[Excerpt from Chapter 4 of my book Madness & the Demand for Recognition, forthcoming Oxford University Press, 2018]
In the foregoing account of identity (section 4.2) there is frequent mention of the demand for recognition (indeed, the title of the book features the same). We have made some progress towards understanding the nature of the gaps in social validation under which such a demand can become possible: individuals who are unable to find their self-understanding reflected in the social categories with which they identify and who are demanding social change to address this; what motivates people to seek this kind of social change – what motivates them to struggle for recognition?
4.3 THE STRUGGLE FOR RECOGNITION
4.3.1 The motivation for recognition
There are, at least, four possible sources of motivation for recognition. One of these sources has already been identified in the discussion of Hegel’s teleology (section 3.5.1). In accordance with this, the struggle for more equal and mutual forms of recognitive relations is driven forward by the telos of human nature which is the actualisation of freedom: if that is the ultimate goal, then the dialectical development of consciousness’ understanding of itself will lead to an awareness of mutual dependency as a condition of freedom. But this account has been considered and rejected on the grounds that positing an ultimate, rational telos for human beings that tends towards realisation is a problematic assumption, with connotations to the kind of metaphysical theorising which Kant’s critical philosophy had put to rest. The metaphysical source of the motivation for recognition must be rejected.
Another possible source is empirical and has to do with the psychological nature of human beings. In the Struggle for Recognition, Axel Honneth (1996) provides such an account through the empirical social psychology of G. H. Mead. According to Mead (1967) the self develops out of the interaction of two perspectives: the ‘me’ which is the internalised perspective of the social norms of the generalised other, and the ‘I’ which is a response to the ‘me’ and the source of individual creativity and rebellion against social norms. It is the movement of the ‘I’ – the impulse to individuation – that shows up the limitations of social norms and motivates the expansion of relations of recognition (see Honneth 1996, pp. 75-85).
In a later work Honneth (2002, p. 502) rejects his earlier account; he begins by noting: “there has always seemed to me to be something particularly attractive about the idea of an ongoing struggle for recognition, though I did not quite see how it could still be justified today without the idealistic presupposition of a forward-driven process of Spirit’s complete realization”. Honneth thus rejects the teleological account that we, also, found wanting. He then goes on to render problematic his earlier proposal that seeks to ground the motivation for recognition in Mead’s social psychology:
I have come to doubt whether [Mead’s] views can actually be understood as contributions to a theory of recognition: in essence, what Mead calls ‘recognition’ reduces to the act of reciprocal perspective taking, without the character of the other’s action being of any crucial significance; the psychological mechanism by which shared meanings and norms emerge seems to Mead generally to develop independently of the reactive behaviour of the two participants, so that it also becomes impossible to distinguish actions according to their respective normative character. (Honneth 2002, p. 502)
In other words, what Mead describes is a general process that is always occurring behind people’s backs in so far as it is a basic feature of the human life form. His theory explains how shared norms emerge and why they expand but deprives agents’ behaviours towards each other of normative significance. They become unwitting subjects of this process rather than agents struggling for recognition. To struggle for recognition is to perceive oneself to be denied a status one is worthy of, and not to mechanically act out one’s innate nature. And this remains the case even if our treatment by others engenders feelings of humiliation and disrespect. To experience humiliation is to already consider oneself deserving of a certain kind of treatment, of a normative status that is denied. Such feelings, therefore, cannot themselves constitute the motivation for recognition, rather they are symptoms of the prior existence of a conviction that one must be treated in a better way.
If the motivation for recognition cannot be accounted for metaphysically (by the teleology of social existence), or empirically (by the facts of one’s psychological nature), or emotionally (by the powerful feelings that signal the need for social change), then it must somehow be explained with reference to the ideas that together make up the theory of recognition. These ideas include specific understandings of individuality, self-realisation, freedom, authenticity, social dependence, the need for social confirmation, in addition to notions of dignity, esteem, and distinction, among others. To be motivated to struggle for recognition is to already be shaped by a historical tradition where such notions have become part of how we relate to ourselves and others, and the normative expectations that structure such relations; as McBride (2013, p. 137) writes, “we are the inheritors of a long and complex history of ethical, religious, philosophical, and, more recently, social scientific thought about the stuff of recognition: pride, honour, dignity, respect, status, distinction, prestige”. It is partly that we are within the space of these notions that we can see, as pointed out in section 3.5.2, that living a life of delusion and disregard for what others think, or a life of total absorption in social norms, is not to live a worthwhile life, for we would be giving up altogether either on social confirmation or on our individuality. We are motivated by these notions in so far as we are already constituted socially so as to be moved by them.
Putting the issue this way may raise concerns. By grounding the motivation for recognition in the subject’s prior socialisation, it becomes harder to establish whether that motivation is, ultimately, a means for the individual to broaden his or her social freedom, or a means for reproducing existing relations of domination. As McNay (2008, p. 10) writes, “the desire for recognition might be far from a spontaneous and innate phenomenon but the effect of a certain ideological manipulation of individuals” (see also McBride 2013, pp. 37-40; Markell 2003). Honneth (2012, p. 77) provides a number of examples where recognition may be seen as contributing to the domination of individuals:
The pride that ‘Uncle Tom’ feels as a reaction to the constant praises of his submissive virtues makes him into a compliant servant in a slave-owning society. The emotional appeals to the ‘good’ mother and housewife made by churches, parliaments or the mass media over the centuries caused women to remain trapped within a self-image that most effectively accommodated gender-specific division of labour.
Instead of constituting moral progress (in the sense of an expansion of individual freedom), recognition becomes a mechanism by which people endorse the very identities that limit their freedom. They seek recognition for these identities and in this way “voluntarily take on tasks or duties that serve society” (Honneth 2012, p. 75). There is a need, therefore, to see if we can distinguish ideological forms of recognition from those relations of recognition in which genuine moral progress can be said to have occurred, since what we are after are relations of the latter sort.
4.3.2 The problem of ideology
I first consider, and exclude, some ways in which the problem of ideology cannot be solved. It may seem attractive to find a solution by appeal to a Kantian notion of rational autonomy, where the subject withdraws from social life in order to know what it ought to do. If such withdrawal were possible, we would have had an instance of genuine recognition in the sense that an autonomous choice has been made. But as argued in section 3.2, withdrawing to pure reason can only produce the form that moral principles must take, without those principles thereby possessing sufficient content that can guide action. Moral principles acquire content, and hence can be action guiding, through the very social practices that Kant urged us to withdraw from in order to exercise our rational autonomy. Somehow then, the distinction between ideological and genuine recognition, if it can be made at all, will have to be drawn from within those social practices, as an appeal to a noumenal realm of freedom where we can rationally will what we ought to do cannot work. This is further complicated by the fact that both genuine and ideological recognition – being forms of recognition – must meet the approval of the subject in the sense that both must make the subject feel valued and are considered positive developments conducive to individual growth. Hence, the experience of the subject cannot help us here either. Ideological recognition then consists in practices that are “intrinsically positive and affirmative” yet “bear the negative features of an act of willing subjection, even though these practices appear prima facie to lack all such discriminatory features” (Honneth 2012, p. 78). How can these acts of recognition be identified?
The key seems to lie in the notion of ‘willing subjection’ and the possibility of identifying this despite subjects’ pronouncements of their wellbeing. The judgement that particular practices of recognition are ideological in the sense that they constitute acts of willing subjection must therefore be made by an external observer. The observer needs to perceive subjection, while at the same time explaining away the person’s acceptance of the situation as an indication that he has internalised his oppression in such a way that he willing subjects himself. The case of the ‘good mother’ is a case in point; by voluntarily endorsing that role, she remains uncompensated for her work and many other opportunities in life would be foreclosed to her. Now the observer, in this kind of theoretical narrative, is no longer concerned with the quality of interpersonal relations or the subject’s experience of freedom and wellbeing. What is at issue here seems to be that the observer disagrees with the values and beliefs that structure those relations, rather than the quality of those relations being relations of mutual recognition. A contemporary example can further clarify.
Consider the claim, often heard in certain public discourse, that Muslim women who cover their hair – who wear a hijab – are ‘oppressed’. Frequently, the claims made do not require that the women in question report any oppression, and hence concepts such as ‘internalised oppression’ are invoked to explain the lack of a negative experience. Of course, some women are coerced into wearing the hijab, and given the right context they would remove it and see it as an unnecessary imposition on them. For others the hijab is about modesty and has religious connotations. In this sense, it is not a symbol of their oppression and may even be regarded as a feature that can generate positive recognition as a pious and religiously observant person. An observer who claims that the desire for recognition in such cases is ideological – that women who cover their hair are willingly (and subconsciously) subjecting themselves to existing norms – is making a statement about his or her views on the cultural context: the problem the observer has is with the religious weight placed on clothing, or the fact that it is mainly women who have to observe such practices. Some women who wear a hijab reject this account since it bypasses their own understanding of what they are doing and the value they attach to it (in fact such an account can itself end up being a form of misrecognition). Not surprisingly, the exact claim is made in reverse by some Muslim women who argue that ‘Westernised’ women who dress ‘immodestly’ are oppressed by a dominant, male culture that subtly forces them to show their bodies. Those who believe that dressing in this way is an expression of freedom and secularism have simply internalised the values by which they willing subject themselves to existing norms.
The point of presenting this case from both sides is to show that once we bypass people’s accounts of what they are doing, and put aside their reported experience of freedom and wellbeing, we can see that what is going on is an ideological conflict between two worldviews. This conflict can itself be described within the framework of misrecognition as a continued devaluing of agent’s identities under the cover of an interest in their wellbeing. Of course, people are not always right about what they are doing, and our psychological depth is such that we can deceive ourselves and accept an abusive situation, even more not be able to see that it is abusive. We may convince ourselves that a particular role is exactly right for us, whereas others can see that it is obviously limiting our lives. But psychological depth and the possibility of self-deception go both ways; if that person over there is not transparent to himself then neither am I, even if transparency admits of degrees. Hence, if we are going to argue that a person is willingly subjecting herself, we also need to account for our motivations in making such an argument and what we are, in a sense, getting out of it in terms of validating our worldview, our take on what matters.
This perspective on the idea of ‘willing subjection’ should not be interpreted as a call for inaction; what it is, is a call for personalising and contextualising our moral and political responses and analyses of the lives of others. This means that if we are inclined to persuade individuals to change their understanding of their situation, then we cannot simply bypass their experience of wellbeing and their specific circumstances. In other words, sweeping judgements that take the form ‘group x is oppressed’ are not helpful; clearly there are all sorts of possibilities and the only way to sort these out is to be aware of this complexity, without losing sight of ‘structural’ discrimination in a particular community. With this in mind we will find that the spectrum of oppression includes the following: some in group x are oppressed and are already fighting to change that; some do not consider themselves oppressed but change their take on the situation once they are presented with a different analysis of it; some do not consider themselves oppressed – despite clear evidence to the contrary – yet no amount of persuasion can get them to see this; some consider your interest in their freedom as an attempt to oppress them; others consider themselves perfectly free and empowered.
Returning to our original question – the distinction between ideological and genuine forms of recognition – it appeared, to begin with, that the idea of ‘willing subjection’ held the key to that distinction. However, on having a closer look at this idea it emerged that what it communicates is a conflict of worldviews rather than a view on the quality of interpersonal relations as relations of recognition. As argued earlier, whether ‘ideological’ or ‘genuine’, if the relations in question are to be relations of recognition then the individuals concerned must feel valued for who they are, and be able to see existing relations as contributing to their personal growth and fulfilment. In this sense the distinction between ideological and genuine recognition cannot be drawn using the notion of ‘willing subjection’. What this notion brings to light are the very real, and very deep, disagreements in beliefs, values, social roles, and life goals that exist across contexts and ideologies. And while it certainly is of importance to debate and negotiate these differences, in order for such disagreements not to end up themselves generating conditions for misrecognition, it is necessary not to lose sight of the individuals involved, including their take on what they are doing and their experience of freedom and wellbeing.