Identification as Valuation

It might seem as though the sort of categorial interpretation of experience and general application of concepts as practiced by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason were a purely cognitive affair. Many older readings took it that way, and the passages I quoted from Longuenesse’s commentary don’t explicitly dispel such a notion. My very compressed comparison with Aristotle suggests a reconciliation of Aristotelian practical judgment or phronesis with Kantian judgment, but this relies on an implicit view of the unity of Kant’s thought, partially developed elsewhere. The thrust of it is to overlay the cognitive judgment of the first Critique with the teleological and aesthetic judgment of the Critique of Judgment, and then to read the ethical works in terms of that combined notion.

As a concrete example of how the kind of identification of objects dealt with in the first Critique takes on a valuational angle, Brandom cites the identification of a German by a French person as a “boche” or thick-head, a derogatory term from World War I. This immediately suggests many similar examples of prejudice about various alleged “kinds” of people. Brandom argues that even just by the criteria of logical analysis in Kant’s first Critique, the ethically objectionable “boche” and similar terms are not valid concepts at all. They are a kind of false conceptual “universals” that do not reflect any valid generalization, but are only possible with a sort of poor logical hygiene. This shows that such practices of identification are far from neutral. Identification is after all kind of recognition, and Fichte and especially Hegel developed the ethical consequences of this.

Even claims and classifications that are valuationally neutral in themselves can be made in bad faith for some ulterior motive, but the validity of logical operations applied to the real world implicitly presupposes the ethical criterion that we make our judgments in good faith.

Self, Recognition, Work

“Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognized'” (Hegel, Phenomenology, Baillie trans., p. 229).  Thus Hegel begins the “Self-Consciousness” division, which in the final version of his outline occupies the remainder of the book.

Looking forward, Harris comments “‘Recognition’ is the Concept of Spirit as such.  We are going to observe the motion of this Concept which is a ‘multi-sided and multi-significant complexity'” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 344). 

Its ethical destiny is to become mutual recognition, but it begins as a deformed self-will.  “We must realize that we are concerned with the pure self-will that has been communally designated as ‘original sin’, and that will typically designate itself as absolute virtue or duty (because it cannot have any other social justification)” (p. 353).

“When I recognize what I want to be in someone else, then I have ‘come out of myself’.  The attraction (which is all that was attended to in the desiring posture) reveals itself first to be ‘self-repulsion’.  The self that I presently am, I do not want.  I have lost myself.  Empirically I could be in despair.  Those who recognize their ideal self in another sometimes are in despair.  But logically the other side of the truth is more dangerous.  As the object of my desire, what I see out there is not another independent self, but only a passive essence waiting for me to take possession of it.  Actually, however, my relationship with that other self is more complicated.  The self I want to emulate is not simply an object.  She has to make herself into an object for my sake.  If I am to know how to achieve what I want, she must help me, she must negate herself willingly and be at my disposal.  But she may not see herself as the self that I see; or she may not want to be that.  Above all, she may not want to help me to become that self” (p. 345).

Hegel famously discusses a life-and-death struggle that leads to servitude.  The experience of servitude, however, will turn out to contain a vital key to further development.  Labor provides a concrete model not only for the “constructive” role of the mind in interpreting things and the various practical constraints on doing this well, but also for the acquisition of skills, and for work on oneself.

In Harris’ words, “Serfdom reduces the free human agent to a thing.  The serf himself is property for the free self-consciousness of his lord….  In place of the one thing and its many properties we have the one free self and his many serfs.”

“But there is a much more significant inversion of Perception here.  Perception ‘takes the truth from things’ as they are given.  But the human thing makes the truth of things, by controlling their properties.  Serfdom is a new relation of the perceiving mind to its truth….  The lord turns the serf into a thing; but then in his labor the serf turns himself into a made thing.  He trains himself into the shape of the practical Understanding” (p. 366).

“The [being-for-self] of the serf is different from that of the lord, because it is incorporated in his body — a laboring instrument which has ‘independent being’ for him.  The being-for-self of the lord is just his commanding voice” (ibid). 

“Through the laboring activity pure being-for-self comes to be a subsisting thing” (p. 367).

“Hegel’s reason for holding that the fear of death is essential to the right comprehension of the cycle at its finite climax is now fairly easy to graph, even if we do not find it convincing.  Without the daily piecemeal discipline of obedience, the serf would never come to regard everything he touches as belonging to the lord and hence requiring to be treated with absolute respect….  If the sheep were his own, then his private interest, which Hegel calls ‘a vain sense of one’s own’, would have to be dominant.  The discipline of service creates ultimately the recognition that the object has its own good, its own sense” (p. 369).

“And even if the Hellenic (or more precisely the Platonic) conviction abides with us — the conviction that spontaneous ‘desire’ can be developed into ever higher degrees of ‘love’, and that love not fear is the true road to practical objectivity — still we cannot deny that the ‘fear of the Lord’ (both the earthly and the heavenly Judge) has in fact been crucial to the evolution of our presently more fraternal (but how feebly effective) value-consciousness” (p. 370).

I think it’s also worth noting implications of this second beginning.  Hegel’s approach is clearly developmental and in that sense “historical”, but it clearly does not follow a linear path that could correspond to a single progression in time.  We just completed an arc from simple sensation to mathematical physics, and now we are beginning a new ethical arc, starting from the quasi-mythical origin of lordship and servitude.

On the other hand, I think Hegel actually thinks real human consciousness is always already self-consciousness, and actually considers the separate treatment of mere “consciousness” to be artificial.  The ethical part of the book covers his main intent; the whole previous arc was a kind of preamble.

Ricoeur on Recognition

Paul Ricoeur’s very last book The Course of Recognition (French ed. 2004) is a fascinating discussion of the history and variety of concepts of recognition in philosophy, from judgments of identification of things in general to Hegel’s ethical principle of mutual recognition. It is full of insightful remarks on the history of concepts of self, from Homer and Sophocles to Bergson and Husserl. I am myself especially interested in further progress that takes Hegel’s ethical principle as a starting point and is essentially unrelated to concerns of identification, but for its intended scope this is a fine study. Even recognition in the sense of identification turns out to be ramified in all sorts of interesting ways.

The introduction is devoted to a highly nuanced discussion of treatments of the word “recognition” in two large-scale French dictionaries that each included many literary citations, somewhat like the Oxford English Dictionary does. (Of course, as Ricoeur warned, lexicography does not directly translate into philosophy.) The 19th century Littré dictionary gave 23 distinct meanings for recognition, and attempted to show their interconnection in a “rule-based polysemy”. The 20th century Robert evinced a different theory of the interconnection of the different meanings. In both cases, a sort of lexicographical equivalent of the Thomistic doctrine of analogy seems to me to be at work, presenting the diverse meanings as unified after all, by means of a sort of ordered series.

The problem with such an emphasis on recovering unity through analogy is that it tends to reduce away the kind of non-univocity that Aristotle was so careful to point out. In the main body of the book, Ricoeur developed a similar ordered series from philosophical senses of recognition, attempting to connect the final ethical notion of mutual recognition back to purely cognitive or epistemic judgments of identity of things in general, using a discussion of what he calls self-recognition as a capable human being (via his notions of ipse identity and narrative identity of personal selves from Oneself as Another) as a sort of middle term to connect them. In the earlier book, narrative identity was itself supposed to be a sort of mean between the logical identity associated with sameness, on the one hand, and ethical notions of self-constancy and promise keeping that he developed there, on the other. (See also Solicitude.)

Although I think Ricoeur’s notions of self-constancy and promise-keeping are quite valuable and are indeed related to the ethical principle in mutual recognition, I would myself emphasize the difference between these concerns — which seem to pertain to the integrity of ethical beings — and concerns pertaining to the identification of individuals. One seems to address a kind of ethical substantiality associated with responsibility, whereas the other seems to address a kind of uniqueness. I don’t really see any mean between these, but rather an interweaving of strands that remain distinct. (But see Self, Infinity for a new insight on what Ricoeur was aiming at here.)

Nonetheless, the ramifications of the sense of “recognition” that starts from mere identification show how even a narrow concern with logical identity can be broadened in all sorts of unexpected ways. At the dictionary level, the ordered series progresses from recognition of sameness through various shadings of recognition of truth, then to various avowals and confessions, and finally to appreciation and gratitude.

The book’s main philosophical discussion moves from the technical role of an identity-related “synthesis of recognition” in Kant’s account of processes of synthesis, through the aforementioned discussion of notions of self, to an account of Hegelian mutual recognition as an alternative to Hobbes’ famous thesis of the state of nature as a war of all against all, and more positively in terms of Axel Honneth’s emphasis on an emergence of mutual recognition from an underlying “struggle” for recognition.

Ricoeur points out that even Descartes said judgments of identity are inseparable from judgments of difference. Augustine’s view of time as internal to the soul — in contrast to Aristotle, who associated time with a measure of externally perceptible change — is presented as a step toward modern forms of subjectivity, which Locke’s explicit association of personal identity with consciousness and continuity of memory is taken to successfully consummate, in spite of various paradoxes with which it is associated.

Historically this seems right, but to my surprise Ricoeur seems to have viewed it as progress toward a better understanding, whereas I see in early modernity an immense new confusion of subjectivity with selfhood that only began to be sorted out again with Kant and Hegel. “There is no doubt that we owe the decisive impulse in the direction of a what I propose calling hermeneutics of self to the Cartesian philosophy of the cogito and Locke’s theory of reflection” (p. 89; emphasis in original). I would agree as far as a decisive impulse in the direction of emphasis on self is concerned, but I think the confusion of subjectivity with selfhood has greatly impeded understanding of both. (See also Self, Subject.)

In this same context, Ricoeur speaks of Kant’s “effacement of ipseity in the treatment of moral autonomy” (p. 90). I would rather speak of his salutary separation of moral autonomy from notions of self. Moral autonomy is related to our integrity and substantiality as ethical beings — to what we really care about, specifically as made clear by how we show that care in our lives. Our ethical substance is actualized in the adverbial “how” of that care. Other biographical details that contribute to making us distinguishable from others are not really relevant to that.

I also think we love someone first of all in response to that “how” of their caring, and then because we love them for that, other details about them become dear to us.

Though broadly endorsing the ethical concept of mutual recognition, Ricoeur seems to have had a worry about its emphasis on reciprocity, related to his acceptance of Lévinas’ idea of an asymmetrical priority of the Other. I don’t understand this. Mutual recognition applies to relations between rational animals; it does not apply to the kind of relation to God that Lévinas often had in mind. It may well be appropriate to say that each participant should in various ways put consideration of the other before self, but in turn, the other should also do the same. An asymmetry in each direction is perfectly compatible with a symmetry between the directions.

Ricoeur did not live to see Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust, where the ethical concept of mutual recognition finally becomes a guiding criterion for judgment in general, and for the grounding of objectivity in general. I think he would have been highly intrigued by this landmark development. (See also Ricoeurian Ethics.)

Recognition, Identity

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy confirms that so-called “identity politics” has penetrated into contemporary philosophical discussions of recognition more than I had realized. It seems to me anything aimed at recognition of preconceived, contentful identities of existing selves has far less emancipatory potential than the generic Kantian respect for rational animals and open-ended, deconstructive Socratic question and answer that is at the core of what I call mutual recognition. (See also Trust as a Principle; Scorekeeping; Habermasian Recognition.)

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.)