Andy Blunden. Hegel Summer School 2005

Subjectivity, Recognition and Objectification

The Subject

I want to talk about the idea of the “subject.” In its modern philosophical usage, “subject” means the moral agent, that which does something and is responsible for its actions; “subject” also means that which knows and perceives, the mind. But other usages, such as when we talk about being “subject” to something or being the “subject” of discussion, the subject is really the object, something which is done to, including the old meaning of being a “British subject.”

When we look at the history of the word, we see that it made a passage from the passive to the active voice over a period of time.

Originally, in the 14th century, it meant “under some obligation to a social superior” and later specifically to being the subject of a Monarch. Chaucer used it in the sense of “subject matter” under discussion, and thus anything which you could say something about. Shakespeare broadened the use of the word to talk about the subject of a sonnet or a murder plot. It came to mean that which carried attributes of any kind, not just obligations to a feudal superior. In the early 1600s, it took on the modern grammatical meaning of a “subject” whose attributes are expressed in a “predicate.”

But verbs can be active as well as passive; while the predicate expresses attributes of the subject, the subject is the doer of the verb, and thus the active “doer” of its attributes. This completed the move from the passive carrier of obligations and attributes to the doer of actions.

It was at this point that René Descartes came on the scene. Descartes addressed himself to the conundrum of how the mind was able to attain a reliable knowledge about an outside, material world. Descartes used the word “subject” to mean the thinking ego or the mind, the subject in which all ideas inhere and to which all representation and practice are to be attributed, as opposed to an outside, material world. The subject was now the cogito, the thinking and cognising agent.

Kant continued this posing of the problem in terms of a reasoning and experiencing mind, or subject — an individual, organising its perceptions of the material world. It was Kant, further, who gave the modern ethical meaning to the word, as the moral agent:

“A person is a subject who ... is properly subject to no other laws than those he lays down for himself, either alone or in conjunction with others.”

Kant was looking for a truth which could be an object of experience, but transcended a subject’s specific cultural and historical location, beyond “cultural relativism” so to speak. The obviously historical character of both knowledge and ethical life is then left as somewhat of a open question, as something which stood in between the subject and truth, and it was to this problem that Hegel addressed himself.

Hegel did not begin from the posing of the problem in terms of mind vs matter. Human culture develops, and consciousness develops along with all the artefacts and practices, languages, art, industry and so on, while the mental and material are just two sides of one and the same activity.

So with Hegel, “subject” takes on a broader meaning, not restricted to the individual ego or person, but is rather the self-conscious, self-legislating social actor which is both corporate and individual, including for example, states, social movements and families as well as individuals — provided they are legally free agents.

The problem which had disturbed Descartes in the beginning remains insoluble actually, so long as we lump language, production, culture, etc., along with Nature, on one side, and counterpose it to an individual mind. The real subject of thought, in both senses of the word “subject,” is people collaborating together, with language, material artefacts and so on, mediating their activity, expressing and interpreting what they do.

Instead of conceiving of the subject as an individual mind, confronting an outside world which includes the social relations and practices through which the individual has come to know the world, along with the natural world out of which this has been fashioned, Hegel took as his basic unit of analysis a “self-conscious system of activity” which from the very beginning has individual, universal and particular aspects, as well as being duplicated as both ideal and material. The unit of analysis is not a single individual, aggregates of which make up society, but a self-conscious system of activity.

Hegel does not approach social and cultural problems by mentally stacking individuals together into increasingly elaborate combinations, but rather by tracing the emergence of modernity through the gradual differentiation of subjects, which historically and logically, begin from a circumstance in which the distinction between individual and universal remains undeveloped. He sees the individual — the “self-legislating,” autonomous social actor — as a product of a long, unfinished, historical development.

No social formation ever existed other than through the activity of individuals — but the capacity of an individual to distinguish herself from the social subject of which she is a part, is an historical achievement of thousands of years of history.

Is it possible even to imagine an individual who has invented their own personal language and values without having participated in any kind of activity with other people? But this is the implicit pre-supposition of individualist philosophy.

Equally absurd is the idea of social formations and institutions as simply collections of like-minded individuals (abstract general categories). Even the most ancient society owed its existence to specific forms of social practice, cooperation and division of labour in which individuals built and acted out the activities of their community.

So, in what follows, when I talk about a “subject” I am referring to a “self-conscious system of activity,” both corporate and individual.

Axel Honneth uses the word “subject” as a synonym for “individual;” so does Nancy Fraser, but she also uses the term “collective subject,” so her usage is close to my own.


The second term I want to introduce is “recognition.”

“Recognition” is one of the key concepts of ethical politics today, the concept which Axel Honneth wants to make into the master-category of ethics, in fact. Its usage in philosophy dates back to the young Hegel in the beginning of the 19th century, but its modern usage dates from the 1940s, meaning to treat another as a moral equal, i.e., as a “subject” rather than as an object, as a person, not a “door-mat.”

The term originates, however, in 14th century Scottish law, referring to the resumption of unused land from a vassal by a feudal superior. The word is derived from the same roots as “cognate,” co + gnatus (born), meaning related by birth or common descent, akin; thus “recognise” essentially meant “bring back into the family estate.” It was later generalised to mean the registering of something as already known and then other such derivative usages. In the sixteenth century, “recognition” was transferred from being the act of the ruler, to mean the acknowledgment by a subject of a ruler’s rights over them and their land, the subject again moving from the passive to the active voice.

In the early 19th century, at the time Hegel was writing, it came to be used in international law to refer to the explicit acknowledgment of the rights of a state by another state. Thus, typically for many such words, its original usage was only in relation to corporate or social subjects, not individuals.

Also in the early 19th century, Hegel used the term Recognition [Anerkennens]* in connection with the interaction between independent social subjects, who, to begin with, do not recognise each other’s sovereignty and will violate each other’s life and property. Hegel saw modern society as emerging through the process of diverse social subjects coming to recognise each other’s rights, rights to property and integrity of their own body, etc.. It was only through such “recognition” that modern society could exist without constant warfare. In the beginning, this recognition constituted “abstract right,” property rights, a kind of simple co-existence, which is the pre-condition for the emergence of a modern state and concrete system of law, and so on. For Hegel modern society was not a sacrifice of freedom or a restriction of rights, but rather the state represented an extension of rights and an actualisation of freedom.

In the Phenomenology, Hegel devoted a passage known as the “Master-Servant Relation” to outlining the stage in the development of subjectivity following the unmediated contact between two isolated subjects, in which each demands recognition from the other, but what results is not mutual recognition, but rather conquest — the enslavement of one subject by the other. Modern society results from the process in which the enslaved subject overcomes a “Stoic acceptance” of their subjugation through labour, within the dominant subject. The labour of the subordinated subject reproduces not their own separate subjectivity, but rather that of the community; they cease to be a subject in fact. Through this process, citizens of modern society establish universal legal rights, in contrast to the hierarchical relations of subordination characteristic of traditional society, but modern society emerged with a class system, corresponding to a division of labour between theory and practice.

The concept of recognition did not figure largely for a century after Hegel’s death, during which the dominant paradigm of politics was class struggle — something unknown to Hegel in its modern sense. However, in 1937, Alexandre Kojčve gave a series of lectures in which he built a philosophical position exclusively around Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic.” After World War Two, this notion was picked up by French intellectuals and through them, the national liberation movements, especially the Algerian liberation struggle, and via the civil rights movement, was introduced into the Women’s Liberation Movement. Recognition thereby became the key concept for the whole series of cultural and political struggles sometimes referred to as the “new social movements,” in contrast to notions of class struggle and economic justice. In a sense then, the notion of Recognition was extended from its meaning as recognition of the independence a new state, to that of all emergent subjectivities — blacks, women, gays, etc..

These recognition struggles differed from class struggle in, among other things, that they did not seek to overthrow the ruling subject, but rather sought recognition for their subjectivity as moral equals.

In line with his usage of the term “subject,” for Axel Honneth, “recognition” is a category of interpersonal, psychological relations, some kind of innate drive demanding realisation. So my usage is slightly different from his, not only because my conception of recognition is historically contingent, but because we see the demand for recognition as specifically distinct from the struggle to overthrow the ruling subject.


The third term that I would like to introduce is “objectification.” This word has multiple meanings, but I am concerned with just one of those meanings here.

Objectification concerns the life-process of a subject; a subject develops by giving objective, material form to its own powers. While assimilating Nature’s powers by means of objectification, it also accommodates itself to Nature. From the point of view of a subject, there is really no distinction between Nature as such, and the accumulated objectification of human activity down the millennia. So the world we live in is both a natural world — still — and the world of artefacts, what is sometimes called our “human nature.”

So in accommodating themselves to Nature and assimilating Nature’s properties, subjects also assimilate the properties of the objectification of other subjects, participating in practices and institutions inherited from the past, and internalising these objectifications, as what is natural. The Subject develops and matures through interaction with the object, internalising and accommodating itself to it, while changing the object by institutionalising its subjectivity. But a subject exists not just in a world of objects, but in a world populated by other subjects; collectively, these other subjects, insofar as they are foreign to the subject, Hegel calls the Object. This is how Hegel deals with the unfolding of history, including both the conscious agency of subjects, and the unplanned outcomes of the interaction of opposing wills.

The results of our activity are not what we intended. When we try to make something, what results is not a simple externalisation of our idea, but something different. And we objectify ourselves not so much through our own activity, but through the activity of others, these other subjects therefore mediate in the process of our objectification.

How can we tell the difference between a subject and its objectification though? A worker who works only under the direction of others, objectifies not their own subjectivity, but rather that of their employer who looks at the work as their own. The object is perceptible, but is not the same thing as the subject. It is only by the evidence of a subject’s objectification that a subject knows that it exists, but a subject is not equal to its objectification.

At the same time, we must remember that society is not made up of “objects” but rather a multiplicity of subjects and the institutions in which subjectivity has been objectified become subjects in themselves. We are always dealing with other subjects, not just objects. So for example, the legal profession is an objectification of struggles for justice, but as a subject, the legal profession expresses its own interests, which can be very far from a struggle for justice.

But an objectification is fundamentally distinct from the subjects which constitute its existence, and the subjects whose labour produced it; you can’t negotiate with an object.

When someone treats you as an object — as a means rather than an end — we often call that “objectifying” someone. In fact, we do that all the time. When we relate to someone’s labour solely as it relates to meeting our needs, then we objectify them. Commodification is therefore a process whereby people objectify one another.


Now, I want to use these three concepts: subject, recognition, and objectification, to review modern struggles for social justice and reframe the problems of recognition and redistribution in historical terms.

Ethical politics accepts that social struggles are motivated by feelings of injustice, a subject’s feeling that they have been “swindled” by existing social arrangements.

To overcome an injustice, and objectify a remedy to it, a subject must lend the remedy plausibility in the eyes of other subjects, it has to give it normative force. So a subject has to address the conceptions of justice of other subjects, such as by building alliances, and the existing forms of objectification of justice, such as by fighting a case in the courts.


Now, I want to take issue with Nancy Fraser’s concept of “redistribution” as a “folk paradigm” or “dimension of justice.”

We know that redistribution is a real thing because there are progressive taxation systems and safety-net welfare systems which have institutionalised principles of redistribution. Citizens of a society in which these principles are objectified internalise them and assimilate them as principles of fairness. However, this is not the same thing as a social movement organised around the principle of “redistribution.” There has not been such a social movement for two hundred years. This “folk paradigm” is a reflection of an objectification, an accommodation to a dirty compromise. Nevertheless, because a principle of limited economic egalitarianism has been objectified, and is internalised by subjects, the demand for economic equality receives a certain intuitive validation.

To what subject or subjects do we owe this principle? The radical subjects which came into existence in the 1830s and ‘40s promoted a vision of socialism — the abolition of capital and a cooperative socialist society. These “secret societies” were superseded by the First International which was a kind of “self-help” group for proletarians which embraced the socialist objective. The aim of the First International was to bring the proletariat into being as a subject. It only succeeded in the first embryonic stages of the process, but by the beginning of the 20th century, the Second (Socialist) International, had to a considerable extent, succeeded in organising millions of workers into a self-conscious social movement, that is, of constituting the working class as a subject. The ideal of this subject was not recognition as a moral equal, but abolition of capitalism and its replacement with a socialist society.

It goes without saying, surely, that the working class did not begin as a subject. Far from it. It began, and to a huge extent remains, as so many millions of atomised individuals, governed by others, and possessing no general will or consciousness of their own as a class — not a “self-conscious system of activity.” There exist parties, unions and so forth so that working class consciousness continues to persist, but that is all.

Now, beginning with Bismarck in the late 19th century, and later, particularly in the post-World War Two decades, bourgeois governments implemented policies with the explicit intention of making a compromise settlement with the workers’ movement, and institutionalised a number of principles, objectified in the welfare systems, public health and education systems and progressive taxation. The self-help activities which constituted the soul of the workers’ movement were then subsumed into the state, along with many of the leaders of the workers movement. Now that an alien state intervenes between a citizen and mutual aid, these social services function not as organs which sustain and strengthen a subjectivity, but frequently (though not entirely) undermine it. Workers do not see the state as an expression of their own will, so taxation and welfare can come to be seen as robbery and deception, rather than mutual-aid.


Further development is only possible then, by critique of this objectification. And that’s exactly what happened in the wake of the post-World War Two settlement. Those who were excluded from that settlement objected.

The post-war settlement was an historic class compromise, and in succession, those who were excluded from this deal objected: the peoples of the colonies demanded recognition, in the original sense of the word — as independent states; US blacks presented themselves as “internal colonies” and demanded recognition, as did women, and the whole series of recognition struggles of the second half of the 20th century were launched.

We know that recognition is a real thing, because these demands were objectified in a whole range of legal provisions: national sovereignty, anti-discrimination laws, equal pay laws, multi-cultural policies and so on.

But we have not witnessed a “recognition movement” as such; rather, a multiplicity of brand new subjects came into existence and demand to be treated as moral equals — Algerians, African Americans, women, gays, and so forth — a multiplicity of subjectivities. Unlike the national liberation movements and the workers’ movement, the social movements did not constitute themselves as independent subjects fully subsuming its individuals within a state. This is the normal situation: subjects interpenetrate and merge with one another, and one and the same individual participates in multiple subjectivities.

People participated in social movements expressing their specific feeling of disrespect and this feeling of disrespect did constitute and express the spirit of these movements. Axel Honneth has observed that individual workers who fought for better pay in the past were also motivated, at the psychological level, by a feeling of disrespect, that their way of life was not being properly valued and rewarded. As a psychological observation this is very convincing.

But this does not make the workers’ movement a recognition movement. How could it? The very essence of these recognition movements was in opposition to the deal done between the bourgeoisie and working class and its leadership. Recognition was above all a critique of this deal, with its discriminatory pay-scales, paid for on the proceeds of colonialism, at the expense of the people of the colonies, blacks, women, and so on.

To re-cast the workers’ movement as a recognition movement is to do exactly what the participants in the new social movements most object to: dismissing their specific subjectivity, and subsuming it under that of another movement. Nothing is more offensive to the workers’ movement than, as is often done in fact, to cast it as a recognition movement for white, male, blue-collar workers. The fact that millions of workers felt misrecognition does not make a social movement: it simply makes an “abstract general” — an arbitrary collection of things bearing a common property (like “voters” and “consumers”).

So I disagree with Nancy Fraser when she effectively subsumes the workers’ movement under “redistribution,” by reducing the workers’ struggle to being one remedy amongst others for distributive injustice, and Axel Honneth, who subsumes the workers’ movement under “recognition” by reducing the workers’ struggle to a psychological condition.


This issue of abstract general categories brings us to another objectification. One of the most important objectifications of the struggle of the working class for self-determination is universal suffrage — one person one vote usually in geographical electorates. While proving to be the most effective form of rule for capitalism, the principle of individual suffrage has been internalised by us all in a fixed conception of individuals as sovereign subjects. But while the voters are counted as elements of “abstract general” categories, they remain atomised individuals, actually robbed of subjectivity.

However, universal suffrage is the outcome of a social movement which extended from the Chartists of the 1830s through the Suffragettes up to the present day, extremely broad movements. Those excluded from government forced their way into the corridors of power with a very specific demand for universal suffrage. The compromise involved was not the extension of suffrage to all citizens, but rather the various defensive measures that were taken by the ruling class to render universal suffrage harmless. So when I talk about critiquing universal suffrage, then I mean the still-unsatisfactory objectification of the struggle for universal suffrage, an objectification which still leaves the mass of people unrepresented in the corridors of power.

The point is not so much to combine the principles of justice which motivated the social justice movements of the past, but to critique the forms of objectification by means of which they have been demobilised. In just same way that masses of people were excluded from the post-war settlement, masses have been excluded from the modern settlement with the “recognition” movements.


Let us turn to the notion of “equality.” Axel Honneth said, and I think correctly, that “under the conditions of modern societies, every conception of justice must have an egalitarian character from the start.” The question is: equality of what?

Another question is this: implicit in Honneth’s observation is the individualistic conception of equality, a conception ingrained in us by the individualistic, abstract-general form of modern institutions. However, one-person-one-vote, equality before the law, freedom of speech, and so on, under capitalism, become forms in which inequality is actually institutionalised. So we have to take a critical attitude towards this individualist kind of equality.

Equality between social subjects has only limited normative force however (such as at the UN General Assembly), but subjects do demand to be treated as moral equals. A minor player does not expect an equal share of the wealth, nor even to be consulted on every question, but they do demand to be treated with equal respect. What concretely does “respect” mean here though?

Within a subject, individuals do not as a rule demand equality; to do so would be the first sign of the disintegration of the subject; subjectivity means that the individual sees that their own needs and aspirations are realised in the activity of the subject. In that respect, inequality can be positively welcomed. It is subjects which demand moral equality or recognition from each other.

Nancy Fraser’s idea of “parity of participation” is a valuable notion, similar really to Amartya Sen’s idea of equality of “critical voice,” suggesting that it has powerful normative force within in any modern conception of justice.

These notions posit a critique of modern society in terms of participatory democracy, but so long as they are posed in terms of individual rights, the problem of the formation of subjectivity remains open. The women’s movement was not just so many women demanding equal respect — it had to include a whole symbolic field of justification, a new model of how to be a woman, and political action — that is, a subjectivity. Because of the nature of modern institutions, women’s demands were objectified in terms of individual rights. Nevertheless, these injustices of misrecognition were not interpersonal issues, and cannot be resolved solely by interpersonal means.

The anti-corporate movement of recent decades is also grappling towards a critique of democracy as the key issue of justice today. Who should and should not have a voice in a decision, what barriers need to be overcome to gain an effective voice, and what is a fair process of decision-making?

According to the ideals of the workers movement, justice meant majority rule, and this was institutionalised in majority voting and the formal meeting procedure, and ultimately in parliamentary elections. But according to the “recognition” movements, majority rule was itself the injustice; justice required that every voice be heard, and this was institutionalised by consensus decision-making. However, consensus decision-making only works within a coherent subjectivity, and becomes dysfunctional when confronted with fundamental differences, as is usually the case in the institutions in which conceptions of social justice have been objectified.

Neither method of decision-making is capable of practically implementing equality of “critical voice” or “parity of participation” on a mass scale on the basis of individual suffrage.

The dominant form of egalitarianism in modernity though is commodification: the moral equality of all human beings is expressed in the practice of exchanging commodities, in “fair trade.” So equality is achieved by the transformation of human relations into relations of exchange, into customer-service-provider relations, and the various abstract general forms of culture and politics which support commodification: parliamentary democracy, taxation, privatisation, transfer payments, insurance, litigation, etc., etc..

These institutions are the dirty compromise which have been used to demobilise social justice movements, transforming people into atomised elements of abstract general categories — not subjects but objects.


Individuals need to participate in social subjects which express their own subjectivity; consensus decisions can only be made where people are involved in a common project. Social subjects will not always agree, but they must recognise each other as moral equals. Critique of the institutions of modernity — parliamentary democracy, multiculturalism, commodification and so on — must aim to allow individuals to participate in self-governing forms of life of their own choice, each of which are entitled to a critical voice in the decisions affecting their own life.

Firstly, the national liberation movements: These countries now have sovereignty, but they are subordinated to the world market, under conditions when this consigns many of them abject poverty. Many of these nations would be better off if they picked themselves up and en bloc emigrated to the West, an idea which many of their citizens have embraced. Just as colonialism and national recognition was the paradigm for all liberation struggles, the new paradigm is neo-colonialism.

The Australian Aborigines are still far from achieving recognition and sovereignty, but it is hard to imagine how they can achieve that without at the same time overcoming the impoverishment they suffer within the dominant neo-liberal culture.

The struggle against racist discrimination continues. Nevertheless, it would not be drawing too long a bow to say that people living in ghettoes could benefit a lot more from the abolition of the conditions of those ghettoes, than by a more racially fair composition of their residents.

Finally, women have come a long way and still have far to go, but by and large women’s labour has been fully commodified, even if it is still somewhat undervalued. So now both parents are unemployed or work 40 to 60 hours a week, and more and more people are living alone.

This has been the outcome of the process of modernisation: all the recognition struggles have arrived at a kind of neo-colonialism, while the social fabric has all but been destroyed.

The most pressing thing is that the majority of people are not spoken for through any voice at all in the forums in which their lives are determined. Only if everyone gains such a voice, can social justice be attained.


To complete this talk, I want to suggest an approach to subjectivity which draws on the psychoanalytic notion of hysteria and Peircean semiology.

Modern subjectivities, like feminism for example, do not take the form of independent, voluntary organisations, — individuals participate in a multiplicity of subjectivities. I use the word “subjectivity” to distinguish this relative interdependence and differentiation of aspects of subjectivity, from “Subject” as a more or less self-contained, self-conscious organism.

“Subjectivity” means that the consciousness and ideals of the subject, the individuals who participate in the subject, and the specific activities or institutions of the subject, do not perfectly coincide; each aspect has a relative independence and is in some degree of conflict with other aspects.

The notion of hysteria sheds some light on the formation of these relationships. If we can take away the negative connotation attached to the word “hysteria,” then we can see that the formation of the First International and the formation of the modern women’s movement, to take just two magnificent examples, bore all the hallmarks of hysteria. Even though, even in the first case, people rarely held formal membership of the collective subject, both formed powerful and world-changing social movements, in which individuals identified themselves, and saw in the action of leaders and the new social and historical visions, an expression of their own suffering and desire.

Peirce’s semiology expresses the same idea in a logical form; for a new entity to gain social recognition, then three kinds of “sign” have to be brought together: (1) an icon — that is to say a suffering person, preferably an impressive and attractive person, or group, in which people can see a model of their own subjectivity; (2) a representation of the subject in the symbolic register, through the agency of an expert discourse, a theory, or explanation of the suffering in terms which can gain legitimacy in the dominant theoretical paradigms of the day; and finally, (3) an index — thousands of people putting up their hands to identify with the icon and its symbolic justification and expressing solidarity with one another. The coincidence of these three types of sign mean that every index becomes also an icon and expresses the symbol, and vice versa.

There is nothing irrational about this process; that is in fact how subjects come into being, provided the social and cultural conditions are present for each of the three kinds of sign. We have to critique the institutions which, instead of supporting social justice, are undermining social solidarity; practically speaking, this is the form that such a critique must take.

* In fact, it was Fichte who first introduced the use of the term Recognition to German philosophy in 1796. Arguing against Kant’s deduction of Right on purely logical grounds, without reference to anything outside of the Ego, Fichte showed that a person cannot become aware of themselves as a free agent before experiencing external evidence of their freedom in the external world, and this is provided by a “summons” from an already-free agent who recognises them as a free person. Hegel criticised this conception because although Fichte correctly showed that an individual could not be free except in and through the state and political rights enjoyed in such a state, Fichte, he claims, deduces the State from the Ego, a subjective idealist approach. Thus Hegel deduces the free person from the state, rather than vice versa, through the logical-historical differentiation of the individual from society. See Fichte. Foundations of Natural Right, with Introduction by Frederick Neuhouser, Cambridge University Press, 2005. – AB, May 2005.

Anerkennung and anerkennen overlap the meanings of acknowledgement and to recognise, but do not exactly coincide. Anerkennen is a 16th century formation, on the model of the Latin agnoscere (‘to ascertain, recognise, acknowledge’), and based on the 13th century legal sense of erkennen (to judge, find), rather thn its older sense of ‘to know, cognise’). It thus suggests overt, practical, rather than merely intellectual, recognition. (Thanks to Michael Inwqood’s Hegel Dictionary)

See Analysis of Nancy Fraser’s Status model of Recognition and a short summary of Recognition.