Individual vs. Social Consciousness

Individual vs. Social Consciousness in Hobbes, Madison, Hegel, and Marx

Hobbes and Madison derive their concept of politics in the liberal tradition of individualism, sketching out an ahistorical notion of human nature. By contrast, Hegel and Marx view the political as a social construction understood as dialectic. From this dialectic arises a progressive self consciousness. This is a historical process.
Hobbes approach towards the nature of man is viewed from a mechanistic and ontological perspective: a vision rooted in a fixed state of being. Hobbes defines this as the “state of nature.” Through his liberalism, he conceptualizes all individuals as equals: “Nature hath made men… equal in the faculties of body and mind” (74). He views the state of man without government as a constant struggle and competition over limited resources. This results in a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (76). The solution to this problem is found through the “Leviathan.” This is the collective body of mankind united as the commonwealth. In Hobbes words: “the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH, in Latin CIVITAS. This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortal God to which we owe, under the Immortal God, our peace and defense” (109).

The Leviathan ensures mankind’s security against the state of nature in exchange for submission to it, and is therefore merely a contract that does not change mankind’s essential nature. The allegiance to the Leviathan lies in the Hobbesian choice: life or death. It is a system built on lowest-common-denominator politics. There is no teleological or transcendental goal or finis ultimus (57). It is a conservative rather than a progressive approach, in which the object is only to maintain peace and security amidst the constant threat of anarchy. Hobbes crudely defines a rational subject as one who seeks his own survival at the cost of his freedom. The desire for self-preservation remains constant and so self-consciousness will always be the same.
Thus the conception of politics derived from Hobbes’ theory of human nature is ahistorical. There is no way for man’s self consciousness to evolve or change over time because the state of nature in which he exists is static. Man cannot escape his natural propensity towards violence.

As in Hobbes, Madison conceives of a static, inescapable condition of mankind.
He provides a similar ontological view towards man and his natural tendency towards violence and factionalism: “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man” (Federalist No. 10, 2). Unlike Hobbes however, Madison allows for some historical thinking, because he believes politics and behavior to be influenced by society. He writes, “we see [factions] everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society” (2). Nevertheless the essential core of human nature remains unchanged.

Madison posits a more pragmatic approach to human nature and its susceptibility to its passions. His preferred method for confronting the spirit of factions is the federalist system of government. The goal of federalism is to channel human nature, not create a model of absolute tyranny, as we’ve seen in Hobbes. Madison favors republicanism and describes it as a cure to direct democracy, which causes the tyranny of majority rule. The federalist republican system “promises the cure for which we are seeking” (4). It is characterized by the following three features: (1) place as much of the government as possible beyond the direct control of the majority (2) divide the powers of the different institutions (3) construct a system of checks and balances.
The federalist system corrects the natural factionalism of human nature; it checks rather then reforms the soul. “It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” (Federalist No. 51, 7-8).

Hobbes and Madison have a individualist view of self consciousness and politics. This ahistorical formation of mankind is limited to a single unit of consciousness, as it exists independent of another. Both the Leviathan and federalist papers describe social contracts, external forces that serve only to govern individual consciousness rather then create, form or alter them. In contrast Hegel and Marx characterize a dialectical formation of consciousness. In Hegel the Self is created only through recognition by the Other. In Marx self consciousness is determined through class struggle. These conceptions of consciousness are historical for they conceive of people in relation to one another. Therefore these relationships can shift, evolve and change as they are subject to historical contingency.

Hegel imagines consciousness as defined through the dialectic. This means two beings are in correspondence with another yet each can only fully exist in their recognition by one another. Hegel writes “Self consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is it exists only in being acknowledged” (111). Only in being recognized by another can we conceive of ourselves.

This relationship is caste by Hegel in the form of the lord/bondsman dialectic. Upon the meeting of the self and the other, the first instinct of the self is to attain primacy by destroying the other but the self then realizes without the other there is no recognition of its mastery and therefore will cease to exist. The master must enslave the other in order to continue to be recognized as master. Therefore master exists in relation to slave and slave in relation to his master. The slave endures the oppression of his master and can only understand himself through service to the master: “Through work however, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is.” This process evolves over time as it gains a heightened awareness of itself. It is thus a historical changing idea of human nature. Hegel gestures toward an understanding of mental progression culminating in an ideal self consciousness. This is the finis ultimus that Hobbes does not allow for in his political vision.
Marx maintains the Hegelian dialectic but changes the idealism to historical materialism. In contrast to Hegel’s idealist philosophy, by which material reality is created by consciousness, Marx claims that material reality creates consciousness and the realm of knowledge. Marx plays out the dialectic along, material, economic and historical lines:
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-construction of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes (473-474). This represents the historical realization of the master/slave dialectic, or dialectical materialism.

The relationship between master/slave as seen in Hegel is equivalent to the Bourgeoisie/proletariat relationship in Marx. The abstract relationship is converted to an economic relationship. The Bourgeoisie understands itself in relation to the Proletariat and vice versa. This is what Marx called class consciousness.
The understanding of class consciousness as a reciprocal process of recognition serves to empower and liberate the Proletariat struggle against the Bourgeoisie. In his manifesto Marx writes: “The Bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education, in other words, it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie….these also supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress.” (481) The working class gains heightened social consciousness through the understanding of the Bourgeoisie’s need for recognition. Marx posits a forward moving theory of change as history is propelled by the material dialectic of the stratified class system. This is an interactive process of becoming.

Marx describes a change in subjectivity due to the capitalist mode of production: “the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and exchange” (475). For Marx material forces determine self consciousness. Desires are constantly informed and outlawed; the self is commoditized and transformed into an object of exchange. Marx would call this alienation, caused by the capitalist directive.

Both the philosophies of Hobbes’ and Hegel are embodied in Marx’ political thought. His manifesto unites the materialism of Hobbes’ and Hegel’s idea of a socially formed consciousness to produce a doctrine of dialectic materialism. Unlike Hegel however, Marx destination was not an absolute or ideal self consciousness, but rather the end to the class based struggle in which capital overwhelms all human subjectivity.

The central difference in the ahistorical verses the historical shaping of the political for these thinkers is rooted in the individualist means for survival. Through the ahistorical lens offered by Hobbes and Madison the nature of man is implied and the goal of life is not in reaching a transcendental state but, merely in staffing off the chaos inherent in nature. In contrast, Hegel and Marx envision an ultimate end, a progressive consciousness illustrated through dialecticism. Hegel gestures towards this understanding through recognition of the self by another, with the purpose of spiritual enlightenment in mind. These goals are actualized in Marx through the realization of social consciousness and the resolution of the stratified society.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. “The Communist Manifesto.” The Marx-Engels
Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New Works Cited
Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Tr. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1977.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. Edwin Curley. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing,
Madison, James. The Federalist No. 10 & No. 51. Yale: Avalon Project.
HYPERLINK "" York: Norton, 1978. 473-500.

Related Essays Philosophy