Copernican revolutions, lordship, and bondage

I got a wonderful compliment from a friend recently.

They had mentioned that I was a good host - that I got some important things right (this on its own made me feel recognized) - and expressed some worry that I might feel unappreciated. Another of their friends had expressed the sense that their contributions to the community weren’t being reciprocated. From what my friend could observe of my behavior I was acting fairly similarly, and they were worried I’d burn out.

I responded to the effect that I am already "burnt out" in the sense that I'm only doing things if they feel worth doing with no expectation of reciprocation. (My other motives are finding it intrinsically motivating to do good for others, and empowering allies to do good things more generally.) But, I continued, I was sad that I'm not setting off a success spiral where other people perceive the public goods I'm contributing to as benefiting them, and try to reciprocate by generating more public goods of a similar kind. A sort of public goods success spiral, where people do more, not just because they have more resources & like people, but because they perceive themselves to live in an environment with prosocial norms.

My friend responded that my behavior had inspired them to be a better host, and given them affordances of things to do, that wouldn’t have occurred to them otherwise. They gave a concrete example: offering people water when they come in. And this was exactly the thing I'd wanted to happen, and had sort of given up on.

I shouldn’t have given up. But I should have expected it to be hard, because it implies a level of spiritual development that you can’t just skip ahead to. I should have known this, because I've read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.

Hegelian Dialectic and Copernican revolutions

I recently realized that Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit has influenced my thinking more than I’d previously thought. In particular, there’s a Hegelian idea of the Dialectic as a series of Copernican revolutions, where one imperfect world view calls into being its opposite, and then both are synthesized into a more sophisticated world view that resolves the apparent dichotomy - and that this is pretty useful both for having a flexible sense of self, and for thinking about the history of philosophy.

Kant explicitly called his philosophy a Copernican Revolution relative to Hume: Hume pointed out that all we have direct access to is current sense-data, this experience here, and now this one, and now this one. Anything else we know is an inference, a pattern of thought generated by a series of momentary impressions. Kant points out that while the content of our momentary experiences changes from moment to moment, the mode of experience itself, and the patterns through which we perceive it, don’t. If all our experience is of necessity an experience of this, here, now, then we have perpetual access to only these things - the thisness of what we’re experiencing, the hereness of here, the nowness of now - and, implicitly, the not-thisness of the other, the not-hereness of there, and the not-nowness of earlier and later. And if we only ever see these things through patterns, like thinghood, time, and space, then we can be more certain of these than of any of the ever-changing content they interpret.

But Hume is himself part of a Copernican revolution relative to the Platonic tradition. Hume wants to overturn the scholastic tradition coming from Plato’s idea of Ideas, that the most really real stuff is these absolute forms that actual observable sensible things are trying to approximate. He points out that real certainty can’t reside in these things-in-themselves that we have no access to, but the very mutable sensations Plato thinks of as an imperfect approximation to perception of the Forms, and so true philosophy should be concerned with the sensible as such, and only secondarily with the ideas we form as a result of sensation.

I think this makes some BDSM relationship discourse look different to me than to other people.

(Two warnings for what follows. First, I follow Hegel in using the terms “master” and “slave” to describe aspects of the soul - consider that a content warning of sorts. Second, I’m relying on an old memory of what Phenomenology of Spirit says because I can’t be bothered to reread it, and nearly no one understands it anyway, so my account is probably wrong.)

Lordship and bondage, master and slave

Another core Hegelian dichotomy to be resolved, is that of Lordship and Bondage, or the Master-Slave relationship. Hegel points out that, considered in their purest form - as they might exist in the soul of a single person - the master is the one for the sake of whom the action is done, and the slave is the one who handles the implementation. At first it might seem like since the master is in charge and bosses around the slave, that consequently the master does what they like to the slave. But the more perfect the master’s mastery, the more work they delegate to the slave, including the work of interpreting the master’s commands, since even understanding the work is sort of slavish, so at the limit, the Slave’s the one with all the power and action, and the Master’s limited to having preferences, doing none of the work of specifying implementation. The Slave does things to the Master. In other words, in the limit, as the dialectic plays out, the Master passively receives the work, while the Slave takes responsibility for everything, doing all the hermeneutical work of figuring out what the Master wants.

In this sense, an artist is a Slave and their art is the Master, it relates to the artist only to be served, the artist exists qua artist only to serve it, and clearly the artist has all the practical power here, so a relation that begins with the one tagged Master having all the power and acting on the slave ends with the Slave having all the power and acting on the Master.

I don’t remember exactly how Hegel ends this, but in my model it ends with the formation of a coherent Ego that mediates between Master and Slave, integrating both into a single Will acting on the world.

Service sub with a sense of heroic responsibility

Many people report being content with just one stable role in this dialectic. It’s possible that at one point in someone’s spiritual development, it’s appropriate for them to take up a sort of Master or Slave role - but my inclination is to see it as acceptance of spiritual stagnation when someone want to remain in that role, instead of playing it so hard that they transcend it. I’ve recently realized that in order to serve the causes I’ve chosen, I need to learn to inhabit the more overtly, simply, receptively selfish Master aspect as well.

I’ve heard self-described submissives talk about how it’s more satisfying to have to do things because they’re commanded to, against their desires, than to have to do things they wanted to. This strikes me as essentially a desire for self-mastery. They want an outside ally to strengthen their own drive to control themselves, to master their own drives and push against them through sheer force of will, to be able to make themselves do the thing they don’t want.

I’ve been called a Dom sometimes, because I often take charge of things when I perceive a vacuum of initiative. But it doesn’t feel to me like being dominant - it feels like service. I identify with the Slave aspect in those moments, not the Master - owning the task, not feeling entitled to the rewards. If I need to take charge, that’s just taking over more of the practical work, because that’s the thing the Master needs. A friend once described this as “agentic Hufflepuff”; my own preferred expression is, “service sub with a sense of heroic responsibility.”

When I don’t explain myself - and often even when I do - this can lead to deep misunderstandings, as people look at me behaving like the stereotype of someone who feels like they’re the boss, and assume that I’m doing this because I want that role, and that there’s no room for them to step up. In fact, when I’m always the one in charge, I feel like the people around me are shirking. I’d much rather figure out how to set up a positive feedback loop where we cycle within the Master-Slave dynamic by competing to serve the whole - so that the dichotomy can’t be observed anymore, all parties have taken complete responsibility for the practical work of implementation, and all parties feel entitled to have their preferences served.

3 thoughts on “Copernican revolutions, lordship, and bondage

  1. Pingback: GiveWell: a case study in effective altruism, part 3 | Compass Rose

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