By now your brain might be spinning from all this. Hegel gets into some difficult mental acrobatics in which he declares that subjects are also objects to other subjects. So you only become aware of yourself by seeing yourself through the eyes of another. This is what he terms “self-consciousness.” It is the awareness of another person’s awareness of you.
Now a struggle arises. The self and the other come together—which causes self-consciousness come into being. But also we become aware of the otherness of the people who are aware of us. This becomes a struggle between two unequal individuals. One becomes the master and the other the servant. But they really depend on each other to complete the picture.
The servant knows the master sees him as an object. He is a thing, not a person to the master. This is frustrating to the one who is in the servile position because he cannot express his full self-consciousness (since he is not a subject). The master is dominant because the slave is an object to him. But it is not a satisfying position either, because self-consciousness depends on subject-subject interaction of equality.
At the same time, the master does not find his position completely satisfying. In negating his own otherness in the consciousness of the servant, in turning the servant into an object unessential to his own self-consciousness, he does not recognize the servant as a consciousness equal to himself. And therefore he cannot fully realize his own self-consciousness.
But, according to Hegel, the servant is actually better off because he is able to get satisfaction from labor. This allows him to work on and transform objects through which he rediscovers himself and can claim a “mind of his own.” So through labor, a person’s consciousness can come into being as well.
This is all terribly confusing. Many people are ready to throw Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit containing the chapter on “Self-consciosness” across the room. Yet a lot of of twentieth-century philosophers and psychoanalysts have used Hegel’s ideas as their basis. Before him, Kant discussed the difference between subject and object. But Hegel believed that the subject, or the self, is aware of its self only as a distinct entity through the eyes of another self.
This is different because it implies that all our consciousnesses are interdependent with each other. We can’t have any concept of ourselves without having actually experienced a moment of identification with “the other.” We know ourselves through the view we think others hold of us. This can be extremely stressful when others see us as objects, things, and not other living consciousnesses.
I don’t agree with Hegel, especially about this glorification of the slave’s labor. However, once we get past all the talk about masters and slaves, I can see what Hegel is getting at. We all exist in relationship to our society and other people. If we did not differentiate ourselves from “the other” there wouldn’t be any self-consciousness.
I would rather go a step further. If we go beyond how other people hold us in their opinions, we could all recognize ourselves as part of the Universal consciousness. And what others thought about us wouldn’t matter at all. We would still know we exist—which is true consciousness.