Andy Blunden, October 2007
Recent theories of recognition which aim to construct a non-metaphysical Hegel (Honneth, Williams for example) risk being derailed by the absence of mediation which is essential for Hegel’s concept of the human condition. Without the mediating role of material culture, Hegel’s notion of recognition resembles the Fichtean notion which underpins liberalism. This paper proposes instead an approach to Hegel which uses Cultural-Historical Activity Theory as an empirical psychological base.
Recognition has proved to be a very fruitful concept for social philosophy in recent times. I have in mind particularly the work of Axel Honneth, Francis Fukuyama and Robert Williams. The concept of recognition has facilitated a ‘pragmatic’ reading of Hegel, and these remarks are relevant to the whole of the current recognition literature claiming an Hegelian lineage, from post-colonialism to critical theory.
“Pragmatic” in the narrow sense means to eschew any appeal to universals having some objective existence, by reducing ideals to either individual practical activity, or inter-subjectivity – transactions between individual persons each of whom are the bearers of ideas, desires, needs, abilities and so on. In the broad sense, the “pragmatic” interpretation sees universals as originating in interactions between persons, but mediated by material culture, artefacts which do have an objective, material existence independent of the individual partners to an interaction, having been fashioned and endowed with utility and meaning by human activity. So, unlike pragmatism in the narrow sense, the broader stream of pragmatism does not deny the objectivity of the ideal or universal. Both C S Peirce and G H Mead, for example, were quite explicit about the importance of mediation.
The word “intersubjectivity” had been used in the sense of communicative action in the early twentieth century, but then, until it came into its current usage in social philosophy in the last two decades, it was epistemologists like Rudolph Carnap and Karl Popper who gave it an epistemological sense indicating a reality status which is less than objective, but more than subjective, being “shared” between many subjectivities, and thus “inter-subjective.” Hegel was among the most prolific coiners of neologs, but he never used the word nor any of its cognates. 
The concept of “intersubjectivity” implicitly relies on the meaning attached to the word “subject.” “Subject” is a key concept for Hegel, but the meaning Hegel attached to “subject" was radically different from the way it is used in social philosophy today, implicit in the word “intersubjectivity.”
The word “subject,” in its philosophical usage, dates back to Aristotle, but after Descartes, it was Kant who gave us the modern definition of subject: briefly, a person was a subject if they were morally responsible for their own actions. That is to say, for Kant, as for contemporary social philosophers, the “subject” is always an individual person.
“A person is a subject whose actions can be imputed to him. ... subject to no other laws than those he gives to himself, either alone or at least along with others.” (Kant 1785/1996, p. 10)
Strictly speaking, Kant’s subject was not any “thing,” but a transcendental subject, and his concept was wider than the concept of moral responsibility, but these important distinctions are not material to the present issue.
Hegel was a critic of Kant, so his use of the word “subject” in a quite different sense is central to his project. You will rarely find Hegel using the term “subject” in the Kantian sense, to mean an individual person, as it is invariably used today. Since Hegel did not understand the word ‘subject’ in its Kantian, individualist sense, he had little need of the term ‘intersubjectivity’.
Also, it was Hegel’s predecessor in German philosopher, Johan Fichte, who introduced the idea of ‘recognition’ to construct natural law from interactions between ‘Egos’ (i.e., individual ‘subjects’), rather than, as was the case with Kant, Right living an extramundane existence from whence it could be retrieved by the exercise of Pure Reason. So Fichte introduced the notion of recognition into philosophy, sharing a notion of subject different, but commensurate with Kant’s. When Hegel took over this concept of Recognition from Fichte, in his early writing, sharing with Fichte the aim of anchoring natural law in history and culture and the real activity of human beings, he turned Fichte’s idea upside-down. His inversion of the notion of recognition was possible because Hegel had already transformed the notion of the subject. Hegel’s project was the direct opposite of Fichte’s. For Hegel, recognition became the process through which individuality emerged as an achievement of human history, rather than as with Fichte, being the starting point from which the state was to be deduced.
Fichte’s doctrine is the philosophical foundation for an extreme liberalism. Pragmatic philosophies which utilise notions of recognition based on Kantian/Fichtean notions of the subject, inevitably inherit their methodological individualism and situate themselves within a liberal social philosophy. Truisms about the “influence” of culture or the “dependence” of the individual on society, and so on notwithstanding, liberal philosophical foundations favour liberal political conclusions.
So when writers like Williams and Honneth read Hegel through the kaleidoscope of a notion of the subject derived from the liberal philosophies to which Hegel was opposed, then everything is mixed up. It does not matter how ubiquitous they find the notion of “recognition” in Hegel’s works, if the very meaning of the notion of “subject” has been turned on its head, then nothing of Hegel’s meaning has been retained.
On the issue of the place of ‘recognition’ in Hegel’s philosophy, the following observation can be made. In his early work, ‘recognition’ figured quite prominently, continuing the line of critique against Kant initiated by Fichte. The concept was broadened in the 1805/6 “Philosophy of Spirit.” But at this point, the very meaning of ‘recognition’ had been so broadened that it is no longer a concept of ‘recognition’ at all. It is a misnomer. So in the following work, The Phenomenology of Spirit of 1807, Recognition is given its definitive treatment in the now-famous master-servant narrative, initiating the emergence of self-consciousness, and plays no further structural role. In the Encyclopaedia and the 1820 Philosophy of Right, ‘recognition’ makes occasional appearances beyond the passage on the emergence of self-consciousness, but plays a peripheral, not a structural role.
Now, the concept of ‘recognition’, in its contemporary meaning for writers like Honneth, Fukuyama and Williams, has proved its usefulness. Some valuable insights have come from the use of this concept. Just because it is not an Hegelian concept, does not mean that it is not valid and useful. However, these writers should not present their ideas as extensions or interpretations of Hegel, far less, expositions of Hegel’s own idea. Hegel’s entire system is utterly antique and can never be resurrected, but in respect to his notions of the subject and of recognition, Hegel’s idea has considerable merit and that Hegel has something to tell us about subjectivity and recognition. Hegel knew what he was doing in struggling for a philosophical foundation for freedom which dissented from the dominant current of liberal individualism, and his original idea should be disinterred.
Broadly speaking, if we want to resurrect Hegel on a non-metaphysical basis, then a pragmatic interpretation of spirit is entirely in order and consistent with both Hegel’s intention and the best available empirical social psychology. Hegel’s own aim was to bring Kant down to Earth and anchor human subjectivity in the real history and real activity of human beings. However, while G. H. Mead’s pragmatism was continued by social psychology school of “Symbolic Interactionism," this school remained marginal, petered out in the 1960s and never gained a substantial base in practical psychological research or application. More recent appropriations or recreations of Mead do so in a spirit of pragmatism in the narrow sense, and which cannot utilise the most impost of Hegel's theory. But a reading of Hegel which is pragmatic in the broad sense, relying on the “Cultural-Historical Activity Theory” of LS Vygotsky, AN Leontyev, Michael Cole and others, is both consistent with Hegel’s original idea and non-metaphysical in the sense Marx had in mind when he wrote:
“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity.” [German Ideology, I §a, Marx 1845, my emphasis]
I would like to briefly outline the key features of a pragmatic reading of Hegel which allows Hegel’s insights to be mobilised in the service of a scientific social psychology and create the basis for a social philosophy which can resolve some of the pressing problems in social theory today.
The main target of this critique is the notion of “recognition.” The three writers considered, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Williams and Axel Honneth, each claim to espouse “Hegel’s concept of recognition,” but it will be shown that in each case, the imputation to Hegel is unsustainable. Despite insights that the focus on ‘recognition’ has given us, the concept has become quite unclear – not only because of the divergence of meaning between these three writers, but unclear even in each case taken singly.
It will be shown below that the reason for this misunderstanding is that Hegel has been read through the ‘kaleidoscope’ of a Kantian conception of the subject. As is the case with many postmodern writers, the radical difference between Hegel’s and Kant’s conception of the subject has been simply ignored. The recovery of Hegel’s idea of the subject goes beyond the scope of this paper, but Hegel’s idea of Recognition is incomprehensible as a relation between Kantian subjects.
Hegel gave the idea of ‘recognition’ its canonical exposition in the master-slave narrative. It is the failure of all commentators to recognize the place of mediation in this relation and the place of mediation in the whole of Hegel’s philosophy, that has led to a systematic distortion of Hegel’s insights.
These three concepts – mediation, recognition and subject – will be addressed in turn.
Mediation plays a crucial role for Hegel; in a strong sense, human culture is nothing but mediation. In the section of the Science of Logic entitled “With What Must Science Begin,” Hegel observes:
“there is nothing, nothing in heaven, or in nature or in mind or anywhere else which does not equally contain both immediacy and mediation.” [Hegel 1969 §92]
This remark of Hegel’s is made prior to the very first category of his Logic, Pure Being. If you fail to understand that every category of the Logic, including even its very first category, is mediated, then the whole of the Logic will be misconstrued. He really means it: there is nothing without both immediacy and mediation.
Mediation is the very root and substance of culture and consciousness. So long as people simply take what is immediately given, then there is no space for the development of culture or consciousness. The deferment of consumption, and the opening up of a gap between needs and their satisfaction, lays the basis for human culture and consciousness. The two processes of mediation which arise from the differentiation of immediate existence into needs and their satisfaction are consumption and labour. Labour transforms what is given by Nature into artefacts of various kinds which are in turn consumed as the objects of new needs. In this way a “second nature" intervenes, mediating between the subject and Nature, the immediate object of the consciousness which orients human activity. These artefacts, which are bearers of meaning and norms of labour, are the substance of consciousness. In the absence of such mediating objects, which are inherited from previous generations, and constantly reinterpreted and modified, consciousness of an absolutely natural object is inconceivable.
The mediating element is material culture; without mediation, no culture, no history, no freedom.
Hegel did not and could not really know that the human body is itself an artefact. I will return to the question of how this observation forms the basis for social psychology presently, but first we should take note of how this conception of mediation at the foundation of Hegel’s conception of consciousness underlies his conception of self-consciousness and recognition.
Given how crucial is mediation for Hegel, it is easy to see how important, in the development of modernity, is that first, unmediated, contact with another culture outside one’s own, a relationship which could be the first step along the road to modernity, or could end in war, annihilation or mutual repulsion. If there is no international law, no shared ethos, no language or anything mediating the interaction, then how is any relationship possible? For Hegel, there simply cannot be such a relationship. If there is no third party or shared system of practice to mediate the interaction, then the two subjects must find the resources for mediation from within themselves. This the subjects do by splitting in two, by the opening up of a gap between their needs and the means of their satisfaction. Mediation of the interaction between two subjects becomes possible only if both subjects have already developed a capacity separate and mediate their own needs and labour, that the labour of one subject can meet the needs of the other, and both subjects have labour (such as cultivation of the land) which cannot simply be taken from them. And so it is that Hegel observes: “The system of needs is the first system of government.” 
In the allegorical narrative of the master and servant in the Phenomenology, Hegel outlines in detail this first step towards modernity, a process whereby the needs of the master-subject mediate between the needs and labour of the servant-subject, while the labour of the servant-subject mediates between the master-subject’s needs and their satisfaction. This relationship is tantamount to the subjugation of the servant-subject into the project or way of life of the master-subject, but unlike the master-subject in itself, incorporates difference and subordination in the division of labour.
The significance of this dialectic lies not so much as part of a theory of the origins of civilisation but rather as a contribution to understanding interactions between mutually alien subjects, including in circumstances where social life is mediated by complex cultural edifices and activity.
There are many other aspects and nuances to this dialectic, but my point here is just that even given the absence of a ‘third party’, it is not an unmediated process. Only if both subjects have the resources to self-differentiate as just described and provide resources for the necessary mediation, is recognition possible. In none of the contemporary expositions of recognition, is this crucial, characteristically Hegelian moment even mentioned.
The recognition relation is by its very nature a binary relation, even though, as we have seen, the division of the subjects in two provides the resources for mediation of the relationship in the absence of a third party to the relation. Hegel renders this story in the form of a foundation myth concerning two individuals, just like the Robinson Crusoe or Adam-and-Eve stories customary for this genre at the time. Although a binary relation between two subjects, the recognition relation is not for Hegel a relation between two individuals. Such a thing is unthinkable for Hegel since individuality is the final outcome of a process of which recognition is essentially the beginning or at least the becoming. And nor is recognition a relation between an individual and an institution. In the 1805/6 text, Hegel does render it in that way; for example, the idea that a person gains recognition through seeing the products of their labour circulating in the market, owning property, being party to contracts, etc. Basically, the term is expanded to cover the circumstance that a person finds themself a citizen in a society which is governed by the rule of law. He also remarks that a person receives recognition for the achievements through participation in a corporation, a theme that is further elaborated in the Philosophy of Right. However he abandoned this inappropriate structural use of the term ‘recognition’ for such mediated processes, and elaborated the fate of the master-servant relation quite differently in the subsequent texts. He does not abandon the key ideas being referred to, but the social integration of individuals collaborating in social practices mediated by a system of needs and the rule of law are of a fundamentally different character to the integration of divergent forms of life into a modern state. Modernity does not arise directly out of conquest, but rather only as a result of a protracted history.
A series of errors have obscured Hegel’s idea of recognition: the reading of the master-servant myth as literally concerning two already self-conscious individuals, the effort of Hegel in 1805/6 to extend the idea of recognition to encompass the subsequent experience of modernity, the failure of readers to distinguish between a Kantian and an Hegelian ‘subject’, and finally, interpretations of recognition which miss the importance of mediation. Taken all together, these errors have led to a conception of recognition which is utterly remote from Hegel’s original idea.
To make a beginning in clearing this up, we have to recall what Hegel means by ‘subject’ as opposed to the Kantian meaning used by social philosophers today.
In order to remedy defects in the Cartesian notion of the subject which are all too obvious to us today, Kant developed his idea of the ‘transcendental subject’.
‘By this “I,” or “He,” or “It,” who or which thinks, nothing more is represented than a transcendental subject of thought = x, which is cognized only by means of the thoughts that are its predicates.’ (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p. 142, my emphasis)
Kant was perfectly well aware that the nature of this subject, the attributes that it would acquire, were determined by its experiences, by the culturally and historically determined activities in which the subject would participate. Nevertheless, Kant held that the foundations of natural right according to which such a subject ought to live could be determined by the exercise of a faculty of reason which was innate in the subject.
Both Fichte and Hegel took issue with this thesis of Kant. Fichte took the first step in resolving this problem with the idea that a consciousness became aware of itself as a free being (a ‘self-consciousness’) only when ‘summoned’ by another free being and called upon to exercise its freedom and respect the other’s property. But with Fichte, the subject was identified, as it was for Kant, with a single individual person. Hegel went further than this. For Hegel the subject was a special kind of social relation which he outlined in detail in the Science of Logic, entailing a specific, developed relation between the Individual, the Universal and the Particular. This revolutionary idea, which embedded subjectivity in social and cultural activity itself, which transcends methodological individualism as well as recent structuralist and poststructuralist criticism of the ‘Cartesian subject’, is largely misunderstood and mostly ignored.
Hegel did not hold that the subject was an individual consciousness which was formed by interactions with other individuals. He held that the subject was a particular relation between individuals and universals, and this is a radically different proposition.
For Hegel, a subject is a self-conscious, knowing being, which is morally responsible for its actions; a subject is some system of activity which knows itself to be the cause of its own actions. To appropriate Hegel’s idea in a way which is compatible with modern, post-metaphysical consciousness, we need a realistic ontology which can be substantiated by empirical social psychology while doing justice to Hegel’s conception of Spirit, without which his idea makes no sense at all.
The American Pragmatists – Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey and George Herbert Mead in particular – made startling discoveries in this area. Although Peirce showed only antipathy towards Hegel, mediation occupies the central place in his objective logic or semiotics and his concept of the subject is very similar to that of Hegel.  He opened lines of research for a pragmatic interpretation of Hegel which should be extremely fruitful. Dewey made a deep study of Hegel, and although he abandoned Hegelianism, his study of group dynamics, collective problem-solving and political dynamics also opened up fruitful avenues for a pragmatic reading of Hegel. Mead’s idea of splitting of the self into a subject-object, which he calls the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’, is a creative variation on the master-servant dialectic, although Mead never acknowledged it as such.
Dewey’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1928 (Prawat 2001) where he met Vygotsky and his group ensured that the ideas of the American Pragmatists were taken up in an Hegelian spirit, even if in the Stalinist USSR rather than in America itself. From the 1960s, this current reconnected with its American roots and the Cultural-Historical School of social psychology which resulted from this confluence offers the most fruitful social psychological foundation for an appropriation of Hegel. But for now I want to review the efforts of Robert Williams, Francis Fukuyama and Axel Honneth to make a pragmatic reading of Hegel.
Robert Williams claims that his reading of Hegel through the concept of ‘recognition’, brings to light Hegel’s real meaning. He does not confine his claim to the Young Hegel, but claims that his notion of ‘recognition’ is the key concept in Hegel’s ethics throughout.
Williams uses ‘recognition’ to construct a reading of Hegel in terms of ‘intersubjectivity’. That Hegel never uses the word ‘subject’ in the Kantian sense in which Williams uses it, that Hegel never uses the word ‘intersubjectivity’ at all, and that subsequent to the master-servant narrative, the concept of ‘recognition’ makes only incidental appears in his mature works, does not faze Williams. He fills in the gaps for what Hegel didn’t actually write.
Many of Williams’ claims are attractive. For example:
“Recognition decentres the modern concept of the subject found in Descartes and Kant, not by displacing it as in structuralism, but by transforming and expanding it into intersubjectivity. In short, subjectivity is transformed (aufgehoben), expanded, and elevated into intersubjectivity.” (Williams, Hegel’s Ethics of Recognition, p. 2)
But Williams fails to deliver on a demonstration of this claim because, taking the master-servant relation as the prototypical model for ‘recognition’:
Ad. 1. No relation, whether recognition or any other kind of relation between subjects or between individuals is possible without mediation. For the reasons considered above, the master-servant relation, which is taken by Williams and others as the prototypical relation of recognition, is apparently lacking in mediation, but only apparently. It is mediation which generates cultural-historical development, Spirit.
Ad. 2. Material culture is the objectivity of the Universal, so without it we are left with just a ‘chain reaction’ between particular individuals, from which no Hegelian Spirit of any kind can be resurrected.
Ad. 3. Williams knows nothing of Mead’s brilliant division of the self into a subject-object with which to examine unmediated transactions between individuals. Despite himself, the ‘subjects’ of William’s narrative are unitary individuals, interacting with one another apparently without mediation.
Recognition, in the sense of the practical affirmation of the positive worth of an individual or group, is a powerful idea and we don’t need Hegel to make use of it. But if we are to resolve ethics into transactions between individuals isolated from material culture, or, what amounts to the same thing, to subsume material culture into our conception of the individual actors, then we ought not to claim Hegel for our authority. Self-evidently, a theory of subjectivity which excludes material culture is ahistorical. An ahistorical ethics which takes individual as already-sovereign subjects, only needing to be treated as such, cannot claim to represent Hegel’s contribution to ethics and subjectivity.
The meaning that Williams attaches to ‘recognition’ is not controversial as such; he shares the accepted meaning of the term as an extension of its usage in international law. In this sense, ‘recognition’ is a relational status that is extended by one party to another, acknowledging that party’s sovereignty or right to self-determination.
The generalised status of ‘being-recognised’ may be achieved by receipt of recognition under law through some institutionalised process expressing the ‘general will’. But in this instance we are not dealing with an unmediated, bilateral relation. When we grow up in a society governed by the rule of law, we find ourselves ‘being-recognised’ as a citizen with rights. No ‘struggle for recognition’ is normally necessary; recognition at the age of majority is institutionalised. Williams wants us to comprehend this process in terms of a relation instantiated solely through millions of mutually-isolated interactions with another person. Williams treats the law, which is after all, an element of material culture created by now-dead legislators, as a kind of ‘second order effect’, something which might soften the ‘life and struggle’, or blur the outlines for the ‘struggle for recognition’, but not at all something which has essential relevance for ethical life.
Our body, a material artefact fashioned by the combined activity of many generations of other people as well as ourselves, surely plays a role in mediating our interaction with other people, as does every element of material culture. But a model of recognition for which Hegel’s master-servant relation is the prototype, rules this all out. Of course, if by ‘subject’ we mean something other than ‘individual’, then the scope of a concept of unmediated interaction between subjects could be much wider. But Williams knows nothing of this.
If material culture, inherited and modified by each generation and passed on to future generations, is to be excluded from our conception of ethical life, then we are left with no basis for an understanding of historical and cultural change. Two routes are open to us. Either we accept an extramundane metaphysical spirit animating and guiding social life from outside, or we abandon the Kantian transcendental subject in favour of the common sense view of modern individualism, of individual people, with ‘minds of their own’, fashioning their own biographies, unconscious agents of the Zeitgeist. It is not at all clear which route Williams wants to take, but neither view could be sustained in the face of critique by any serious social philosophy today. Either way, the whole point of a pragmatic reading of Hegel has been lost.
Nevertheless, Williams’ claim that ‘recognition’ was a central notion for Hegel beyond the master-servant narrative has been widely taken up.
A follower of Kojčve, Francis Fukuyama has an unique approach to justifying his reading of Hegel.
‘There is, of course, a legitimate question as to whether Kojčve’s interpretation of Hegel, presented here, is really Hegel as he understood himself, or whether it contains an admixture of ideas that are properly ‘Kojčvian.’ Kojčve does take certain elements of Hegel’s teaching, such as the struggle for recognition and the end of history, and make them the centrepiece of that teaching in a way that Hegel himself may not have done. While uncovering the original Hegel is an important task for the purposes of the ‘present argument’, we are interested not in Hegel per se but in Hegel-as-interpreted-by-Kojčve, or perhaps a new, synthetic philosopher named Hegel-Kojčve. In subsequent references to Hegel, we will actually be referring to Hegel-Kojčve, and we will be more interested in the ideas themselves than in the philosophers who originally articulated them’. (Francis Fukuyama, 1992, p. 144)
So when Fukuyama is imputing his opinions to Hegel, we have to remember that he is not really interested in whether Hegel actually said any such thing. Just as well, because Fukuyama’s concept of ‘recognition’ bears little resemblance to anything found in Hegel’s writings.
Fukuyama believes that an irrational, primeval drive for recognition originates in a part of the ‘soul’ called by the Greeks, thymos.
“The concept underlying ‘recognition’ was not invented by Hegel. It is as old as Western political philosophy itself, and refers to a thoroughly familiar part of the human personality. Over the millennia, there has been no consistent word used to refer to the psychological phenomenon of the ‘desire for recognition’: Plato spoke of thymos, or ‘spiritedness’, Machiavelli of man’s desire for glory, Hobbes of his pride or vainglory, Rousseau of his amour-propre, Alexander Hamilton of the love of fame and James Madison of ambition, Hegel of Recognition, and Nietzsche of man as the ‘beast with red cheeks’. All of these terms refer to that part of man which feels the need to place value on things – himself in the first instance, but on the people, actions, or things around him as well. It is part of the personality which is the fundamental source of the emotions of pride, anger, and shame, and is not reducible to desire, on the one hand, or reason on the other. The drive for recognition is the most specifically political part of the human personality because it is what drives men to want to assert themselves over other men, and thereby into Kant’s condition of ‘asocial sociability’.” [Fukuyama, 1992, p. 163, my emphasis]
Whether any other philosopher believed in such an innate drive, is another question; the point here is whether or not this concept of an innate drive for recognition stands up against Hegel’s own concept of ‘recognition’.
In Hegel’s day, early on in the development of natural science, there was somewhat of a fad for the invention of new forces to explain phenomena, such as explaining the growth of cities by the ‘attractive force’ exerted by cities. Hegel described such explanation by forces as tautology; he regarded the ‘force of gravity’ as just such a tautology, too. So Hegel was a radical opponent of the method of ‘explaining’ human activity by reference to ‘human nature’, including ‘irrational drives’. According to Hegel, this method is a tautology. So if Hegel were to find a ‘drive for recognition’ in the human personality, he would not regard it as an explanation for anything, but rather a phenomenon requiring a non-tautological explanation.
Taking the master-servant narrative on its own, it seems inexplicable to the reader why the two subjects enter into a ‘fight to the death’. Why don’t they just walk away from each other, or if they fight, why does not one simply destroy the other? Why does Hegel believe that one subject must subjugate the other if not because of an innate drive for recognition?
It is the same as the question of honour, something which is frequently either trivialised or mystified: in a situation where a person is not protected by law, honour and reputation are a matter of life and death; the slightest insult if left unanswered can undermine a person’s honour and leave them open to attack. In a situation where a subject’s relation to other subjects is unmediated, then their very existence is under threat. Until they are recognised as a sovereign, free being, they will be used as a doormat. Until your being is recognised as your property, you can rely only on immediate possession, which must be defended against every challenge. Life descends into havoc. But by recognition, that is, the translation of one’s being from the particular into the universal, by having what one has as of right, through the transformation of possession into property, the struggle for existence is resolved from the plane of the particular on to the plane of the universal, transcending the problems posed by the need to defend one’s honour at every step.
When two subjects first confront one another, they are one to the other nothing but a wild beast of nature, both life-threatening and without rights. The relation between the subjects is then the same as the relation of each to nature, that is of a subject to an object, not ‘intersubjectivity’. Survival means to repel the attack of the other subject. The resulting war can result in mutual repulsion and withdrawal into peaceful indifference or the destruction of the one by the other. In either event no moral progress is achieved, and the process will be repeated again and again. However, the third possibility, the conquest of one subject by the other, in which the ‘servant-subject’ recognises the right of the master-subject, and is co-opted into the master’s system of needs, takes a step towards modernity.
The conditions under which this outcome is possible were outlined above and have been dealt with ad nauseam elsewhere. The point is only the obvious one, that the struggle for recognition is nothing more than the struggle for existence, under conditions when more than one subjects coexist in the same social space without mediation by a shared culture. No special, innate drive is necessary, other than life itself.
By reducing the necessity for recognition to an innate drive, Fukuyama overlooks the fact that the final outcome of the ‘struggle for recognition’ is not bellum omnium contra omnes, but the rule of law, not atomised individualism, but social solidarity. Where struggles for recognition and social havoc continue to exist, then the solution is not to be found in controlling innate, unalterable human drives, but rather in the measures that Hegel outlined to bring subjects into a shared system of needs and labour, within a system of rights and duties, in a state expressing their shared aspirations.
Nonetheless, Fukuyama has done much to further the myth of Hegel as a philosopher who believed that ‘human nature’ harbours an innate drive to subjugate others.
Axel Honneth entered the recognition debate by appropriating Donald Winnicott, George Herbert Mead and Hegel to claim that human beings need three species of recognition – love, rights and solidarity – to develop respectively self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem.
Honneth and Winnicott
Donald Winnicott was a British child psychoanalyst who developed an approach to understanding the relationship between a mother and her infant. Successful development requires that the infant gains the self-confidence to be on her own, separate from her mother, and that the mother develops the confidence to allow her to let the child go. In a remarkable dialectic, Winnicott treats the mother-child as a single subjectivity, which must differentiate itself into two autonomous, self-confident individuals. The love which the mother gives to the child enables the child to develop its own self-confidence and learn to do without the mother.
This dialectic is developed within Winnicott’s theory of ‘transitional phenomena’ and transitional objects. This aspect of Winnicott’s theory is more or less ignored by Honneth, but is of profound significance for social psychology and for the concept of ‘recognition’ in paricular.
Directly addressing the advocates of ‘intersubjectivity’, Winnicott says that “a statement of human nature in terms of interpersonal relationships is not good enough” and he explains:
“I am concerned with the first possession [the child’s first not-me object], and with the intermediate area between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived” (Winnicott 1971, p. 4, my emphasis)
In the case of weaning, the object in question is the mother’s breast. A good-enough mother, he says, knows how to offer her breast to the child in such a way that it seems to the child to be part of its own self; only gradually will it learn to regard this emotionally-charged object as independent of itself.
“The transitional object represents the mother’s ability to present the world in such a way that the infant does not at first have to know that the object is not created by the infant.” (Winnicott 1971, p. 109)
He goes on to claim that the employment of a transitional object (whether the mother’s breast or a teddy-bear) constitutes the child’s first use of a symbol (p. 130) and its first experience of play. In other words, in using the transitional object, the child is being inducted into the use of culture, that is, of material artefacts as bearers of meaning and utility, in this case, emotionally charged objects. This observation is of great significance because hitherto, psychological studies of the use of artefacts in learning have tended to underplay the role of affect, but Winnicott’s observation demonstrates how from the very beginning, learning is emotionally charged.
In terms of understanding child development in relation to the category of recognition, it is important to note that for Winnicott, the whole point at issue was mediation. The process being described was not the confrontation between two subjectivities, one struggling for recognition from other, but rather, the differentiation of a single subjectivity, the mother-child, into two independent agencies, facilitated by the use of a transitional object, an emotionally charged artefact, which functions for the child, as a symbol of the mother’s care.
To call this process a ‘species of recognition’ is just semantics. In the critical tradition after Habermas, Honneth is building a theory of ‘intersubjectivity’, which, like Williams’ theory, dispenses with mediation and attempts to erect a theory of the human condition solely on a foundation of unmediated relations between individual persons. Honneth wants to appropriate from Winnicott a rendering of the first phase of a child’s socialisation as a species of recognition. But Winnicott specifically proposes his theory in opposition to theories of ‘intersubjectivity’ and focuses on the role of transitional objects which can mediate “the intermediate area between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived.” (p. 4) As a psychoanalyst though, Winnicott regards these processes, including the need for a transitional object, as arising from innate drives, deep within the child’s unconscious. But it would seem that his reliance on innate drives is quite uncalled for, and that no innate drive needs be posited to understand this process.
A child does indeed deserve from its parents the kind of self-confidence-building love which Winnicott describes. But what is to be gained by casting this process in terms of a struggle for recognition by an infant who is not yet even conscious of a subject-object distinction, far less to have normative expectations of other people. If anything is to be learnt from Winnicott’s theory, then surely it would be that (a) even the very first, most primitive interpersonal relationship is mediated by an artefact (the mother’s breast) and (b) becoming self-conscious is a process of differentiation from a dominant, shared subjectivity, not a demand for recognition from an already self-conscious subject upon another independent subject.
Honneth and Mead
George Herbert Mead never did any actual clinical work, but drawing on the ideas of his pragmatist associates he developed some interesting which inspired the current of ‘microsociology’ known as ‘symbolic interactionism’. The most famous of these insights is his conception of the development of the social self in terms of the differentiation of the self into a subject-object which he called the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’. In this way Mead demonstrated that a person can become conscious of themselves only mediately through other people. People therefore need other people in order to become self-conscious, and the self-consciousness they develop will be shaped by their interactions with other people, not by introspection.
Mead developed a theory of self-consciousness in which material culture plays a subordinate role, by means of the same device that Hegel used in the master-servant dialectic: the splitting in two of each subject, so that the objectivity of the one mediates between the subjectivity and the objectivity of the other. However, there is a limit to how far you can take social psychology without reference to material culture. Hegel did not attempt to build a conception of history and society without recourse to material culture – this was the whole point of his critique of Kant, and nor did Mead. Winnicott’s nice conception of how interpersonal relations are mediated by emotionally charged objects should caution us too against a narrowly pragmatist approach.
Again, it is little more than semantics to describe Mead’s I/Me relation as a species of ‘recognition’ connected to the formation of Right. Mead’s I/Me relation has little to do with rights, since law is material culture par excellence. Relations between persons, insofar as they are determined by legal rights, are mediated relations, and stand outside the scope of Mead’s I/Me dialectic. They are two different processes.
Honneth and Hegel
Honneth’s third species of ‘recognition’ he calls ‘solidarity’ and just as love builds self-confidence and rights build self-respect, this third species of recognition builds self-esteem. Insofar as a person contributes to the community, they deserve esteem, or more precisely they deserve some material reward in recognition of their contribution. So a fair system of incomes and honours is needed so that a person may develop appropriate self-esteem. So the relation of ‘solidarity’ as defined by Honneth is explicitly a mediated relation, for esteem must be recognised by the payment of some token material of esteem, but generally speaking such recognition will be given by an institution of some kind, not another individual person. All institutions rely on some system of rewards and punishments to maintain their own fabric, and any such system of ‘just deserts’ constitutes the ethos of the relevant institution or discourse.
Responding to Foucauldian accusations that ‘recognition’ is nothing more than the operation of ideology, affirming a person in their given social station, Honneth can only claim that recognition ought to be rational and justified (Honneth 2007a, “Recognition as Ideology” p. 340), which begs the question entirely.
Honneth’s claim is that a person needs recognition in each of these three species. So, just as the need for a fair share of the community’s material products forms the basis for redistributive ethics, a person’s need for ‘recognition’ in each of three species – love, rights and solidarity, forms the basis for an ethics of ‘recognition’. It seems to me that what Honneth is actually proposing an ethics of Desert, as opposed to an ethic of Right, an ethic of Freedom, an ethic of Justice, an ethic of the Good, and so on: people need satisfaction of their expectation for certain species of affirmation and insofar as their expectations are normative, they deserve it. This still begs the question of what level of affirmation a person deserves.
Honneth’s ethic is very ‘communitarian’, in the bad sense of that word. If ‘solidarity’ is given on the basis of a person’s contribution to the community, while ‘rights’ are what is owed to everyone as a human being, then there is no place in Honneth’s system for solidarity in the sense of hospitality, or unconditional support extended to a stranger. But solidarity in this sense is the very foundation of modern, urban, multicultural society, and Honneth’s failure to incorporate it in his ethics is problematic. On the basis of what mode of ‘recognition’ would a stranger give up their seat on a bus to a pregnant woman, or assist a lost child? According to Honneth one owes loving care only to those with whom one has a close personal bond, one owes solidarity only to those who have earned your esteem, and what one owes to a stranger is only their rights. There is no room for the supererogatory. What right does the child have for the care of a stranger? The justification Honneth gives for solidarity also justifies the victimisation of those deemed undeserving.
Let us consider how Honneth’s notion of recognition compares with Hegel’s and whether Honneth is justified in presenting his notion as an interpretation of Hegel’s, and, failing this, whether Hegel’s conception offers solutions to problems which arise in Honneth’s approach.
Like Fukuyama and Williams, Honneth claims that his idea of recognition, specifically the idea of the three species of recognition which are necessary for self-realisation, is a ‘reconstruction’ of Hegel’s original idea:
“I have reconstructed the model of recognition developed by the young Hegel.” (Honneth 2007. Disrespect, p. 72)
“In his early writings, we find an explicit suggestion that we distinguish three different forms of recognition according to the respective type of relation-to-self that it promotes.” (Honneth 2007. Disrespect, p. 131)
In the first place, as was demonstrated above, in relation to Williams, a very creative reading of Hegel is required to substantiate such a claim. In the second place, like Williams, Honneth reads Hegel through a Kantian kaleidoscope which makes it hard to see how Honneth could claim to find more than an ‘inspiration’ for his idea of recognition in Hegel. In all of Honneth’s writing the ‘subject’ is understood as an individual person; in Hegel ‘subject’ and ‘individual’ are two quite distinct categories. So essentially Honneth’s claim is no more tenable than that of Fukuyama or Williams.
But what Honneth means by ‘recognition’ is evidently no longer simply some kind of generalisation of the master-servant relation, as it was for Fukuyama and Williams, but a very broad category indeed:
“social recognition constitutes the normative expectations connected with our entering into communicative relationships.” (Honneth 2007. Disrespect, p. 71)
Separated from the claim for an ethics of intersubjectivity, there is little remainder for the meaning of ‘recognition’ here. Honneth’s ethical claim reduces to the following: individuals are entitled to expect appropriate love, respect and esteem from other people with whom they interact. This is supplemented by the psychological claim that people suffer injury to their moral development if they fail to receive the affirmation that they expect from others by way of love, respect and esteem.
Planes and Levels
Having created a foundation of interactions between individuals, which denies any fundamental role to material culture or institutions, Honneth later adds that recognition can be given by institutions and that practices of recognition may be institutionalised in law or that recognition may be given in the form of “systems of statements whose source lies not in intersubjective behaviour but in institutionalised rules and arrangements.” (Honneth 2007a, “Recognition as Ideology” p. 334) But this is utterly garbled. Society cannot be added on to individual behaviour as a supplement; and nor can institutions exist other than as a species of individual behaviour. Insofar as it is systematic, what source has individual behaviour other than material culture and social arrangements? The attempt to ‘correct’ the theory of intersubjectivity by adding culture and social activity as afterthoughts only demonstrates the mistakenness of the setting-off point.
Hegel’s whole project was to overcome Kant’s methodological individualism. Rather than taking the person to be a transcendental agent who experiences history and culture, Hegel took the person to be itself the individual actor of concrete history, thence to understand how individuality, as a distinct conception and mode of activity, arose out of a history and culture in which the individual person had always existed, but only at a certain point began to see itself as a bearer of rights and moral responsibility, as a subject in their own right, rather than as a participant in a corporate subjectivity. By an uncritical acceptance of the Kantian identification of individual and subject, Honneth cannot engage this task.
The problem for Honneth has long been how to bridge the gulf from psychology to history and politics. Can a theory of politics and society rest on a theory of psychology? (Leaving aside the question of whether an ethical theory can rely on a theory of psychology.) And if a social theory is to rely on a theory of psychology, is Symbolic Interactionism the best choice, and is methodological individualism a tenable approach for mobilising any theory of social psychology for social and ethical theory?
Unsurprisingly Honneth eventually introduced the notion of different ‘planes’ or ‘levels’ to bridge this lacuna. Rather than confining himself to a theory of psychology and abandoning any claim with respect to history and society, or developing a distinct theory of institutions and social formations, Honneth now claims that recognition can happen on different ‘planes’ or ‘levels’. So concepts which have been substantiated on the basis of transactions between individual persons are simply transplanted on to relations between individuals and institutions or between institutions.
In his response to structuralist and poststructuralist criticisms, he wrote:
“... not only persons can grant recognition, but social institutions as well. We must therefore shift from the level of intersubjective recognition to the level of institutionally guaranteed recognition.” (Honneth 2007a, “Recognition as Ideology” p. 335, my emphasis)
“As soon as we switch planes and turn to instances of generalised recognition carried out by social institutions, we may no longer suppose recognition to be consummated in the corresponding modes of conduct or forms of institutional activity. Although institutionally generalised forms of recognition also find expression in transformed habits in the long run, the primary source of their fulfillment lies in the realm of institutional policies and practices.” (Honneth 2007a, “Recognition as Ideology” p. 345, my emphasis)
“Something in the physical world – be it modes of conduct or institutional circumstances – must change if the addressee or addressees are to be convinced that they have been recognised in a new manner.” (Honneth 2007a, “Recognition as Ideology” p 345, my emphasis)
But critics like Althusser and Foucault to whose proxies Honneth is responding here, had developed conceptions of institutions as ‘ideological apparatuses’ or ‘discourse’, and Honneth has nothing corresponding to such conceptions. He simply wants to “switch planes” and treat institutions, at one moment if they were corporate individuals, at another as if they were a kind of landscape or background which individuals traverse.
This brings us to the problem of the individual, a problem tied up with the conception of the subject. Is it actually the case that:
“A person is a subject whose actions can be imputed to him. ... subject to no other laws than those he gives to himself, either alone or at least along with others.” [Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, p. 10]
Even if we ought to be guided by a maxim which requires us to recognise another person (an adult of sound mind, at least) as a sovereign subject, does this normative orientation require that we believe that they actually are a sovereign subject, that they stand outside, independent and conscious of the Zeitgeist and the effect of their social position on their view of the world? And can we adopt this standpoint without also adopting Kant’s brilliant, but ahistorical, individualist and ultimately dogmatic concept of the subject?
Scientific sociology tells us that social life is law-governed, and that no matter how much an individual may believe that they have ‘made a difference’, they are always open to the rejoinder that if they hadn’t done it then someone else would have, that they were carried along by the Zeitgeist, that they had been constituted by a discourse, that they had been interpellated into an ideological apparatus, and so on. No matter how much an act is your own, it always turns out to have been largely determined by your social position, your upbringing, your experiences, and so on. Hindsight frequently confirms this to anyone who lives long enough to reflect on what they have done.
There is nothing wrong with the common sense conception according to which individuals navigate across a given cultural/historical landscape following their own lights; the point is how and whether individuals actually change that landscape and whether it can even be meaningful to ask such a question. Until we can, we are left with a world separated by unbridgeable gulfs into three worlds: social formations (institutions, apparatuses, discourses or structures of various kinds), human individuals and their psyches, and a “physical world” obedient to natural law.
This crippling trichotomy can only be overcome if we can form a single conception of any object valid in all three ‘worlds’. ‘Intersubjectivity’ attempts to do this by basing social and political conceptions solely on transactions between individuals. This is a worthy aim but fails, firstly because of a confused ontology and secondly because of the lack of an active current of psychological research based on interpersonal transactions. (’symbolic Interactionism’ continued Mead’s work, but faded out in the 1960s.)
Hegel offered a unique approach to the problem of the individual with his conception of a ‘formation of consciousness’. The obscure manner of his exposition of what is by any measure a difficult concept to grasp, has hindered reception of this idea. All the writers considered above laid claim to being interpreters of Hegel and yet none of them utilised this idea which solves the problem of the individual which ‘intersubjectivity’ is unable to solve. The only current which has taken up this approach is Cultural-Historical Activity theory (CHAT). These writers have never seen themselves as interpreters of Hegel, but nonetheless received the key conceptions for a scientific social psychology which could resolve these problems, from Hegel via Marx.
Before turning to the social psychology of CHAT and how CHAT draws its key insights from Hegel, it is necessary to address the ontological problem presented by Hegel’s concept of Spirit, problems which a broad pragmatic reading of Hegel ought to resolve.
Robert Williams expressed well the general aim of intersubjective interpretations of Hegel when he claimed that in Hegel “subjectivity is transformed, expanded, and elevated into intersubjectivity,” (Williams 1997, p. 2) and “Hegel believes that the result of recognition is spirit, the I that is a We.” (Williams 1997, p. 118). For his part Hegel remarked on more than one occasion: “Spirit is the nature of human beings en masse." The idea is to express Hegel’s notion of Spirit in terms of interactions between individual people. The fallacy is to imagine that such interactions involve just the individual persons, and to attempt to represent this interaction without incorporating material culture and the relevant activity or shared project into the basic ‘unit of analysis’.
Habermas’s critique of Kantian ethics had a similar aim: after Hegel, we can no longer rely on a innate faculty of reason which would by-pass the need to arrive at an understanding with other people. Habermas also sought an ‘intersubjective’ solution to this problem, but again Habermas presumed that people could arrive at understanding irrespective of the common project in which they were collaborating, with material culture and activity relegated to the background as ‘resources’. The idea that ‘all those affected’ had to be included in the discourse, was used to overcome this problem, but this conception fails for precisely the same reason that Kant’s original conception failed, viz., that it presumes that ‘being affected’ can be determined unambiguously without having to be negotiated with those who you believe are not affected. This would lead to an infinite regress, since those who are excluded must be consulted on the matter of their exclusion.
The first step in resolving this impasse is to clarify what is mediating the interactions between the individual people. There cannot be unmediated interactions between “transcendental subjects” because:
“By this ‘I’, or ‘He’, or ‘It’, who or which thinks, nothing more is represented than a transcendental subject of thought = x, which is cognized only by means of the thoughts that are its predicates.” [Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p. 142]
Individuals communicate with one another only by means of material culture: words, whether spoken or written, images, the sight and sound of each individual’s body, not to mention weapons, devices, markers of social position, and so forth. But the artefacts which make up the substance of material culture are subject to interpretation in the manner and to the extent that they are incorporated in the particular system of activity. As material things, interconnected with every other material object in the universe, artefacts are universal, and eternal inasmuch as they may outlive the particular civilisation which created, and first used and interpreted them. Individuals on the other hand are finite, mortal, unique and intangible; rather than a ‘transcendental subject’ let us refer to the individual or the psyche, which doubtless has a material basis in the human body but is nonetheless, exactly as Kant says, a “nothing ... which is cognized only by means of the thoughts that are its predicates,” or in Fichte’s words, “pure activity.”
This is the conception used by Hegel, and although never spelt out by him in terms of an ontology; but elaborated in full in the Science of Logic. Every instance of social action is to be conceived of simultaneously as individual (i.e., the action of individual persons), material objects (i.e., mediated by words, books, libraries, buildings, land, computers, clothes, guns, human bodies, etc.), cultural artefacts which are vested with universal meaning and utility through particular systems of activity (e.g., work, university, sport, dialogue, etc., etc.). An individual’s normative expectations of some interaction will be determined by their consciousness at the time, by the various material and cultural artefacts involved, from language to law to clothing and bodies, and the particular social activity in which the interaction is performed.
The point is that these three moments – universal, particular and individual – are not three ‘planes’ or ‘levels’ but coexist inextricably in one and the same action. No universal can exist other than by means of its participation in the consciousness and activity of individual human beings. No particular form of activity is conceivable other than through the participation of individual human beings whose actions and consciousness make it that particular activity and no other, and the symbols, artefacts, and so on around which it is structured. And finally, there can be no thought, no moment of consciousness which does not have its basis in real, living human individuals, their activity and orientation to particular relations with other human beings, projects in which they are or have been participating, and universal, material carriers of meaning from written or spoken words to human body itself, whose use has been internalised in the psyche of the individual. No thought is possible that is not simultaneously individual, particular and universal. This is the ontology of Hegel’s Spirit. Spirit is not just a large number of individual psyches, it exists only in and through material culture and particular systems of social activity.
It is a truism that if an individual were to be left to grow up alone in the jungle, then if it didn’t just die, it would still be nothing human. This overlooks the fact that if a million human beings were left to grow up together in the jungle, the result would be even more inhuman. It is not just a large number of human beings which makes spirit: “the nature of human beings en masse” includes their material culture and the manifold forms of activity through which they give meaning to material culture, and which are inherited from the past.
Habermas made an important step towards creating the basis for a non-metaphysical ethics through his pragmatic critique of Kant which led him to formulate discourse ethics. If we recognise that individuals never communicate meaningfully outside of participation in some common project or conflict, then we can sublate this achievement into an pragmatic interpretation of Hegel. The project which constitutes a ‘We’, must be taken together with the material culture we use to give meaning to a project, and the individuals doing it, to constitute a unit of analysis for the construction of an ethics for our time.
Both Habermas and Honneth believed that discourse ethics or the ethics of recognition, respectively, required a basis in empirical psychology. Habermas relied on Piaget; Honneth relied on Mead, Winnicott and some empirical studies of the psychology of work. I propose that Cultural-Historical Activity Theory offers the best basis in social psychology for further investigations towards an approach to social justice in this postmodern world.
The founder of Cultural Historical Activity Theory was Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) and his closest associates A R Luria (1902-1977) and A N Leontyev (1904-1979). Vygotsky came to prominence in 1924 in an attack on Behaviourism which was at the time the official Soviet psychology.
Behaviourism eliminated consciousness from the domain of science by reducing human activity to Stimulus and Reaction (S→R). Vygotsky proposed the inclusion of a mediating link between the Stimulus and Reaction, which was a “psychological tool.” So Stimulus-Psychological tool-Reaction (S→T→R) constituted the crucial building block of consciousness. A N Leontyev characterised this idea in the following terms:
“The crux of Vygotsky’s idea is that only the tripartite schema which cannot be further decomposed can be the minimal unit of analysis which preserves the basic properties of the mental functions.” (LSV CW, v. 3., p. 24.)
The “psychological tool” is also both stimulus and reaction, obedient to the laws of nature, but something which is constructed, a product of cultural activity:
“Artificial acts are natural as well. They can, without remainder, to the very end, be decomposed and reduced to natural ones, just like any machine (or technical tool) can, without remainder, be decomposed into a system of natural forces and processes. What is artificial is the combination (construction) and direction, the substitution and utilisation of these natural processes.” (LSV CW, v. 3., p. 85-6.)
Like any artefact, the nervous system so constructed is a social product, which makes its appearance only in and through the collaboration of the individual with others within some kind of social practice.
“[E]ach higher form of behaviour enters the scene twice in its development – first as a collective form of behaviour, as an inter-psychological function, then as an intra-psychological function, as a certain way of behaving.” (LSV CW, v. 3., p. 95.)
“the operation of using a sign, ... stands at the beginning of the development of each of the higher mental functions, initially has, of necessity, a character of external activity. At first, as a rule, the sign is an external auxiliary stimulus, an external means of autostimulation. This is due to two factors: first, to the origin of this operation from a group form of behaviour that always belongs to the sphere of external activity, and, second, to the primitive laws of the individual sphere of behaviour, which in its development has still not separated from external activity ...” (LSV CW, v. 6., p. 11)
Once, however, the process of internalisation is complete, the distinction between the artefact and the internalised psychological tool is immaterial. The sign, which began its life as an objective, material thing outside consciousness, albeit a thing endowed with social significance, becomes integrated into the psyche itself, and cannot be said to be something other than the psyche.
Vygotsky’s key idea about the construction of consciousness is based on how we learn; learning takes place through the collaboration of the novice with an adult member of the community using some artefact to allow the novice to complete some operation they need to become a full and able member of the community. That artefact may be a sign or any other kind of useful thing provided by the community for the achievement of social ends, or a role-model (an index, symbol or icon, Peirce’s terms). The child learns to coordinate their own activity using the artefact, and then gradually internalises that activity so that the use of a objective thing, spoken word, etc., may no longer be necessary, but is taken over by internal functions within their own body.
The essential components of this learning action are the individual novice, the artefact and the ‘representative’ of society. As the learning proceeds, the material thing, the artefact, is transformed into a ‘psychological tool’ within the psyche. At this point, the novice acts like any adult member of the society (skipping over here the long drawn out process of transformation that takes place during the process of internalisation or appropriation) so that the distinction between the material and mental aspects of the element of culture is secondary and relative; the artefact is an ‘ideal’. The outcome is not the insertion of the ideal into some kind of mental substance, but rather the restructuring of the nervous system with the individual coordinating their activity by means of the ideal, which remains also an element of material culture. When we talk of activity then, we are talking of the coordination of the activity of two or more individuals in some kind of social practice by means of socially constructed signs. This includes the coordination by the individual of their own body so as to act in relation to the entire society and its culture, irrespective of the immediate presence of any other person. In the limiting case of such activity then, the person acts in relation to their own body as a cultural product.
The unit of analysis for a subject as conceived of by Vygotsky is therefore an individual person, an element of culture and an activity or material practice. In the process of development, these elements which begin as distinct components of psychic activity, become identified in the subject, as a single unit of behaviour.
A N Leontyev was blessed with living much longer than his comrade Lev Vygotsky, and his activity theory represents a development of the ideas generally associated with the name of Vygotsky. Leontyev’s activity theory complements Vygotsky’s theory. As mentioned above, a subject is defined as a “self-conscious system of activity,” and while this idea is consistent with Hegel’s conception of the subject, it is Leontyev that has given us modern explication of this idea in the science of psychology.
“Once we acknowledge the common structure of external, practical activity and internal, mental activity we can understand the exchange of elements that constantly takes place between them, we can understand that certain mental actions may become part of the structure of direct practical, material activity and, conversely, external-motor operations may serve the performance of mental action in the structure of purely cognitive activity.” (Leontyev, 1977, p. 184)
Leontyev (Leontyev, 1978) shows us how systems of activity develop according to their own dynamics, particularly in the elaboration of the division of labour, and how this process generates ever new ‘systems of activity’ along with the artefacts which come into being as a result of their special meaning in a specific system of activity and correspondingly in concepts or thought-forms.
“[C]oncepts are the result of a process of assimilation of “ready-made,” historically evolved meanings, and this process takes place in the child’s activity during its intercourse with the people around it. In learning to perform certain actions, the child masters the corresponding operations, which are, in fact, in a compressed, idealised form, represented in meaning.” (Leontyev, 1977, p. 194)
Leontyev focuses on the object-relatedness of the activity of a subject, including motives and more immediate goals, fundamental to the emergence of the subject itself.
“[A]ctivity is a process of intertraffic between opposite poles, subject and object. ... The basic, constituent feature of activity is that it has an object. In fact, the very concept of activity (doing, Tätigkeit) implies the concept of the object of activity.” (Leontyev, 1977, p. 181-182)
These ideas bring into focus the social processes of change and development which lie somewhat in the background in Vygotsky’s analysis of learning, for which the division of labour figures as a given, ‘represented’ to the novice through her interaction with an afficienado. Conversely, in Leontyev’s approach material culture moves somewhat into the background relative to the practical activity.
To be sure, both Vygotsky and Leontyev are concerned with sign- or artefact-mediated, objected-oriented activity. It is just a difference in emphasis. Taken together, these two bodies of theory constitute the foundations of CHAT and are fully consonant with the Hegelian ideas sketched above in a critique of Williams, Fukuyama and Honneth. Currently, CHAT is a flourishing current of psychology active in almost every country in the world with adherents engaged in a variety of work, but especially education and child development. They have given us a sound “pragmatic” interpretation which does away with the need for any extramundane and totalising spirit.
Three different attempts to construct a non-metaphysical Hegel via a pragmatic interpretation of Hegel’s notion of Recognition have been examined. All claimed to represent an appropriation of Hegel’s original idea, but none of them grasped the important features of Hegel’s idea. Each had also failed to provide a consistent approach to understanding social and psychological phenomena. None could make use of Hegel’s approach to overcoming the conceptual rupture of the world into psychological, social and natural domains. None could be grounded in an empirical theory of psychological science which is alive and well today. None had a clear notion of the meaning of the concept of ‘recognition’ although in each case this notion was central to the approach, nor a clear ontology of the domain of application of their theory.
One of the key failures of the approaches examined above has been the doomed attempt to read Hegel through either a Kantian conception of the subject, or the common sense view of the individual as an autonomous being. To appropriate Hegel’s great insights into social philosophy, the very first task must be the renovation of the concept of ‘subject’, rejecting both naďve Cartesian or positivist conceptions and anti-humanist conceptions like those of structuralism and poststructuralism. The ontology suggested above marks a first step towards a viable conception of the subject which can be useful to social philosophy.
It is doubtful that the notion of ‘recognition’ can be rehabilitated, but the general aim of providing a pragmatic interpretation of Hegel’s spirit remains valid. The broader school of Pragmatism, which includes figures like C S Peirce for whom mediation was central, as well as the social psychology of the Cultural-Historical school, or “Cultural-Historical Activity Theory” provides an sound empirical basis for renewed research in this domain.
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1. Axel Honneth belongs to the latest generation of the Frankfurt School and his concept of ‘recognition’ arises directly from a critique of Habermas’s concepts of communicative ethics and intersubjectivity.
2. Francis Fukuyama is a follower of Alexandre Kojčve who utilises a Kojevean ‘struggle for recognition’ drawn from Hegel’s master-servant narrative, which is deemed to originate in an innate drive to dominate others.
3. Robert Williams is an American theologian and philosopher who, along with Charles Taylor, introduced ‘recognition’ into the debate on multiculturalism in the early 1990s.
4. I take Pragmatism to be that characteristically American philosophy first elaborated by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead and Percy Bridgman to mention only the most important names. Peirce’s 1878 essay, How to Make our Ideas Clear, claims that “Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects.” This basic thought was developed in the direction of an action theory of knowledge by Dewey and Bridgman. Peirce’s semiotic conception of extended mind however puts an emphasis on mediation which is not found in the later exponents.
5. I will not touch on the appropriation of concepts of ‘the Other’ and ‘Difference’ from Hegel, although there are some commonalities with the appropriation of the ‘struggle for recognition’.
6. In relation to critical theorists I have in mind Axel Honneth in particular, but all those who have followed Habermas in the use of a concept of ‘intersubjectivity’ to appropriate Kantian moral philosophy and combined this with a reading of Hegel are relevant to the comments herein.
7. Rather than declaring that abstractions do not exist, William James for example regards the existence or non-existence of abstractions as an empty question not worthy of disputation:
“Her only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience’s demands, nothing being omitted. If theological ideas should do this, if the notion of God, in particular, should prove to do it, how could pragmatism possibly deny God’s existence? She could see no meaning in treating as ‘not true’ a notion that was pragmatically so successful. What other kind of truth could there be, for her, than all this agreement with concrete reality?” [James 1902]
All that matters is whether the concept in question is useful. Percy Bridgman on the other hand insists on an operational definition of any concept, not just whether the concept is ‘useful’:
“the proper definition of a concept is not in terms of its properties but in terms of actual operations” [Bridgman 1927]
But while avoiding disputes over the existence of metaphysical objects, none of the American Pragmatists criticise the existence of thought-objects in the consciousness of an individual thinker. Only the Russians were able to appropriate Hegel’s ideas for a pragmatic solution to this problem.
8. Ilyenkov most clearly formulates the view of the Russian school of Cultural-Historical Activity Theory in respect to the objectivity of ideals:
‘The ideal form is a form of a thing, but a form that is outside the thing, and is to be found in man as a form of his dynamic life activity, as goals and needs. Or conversely, it is a form of man’s life activity, but outside man, in the form of the thing he creates. “Ideality” as such exists only in the constant succession and replacement of these two forms of its “external embodiment” and does not coincide with either of them taken separately. It exists only through the unceasing process of the transformation of the form of activity - into the form of a thing and back - the form of a thing into the form of activity.’ [Ilyenkov, 1977]
9. Vygotsky and his followers did use the ‘intersubjective’ in the sense of communicative action, but they already had an expanded conception of mind and did not share the Kantian meaning of ‘subject’ implied in the use of ‘intersubjectivity’. This fact could be used to support the argument that this writers objection to the use of ‘intersubjectivity’ is unwarranted. However, I think that when used in the context of methodological individualism, the word functions as a barrier to the formation of an expanded conception of subjectivity.
10. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:
“Intersubjectivity: Existing between conscious minds. 1899 J. Ward Naturalism & Agnosticism. It seems to depend upon three elements or conditions which are consequences of intersubjective intercourse. 1925 J. E. Turner Theory Direct Realism. Intersubjective communication. 1934 M. Black tr. Carnap’s Unity of Sci. It will be proved that the physical language is inter-subjective and can serve as a universal language. Ibid. In such a case p will be said to have sense (for those persons) inter-subjectively. 1938 Mind. Propositions about private experiences are intersubjectively understood. 1938 C. Morris Found. Theory of Signs. The thesis of the potential intersubjectivity of every meaning. 1945 K. R. Popper Open Soc. Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method. 1945 Psychol. Rev. Concepts which are to be of value to the factual sciences must be definable by operations which are intersubjective and repeatable. 1956 Essays in Crit. The validation for the new myth philosophy plunges, in the vast reservoir of racial unconsciousness, for an intersubjective base for universality. 1957 C. LA Dričre in N. Frye Sound & Poetry The acknowledged intersubjectivity of meaning is a kind of objectivity. 1963 R. Carnap in P. A. Schilpp Philos. R. Carnap One of the most important advantages of the physicalistic language is its intersubjectivity, i.e., the fact that the events described in this language are in principle observable by all users of the language. 1967 W. Sellars Philos. Perspectives Universals are identities not only with respect to their many instances, but also with respect to the many minds which think in terms of them. This inter-subjective and inter-linguistic character must be accounted for by any adequate theory of abstract entities.”
11. Searches of the English translations of Hegel’s works on the internet confirm that the words ‘intersubjective’ and ‘intersubjectivity’ are never used. Michael Inwood’s “Hegel Dictionary’ has no entry for ‘intersubjectivity’ and does not list the word in the index.
12. Briefly, Kant’s subject is a transcendental subject, not any real thing. It is a sophisticated conception which avoids the various stupidities entertained by all the positivists, analytical philosophers and experts in the “philosophy of mind” who imagine the subject to be some real thing located at some point in the brain. However, Kant’s is an individual subject, so in the overwhelming majority of its usages in social philosophy, what is meant is simply an individual person, without even regard to the qualifications which would be attached to the notion of a legal subject. This conception of the subject is the straw-man which is the usual target of criticism by postmodern philosophers.
In Hegel’s conception of the subject, the individual is an individual of the subject which has the structure of a concrete Notion, with the individual in specific social relations with the particular and universal, themselves social relations amongst individuals using material culture. This is far more sophisticated than the various conceptions of the anti-subject developed by post-modern philosophers, but cannot be conveyed in a few words.
13. See The Subject by Andy Blunden 2003, published on line. For Aristotle, the subject was a thing in itself abstracted from the attributes which could be predicated to it. Descartes took this subject to be not the thing itself but rather an individual mind to which conceptions of the thing could adhere. But Descartes took the subject or mind, to be a real thing, albeit a substance lacking extension, leading to the notorious ‘Cartesian dualism’.
14. Hegel does not generally use the word ‘subject’ in the Kantian sense. He sometimes does however, especially when discussing Kantian themes.
15. Very briefly, Fichte describes how a subject becomes conscious of itself as a free being as follows. Another subject recognises the subject as a human being and treats it as a free and rational being, summoning the subject to exercise its freedom.
“The being outside the subject is posited as free, and thus as a being that could also have overstepped the sphere that presently determines it, and could have overstepped it such that the subject would be deprived of its ability to act freely. But the being outside the subject did not freely overstep this sphere; therefore, it materially limited its freedom through itself; that is, it limited the sphere of those actions that were possible for it by virtue of its formal freedom. ... “
“Furthermore, through its action, the being outside the subject has ... summoned the latter to act freely; thus it has limited its freedom through a concept of an end in which the subject’s freedom is presupposed (even if only problematically); thus it has limited its freedom through the concept of the subject’s (formal) freedom.” [Fichte 2000, p. 41]
In this way, the individual learns that it is a free being, a subject, by internalising its recognition by another subject. So in his critique of Kant, Fichte introduced the idea of recognition as the origin of self-consciousness.
16. As Kant puts it in the opening words of the Science of Right:
“... the theoretical knowledge of right and law in principle, as distinguished from positive laws and empirical cases, belongs to the pure science of right. The science of right thus designates the philosophical and systematic knowledge of the principles of natural right. And it is from this science that the immutable principles of all positive legislation must be derived by practical jurists and lawgivers.” [my emphasis]
“They [the principles of morality] lay down commands for every one without regard to his particular inclinations, and merely because and so far as he is free, and has a practical reason. Instruction in the laws of morality is not drawn from observation of oneself or of our animal nature, nor from perception of the course of the world in regard to what happens, or how men act. But reason commands how we ought to act, even although no example of such action were to be found.” (Kant 1790)
17. Hegel criticised Fichte in this way in his Philosophy of History:
“The state is not apprehended in its essence, but only as representing a condition of justice and law, i.e. as an external relation of finite to finite. There are various individuals; the whole constitution of the state is thus in the main characterized by the fact that the freedom of individuals must be limited by means of the freedom of the whole. The individuals always maintain a cold attitude of negativity as regards one another, the confinement becomes closer and the bonds more stringent as time goes on, instead of the state being regarded as representing the realization of freedom. ...” [Hegel 1816-17, p. 503]
18. Fichte begins with individuals, who learn that they are free when they are summoned by other individuals who have already learnt they are free. This captures an important aspect of social change, but Fichte is still presupposing what is to be the outcome, the individual itself. Hegel on th eother hand, beings with a community, and individuality is the outcome of a protracted historical process of differentiation driven by a struggle for recognition between communities. Both writers find the origin of self-consciousness in history, rather than in the nature of the individual organism, but Hegel’s cultural-historical conception of subjectivity allows Hegel to demonstrate what is actually a stronger kind of individuality built on resistance and assertion, whereas for Fichte, individuality actually arises as a kind of conformism.
19. For all the sophistication of the early pragmatists, they all began, like Fichte, with the autonomous individual. Mostly their early conceptions are built not even on inter-subjective relations, but on relations between an individual person and objects.
20. See my “Hegel and the Master-Servant Dialectic. Excerpts from Hegel’s writing in which the Master-Slave relation is explored, with annotations,” “Masters, Servants and Mediation,” and “Hegel, Recognition and Intersubjectivity. Response to Hegel’s Ethics of Recognition, by Robert R. Williams” in which Hegel’s use of the recognition relation and the master-servant narrative is tracked in detail.
21. The Philosophy of Right begins with ‘abstract right’, that is, a society in which ‘being-recognised’ is already institutionalised. In the section on morality, he dismisses the idea that people are motivated by a desire for recognition in behaving morally, but in the section on the Corporation he argues that the corporation gives recognition to a person’s contribution to society:
“But civil society tears the individual from his family ties, estranges the members of the family from one another, and recognises them as self-subsistent persons. Further, for the paternal soil and the external inorganic resources of nature from which the individual formerly derived his livelihood, it substitutes its own soil and subjects the permanent existence of even the entire family to dependence on itself and to contingency. Thus the individual becomes a son of civil society which has as many claims upon him as he has rights against it.” (§ 238)
“Unless he is a member of an authorised Corporation (and it is only by being authorised that an association becomes a Corporation), an individual is without rank or dignity, his isolation reduces his business to mere self-seeking, and his livelihood and satisfaction become insecure. Consequently, he has to try to gain recognition for himself by giving external proofs of success in his business, and to these proofs no limits can be set. He cannot live in the manner of his class, for no class really exists for him, since in civil society it is only something common to particular persons which really exists, i.e. something legally constituted and recognised. Hence he cannot achieve for himself a way of life proper to his class and less idiosyncratic.” (§253n)
“Under modern political conditions, the citizens have only a restricted share in the public business of the state, yet it is essential to provide men - ethical entities - with work of a public character over and above their private business. This work of a public character, which the modern state does not always provide, is found in the Corporation. We saw earlier that in fending for himself a member of civil society is also working for others. But this unconscious compulsion is not enough; it is in the Corporation that it first changes into a known and thoughtful ethical mode of life.” (§255ad)
So there is no doubt given these comments, that Hegel regarded it as important for the integration of individuals into the community, that their work, both of a private and a public character, be recognised and made rational, and that a specific form of social organisation, the “corporations” be established for this purpose.
My argument is that these considerations do not play a structural role in the elaboration of his social philosophy, but simply a supporting role.
22. See “Hegel and the State of Nature,” in which the handicap Hegel faced by not having access to the natural basis for human society as disclosed over the past 200 years.
23. See “The Young Hegel against Liberalism” which shows how Hegel positioned himself in opposition to liberalism, which he saw as undermining the social fabric, but argued in favour of modernity and sought to understand how individuality could be fostered without the negative effects which followed from the policies of liberalism.
24. Symbolic Interactionism takes its inspiration from Mead’s speculations, and was given its name by Mead’s student and interpreter, Herbert Blumer. Symbolic Interactionism is very close to the approach suggested here, but Blumer died in 1987 and most of his work dates from the 1950s. The current continues to this day but it remains a fairly marginal current. Blumer, following Mead, claimed that people interact with each other by ‘interpreting’ each other’s actions, based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another’s actions. If critical theory is to appropriate a foundation in empirical psychology, it is essential that a current of theory is used which is genuinely engaged in practical work on a wide front. This is not the case with Symbolic Interactionism.
25. I interpret “the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live” to be an absolutely deliberative formulation by Marx, and it will be argued below that grasping the distinct significance of each of these three moments is crucial to social philosophy.
26. See “The Subject,” a draft in progress, for an attempt at a comprehensive treatment of the concept of ‘subject’.
27. See W-M. Roth (2007) for an overview of the meaning of ‘mediation’ in the context of psychology.
28. The only way to make sense of the claim that even the very first category of the Logic, of which Hegel says:
“Being is the indeterminate immediate; it is free from determinateness in relation to essence and also from any which it can possess within itself. This reflectionless being is being as it is immediately in its own self alone.” (Vol I, Book One, Section 1, Chapter 1: Being)
is to consider what the subject matter of the Logic is. See “The Subject Matter of Hegel’s Logic.” There is a protracted process of development implied in the abstraction of a concept like ‘Being’. Although, according to Hegel, ‘Being’ was the conception marking the beginning of philosophy, a long passage of cultural development was required to get to that beginning.
29. See “Hegel and the Master-Servant Dialectic,” the commentary on “System of Ethical Life,” in particular.
30. So far as I know it was Max Stirner who first used the expression ‘second nature’ to refer to objective culture, as opposed to the sense of habits, a usage which goes back to Aristotle. Marx used ‘second nature’ to mean those human needs which are developed by civilisation, and it seems consistent with Marx’s thinking to ascribe ‘second nature’ to those objectifications of our ‘second nature’. But I am not sure where this usage originates from.
31. I am using ‘mediation’ here in a very specific context. This is not at all to rule out the usage of the term ‘mediation’ in respect to the relation between any two entities whatsoever. All relations are mediated; this is just another way of saying that between any two points on a continuum there is always a third. The insistence on the universality of mediation in this sense is simply a heuristic or logical device. CS Peirce remarked somewhere that ‘thirdness’ generates a research program, because the discovery of every relation poses the question of the two relations mediating that first relation.
32. According to the OED (1989) an artefact is “anything made by human art and workmanship; an artificial product.” More precisely, an artefact can only be those properties or forms of the object which are the product of human art, for the matter from which an artefact is made is always given ultimately by nature, and subsequently transformed. Thus the human body is as much an artefact as a domestic cat, a crop of wheat or an espalier tree, a pair of spectacles or a contact lens, a nose job or the undernourished frame of a deprived child. All artefacts are the product of human activity applied to the material provided by nature. There is no real reason not to extend this notion to the human body itself, including the opposable thumb and manipulable larynx, products of evolution of the human body fostered by millions of years of the use of culture, as much as the neurological capacity to understand and produce language, as well as the skills, preferences and sensibilities developed by each individual in the course of their life, or the neurological formation that allows us to remember our times tables decades after we committed them to memory.
33. Hegel wrote as a citizen of a European country that did not have a state of its own, and consequently the national problem was uppermost in his mind. He had never seen a social movement as we know it today. So although Hegel is very much concerned with ‘difference’ as it related to national or ethnic difference, the relation of ‘recognition’ in fact applies to any concept, lifestyle or practice which is new to a given community.
34. If you are going to visualise this relation in terms of individuals, that is to say, metaphorically, then imagine two individuals from different cultures; in this instance they need a common language to communicate, and a common set of customs and values., etc., etc., to be able to deal with each other. Alternatively, mediation can be performed by a third party, a hegemon. Otherwise, imagine two mutually alien cultures in the same circumstance. Mediation implies a third party who has the respect of both or a shared language, system of law, customs, etc., etc. before recognition can be even thought of.
35. See Andy Blunden 2007d.
36. See Hegel System of Ethical Life, 1802/3.
37. The idea of an individual or even a nation having unmediated contact with another in modern times is unthinkable. This only makes sense if one keeps in mind the Hegelian notion of ‘subject’. When a new social practice or lifestyle makes its appearance in modern society, and people first become conscious of it and self-consciously act it out, then within the domain of a second nature, we have ‘unmediated contact’ between this new lifestyle, social movement, or system of activity, and the dominant surrounding community. The resulting confrontation is logically just like the first arrival of white man in a valley in the New Guinea highlands.
38. Relations involving institutions cannot in principle be separated from relations involving individuals since in every case, interactions with an institution or social movement happen in and through individuals and things. But on the basis that self-consciousness is acquired mediately, through other subjects, recognition is essentially a process between two subjects one or both of which are in the process of attaining self-consciousness. So when we are talking about institutions participating in relations of recognition, then it makes no sense unless the institutions concerned are self-conscious or in the process of becoming self-conscious through recognition. In those relations in which an institution plays a mediating or background role, as part of the relevant material culture, it is not an institution which ‘struggles for recognition’ nor an institution against which a ‘struggle for recognition’ is waged. The institution may provide an arena for struggle but there must be protagonists.
39. The ‘struggle for recognition’ elaborated in the Phenomenology leads into a series of formations of consciousness of the ‘servant’ subject: stoicism, scepticism and unhappy consciousness, to do with different understandings of the relation of the servant-subject to the dominant society in the development towards modernity. These stages bear no resemblance to the processes of social integration of individuals covered by the concept of ‘being recognised’ in the 1805/6 text, or in the section of the Philosophy of Right on the Corporations. We clearly have two distinct processes and concepts here.
40. The idea that with the master-servant narrative anyone would believe that Hegel had in mind two individuals, just like Adam and Eve in the Christian origins-narrative, seems incredible, but that is exactly what Fukuyama claims. Other writers like Williams and Honneth do not claim this narrative to describe a single, historical event, but still interpret the actors in this drama to be individuals.
41. There is much to recommend the Young Hegel, and in some cases ideas which are obscured in the mature philosophy are made explicit in the early texts, but in the case of the use of ‘recognition’ in the 1805/6 text, we have a good idea extended beyond its usefulness, and Hegel rightly cut these ideas back to size in subsequent works.
42. It appears that within Critical Theory, it was Habermas who adopted the Kantian definition of subject, and that Honneth has carried this concept on into his turn to the “Young Hegel.” Neither Lukacs, Horkheimer nor Marcuse mixed up Kant and Hegel in this way. Where Williams is coming from in this respect I cannot say.
43. The failure to see the issue of mediation involved in the master-servant narrative is surely due in part of the obscurity of Hegel’s exposition, but also to the way it has been detached from the overall development of Hegel’s work thanks to Kojčve.
44. From “Introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals,” II. The Idea and Necessity of a Metaphysic of Morals:
“... there must be principles a priori for the natural science that has to deal with the objects of the external senses. ... But this latter science, if care be taken to keep its generalizations free from error, may accept many propositions as universal on the evidence of experience, ...
“But it is otherwise with moral laws. These, in contradistinction to natural laws, are only valid as laws, in so far as they can be rationally established a priori and comprehended as necessary. In fact, conceptions and judgments regarding ourselves and our conduct have no moral significance, if they contain only what may be learned from experience; and when any one is, so to speak, misled into making a moral principle out of anything derived from this latter source, he is already in danger of falling into the coarsest and most fatal errors.”
45. Hegel never really spells out what he means by subject. The individual person, for example in the Philosophy of Right, is referred to as an individual or a person, and rarely as a subject. In the context of a discussion about the Monarch, he says: “The truth of subjectivity, however, is attained only in a subject, and the truth of personality only in a person; and in a constitution which has become mature as a realisation of rationality, each of the three moments of the concept has its explicitly actual and separate formations. Hence this absolutely decisive moment of the whole is not individuality in general, but a single individual, the monarch.” And in the early section on Abstract RIght, he said: “‘Person’ is essentially different from ‘subject’, since ‘subject’ is only the possibility of personality; every living thing of any sort is a subject. A person, then, is a subject aware of this subjectivity, since in personality it is of myself alone that I am aware.”
The ‘subject’ is discussed in relation to the object and to the idea and other such categories, and in the Logic, he talks about the subject in relation to the individual, particular and universal, but here both individual and subject appear to be logical categories. It is only by following the entirety of Hegel’s philosophy than we can arrive at a conclusion as to just what Hegel means by the term ‘subject’.
46. Peirce expressed himself in relation to Hegel as follows:
“The truth is that pragmaticism is closely allied to the Hegelian absolute idealism, from which, however, it is sundered by its vigorous denial that the third category [i.e., mediation, AB] (which Hegel degrades to a mere stage of thinking) suffices to make the world, or is even so much as self-sufficient. Had Hegel, instead of regarding the first two stages with his smile of contempt, held on to them as independent or distinct elements of the triune Reality, pragmaticists might have looked up to him as the great vindicator of their truth. (Of course, the external trappings of his doctrine are only here and there of much significance.) For pragmaticism belongs essentially to the triadic class of philosophical doctrines, and is much more essentially so than Hegelianism is. (Indeed, in one passage, at least, Hegel alludes to the triadic form of his exposition as to a mere fashion of dress.)” (Peirce 1955, pp. 266-7)
“The Hegelian philosophy is such an anancasticism [evolution by necessity, AB]. With its revelatory religion, with its synechism (however imperfectly set forth), with its “reflection,” the whole idea of the theory is superb, almost sublime. Yet, after all, living freedom is practically omitted from its method. The whole movement is that of a vast engine, impelled by a vis a tergo, with a blind and mysterious fate of arriving at a lofty goal. I mean that such an engine it would be, if it really worked; but in point of fact, it is a Keely motor. Grant that it really acts as it professes to act, and there is nothing to do but accept the philosophy. But never was there seen such an example of a long chain of reasoning, – shall I say with a flaw in every link? – no, with every link a handful of sand, squeezed into shape in a dream. Or say, it is a pasteboard model of a philosophy that in reality does not exist. If we use the one precious thing it contains, the idea of it, introducing the tychism [evolution by chance, or Darwinism, AB] which the arbitrariness of its every step suggests, and make that the support of a vital freedom which is the breadth of the spirit of love, we may be able to produce that genuine agapasticism [evolution by creativity, or Lamarckism, AB], at which Hegel was aiming.” (Peirce 1955, pp. 365-6)
47. See Mead 1956, pp 228ff. Mead’s article “The Social Self” was first published in Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 10, 1913: 374-380. See http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/mead3.htm.
48. No-one denies that when individuals interact with one another, the language they use, the signals they convey via clothing and both hexus mediate the interaction, which is conditioned by relative social position and any other relevant social relations between them. The question is whether these mediating elements are treated as elements moderating or facilitating what remains essentially a transaction between two individuals, or on the other hand, the fact that the mediating elements exist independently and prior to the individuals, implies that the interaction cannot be regarded as essentially taking place between individuals taken as subjects in themselves, but rather can only be conceived in a context in which the individuals, the material culture mediating the interaction, and ensemble of social relations, especially the project in which the individuals are collaborating or conflicting, all play an equally essential role.
49. It is remarkable that from the very beginning, Hegel never took an interest in problems of ontology or epistemology hinging around the relation between ideas and things. His early works, concerned with Herderian ideas about the spirit of a people and popular religion, focused on the development of culture as a whole with a view to practical intervention. It seems that the young Hegel saw himself as a follower of Kant by dint of his commitment to Enlightenment modernity, and only later took an interest in Kant’s solution to problems of epistemology, and so on, in recognising that it was only by means of a philosophical system that a socio-cultural intervention would be possible. Then, like Fichte and Schelling, his concern was the transcendence of Kant’s dualism. So from the beginning, universals and ideals were forms of material culture equally as much as they were thought forms. Hegel was never concerned very much with the relation between the objective material forms of the ideal and the internal or mental form of the ideal; he was always concerned with the forms of movement and development of the ideal, without regard to its status as mental or material. Nevertheless, his early System of Ethical Life made it clear that conceptions and intuitions arise from practical involvement in forms of social practice, not the other way around. See Terry Pinkard’s Hegel, A Biography.
50. Just as you cannot deduce an ought from an is, you cannot deduce an is from an ought. The Kantian dictum:
“A person is a subject whose actions can be imputed to him. ... subject to no other laws than those he gives to himself, either alone or at least along with others.” [The Metaphysics of Morals, p. 10]
does not exclude the fact that most people most of the time are subject to laws which they no nothing about; but nevertheless, every person must be treated as if they act in every matter as a sovereign subject. Social theory tells us that individuals are subject to social and historical laws independently of their consciousness; moral theory tells us that individuals are subject only to laws that they give to themselves. This contradiction between social and ethical theory can only be overcome through a more adequate conception of the subject.
51. In the law of nations, Kant’s dictum applies precisely: a nation which is recognised as such is sovereign and subject only to those laws which it gives to itself together with other nations.
‘Recognition’ in this context, is a bilateral relation between two parties, and means that the subject is deemed to be in control of its own destiny internally and externally, is proposed to be admitted into the family of sovereign nations. Given that this family of nations is now instituted as the United Nations, ‘recognition’ can be granted through appropriate procedures by the family of nations itself, rather than simply as a bilateral relation.
The meaning of ‘sovereign’ and ‘recognition’ are more or less transparent when applied to nations and governments, and I take it that the application of these concepts to individuals (a modern phenomenon) is by extension from their meaning in the law of nations, which dates back to antiquity.
52. For example, consider the following bundle of confusion:
“Does the preceding analysis mean that Hegel thinks recognition is possible without a life and death struggle? That it might be possible bypass both the life and death struggle and master and slave? That a phase of conflict is not a necessary but a contingent feature of recognition? Hegel’s answer to these questions depends on a prior question, whether we are speaking of the process of recognition at the level of individuals or at the level of the objective spirit, that is, a people. ...
“Hegel’s answer to our question would be that struggle is a universal and necessary feature of recognition at the level of human spirit in general, that is, at the world-historical level. However, the extreme situation of struggle to the death is not necessary for every individual. At the individual level of subjective spirit, development through extreme conflict is, fortunately, an avoidable contingency. Thus Hegel holds that there can be individual cases of recognition in which there is no life and death struggle and in which master and slave are bypassed. Life and death struggle and master/slave appear to be universal and necessary stages only at the world-historical level of the human spirit.” (Williams, 1997, p. 86-7)
53. The master-servant narrative as told by Hegel does not suffer from this deficit, but since the differentiation of the respective subjects in order to mediate the relation is universally ignored by commentators, relations modelled on the master-servant relation always take the subject as a unitary entity, and ignore the body as a distinct component of subjectivity.
54. Hegel used the concept of gravity as an example and refuted the tautological method in the sciences thus:
“Capriciously adopting single categories, whose value entirely depends on their place in the gradual evolution of the logical idea, it employs them in the pretended interests of explanation, but in the face of plain, unprejudiced perception and experience, so as to trace back to them every object investigated.” [Hegel, Shorter Logic, §126]
Hegel is of course the historical constructivist par excellence; the very essence of his contribution is that the subject is a moment of cultural-historical development, not anything innate.
55. It is easier to understand unmediated contact between subjects by visualising the subjects as self-sufficient tribes or the arrival of extraterrestrial life forms. Or imagine how a new theory in science is greeted by the scientific establishment, or how the Gay Liberation movement is welcomed in Saudi Arabia. No two individuals are as strange to one another as these examples illustrate.
56. My claim that Habermas is committed to a theory based on unmediated relations between individual persons could with some merit be challenged. The charge relates only to the focus on ‘discourse ethics’ and the conception of ‘undistorted communication’ and in general to the relegation of mediation to a secondary rather than an essential role.
57. Note that ‘Self-consciousness recognitive’, the outcome of the master-servant narrative, does not mark the birth of a subject, only of consciousness on the part of the subject that it has a particular point of view among other possible points of view. Prior to the master-servant struggle, the subject exists and has consciousness, but its consciousness is limited to objects; consequently, it lacks the resources to see that there is more than one point of view on an object. The infant prior to weaning is still in the stage of emergent subjectivity or consciousness, not yet emergent self-consciousness, which can only come later. So Winnicott’s mother-and-infant narrative belongs to a different stage in the development of consciousness than the master-servant narrative. However, it would seem that the same process can be found later in life as well, as the child begins to make its own experiences in the world outside the home. It depends whether you go with Freud and his followers and give a privileged place to the experiences of early infancy, over and above the significance of like processes, for example, in adolescence or young adulthood. Is the good enough parent who gives their child the resources to make a life for themselves, without smothering them, doing something of secondary significance to that of the good enough mother who knows how to breast-feed?
58. The mediating role of material culture in Mead’s work is actually much more significant that is found in the dialectic of the I and the Me. The key concept of Symbolic Interactionism is that in communication, the subject posits an artefact with a certain interpretation, while the recipient interprets it differently, so, in Peirce’s terms, there is a dissonance between the interpretant and the object. This aspect of Mead’s work which emphasises the mediating role of material culture is, however, absent from Honneth’s appropriation.
59. See Blunden 2004 and Blunden 2004a, where I elaborate a conception of social solidarity which is consistent both with the origin of the word in the struggles of Parisian workers in 1848 and the First International, and the current literature on ‘social capital’.
60. What right, under Honneth’s schema, does a child have at all, for a child is not yet a subject. It is unclear from what the origin of the rights of the child would be in Honneth’s schema.
61. For example, The Philosophy of Right §264.
62. The device of ‘all those affected’ is used to define the common project, participation in which gives a person the right to be included in a discourse, and a duty to others to include them. The point which is raised by Seyla Benhabib (2006, p. 19) is that those who are excluded do not have a say in their exclusion, wherever the line is drawn. But also, this device defines the person who is to be included or excluded as the passive recipient of both the effects of the common project and the judgment as to whether they are to be included. Also, the move transforms deontological discourse ethics into a consequentialist ethics, since inclusion depends on the consequences of the discourse.
63. For example:
“the rational potential of speech is interwoven with the resources of any particular given lifeworld. To the extent that the lifeworld fulfils the resource function, it has the character of an intuitive, unshakeably certain, and holistic knowledge, which cannot be made problematic at will ... This amalgam of background assumptions, solidarities, and skills bred through socialisation constitutes a conservative counterweight against the risk of dissent inherent in processes of reaching understanding that work through validity claims.” (Habermas 1987a: 326)
64. See “Empirical Social Psychology and Critical Theory,” June 2006, a brief introduction to origins of CHAT.
65. See “Modernity, the Individual and the foundations of Cultural-Historical Activity Theory,” Mind, Culture and Activity, volume 14 (4), 2007 (Blunden, Andy 2007a) for a somewhat more extended version of this argument.