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Metanoia - The Hegelian Dialectic and the Broken Middle

My analysis of Hegelian recognition places not just a re-thinking (re-cognition) of one’s own position, but also a re-positioning of oneself with regard to world and Other. As I shall explore in the upcoming chapters, recognition involves a mixture of epistemic and practical factors, and is about both thought and action. It is not a purely intellectual exercise, as also the German ‘erkennen’ of ‘Anerken- nen’ might suggest, but also of how one practically responds to the other. There is an interplay of thought and action at work in recognitive relationships - the way one sees oneself, and the Other, influences the way one responds and interacts, which then influences once more the way one sees oneself and the Other (and so the process continues) In this way, recognition has much in common with metanoia as a theological concept.

Metanoia is often translated as ‘repentance, but, as a great number of scholars have argued over the decades, this is a mistranslation.39 Metanoia has none of the sense of sorrow or regret that is implied in the English ‘repentance’ - rather, it is something like a transmutation of consciousness, a change in both thought and action.40 There is the same sense of remaking and renewal that is associated with the English ‘repentance, but, crucially, there is not the sense of being sorry, or even of adopting some kind of disavowing attitude to one’s former actions, that English ‘repentance’ implies. It is therefore particularly interesting to consider the concept of metanoia in combination with forgiveness. As I state in my discussion of the term in Chapter Five, forgiveness involves a particular positioning of oneself in relation to one’s former actions (that is, the offence), but accounting in any systematic way for the emotional aspect of seeking forgiveness is much more difficult. Is one more deserving of forgiveness if one feels emotional regret more keenly?41

Metanoia, properly understood and translated, can be more easily removed from the emotional states that are attached to the concept of forgiveness than the concept of repentance in its theological and everyday senses. I do not wish to argue that the emotional aspects of forgiveness or positive recognition are not important or philosophically interesting - indeed, quite the opposite. It is instructive for exploratory purposes, however, to isolate the aspects of forgiveness that are not, or might not be, intrinsically bound up with the emotions.

Attempts to properly translate and explain the term metanoia in its theological sense (it also has a meaning in psychology which is related, that is, the process of mental breakdown and subsequent recovery and rebuilding of one’s life) have come up with broadly the following: ‘a transformative change of heart; especially: a spiritual conversion’.42 Etymologically, metanoia simply means ‘a change of mind’ (from meta, change, and nous, mind), but not, of course, in the English idiomatic sense of a superficial alteration in opinion. It is perhaps more instructive to look at how the term is used in the Bible. The most famous use is probably from Matthew 4:17, where Jesus called on people to ‘repent (metanoeo): for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. Baptism is also described in terms of metanoia in Mark’s gospel: ‘John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins’ (KJV). Both uses refer to past wrongdoings and are clearly bound up with the idea of forgiveness. However, it is also clear from these usages that metanoia is not simply the disavowal of one’s former offences, that is, a disavowal or regretful attitude that would be a pre-requisite for forgiveness. It is a general change of attitude or of one’s entire approach to life rather than a particular attitude to one of one’s deeds.

What is distinctly theological about this ‘change of mind’? The answer, to someone who accepts such a narrative, is about mediation and ontological monism. According to one account that stretches from mid-20th century Orthodox theology to radical orthodoxy, metanoia is a constant state of permanent revelation and revolution, a perpetual remaking of man through communal and continuous forgiveness.43 This forgiveness itself is possible only through God incarnate. This is an account on the ontological macro-level (or the level of the supra-individual) which nevertheless has applications on the individual level. ‘Metanoia is a questioning beyond the stasis of self’, state two scholars working in this tradition.44 Thus, metanoia as a theological concept is also a philosophical one; metanoia is a breaking and re-making. There is a clear connection here to the classical three-stage Hegelian dialectic and Aufhebung - a making, breaking and re-making.

The idea of what Gillian Rose, in a hugely influential account, calls the ‘broken middle’, is highly relevant to the discussion of recognition and metanoia. One of the main features of her discussion of this concept is idea of constant change and anxiety. Rose sees Hegel as a thinker of the broken middle, of that space between thesis and anti-thesis that is constantly being remade. This space, the broken middle, is a place of anxiety because it is always in some way in error.45 As Vincent Lloyd puts it:

[P]hilosophy tends to obfuscate th[e] middle, it tends to posit certain concepts as transcendence so that they cannot be further investigated: they are absolute. The middle is broken because it is always in error: institutions and practices are always imperfect; they always do some amount of harm. In the absence of an absolute, the way we react to what is left, to the ‘broken middle’, is with anxiety.46

This sense of imperfection has great resonance and importance for the account of recognition, love and forgiveness which I am presenting in this work. Recognition, love and forgiveness (and love and forgiveness as types of recognition) are never something which is ‘done’, finished, satisfactorily completed. This is the major difficulty of the study of them as positive ethical models - what is it we can aspire to ? Something that is constantly changing. To recognise the Other in the right way does not mean having a fixed picture and concept of her in one’s mind, but to accept that she is the kind of being that remakes herself, that has the autonomy to do so. Love, in the sense of partnership in particular, is also not fixed or completed, but constantly remaking itself (a central theme of Rose’s Broken Middle is that love must always be violent - this is the case not least because love is not the interaction of two fixed and completed subjects who are equal and autonomous. I discuss this further in Chapter Six.47) Forgiveness involves not only ‘violence’ in Rose’s non-negative sense between forgiver and forgiven/ candidate for forgiveness, but also a violent relationship in this sense with one’s own past (and this goes for forgiver and forgiven), the taking of a position with regard to acts which have been performed by an earlier version of oneself. In this sense, forgiveness itself involves being in error, but this is not necessarily an argument against its utility as a concept in ethics. As Rowan Williams puts it when discussing Rose and Hegel:

[E]very moment of recognition is also a new moment of salutary error to the extent

that it is the taking of a position.4

To take a position within the broken middle will always be to be in error. This is an important way of thinking about recognition in general. Recognising the other in the sense that I am discussing in this work is not recognising him as some other fixed thing with his own established characteristics, but as the sort of thing that has the power to shift and change, and that does shift and change. The ambiguity which I discuss at length in Chapter Four, where one recognises self and other as subject and object simultaneously, involves this realisation, for it is part of being a subject and an object that one is not fixed. Taking into consideration Rose’s concept of the broken middle thus allows us to understand the non-empirical level on which positive recognition can take place.

Studying recognition (and love and forgiveness as examples of that positive recognition) with an eye on the concepts of metanoia and the broken middle gives us a new perspective from a practical philosophy point of view, and can point the way to an answer to some perennial questions in recognition studies. Can a general, phenomenological (in the Hegelian sense) account of recognition in particular and interaction in general provide us with any insight at all on the level of the individual? Yes, if the individual subject is understood to be in a constant state of flux and not a fixed Other that can be precisely pinned down in its finitude. Does ontological monism automatically mean that there can be no meaningful intersubjectivity? No, because individuals are changing component parts of a world and its contents that is itself always changing. To define the Other and alienate it from that which does not belong to it is an error, but an inevitable error (which is itself part of recognition). Once we accept that human subjectivity is not fixed and immutable, a grammatical subject (or object) to which properties, adjectives and so on can be ascribed, there is much less difficulty in accepting an intersubjectivity in the context of a monistic ontology.

What about the more analytical side of this enquiry, the side that is based in traditional moral philosophy? If I hope to demonstrate how recognition could function as a positive ethical concept, is this not undermined entirely by a view of human subjectivity (an ontological view in sense (a)) which resists permanence and thus makes the ascription of moral responsibility problematic at best (and surely this is a problem for forgiveness in particular)?

Judith Butler, in her recent Giving an Account of Oneself, tackles this problem head-on by exploring how people can be moral agents even without being completely autonomous subjects. This is a continuation, in many ways, of the work she has done on Hegel beginning with her doctoral thesis, Subjects of Desire. There, she states:

As it becomes clear that the same truths hold true of the Other’s relationship to the self, the Other is also viewed as the author of the subject. Desire here loses its character as a purely consumptive activity, and becomes characterised by the ambiguity of an exchange in which two self-consciousnesses affirm their respective autonomy (independence) and alienation (otherness).49

Recognition, for Butler, has the character of an exchange between self and Other that involves each one establishing themselves as both subject and object. Put this way, it becomes clearer how it is precisely this ambiguity that means autonomy is restricted, and also why the self is not a fixed quantity (and recognition therefore always involves some kind of error).

Butler’s insight and main line of argument in Giving an Account of Oneself is that the self does not have to be truly autonomous for moral responsibility to be possible.50 The fact that we are socially constituted is not a barrier to being a free, in some sense, ethical agent. The decisive move is to contrast once more the phenomenon of recognition with the epistemological practice ofjudgement. Traditional moral responsibility sees the subject as accountable for its actions, but Butler wishes to extend the practice of ‘accounting’ to include the narrative of the subject and the sense in which the subject is socially constituted. A judgement, to be valid, must always consider the consequences of its address. Rather than being a barrier to the possibility of moral responsibility, recognising the extent to which the self is socially constituted during the narrative of its life is a pre-condition for honest moral judgement.

This picture of the moral agent and human subject fits well into the general picture of recognition, love and forgiveness which is my starting-point in this analysis. It also fits particularly well into the ontological (in sense (c) above) picture which I am presenting, that is, a monistic ontology where the sense in which subjects can be autonomous in, for example, a Kantian sense, is limited. It is this picture of the human subject that forms the starting point for my enquiry - mutable but demanding to be treated as a subject and not mere object, non-autonomous but fully capable of moral responsibility, and, perhaps most importantly of all, capable of change at the most fundamental level.

 
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