Hegel's account of self-consciousness in chapter IV of his Phenomenology of Spirit is the most influential, and perhaps the most insightful, passage in his works. Yet, like Plato's allegory of the cave, it seems to point in too many directions to allow a consensus about its meaning. In this book, Robert Pippin produces an interpretation that attempts to accommodate all the elements in Hegel's engaging narrative: desire, life, encounter with another self-consciousness, struggle to the death, and recognition. Hegel is commonly supposed to be giving a quasi-Hobbesian account of the transition from a state of nature to a state of society. But Pippin's Hegel begins where Kant left off.
Kant had argued that the conceptual contribution that we make to our sensory input enables us to be more than the sentient perceivers that animals supposedly are and to make perceptual judgements about objective states of affairs. We humans can stand back from our representations, make judgements based on them, and wonder whether they are really veridical. Similarly, we can stand back from our desires and emotions and ask whether they are appropriate and justifiable. We are 'self-conscious' creatures, not simply absorbed in our current passing state of consciousness. Because of this we advance claims about putatively objective states of affairs. But to make such claims, Pippin argues, is to claim an authority or entitlement to do so, and this claim needs to be justified. This is why Hegel introduces other self-conscious creatures, who were neglected by Kant in his theoretical philosophy, though not in his practical philosophy. One's authority to advance objective claims needs to be recognised or acknowledged by another self-conscious being; the claims themselves must be supported by reasons presented to the other self-consciousness and defended against their challenges, defended, if need be, to the death. Hegel is more aware than Kant that a self-conscious being is an embodied living creature as well as a bare 'I think', but it must be willing to risk the loss of its biological life in the defence of its objective authority. . . .