Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Importance of Recognition

I'm in full dissertation mode. It has been hard to post regularly or even think about non-dissertation-related topics.

So, I've decided to write about what I've been thinking about in relation to the dissertation.

In the past few months, I've become really impressed with Hegel's understanding of self-consciousness.

If you're anything like me, you don't like having to depend on other people. I liked wrestling more than football because in wrestling, it was totally up to me whether I won or lost. The wrestler has no teammates to blame for his or her lack of success. I also hated doing group assignments in school because I didn't like having to depend on others for my grade. I value my independence.

But, in reading Hegel, I came to realize that I have to depend on others in order to have a coherent conception of myself. More specifically, I came to realize that I have to depend on the recognition of others in order to have a coherent self-conception. I'll try to explain. [For a more complete story, check out a draft chapter of my advisor's book on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, here].

Let's suppose the opposite, let's suppose that I can have a coherent self-conception which is independent of the recognition of others (let's call this the "independence view"). Assume that I wish to think of myself as good singer. What determines whether I actually am a good singer? On the independence view, I determine whether I'm a good singer.

It only takes a moment of reflection to see why this view is problematic. If only I can determine whether I'm a good singer, then any of my performances which seem good to me are good. On the independence view, I simply can't be wrong about the quality of my singing. But, if I can't be wrong, it makes little sense to say I'm right either. On the independence view, I end up just giving my singing meaningless praise. (Think of the rejected American Idol contestant who declares that she can sing despite what everyone else says).

I want it to be the case that the label "good singer" means something, but on the independence view, I strip the label of its meaning. My self-conception, on this view, is incoherent.

I'll now explain how dependence on the recognition of others can solve this problem. First, I have to say something about what recognition is. To recognize another is to view that other's judgments on some particular matter as largely correct. If I recognize Simon as a good judge of talent, I take it that his judgments on which persons are talented are, for the most part, correct. Likewise, for Simon to recognize me as a good judge of talent is for him to take it that my judgments on which persons are talented are, for the most part, correct.

We are now in a position to see how the recognition of another can allow one to coherently recognize oneself as one thing or another.

Say I recognize Simon as a good judge of talent. Now assume that Simon recognizes me as a good singer. Since I take it that whoever Simon recognizes as a good singer probably is a good singer, I can then recognize myself as a good singer. But, this is only possible because I recognize Simon and he in turn recognizes me. In this way, my self-conception is dependent on Simon's recognition.

Also, on this understanding of what it is to be a good singer, I can be wrong in thinking that I'm a good singer. If the people I recognize as good judges of talent fail to recognize me, then I'm not a good singer. As such, the label "good singer" does not fail to be meaningful.

I find this view very compelling, but I still value independence. I just realize now that my independence cannot be complete independence. Otherwise, I wouldn't even be able to coherently think of myself as "independent," or anything else for that matter.

What do you think?


  1. What if one were to argue that the only meaning quality-based evaluations have is that the evaluator perceives them as good? So, to whoever hears your singing and likes it, you are a good singer. I would say I'm on that boat. I don't believe in any deep fact about what is good or bad. I don't see why selecting judges with whom you agree should give it any more objectivity.

  2. Here's a different way of articulating that anonymous person's objection that might focus the issue. Suppose I grant that in the case of what it takes to be a good singer, the concept enjoys whatever objectivity it is capable of in the way that you, Brandon, have described. Still, the plausibility of your account seems to depend on the fact that the concept of a good singer belongs to the very special class of "evaluative" concepts, so that what you say about it does not go for every concept that you might like to have in your self-conception. For example, you might like to have it in your self-conception that you can run a mile in six minutes, or, even better, that you *did* run a mile in six minutes on some significant occasion. If interpersonal recognition plays some indispensable role in furnishing you with the ability to apply that concept to yourself, it is not (at least, not obviously) the same role that you've described for the concept of a good singer.

  3. Great article I completely agree with you non this and no arguments.Just wanted to say thanks for sharing.

  4. Anon, thanks for the comment. I think the external evaluator allows the judgment "good singer" to be meaningful. Without recognition, the label "good singer" doesn't mean anything.

    But, this picture of meaning is part of a larger story in which Hegel tries to get rid of our old ways of thinking about the distinction between subjective and objective.

  5. Greg, thanks for the comment. I think the label "ran a mile in six minutes" fits my model as well. What would result if the only criterion for applying this label to oneself were whether one *felt* that one had run a mile in six minutes?

  6. Brandon: I agree, I think, with your Brandgelian view; what I wanted to point out was that the way you (and Brandom) set it up makes the view look vulnerable in a way that it is worthwhile to dispel. For there are different sorts of dependence. The examples of independence you use to soften us up are cases in which there is a sensible contrast between cases in which it applies and cases in which it does not. There is a way of depending on others according to which you do not depend on them when you wrestle but according to which you do depend on them when you play football. And in that same sense of the concept of "dependence," you do not depend on others to run a mile in six minutes. What you want to say is that, however things may be with these activities, when it comes to the very special activity we may call "having content in your mind," we do not depend on others in such a way that...--and now the question is how we are supposed to end this sentence. I have just spontaneously had in my mind the content "eighteen chartreuse antimacassars," and it seems plain that there is a version of the concept of dependence, analogous to the version according to which you depend on no one in order to run a mile, such that I did not depend on anyone in order to have that content in my mind. To sum up: there is probably an important concept of (in)dependence according to which you are right, but it stands in need of clarification.

    1. By "What you want to say is..." I meant "What you want to deny is...."

  7. A very good and informative post that i have come across, thanks for sharing.

  8. I know I'm a little late with this comment but I found this post quite interesting. I think both you and Hegel are quite right that our self-conception depends on the recognition others. This reminded me of an excellent article by Charles Mills called “Non-Cartesian Sums,” in which Mills points out that the “sum” of Descartes, an individual knower methodologically doubting existence, presuppose the positive recognition of others. He compares Descartes sum to the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” whose problem of invisibility stems from his lack of recognition from whites, “not because of [their] physiological deficiency but because of the psychological ‘construction of their inner eye’’ which conceptually erases his existence.” For the Ellison’s narrator—maybe oppressed people generally—Cartesian doubt would seem absurd.

    Anyway, I think this idea is important. But what really interest me is the way the whole social nexus—shared normative concepts, language, institutions, ect.—is rendered invisible and people see themselves as autonomous (this is certainly true of the Cartesian sum). Similarly, Marx has pointed out that in capitalist societies the exchange value of an object (represented in its money-form as a price) appears as a property of the object. Think of how, at a glance, we know that we are looking at an expensive car. But, as Marx explains, exchange values are simply expressions of commodity relationships that arise not from the object or the decisions any one person but out of capitalist social relations and productions. Marx calls the invisibility of human relations in the price of an expensive car “mystified” and calls this phenomena generally mystification. I think Hegel is demystifying the social origins of our self-conception.

  9. Amato, thanks for your reply. I'm realizing now that I'm going to have to get into Marx very soon.

  10. Brandon: "It only takes a moment of reflection to see why this view is problematic."

    Me: In so far as reflection is concerned , it's problematic - but reflection is the problem

    Brandon: "On the independence view, I end up just giving my singing meaningless praise."

    Me: If this is the case then you must believe you are meaningless - thus no matter what others say it will still be as meaningless - for although you hear the words you will only know what you believe you know and this is meaninglessness

    Brandon: "if I can't be wrong, it makes little sense to say I'm right either."

    Me: this is the case, but who cares? If something is right there is no need to justify it as such - for what is right can never become wrong and what is wrong will never become right

    Brandon: "I came to realize that I have to depend on the recognition of others in order to have a coherent self-conception."

    Me: if your conception of your self is dependent on others then it is hardly a "self" conception - Also, recognition - is to see again - as in "re" cognize "know" - in order for this to be the case you would had to have possessed this "view" prior to the "re" cognition - thus you are merely "re" affirming what you already know - which is redundant and unnecessary. If you "must" reaffirm what you know to believe you know it then you would never recognize it anyways - so its merely a case of deception.

    Like Meno said:"how will you inquire into a thing when you are wholly ignorant of what it is? Even if you happen to bump right into it, how will you know it is the thing you didn't know?" - Now you can believe other people's supposed expertise in any one particular field qualifies as right or "good" but that hardly makes it the truth and perhaps Meno is right on the money here if one is ignorant of anything then no matter how much experience another has in said ignorance it is still ignorant! Simply, you cannot recognize what you do not know and if you know it there is no need to recognize it to verify that it is known. Thus the argument portrays a sense of one who suffers low self-esteem. :-(

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