Freedom from False Freedom

This is just a tricky phrase rather than a new idea, but the idea is vital.

No person or institution has a “right” to do arbitrary things. Here, “arbitrary” means having no justification by ethical reason broadly construed. It thus applies to things like disrespecting others, or engaging in wanton destruction. Freedom should not be allowed to serve as a cover for unethical action.

With regard to wanton destruction, I would point out that we have no right to destroy the planet we live on. This raises issues of diffuse, expansive responsibility that no one wants to deal with, and for which most people at least cannot be individually blamed.

We all need to take more responsibility in cases where we could not be blamed for failing to do so. (See also Expansive Agency; Freedom Without Sovereignty; Mutual Recognition; Stubborn Refusal; Economic Rationality?)

Habermasian Recognition

I have not engaged a lot with the work of Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929), but he is well known for promoting a version of mutual recognition.

At a very preliminary level, it seems he relies more on a presumption of abstract equality between participants, where Brandom incorporates consideration of their actual performance (see Scorekeeping). Habermas has also tended to assume that full consensus is the only desirable outcome, whereas Brandom takes a more positive view of clarifications that do not lead to consensus.

Habermas is a prolific writer, so I may be missing something mitigating, but both these differences seem to me to make the Žižekian criticisms of mutual recognition more applicable to the Habermasian version than to the Brandomian one.

Mutual Recognition Revisited

There are actually two distinct senses of mutual recognition.

The first is an ethical ideal with roots in Aristotle’s discussion of friendship and love, as generalized by Fichte, and especially Hegel. Brandom and others consider it central to the understanding of what Hegel was really trying to do. (See also Recognition; Kantian Respect; Trust as a Principle).

The second is a nonreductive meta-ethical theory of how normativity or the “ought” in general comes to be. Such a theory was broadly suggested by Hegel, and has been recently developed in great detail by Brandom. It addresses the emergence of normativity, but bootstraps itself from within the domain of a clarified understanding of normativity itself. Other accounts of the emergence of normativity have generally explained it in terms of something else, effectively reducing the “ought” to some kind of facts.

While I don’t see how anyone could reasonably object to the first, the second is an extensive, highly original, many-faceted theoretical account building on the first that no one could be expected to fully grasp on merely hearing it mentioned. I think its combination of detail and coherence is an amazing and unprecedented accomplishment, confirming Brandom’s place among the greatest philosophers who could be counted on one hand, but it takes real work to assimilate.

Stubborn Refusal

Under an ideal of mutual recognition, what are we supposed to do with those who stubbornly refuse to participate, say by persistently disrespecting certain categories of people, or persistently disrespecting us in particular? What is a kind person to do when confronted with, say, Nazis? How do we deal with questions like this at a societal level? There is no easy general answer. As a child confronted by schoolyard bullies, I always turned the other cheek. This allowed me the kind of pride I cared more about, but not one of the bullies saw the errors of their ways as a result.

At a societal level, I don’t advocate affording one-sided recognition to those who consistently refuse to recognize others. What’s difficult is defining objective criteria that would yield the right outcome in all cases. For example, in the case of actual Nazis, I am more concerned that people ought to defend themselves against them than to protect the civil liberties of Nazis. There is a slippery slope here though, raising the classic question of who is to guard the guardians. In the 1960s, U.S. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover claimed that the pacifistic civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. was a dangerous subversive. This was patently outrageous, but there are many other cases in between, and I don’t claim to know how to account for all of them. (See also Kantian Respect; Fragility of the Good; Evil?)


I’d like to say a few words about the kind of recognition involved in Hegelian mutual recognition, and in particular to distinguish it from the ideological interpellation described by Louis Althusser in 1970. I wonder if some of the continentally inclined people who object to a stress on mutual recognition are actually misunderstanding it to mean something like mutual ideological interpellation.

Althusserian interpellation is a specific kind of recognition oriented toward the fixing of personal identity. On this model, people are socially “recognized” as who they are through associating them with preconceptions of their identity. According to Althusser’s analysis, this kind of fixing of personal identity plays a major role in reinforcing the existing social status quo. Thus, people concerned with promoting social justice have naturally considered it an obstacle to be overcome.

In sharp contrast to this, the kind of recognition involved in Hegelian mutual recognition is grounded in Kantian ethical respect for people. This has nothing to do with the details of who they are. It is based on the generic fact that they are rational animals like us, so no fixing of identity is involved. On this latter model, people are “recognized” through being treated with consideration. This also means it has nothing to do with the kind of specific claims involved in so-called identity politics.

Mutual recognition is basically mutual respect. I find it hard to imagine how anyone could find such an ideal objectionable. It is of course supposed to be genuinely mutual. If someone fails to truly recognize someone else based on some spurious ground such as race, then there is by definition no mutual recognition in that case, which means that on the mutual recognition model, something is broken that implicitly calls out for change. (See also Fragility of the Good; Stubborn Refusal.)

Freedom Without Sovereignty

Talk about freedom tends to be terribly ambiguous. Do we mean freedom from compulsion, or freedom from determination, or freedom resulting from some positive power? Do we mean anything other than complete unfreedom, or a super-strong total freedom, or something in between?

As to the last question, we ought at least to avoid claiming we are subject to an overly strong unfreedom, without claiming we possess an overly strong freedom. There is an Aristotelian mean here waiting to be clarified.

A first step toward such a clarification is to recognize that freedom ought not to be understood as implying something like sovereignty. Sovereignty is a kind of unconditional, total, exclusive authority or power over a domain. I want to say that nothing in the real world really does or ought to work like that. True freedom involves freedom from this kind of false freedom.

Historically, theories of sovereignty trace back to the absolute and arbitrary power attributed to the Roman emperors. The modern concept of sovereignty originated in arguments for absolute monarchy, e.g., by Jean Bodin in the late 16th century. In later political thought, the notion of sovereignty was transferred to the state as an institution, or in Rousseau’s case to a supposed general will of the people. To the extent that sovereignty of nations really just implies a kind of respect, it is unobjectionable, but to the extent that it is taken to imply a right to do arbitrary things, it is harmful.

Modern notions of individual unilateral rights, while in many cases referring to things that ought to be protected and respected more than they are, are a bad theoretical basis for good ethical concern. The notion of unilateral rights is implicitly grounded in a notion of sovereignty of each individual over a certain domain. At best, rights are a safeguard against failures of mutual recognition and Kantian respect for people, which ought to come first.

We need to think about responsibility in ways that do not presuppose that we must have some kind of sovereignty in order to be responsible. (See also Rationality; Choice, Deliberation; Brandomian Choice; Kantian Freedom; Freedom Through Deliberation?; Free Will and Determinism; Freedom and Free Will; Desire of the Master; Independence, Freedom; Ego; Euthyphro; Strong Omnipotence; Tyranny.)

Pinkard on Spirit of Trust

Terry Pinkard’s contribution to the recent, rather negatively skewed collection Reading Brandom offers a judicious and measured critique of Brandom’s reading of Hegel in A Spirit of Trust. I previously commented on Pinkard’s separate book review, which was a bit more sharply worded, and covers some of the same points in more detail. I’ll focus here on a couple of further matters.

Pinkard nicely develops the contrast between Fichtean and Hegelian accounts of mutual recognition. For Fichte, a denial of the need for mutual recognition would simply be a philosophical error. Hegel went further, in maintaining that the slave society that institutionalized such a denial was ultimately unable to make sense of itself by its own criteria.

Somewhat my surprise, Pinkard objects to what he takes to be Brandom’s reading of the Spirit chapter of the Phenomenology in terms of Kantian or Fichtean transcendental philosophy. He takes this to mean that Hegel’s apparent historical references must on Brandom’s reading be taken to have only an allegorical significance. It is true that the transcendental has no historical dimension in Kant or Fichte. But according to Brandom, “Hegel brings the normative down to earth by explaining discursive norms as the products of social practices…. the diachronic historical dimension of recognitive communities is at the center of Hegel’s story” (Spirit of Trust, pp. 12, 14). Brandom’s Hegel’s transcendental is linguistic, social, and historical.

Pinkard correctly points out that historical development does not follow the principles of what Brandom calls a forgiving Hegelian genealogy, which Brandom likes to explain by analogy with the retrospective evaluations of case law in jurisprudence. I don’t think Brandom meant this as an account of the objective sequence of historical development, but rather as a guiding ideal for the retrospective interpretations we use in understanding cumulative results embodied in the present.


Plato diagnosed tyranny as first and foremost an affliction of the soul. Socrates in Plato’s Republic characterizes the tyrannical soul by a malformed desire that strongly resists any kind of balanced consideration of other factors. This kind of desire wants its way immediately and unconditionally.

The tyrannical soul wants a kind of unquestioning recognition from others, without reciprocally recognizing them. This kind of attitude represents the opposite end of the spectrum from what Aristotle called magnanimity or great-souledness; rather, it is characteristic of the attitude of Mastery denounced by Hegel. Unfortunately, modern egoism, with its emphasis on a narrow kind of self, tends to devolve in this direction. (See also Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

While a tyrannical soul may be an Aristotelian cause of particular unjust acts, this does not mean that injustice as a whole is reducible to matters of individual character. Injustice is not just caused by the bad acts of individuals, but also often involves institutions and social structure, which have their persistence in part from a kind of materiality of their own.


Having just mentioned Johan Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) again, I owe him a dedicated note. Along with Karl Reinhold (1757 – 1823), Fichte played a major role in promoting the philosophy of Kant, and helped shape the further development of German idealism, but Kant studiously avoided endorsing his interpretation. Recent scholarship has greatly enriched the historical picture of Fichte’s development.

In the early works for which he is best known, Fichte strove to simplify and systematize the Critical philosophy. In so doing, he made a number of important changes that have affected the reception of Kant ever since. For one thing, influenced by Reinhold, he wanted to derive everything from a single, simple principle. For Fichte, this was a transcendental Subject or “I” endowed with very strong unity and infinite freedom. Contrary to Kant, he suggested there could be a limited kind of intellectual intuition, applying only to the Subject. Meanwhile, he denied the reality of the “thing in itself” that Kant always insisted on. He also presented himself as a sort of polar opposite of Spinoza.

These moves gave him a reputation for extreme subjectivism, but recent scholarship has shown that Fichte at least worked very hard to avoid this sort of consequence. His “I” was supposed to be universal and to incorporate all sorts of epistemological scruples, and in spite of rejecting a thing-in-itself, he also wrote extensively about a “not-I” that the “I” was supposed to recognize. He partly anticipated Hegel’s later notion of mutual recognition, but Hegel also famously criticized any simple opposition of “I” and “not-I”.

Assuming that Fichte successfully avoided crude subjectivism, he still stands as an archetype of a subject-centered philosopher, very far from the vision pursued here of doing full justice to subjectivity without postulating a foundational Subject.

Rational or Ecstatic?

Reason takes us outside of ourselves, which is the literal meaning of “ecstatic”. Obviously I have in mind here more than just logical operations. It is going outside of our narrower selves into the field of values and entering into the inclusive universal community of mutual recognition that makes us fully human. The universal community only has a virtual existence, so it is up to us to help make it real through our actions and way of life. We can do this in part by treating others in our lives as part of that community, and in part through our own internal dialogue. The less inner noise and turbulence we have, the easier this will be.

The indwelling in us of ethos or Hegelian Spirit is an infinite journey. The journey itself is the goal.