top of page

"Recognition": An Essay by Kristina Lepold (Keywords: Freedom; Agency; Personhood; Hegel; Honneth)


White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


As persons, we are constantly interacting with others. We are enmeshed in a whole web of relationships, some of which we actively choose, but many of which we cannot easily rid ourselves of. We are essentially social beings who do not exist outside of social relationships. Our social relationships are of paramount importance to our lives, providing us with reliable or unreliable information, opening up or failing to open up opportunities, or being instrumental for achieving aims which we cannot achieve alone. This essay, however, is about a distinct, and all too frequently overlooked, way in which we depend on the social relationships in which we are engaged: social relationships can be a source of recognition. As such, they impact profoundly on our ability to be truly free.


The idea that recognition is a crucial condition for true freedom or, put differently, that we can really be free only if we are recognised by others, is usually attributed to G. W. F. Hegel. This claim does not deny that we are capable of striving against difficult odds and lack of recognition from our peers and society in order to achieve some goal; rather, Hegel thought that such instances do not capture the experience of true freedom. In recent years, this idea has been prominently articulated by such thinkers as Charles Taylor, Axel Honneth, and Judith Butler. However, it is usually the lack of recognition, or disrespect, which draws our attention in everyday life – so it is here that I will begin.


***


Disrespect can take many forms. A homeless person who is ignored by passersby experiences disrespect. He is rendered invisible, no matter what he does or what happens to him. How the others act – or fail to act – in his presence makes it clear that he does not belong to the circle of people whose lives are deemed valuable. A philosophy professor who delivers a lecture and is then complimented by a male audience member on her dress experiences disrespect. The “compliment” suggests that what she has to say, her intellectual contribution, is not important.


A lack of awareness can be both passive and active; sometimes persons are not treated appropriately because certain facts about them are actively ignored.

In these examples, other people fail to respond to certain features of the person or do not take these features into account in their actions, when, all things considered, they ought to have done so. The features in question vary: they are culturally and socially variable, as cultures and societies offer different and constantly evolving ways for persons to be. And, depending on the situation, some features will be more relevant than others. In the above examples, the homeless person is a fellow human being with all the basic human and social needs that this entails, and the woman is a professional philosopher who works tirelessly to contribute to academic debates. Failures of recognition are failures of awareness. A lack of awareness – ignorance – can be both passive and active; sometimes persons are not treated appropriately because certain facts about them are actively ignored.

As Charles Taylor writes in his 1994 essay, “The Politics of Recognition”, disrespect “can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being”. Similarly, in his 1995 book The Struggle for Recognition, Axel Honneth observes that disrespect “injures” persons in their “positive understanding of themselves” or renders such a positive understanding impossible in the first place. Disrespect undermines a person’s capacity to realise themselves. When the audience member fails to acknowledge the professor’s intellectual contribution, and compliments her only on her outfit, he chips away at her understanding of herself as an important contributor to an academic debate. If enough people do this, her ability to relate to herself as an academic might be undermined. Disrespect can accumulate. The same is true of the homeless person. It is easy to imagine how the constant lack of regard of others will damage his view of himself as a fully-fledged human being. Disrespect can thus lead to dramatic consequences in a person’s life.


Recognition encourages persons to embrace who they are and to affirm this sense of self in the social world.

Honneth’s work is famous for reviving the Hegelian idea of a struggle for recognition. Honneth thinks that experiences of disrespect motivate persons to make claims on others to be seen and treated appropriately; in other words, to be recognised. As he puts it in The Struggle for Recognition, “the experience of disrespect … can provide the motivational impetus for social resistance and conflict, indeed, for a struggle for recognition”. However, in light of the potentially debilitating effects of disrespect, it is hard to see how persons can always find the strength to struggle and resist. More accurately, we might think that a person’s ability to develop and maintain a solid self-image and insist they deserve a specific kind of recognition is dependent on 1) the degree of disrespect they have endured, 2) their having access to a vocabulary in which they can voice their claims, and 3) receiving support from others.


As we have seen, to be recognised means to have relevant features of oneself seen and taken into account by others. It means that others act in ways that are responsive to or respectful of certain features of oneself. There is an echo here of an older discourse, going back to Immanuel Kant, about the intrinsic moral worth of human beings – their dignity – which demands respect. In contrast to Kant, however, recognition theorists stress that in our everyday lives we are usually more than abstract persons. Rather, we have a whole range of features, from the more intimate and personal to the more diffuse and social, which can be considered valuable and warrant certain responses by others. This is, if you like, a more richly interpersonal theory that foregrounds real people in real, dynamic interactions, rather than a detached or abstracted discussion about certain objective features of personhood that may, or may not, be worthy of dignity, e.g. the capacity for rational agency.


If disrespect renders persons potentially unable to relate to some of their own features in a meaningful way and to act on them, then recognition encourages persons to embrace who they are and to affirm this sense of self in the social world. In other words, recognition by others allows persons to fully realise themselves. Honneth describes the experience of recognition by saying that when we are recognised by others we are “able to perceive our surroundings as a space for the development of our personality”. Thus, recognition is a condition for freedom. Our capacity for self-realisation critically depends on social affirmation.


Certain types of social recognition can propel persons to adopt ways of being which may be harmful to themselves and to others.

This discussion of disrespect suggests that recognition depends on more than the good or bad intentions of others. Recognition usually relies on established ways of seeing and treating other persons which members of the social world adopt, whether consciously or unconsciously. In the case of the homeless person, it appears that what would need to change for this person to receive the respect he deserves as a human being are first and foremost the collective patterns of perception in relation to persons who have lost their home. Similarly, in the case of the female academic, what would need to change are the norms whereby women in public spaces are recognised less for what they do than for how they look while doing it. Persons generally rely on something we could call collective infrastructures of recognition to create the experience of true freedom in the social world. Seen in this light, recognition is not just a moral or ethical concept, but also, and perhaps primarily, a political concept.


***


This essay is only a sketch of the issues. By way of conclusion, it should be noted that recognition itself can sometimes be problematic, as the writings of Judith Butler suggest. For Butler, certain types of social recognition can propel persons to adopt ways of being which may be harmful to themselves and to others. Precisely because it is good for persons to be recognised, they can also be corrupted by recognition. Consider the social valuation of femininity, and how female-bodied persons who “fail” at being feminine are ridiculed and disparaged in the social world. Under these conditions, the prospect of receiving recognition as a “proper” woman exerts a strong pressure on many female-bodied persons to comply with prevalent norms of femininity. Complying with the latter and ultimately becoming “proper” women allows the persons in question to experience their surroundings as a space in which they can really be who they are. However, it can also make them act in ways that potentially disadvantage them, for instance by sexualising their bodies. Recognition can be ambivalent: it allows persons to realise themselves, but at the same time can have morally problematic consequences.

Kristina Lepold is Junior Professor of Social Philosophy and Critical Theory at Humboldt University Berlin. Among her publications are the edited volumes Recognition and Ambivalence (2021) and Debating Critical Theory: Engagements with Axel Honneth (2020) as well as the monograph Ambivalente Anerkennung (2021). Academic Homepage: https://www.philosophie.hu-berlin.de/en/sections/sozialphilosophie/kristina-lepold/prof-kristina-lepold

 

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

コメント


bottom of page