Mutual Recognition

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Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding:

" In the last twenty years, the term ‘recognition’ has received widespread attention from mainstream political theorists. During the 1990s, it became a watchword under which liberalism extended its scope to encompass multiculturalist issues.[12] Later, from the 1990s onwards, Axel Honneth published a series of works arguing that ‘recognition’ may lie at the centre of a revitalised Critical Theory tradition.[13] Our claim is that both multiculturalist and Honnethian understandings of ‘recognition’ are seriously defective. Multiculturalism (so we maintain) makes its peace with forms of alienation which a more searching account of recognition subjects to critique. Its fundamental difficulty is that it tends to equate recognition with respect for pre-given social identities; in our view, by contrast, free and open-ended interaction – interaction where nothing is pre-given – is crucial to how recognition is to be seen. Regarding Honneth, our response comes in two stages. First, we agree with Honneth that a vital and challenging critical theory must place the notion of recognition at its core. Honneth’s proposal that a ‘”normative monism” of recognition’[14] is to be defended meets with our wholehearted support. Second, however, we point to weaknesses and fatal difficulties in Honneth’s view of recognition. In various of his works, he distinguishes between three ‘spheres of recognition’[15] – love (rooted in familial relations), respect (whose home is the legal system) and achievement (whose home is the state). And he regards an emancipated society as one where such distinctions are made more consistent but never challenged in a root-and-branch way. The outlines of a multiculturalist view of recognition reappear in Honneth’s discussion: in place of a focus on free interaction, respect for social identity based on bourgeois society’s chief institutions – the family, civil society and the state – governs Honneth’s theoretical claims.

No doubt, more can be said about multiculturalist and Honnethian views than the present short paper attempts. Elsewhere, we have discussed such views in greater detail[16] and do not repeat this detail here. Our chief concern for the present is to warn a reader that currently-widespread understandings of recognition and our own understanding are fundamentally distinct.

In place of a detailed consideration of recent political theory, we offer a sketch of what, in our view, ‘recognition’ means. We propose that it is fundamentally more radical than the version which appears in the multiculturalist or the Honnethian outlook. The view of ‘recognition’ which we favour is one which sheds light on Occupy-style initiatives and which opens on to not only a critical but a revolutionary perspective.

The starting point of our sketch is uncontroversial. In common with numerous theorists,[17] we view recognition as social acknowledgement. Controversy enters the picture, however, when we respond to the questions: “Just what is acknowledged?” and “What does acknowledgement entail?”

Regarding the first of these questions: what is acknowledged is, in our view, individuals’ freedom – understanding freedom in terms of self-determining action. An individual is, for us, free through the actions which he or she performs.

Regarding the second of these questions: the key point to bear in mind is that, in our view, recognition (or acknowledgement) has not merely a cognitive but a constitutive force. This distinction, which may have a complicated appearance, is in reality straightforward. Recognition is cognitive when something is found to be an object of a familiar kind (as then an individual advances through a misty landscape and exclaims “Ah! This ghostly figure turns out to be only a tree!”). Recognition is, by contrast, constitutive when something is made what it is through the recognition concerned (as when performing the locution “I promise…” brings a new obligation into existence). Our claim is that recognition in the sense which concerns us is intrinsically constitutive. Without remainder, an individual’s identity is made what it is through the recognition it receives. Stated differently, it depends entirely on how he or she is seen.

Standing back from our answers, we note ways in which they depart from conventional wisdom. In focusing on freedom, we prise recognition as a concept away from notions of group-defined identity; instead, we launch discussion where self-determination – ultimately, as we shall see, interactive self-determination – is the stake. Issues of identity are indeed raised, because what one is depends on how recognition takes place; but they are raised in a secondary fashion and in the context of debate on how non-alienated freedom may obtain. In focusing on constitution, further, we cast notions of fixed and unchanging personal identity – in a word, essentialist identity – to the winds. In place of spectral invocations of what used to be termed the “soul”, we turn to a picture where individuals are endlessly at issue in recognition’s play.[18]

Are our answers compatible? The importance of this enquiry, or potential objection, can scarcely overestimated. At first sight, it may seem that incompatibility must be admitted. How can freedom – and, especially, self-determining freedom – count as freedom, if it depends on recognition by other people? Although our account of recognition turns on freedom, does it not undermine the notion of freedom itself? Our reply is that, despite appearances, our answers are compatible. But a caution must be introduced. Our answers are compatible if, and only if, the following condition is present: if individuals who are recognized recognize those who do the recognizing, then and only then can the requirements of freedom as self-determination and recognition as constitutive be fulfilled. Both sets of requirements are fulfilled because (a) recognition is recognized as freely given and (b) individuals’ freedom is constitutively recognized as real. Summing up these formulations, we may say: freedom qua self-determination and recognition in its constitutive meaning flourish together, and exist in and through one another, on a terrain where specifically mutual recognition exists.

How may mutual recognition be pictured? We know of no other way than to picture it as unconstrained interaction – by which we understand interaction which is open to all comers and where any issue whatever may be raised. The to and fro rhythm of unimpeded interaction and the mutuality of mutual recognition seem to us to go hand in hand. If interaction is made to flow in pre-established channels, the rhythm that is intrinsic to it (the rhythm of a “good” conversation which is open to all comers and which “follows the argument wherever it leads”[19]) seems to us to be interrupted. If recognition ceases to be mutual, in the sense just indicated, it adopts a distorted or self-contradictory – in a word, an “alienated” – form. Ending the to and fro flow of open-ended interaction and mutual recognition has momentous consequences. Not merely does recognition deny itself, but so too does the freedom (the self-determination) to which mutual recognition is linked.[20]

An attempt to follow through these all-too-brief comments on our understanding of recognition might, with advantage, explore contradictory or “alienated” forms of recognition present in the world today." (

Source: Occupy as Mutual Recognition. By Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding [1]

Peter Gabel


In my new book, Another Way of Seeing: Essays on Transforming Law, Politics, and Culture (Quid Pro Books), from which this piece is adapted, I am offering one expression of a worldwide effort now taking place to bring another theory, another way of seeing, to the forefront of human life. The central aspect of this new postliberal, post-Marxist way of seeing is to begin from the interior of our awareness to grasp the “within” of the intersubjective life-world into which we have been thrown and into which we are, in the words of philosopher Martin Heidegger, always already in-mixed. What we find by this interior-to-interior method—from beginning inside ourselves and from that interior self-transparency going forward by intuition and understanding to the inside of the world we are trying to see—is that human beings actually exist in a psycho-spiritual world in which they seek not primarily food, shelter, or the satisfaction of material needs, but rather the love and recognition of other human beings, and the sense of elevated meaning and purpose that comes from bringing that world of intersubjective connection into being. Of course the satisfaction of material needs is indispensable to our physical survival, but please see that our survival is different from our existence—our survival is the background, the indispensable precondition of our existence, and if it is threatened we can be driven to whatever extreme is necessary to preserve this existence. But our existence itself is a manifestation of our social being that a) is fully present to itself and others, and b) exists only by virtue of our relation to the presence of others as the source of our completion. When I say that we are social beings, therefore, I mean that we do not really exist as individuals except to the extent that our individuality is one pole of our existence in relation to others, and the central longing of our life, immanent within our very existence as social beings, is to be fully recognized by the other in an embrace of love and to recognize that other with the same grace. Insofar as we must maintain the preconditions of our existence, we are motivated by the material need for survival, but our existence itself is animated by the desire to realize ourselves as social beings through connection with others, through the grace of love and mutual recognition.

Taken to the level of an overall social theory, this way of seeing­—a way of seeing that bridges the interior of the social person to the interior of that person’s surrounding (or historical) group—produces some core insights about social life that shape the perspective in the essays in Another Way of Seeing on law, politics, public policy, and culture. Let me summarize the first two of these insights here.

First, we are all animated by the desire for mutual recognition, for a transparent connection to others in which we become fully present to each other, anchored in each other’s gaze in much the way that the German theologian Martin Buber described in his book I and Thou. I aspire to see you and to exist in relation to you not as a mere “you over there,” as a mere passing or glancing presence going by, but as a full presence both there and here, the very completion of myself insofar as we emerge into a We that is neither fleeting nor in danger of dissolving back into reciprocal solitudes corroded by mistrust and fear. The We is not a fusion or erasure of the individual person, but a realization or completion of the social person in authentic reciprocity.

Second, the world that we have been born into and have inherited is primarily characterized by the denial of this desire for mutual recognition, in the sense that we are primarily in flight from each other and experience each other as a threat. But the threat that we experience is not of “destruction” in the Darwinian or even Marxist sense of a struggle for material resources, but rather the threat of nonrecognition or ontological humiliation. When we pass each other with blank gazes on the street, punctuated by furtive steals of a passing look, our entire existential state as social beings is revealed to us—namely, that we are each, or both, encapsulated in solitude because we are pulled outward and toward each other by the desire for mutual recognition (the furtive glances toward each other that we each experience as compulsory), and at the same time feel compelled to deny this desire and look away, “keep our distance,” because of the immanent anxiety that the other will not reciprocate this desire for mutual recognition. This denial of our core need and desire as social beings for essential authentic reciprocity, for love in its deepest sense of essential affirmation and sight, is actually what creates the massive material injustice that Marxism and its allied ways of seeing correctly name and analyze—it is our social alienation taken as a collective totality that creates and reproduces the worldwide socioeconomic system.

Were the populations of the world not infected with this legacy of fear of nonrecognition and humiliation by the Other, we would really without great difficulty solve the material problems that generate so much unnecessary suffering and pain. In other words, the world is the way it is not because people want power or wealth or control over material things, but because they cannot experience their deeper longing for love, for authentic vulnerability and recognition, and for the coming-into-presence that would be the healing of this legacy and the transcendence of it. It is our alienation that causes material injustice rather than the converse, and it is in giving birth to a new politics that overcomes our alienation that we will overcome material inequality and injustice. But such a new form of politics can emerge only from a new way of seeing that makes our social-spiritual alienation visible in perception, thought, and reflection. The Divided Self

Take a moment to consider the roles and masks that we feel compelled first to don and then to permanently inhabit—think of the newscaster, the weatherman, the president of the United States, this man dressed in one uniform or that woman dressed in another, the father, the therapist, the lawyer, and so forth. Although of course we can embody these roles in a way that is infused with our authentic presence, insofar as we are alienated from each other, or in a kind of flight from each other’s recognition, these roles become artificial holograms of being, pseudo-manifestations of our sociality in which we seek to master and deflect the other’s presence by “playing the role” from a conditioned outside that we are continually monitoring from within with an anxiety signal when we veer from it. In this mode of what the psychiatrist R.D. Laing called the “divided self,” we deny our own desire for authentic intersubjective connection by throwing up the role or mask that we have been over a lifetime coerced into identifying with on pain of loss of what social connection there is, while threatening the other with a comparable erasure should he or she seek to become present as a Thou. Why do we constantly threaten each other so? Because any other course of action requires a vulnerability to the other that risks the ontological humiliation of not being recognized, of not being loved and accepted and affirmed in our existence when we are utterly laid bare as longing for that recognition and love and affirmation before the other’s power to grant it or withhold it.


In the two books taken together (The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning and Another Way of Seeing: Essays on Transforming Law, Politics, and Culture), I am seeking to trace the historical development of the vicissitudes of mutual recognition — its social flow and blockage in the context of a quite volatile, ongoing, historically specific struggle of hope against fear—as this struggle has unfolded from the 1950s through the present moment in 2012, from JFK through Barack Obama as embodied expressions of precisely these spiritual-political flows-in-tension as they have been manifested through political leaders, and in the area of public policy from, for example, the rise of creationism as part of the New Right to the emergence of other more emancipatory spiritual approaches to science some twenty years later and the relationship of both (as reaction-formation in the case of creationism, as continuation of the liberatory impulse in the case of the sacred biologists) to the breakthrough of recognition that actually was the 1960s.

In my lifetime, it has been primarily the movements of the 1960s that have generated the upward spiral of hope and authentic mutual recognition in the historical process, just as the 1930s did so for the generation that preceded mine. During the period from roughly 1965-1974, a parallel awareness emerged in the United States and ricocheted across the world very rapidly, a propulsion of spiritual presence that provided people like me with a new ground to stand our lives on. For precisely this reason, because of the threat posed to traditional and more alienated forms of connection that nevertheless were also conditions of social membership and spiritual safety, the 1960s and the parallel ontological universe it gave birth to also have generated a powerful defensive social reaction—in Freudian terms, the reaction that the superego, in defense of the ego, always has to the transcendent longings of the id. Within the social-spiritual way of seeing the world, the upward movement of history is carried forward by such breakthroughs, or to recall the Doors, by breaking on through to the other side of the system of blocked connection. And these breakthroughs are never fully forgotten in historical consciousness, even as they are resisted through coerced deference to artificial conditioning, disciplinary observation, cooptation, flight into irony, and direct violence, among other expressions of the legacy of our alienation from our true loving selves.

My work is an effort to help preserve the spiritual insight afforded to my generation by an upsurge of the human spirit more powerful than the force, existing not in Them but within each of us, that is trying to contain it. One expression of that spiritual upsurge, that outbreak of social connection, is the way of seeing social being and historical social life that I try to give voice to here. Like Marxism and liberalism, I believe that the descriptions in my work fit the facts of the realities they describe, but in a way that I hope is truer to the social reality that they describe because of the inclusion of the spiritual-political dimension that the 1960s made visible in my lifetime and that may prefigure the kind of seeing and thinking that will provide a basis for the next movement upward to change the world." (Tikkun)