therapist relationship, the client receives the recognition he desires “without punishment” from the masters of modern society such as “schools, prisons, hospitals, clinics” and “anonymous organizational structures” such as corporations (209, 211). Through recognition the client transforms himself and no longer feels alienated but adapts and discovers new freedoms. This rudimentary example indeed demonstrates the applicability of Hegel’s dialectic to explain some reality in the arena of psychotherapy, however, others disagree that it can be utilized to explain reality, even in this field.
David Kronemyer, who works in the Department of Psychiatry at ULCA noted in a letter to the editor of The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry that Hegel’s dialectic “has proliferated to numerous other contexts, many involving psychiatry; for example, the migration from psychoanalysis to behaviorism to cognitive therapy” (Kronemyer). But at a lower, practical level Kronemyer does not view the dialectic as applicable. For example, while validation of the client may be viewed as the thesis, and the antithesis may be understood as change, he contends “the process of therapy is evolutionary—a ‘random walk’ incorporating (nonexclusively) flexible thinking, adaptive behavior, and emotional awareness” (Kronemyer). In other words, successful therapy often does not always follow the Hegelian dialectic process and is much more haphazard than iterative. And to underscore his point even further, Kronemyer summarizes, “Holding two opposing thoughts in your mind at the same time is far more effortful than holding two complementary ones. Clinicians should divest themselves of the concept of ‘dialectic’ and focus instead on emotional regulation” (Kronemyer).
In conclusion, Hegel’s iterative dialectic process provides a structure for exploring the reality of things. The “master-slave dialectic” is one particular avenue to apply the dialectic especially in the arena of the maturation of the individual’s self-consciousness. The ideas of desire, recognition and alienation provide a construct for the client and therapist to successfully help the client evolve and develop his self-consciousness. While this dialectic method can be applied practically in psychotherapy, other experts in the field do not think it is as applicable, given that psychoanalytic work is not linear. Indeed, the dialectic may lead the client and therapists down paths that ultimately do not address the root of emotional disturbances.
GIVENS, JOEL, and MEGAN NUMBERS. “Of Human Bondage: The Relevance of Hegel’s Dialectic of Desire and Recognition for Humanistic Counselors.” The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, vol. 55, no. 3, Oct. 2016, pp. 200–14, https://doi.org/10.1002/johc.12034. Accessed 3 Oct. 2019.
Kronemyer, David. “Just What Is ‘Dialectical’ about Dialectical Behavior Therapy?” The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, vol. 78, no. 3, Mar. 2017, pp. e310–10, https://doi.org/10.4088/jcp.16lr11394. Accessed 1 May 2019.
Maybee, Julie E. “Hegel’s Dialectics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford.edu, 2016, plato.stanford.edu/entries/hegel-dialectics/.
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