Hegel’s ethical, epistemological, and political notion of mutual recognition has its roots in his early writings, predating the Phenomenology of Spirit, and is most famously developed in the Phenomenology itself. Some older commentators claimed that in the late period of the Encyclopedia and Philosophy of Right, Hegel turned his back on this grounding in intersubjectivity in favor of what Robert Pippin calls “a grand metaphysical process, an Absolute Subject’s manifestation of itself, or a Divine Mind’s coming to self-consciousness” (Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, p. 184). Pippin thinks those writers were “insufficiently attentive to the unusual foundations of the mature theory of ethical life, or to Hegel’s theory of spirit (Geist) and so the very unusual account of freedom that position justifies” (p. 185; for other aspects of Pippin’s reading, see Naturalness, Mindedness; Self-Legislation?; Actualization of Freedom; Hegel on Willing).
What Hegel calls “true” or “concrete” individuality “should not be confused with questions of pre-reflexive self-familiarity, self-knowledge, existential uniqueness, personal identity, psychological health, and so forth” (pp. 185-186). The concrete individual for Hegel is an ethical being, i.e., a being to be understood through her actions and commitments, and as such embedded, ramified, and temporally extended — anything but an atom “acting” instantaneously in a vacuum. It is this ethical being — not factual existence — that is constituted by mutual recognition.
Pippin notes that recognition of others as “free” as an ethical aim is not directed at meeting any psychological need for recognition. (Certainly it is also not about believing they have arbitrary free will. Rather, it is to be identified with an elementary requirement of Kantian respect for others as a starting point for ethics.)
Pippin agrees with Ludwig Siep — a pioneer of scholarship on recognition in Hegel — that Hegel “understood himself to have clarified and resolved the great logical problems caused by the sort of relational claim implicit in a radical theory of the constitutive function of recognition (wherein the relata themselves, or agents, are ultimately also relational) in his account of ‘reflection’ in particular and the ‘logic of essence’ in general” (p. 183n).
The freedom said to be the essence of spirit — which emerges concretely from mutual recognition — involves a mediated relation to one’s own “individual immediacy”. Mediation grounds reason, which grounds universality (in the mid-range Aristotelian rather than the unconditional Kantian sense, as distinguished in Self-Legislation?), which grounds the actualization of freedom.
Hegel is quoted saying “in an ethical act I make not myself but the issue itself the determining factor” (p. 192). This is the perspective he identifies with “ethical life”. “When I will what is rational, I act not as a particular individual, but in accordance with the notions of ethical life in general” (ibid).
To interpret ourselves and others as ethical beings or “respectfully” is to understand ourselves and them as each “freely” acting from an ethos, in the sense that we genuinely share in it by virtue of “willingly” and actually acting on it — and that is genuinely ours by the fact that we have thus willingly taken it up, whoever “we” may turn out to be — rather than treating action as a matter of our empirical selves causing things and/or being caused to be in a certain way, and freedom as a matter of power-over.
Hegelian freedom is never an intrinsic property of a substance or subject; it is an achievement, and what is more, that achievement always has a certain fragility, or possibility of losing itself. The acting self “can only be said to be such a self when [it acknowledges] its dependence on others in any determination of the meaning of what is done” (p. 200). For Hegel, what agency consists in is thus not a “metaphysical or substantive question” (p. 204). Instead, it involves a kind of non-arbitrariness or responsiveness to reasons. It seems to me one might say it is a sort of procedural criterion.
Hegel is quoted saying “In right, man must meet with his own reason… The right to recognize nothing that I do not perceive as rational is the highest right of the subject” (p. 244). Pippin continues, “Further, it is not sufficient merely that subjects actually have some sort of implicit, subjective faith in the rectitude of their social and political forms of life, that they in fact subjectively assent….. What I need to be able to do to acknowledge a deed as my own… is in some way to be able to justify it” (pp. 245-246). “It is never a good reason simply to say, ‘This is how we do things'” (p. 266). For Brandom’s take on the same aspects of Hegel, see Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Mutual Recognition.)