Andy Blunden November 2004


Recognition is one of the most important concepts of ethics, one which is specifically identified with the series of post-World War Two struggles from the National Liberation Movements, to the US Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement and the multiplicity of identity struggles which followed. Robert Williams’s 1992 “Recognition: Fichte and Hegel on the other,” and Charles Taylor, in his 1992 essay “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition” brought the term into the centre of the debate about identity politics and multiculturalism. Axel Honneth is a writer who is seeking to expand the concept of recognition to encompass the ethical aspect of all social conflict: “resistance to an established social order is always driven by the moral experience of in some respect not receiving what is taken to be justified recognition.” Ethical concepts do not simply sit side by side, without interconnection, and theorists need concepts which articulate across all specific ethical conceptions, but I question whether Recognition is suitable for such a role.

On what basis can such a judgment be made? Which concepts are important and which are secondary? A scientific approach to this question must be guided by the forms of objectification of ethics which are found, or are in the course of development in modern society, which actually perform the task of making ethical judgments in society and moderating social conflicts.

While the classification and description of such institutions and social movements is subject to ideological preference, and is a step removed from moral philosophy, the actual performance of institutions does provide objective criteria for resolving theoretical differences and testing hypotheses. Not all ethical activity is objectified in public institutions, and self-reporting by social actors of their motivations has a place, but institutions, social movements and customs must surely provide the foundation for the concepts to be brought to bear in political-ethical analysis. Reflection on the historical development of the institutions we find in the present world, can give us guidance on the typical mode of their genesis from pre-political activity and consciousness.

If a writer uses an ethical concept for which they can point to no institution or practice, no social movement which is regulated by that concept, other than academic literature, then the burden lies with that writer to bring such a social movement into being and demonstrate its validity by agitation.

And the same applies to theoretical generalisation. Axel Honneth is one among very many writers who see the sense of Justice at the root of all social conflicts. But the substantiation of such a view is not just an exercise in transcendental argument: the theoretical subsumption of social conflicts under a given generalisation such as Justice requires empirical substantiation by institutions or social movements which perform such a generalisation.

Nevertheless, let us confine ourselves to the domain of Justice for the moment and ask ourselves what institutions and social movements exist which provide an empirical and material basis for concepts of Justice at a level of generality like that of Recognition.

Recognition: as mentioned above, this concept entered the language, for all intents and purposes, with the National Liberation Movements, which provided an icon (in Peircean terms) of the Subject struggling for Recognition. Kojčve used the notion of Recognition drawn from Hegel’s Phenomenology to give it a symbolic form (again using Peirce’s term), and the post-world war two decades saw a multiplicity of subjects come forward and indexes, and specifically identified their situation with that of the slave struggling for emancipation according to the icon of the National Liberation Movements and theorised by Kojčve. It was above all, though not exclusively, the Women’s Movement which gave developed symbolic form to the concept of Recognition. Subsequently, the Recognition conception of Justice has been objectified in various kinds of non-discrimination laws and multicultural practices and policies by institutions, over and above the countless social movements which identify themselves under the notion of Recognition or its derivatives.

As I see it, it is these kinds of facts which substantiate Recognition as a real concept of Justice. Honneth has cited research to the effect that workers struggling for wage increases see the injustice of their situation, and always have, in terms of misrecognition, of the failure of society to give recognition to their personality and life-style through appropriate payment for their labour. I find this assertion convincing. On reflection, it coincides with experience and is a legitimate reading of the historical record. The late-medieval companies and guilds which represented the interests of the various trades would be today immediately recognisable as of the same genealogy as self-help groups, ethnic community groups and so on, which are identified as embryonic recognition claims.

As early as 1805, Hegel had written of the maser-slave relation which emerged as the result of growing inequality of wealth, so this relation had even been identified in the symbolic register. Nevertheless, it was not until very recently that the struggle against economic inequality was seen as subsumable under the notion of Recognition. Why is this? Because in the way the struggle for recognition historically emerged in the post-World War Two period it arose specifically in contradiction to the struggle of the organised industrial working class for wage justice, in protest against the Post-War compromise between imperialism and capitalism on one side, and the USSR and the workers’ movement on the other. That is to say, it was in that historical period, by definition not the struggle for wage justice and workers’ rights.

Once the various subjects identifying themselves in a struggle for recognition had created such a powerful and impressive archetype and achieved such substantial objectification in various forms of multiculturalism, anti-discrimination legislation and ingrained social practices and norms, it is no wonder that other subjects can so readily be seen and see themselves as embodiments of the same archetypal subject.

Redistribution: at first sight, “redistribution” might seem to be a thin and unconvincing concept to capture the 150-year struggle of the working class for justice, given that from its outset in the 1830s, the workers’ movement has identified itself with radical theories of socialist utopia, incorporating far-reaching visions of a cooperative human life and social progress, especially in the political domain. “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” is a slogan with a long history, but is far from being archetypal or hegemonic. It is impossible to imagine the workers’ movement separately from its identification with socialist political transformation.

Nevertheless, ideals are one thing, forms of objectification and the actual practice and achievements of social movements are something else. The most compelling evidence for the fact that Redistribution is a real concept of social justice are the redistributive taxation systems found in every country in the world, the various legislated minimum wages and industrial award systems, and the welfare systems found in almost every country, institutions dating back into the nineteenth century, and all resulting directly from the struggles of the organised working class. The objectification of a concept is not the same thing as the subjective form of the concept; the Subject was a struggle for socialism, the Object was a capitalist social system, and the resulting Idea was Redistributive Justice (here using Hegelian terminology).

Democracy: Another outcome of the struggle for Justice which dates from the beginning of the bourgeois epoch is the struggle for political justice, whose most substantial objectification is Universal Suffrage. The idea that every individual should have an equal voice in the affairs of the community is thoroughly objectified in modern society. No institution could give a clearer embodiment of the notion of individual rights than this one, as the vote is given not to collectives but only to individuals, even though there is no inherent barrier to collegiate voting. Whatever may be the faults of the various systems of universal suffrage, and there are many, the ubiquity of the idea of universal suffrage is proof that this individualist idea of political justice is very real.

The notion of political justice is objectified in two basic principles: that of majority rule (which was the dominant principle up until the post-World War Two period) and the principle of inclusion, that is, that every voice must be heard, even if it is a minority voice, embodied in the practice of consensus decision-making, and given particular force by the recognition struggles, which specifically represented those excluded from the dominant compromise. The principle of inclusion is not, however, exhausted by the principle of recognition. It seems to me that the two principles of political justice represent interactions of a single principle of political justice with two different principles of justice originating elsewhere. (The same can be said of the distinct principles of redistribution objectified in regressive taxation, on the one hand, and the welfare system on the other hand. Each of these institutions is the objectification, not of a separate principle of justice, but of a multiplicity of principles, subsumed within a single Notion of distributive justice. That is in the nature of objectification.)

Autonomy and Community: Reflection on the multiplicity of forms of injustice objectified in legal systems leads to the thought that the remaining conceptions of justice are better understood in terms of right and wrong, that is, conceptions of the rights of the person and derivatively, what constitutes wrongs against these rights. It seems to me that these wrongs point to two kinds of right: the right of individuals or Autonomy, and the rights of the Community. Individuals can be deemed to have committed a crime if they break a law reflecting the will of the community and/or if they violate the autonomy and personality of another person.

In this sense then, the notion of Justice can be seen to subsume notions of Autonomy and Community, as violations of the rights of either constitute an injustice and are punished as such through a civil court and police system.

What do we make then of claims for the social conditions for self-realisation, as objectified for example in the provision of public education systems in most developed capitalist countries, and pursuit of one’s concept of the Good as objectified in the proclamation of ceremonials holidays, legislation of dress codes and moral norms, etc.? The observations that Honneth reports of how the conception of right has broadened over the centuries to incorporate wider and wider domains of social life, from economic justice to political justice to social justice seem pertinent and convincing here. However, I doubt that they point to new principles of justice over and above those that have already been mentioned.

Honneth has remarked, and it seems hardly possible to contradict him on this, that “under the conditions of modern societies, every conception of justice must have an egalitarian character from the start.” In that sense then, any conception of justice can be framed in terms of an answer to the question of “Equality of what?” What is interesting here is that the archetypal redistributive answer to the question “equality of wealth” or “equality of income” is unconvincing. Neither wealth-egalitarianism nor income-egalitarianism is either an effective demand — in the sense that it will fail to deliver what it promises, nor a demand which is intuitively compelling.

Redistributive justice is a concept which has been the subject of historical and political critique from the standpoint of rival conceptions of justice. For example, wages legislation always incorporates notions of desert into wage differentials, as well as market ideas reflecting notions of employer autonomy.

The work of Amartya Sen is pertinent in this connection. Sen began in the 1950s as an advocate and theorist of distributive justice, and over a 50 year period, he subjected the redistributive responses to the question “equality of what?” to critique and arrived at the notion of “equality of critical voice” as the essential idea of justice, the essence of the demand for distributive justice, in fact.

Pierre Bourdieu took a different tack on the same problem, seeing that wealth was an inadequate measure of someone’s position in the social order and their capacity to subordinate others or resist subordination by others. He conceived of wealth as a combination of economic wealth, “cultural capital” and “social capital” with the clear implication that justice demanded an order in which the combination of these assets was equalised, thus removing the capacity of any person to subordinate another.

Nancy Fraser achieves the same coordination by a different route. Recognising two distinct folk paradigms of justice, broadly associated with the struggle against economic injustice on one side and cultural misrecognition on the other, Nancy Fraser looks to the notion of parity of participation and a measure of equality which appears to have intuitive traction across different paradigms of justice. This implies that “participation” is the essential relation which underlies ideas of economic and cultural equality, from which the latter can be seen as derivative.

The historic shift from economic equality to political equality to social equality also manifests a process of critique articulated on an historical scale. There is a strong sense in which Recognition arose as a critique of the Post-WW2 settlement performed by those who had been excluded. By “critique” I mean theoretical and practical criticism which not only proves that the given proposition is irrational, but brings forward an alternative principle which maintains what was rational in the principle which is thereby not defeated and discarded, but rather surpassed. This makes it possible to see how in retrospect, struggles for redistribution can come to be seen as essentially struggles for recognition, how struggles for economic equality give way to struggles for political equality and thus to social equality, for it is only by such a shift that the essential content of the original demand can be sustained.

In arguing in this way for a conception of justice as rooted in the real struggles of social movements and objectified in institutions, rather than being confined to logical relations between conceptions existing entirely in the realm of ideas, I must rely on a methodology which is able to articulate between, on the one hand, the symbolic order literally so constituted, in the form of ideas, rules, laws, names, customs, languages, and so forth, normally the object of philosophical or logical consideration, and on the other hand, social movements, institutions, social practices, psychology and so on, which are normally the objects of social and psychological science.

However, this is not the only gap to be bridged. None of the theoretical concepts with which we might be concerned make any sense at all except insofar as they can be performed by individual subjects, and this goes equally as much for talk of political and social institutions as it does for theoretical entities.

Attempts to accomplish this bridging by subsuming individuals under specialised sciences like psychology, while other sciences like sociology or political science are reserved for the study of social life can only demonstrate, not solve, the problem. Concepts which hover over human life as tools of the theorist, without roots in the activity of individuals themselves whether engaged in ethical intuitions or in social practices, then they are of precious little use.

Every concept brought to bear in articulating between the principles which motivate social movements and practices and the movements and practices themselves must be itself conceived as a unity of concept, individual and social relation, in itself. I rely on my reading of Hegel to accomplish this coordination, and in particular the admittedly little-understood doctrine of the Subjective Notion. However, the same task has been approached by other writers, amongst whom I should mention, in semiology, Charles Sanders Peirce with his icon, symbol and index, and in psychology, the Vygotsky School, though there are others. As each of these three theoretical traditions acknowledge, icon, symbol and index (individual, universal and particular) each have a separate existence and trajectory, but the crucial moment in the development of any notion (read social movement or person) is the coincidence icon, symbol and index.

In my opinion, any social theorist who clings to some kind of nominalism in epistemology and individualism in social theory must necessarily flounder in a study of fundamental problems of political ethics.

For Honneth, for example, “subject” is a synonym for “individual” and movements and institutions are conceived of as “collectives,” by which he seems to understand either abstract general categories, that is to say, sets of individuals sharing an attribute in common, or reified concepts which have an unmediated duplicate existence, on the one hand in people’s minds and on the other hand in a naturalised social life-world.

Honneth is right in seeking a social-psychology to underpin assertions about moral philosophy. It is difficult to conceive of an applied theory of moral philosophy which did not in some way rely on or take for granted some theory of how people form ethical intuitions. Since for Honneth, collectives are either individuals grouped together in a set, or objects which can be sensuously perceived by individuals, he is all the more obliged to rely on some kind of psychological theory to substantiate his ethics. However, the cognitive social psychology cannot be one which transcends his own conceptual boundaries, and he has gone only as far as American Pragmatism, a school of psychology which was ground-breaking in its day, but individualistic and blind to cultural-historical mediation.

If the decline of orthodox “marxism” is to teach us anything, it would surely be that a social and political theory which left no place for the individual is no longer tenable. And this is by no means a statement in support of liberal individualism; popular support for a head of state elected by popular suffrage rather than by the elite, and the focus of election campaigns on the personality of the leader, hark back to Hegel’s defence of the hereditary head of state. Political communication always needs a human face for the very good reason that it is only to the extent that an idea can be given the form of a human individual that it is really meaningful. This is one of the meanings of ethical politics.

One of the conclusions of For Ethical Politics was that Recognition is a paradigm characteristic of a certain period of the history of western bourgeois society, and that this period has come to an end with the rise of alliance politics, on the exhausted body of a multiplicity of recognition struggles. To say this, no more implies that Recognition is obsolete, than to proclaim Recognition as the dominant principle implies that Redistribution is obsolete. It does however point to a crisis of some kind in recognition politics and the need to transcend Recognition with a different paradigm of justice.

In my view, critical voice, parity of participation and democratic justice are expressions, coming from different theoretical directions, of a shift to a different paradigm which is sublating (i.e., surpassing and negating while including) both recognition and redistribution paradigms of justice.

Hegel’s idea of Recognition

The master-slave dialectic upon which Kojčve built the modern theory of Recognition belongs to Hegel’s “subjective logic,” the stage in which the theoretical attitude and practical attitude are differentiated from each other. This separation, which is the precondition for modern society, arises from the unmediated confrontation between two subjects, in which one subject subjugates the other. It is an exceptional passage precisely because it deals with unmediated opposition, whereas mediation is a ubiquitous theme in Hegel’s work. In fact, however, this confrontation is mediated, because the subjects confronting one another are duplicated as subjective and objective subjects, and the subjectivity or objectivity of one subject mediates between the objectivity and subjectivity of the other.

For example, the colonialist arrives on the shores of a foreign land; the culture, language and religion of the colony (their subjectivity) are destroyed, but the labour of the colonised (their objectivity) is subordinated by the coloniser and transformed into an objectification of the colonialists’ needs and appropriated. Conversely, the colonialists’ subjectivity directs the labour of the colonised, rather than their own needs and consciousness. The theory/practice split thus introduces mediation in the relation between the two mutually estranged subjects.

There is a lot more to this story which has been retold in countless versions. My only point is that what appears initially as the unmediated contact between two subjects, turns out to be a thoroughly mediated relation. In a culture of rampant individualism however, this essentially mediated relation is transformed into simple intersubectivity, a two-sided relation in which mediation is made invisible. This gutting of Hegel’s concept of Recognition is achieved by eradicating Hegel’s idea of the isolated subjects as duplicated subjects, simultaneously objective (land, animals, tools, speaking, icons, writings, etc) and subjective (thinking, feelings, beliefs, perceptions, will, etc); for the isolated subject, living in the traditional way, there is no differentiation between the objective and subjective forms. Consequently, for the isolated subject, there can be no real differentiation between the universal (the entire culture which is sustained by the life activity of a people), the particular (the activities, relations and collectivities by means of which individuals sustain the culture) and the finite individual (who acts out the universal in particular activities). Only by means of this three-sided relation in which each pair is mediated by the third, can modern consciousness be enacted, with the theoretical and practical attitudes separated.

Once torn out of its context within the Hegelian system, the concept of Recognition is therefore transformed into a simple relation of self and other, dominant and dominated; simultaneously, the subjective and objective aspects of subjectivity are separated from each other and placed into separate realms in which the active role of a subject in constructing and acting-out the object-world is obliterated, and the problem of perception becomes a mind-matter problem. The concrete universal notions by means of which Hegel understood social relations are therefore necessarily replaced by abstract general “collections” of individuals, and Hegel’s essential insight has been obliterated.

That the concept of Recognition by means of which the post-World War Two social movements theorised themselves is so remote from the Hegelian original doesn’t really matter, except to the extent that it acts as a barrier to understanding Hegel’s insights, which appear as a kind of religious dogma, once the underlying logic has been taken away. The concept of Recognition functioned nonetheless as an effective symbol of the emancipatory struggles of that period.

It is nevertheless worth restoring the Hegelian concept of the subject because in Hegel’s hands this concept incorporated concepts of both distributive justice and legal/cultural recognition; the subsequent discovery that reward for labour was a form of recognition was already known to Hegel. Hegel’s concept of subjectivity therefore supplies a theoretical framework in which these two concepts of justice can be articulated. Political justice is also incorporated within the Hegelian concept of subjectivity as outlined in the Objective Logic (a.k.a. Philosophy of Right). On this basis, I think Hegel’s concept of Subject has value as a theoretical framework for analysis of the different dimensions of justice. Hegel died in 1831, before any independent movement of workers or oppressed nationalities manifested itself, and Hegel’s own use of these concepts could go no further than the conceptions of justice known to early-19th century Europe. So what we can find in Hegel is only the most abstract theoretical tools.

The Current Juncture

It could strike one as odd to be talking about justice today, because political life in the western capitalist countries is so far removed from anything resembling a rational pursuit of justice. Governments freely visit injustices upon the poorest in their own countries and whole populations in other parts of the world, with the consent of a majority of the population.

Universal suffrage and globalisation have made people participants in and victims of injustices over domains which are beyond their ability to understand or control. Nevertheless, few are indifferent to the demands of justice, provided both the claimant and the citizen whose solidarity is demanded have an effective voice in a relevant forum.

The problem is to formulate claims which are capable of constituting communities of solidarity in which very diverse conceptions of the good, and very diverse forms of fear and suffering, provide a basis for negotiating common rules and boundaries. This is the task of justice today: the constitution of subjects, within which individuals can develop autonomy in their relations with others, and between which mutual respect and esteem can be established.

See Analysis of Nancy Fraser’s Status model of Recognition and Subjectivity, Recognition and Objectification, in which I further develop the notion of Recognition in terms of subjectivity.