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Home arrow Sociology arrow Hegel, Love and Forgiveness: Positive Recognition in German Idealism


Models of Interaction: The French Reception of Hegel’s Social Philosophy

After the materialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not until the 1930s that the importance of Hegel’s analysis in the Phenomenology in particular, and specifically his account of human inter-relations, once more attracted significant attention - and indeed, that interpretation, spearheaded by Alexandre Kojeve and his seminars on Hegel, was itself influenced by Marxian materialism. Thanks to Kojeve’s interpretation, which in turn inspired the influential accounts ofJean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, it is possible to draw a line from Hegel via the materialists to Kojeve and the French reception to contemporary debates in social philosophy. I will discuss Sartre and and particularly Beauvoir at various points in this work, and here I give brief accounts of each of their Hegel interpretations as it is relevant to my concerns here. In particular, I try to show how Sartre’s account of intersubjectivity, whilst indebted to Hegel and German Idealism and working with many of the same concepts, helps to demonstrate what is needed for an account of positive recognition.

For Sartre , the struggle of the master/slave dialectic - which Sartre interprets in a psychological sense as the story of general human interaction - is the story of a struggle for subjecthood. Simply put, the desire of a subject or conscious being at any one time is the desire for subjecthood , and the only way to achieve this subjecthood is to claim it for oneself, and thereby turn the Other into an object. The inequality that inevitably arises in the master/slave story and in human relationships in general is a result of different levels of fortitude, physical or psychological. The full humanity of self-consciousness is the constant struggle for mastery. Those who fail to achieve this full humanity are the victims of someone else’s having achieved mastery over them. According to Sartre, Hegel’s belief that the master/slave dialectic could be overcome or resolved was the result of a kind of misguided ontological or epistemological optimism. Crucially, nothing, according to his analysis of Hegel, can be a subject and an object at the same time.

This position is a manifestation of a psychological compulsion - the compulsion to perceive the whole self, a ‘solid’ self, at any particular moment in time, and indeed, a fixed, immutable one that is transparent to itself. This is the core of the phenomenon of ambiguity, which I discuss in more detail in Chapter Four.37 Part of the same psychological phenomenon is a desire for a ‘view from nowhere’38 as far as subjectivity and objectivity, or subjecthood and object- hood, are concerned. What does it mean, for Sartre, to be a subject? It means to become a master and thereby enslave someone else. Sartre’s description seems to suggest that there can be some kind of truth as regards who is a subject and who is an object. It is difficult, given the epistemological premise discussed earlier, to imagine from whose point of view this could be ascertained. The assertion that it is impossible to be a subject and an object at the same time also seems to presuppose a single perspective that has some kind of privileged epistemological status. Moreover, it seems to presuppose a fixed, immutable and transparent self, a self that can set itself outside anything else and live in self-determining isolation.

The only way to become a subject, according to Sartre, is to assert oneself as master over the Other: only by subjecting the Other to objecthood can one make oneself a subject. Sartre’s picture of Hegel in Being and Nothingness is a gloomy, violent and unstable one, involving a struggle that can, by definition, never end. The instability comes from the fact that the master/subject can preserve his mastery and subjecthood only by continued fortitude and constant searching for someone to objectify. At any time, one of any number of slaves in the world might break out of their shackles and force the erstwhile master into object- hood. It is often difficult to see whether Sartre’s existentialist critique is directed at Hegel himself (or his version of Hegel), or whether it comes unmediated. At times, certainly, he seems to be advancing a version of the ‘repression thesis’ mentioned above and discussed in Chapter Three.39 What Sartre sees as Hegel’s epistemological or even ontological optimism (that the self might proceed beyond pure subjecthood to recognition) is in fact more accurately characterised as psychological optimism if one accepts that there is the theoretical possibility of transcending subjecthood, but that this is simply psychologically difficult.40

There are several reasons to reject this analysis of Sartre’s. The first is circumstantial, and therefore not watertight: it is unclear to what extent Sartre was actually familiar with Hegel’s work. It can be said with certainty that Sartre had not read the Phenomenology until Being and Nothingness was almost complete: the story of the writing and genesis of that work of Sartre’s spreads over the decade from 1933-1943, and as late as July 1940, during the period in which Sartre was a prisoner of war in Germany, we find a letter from Beauvoir expressing her enthusiasm for Hegel and eagerness to expound him to Sartre.41 It can also be said with complete certainty that both Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir belonged to the vast majority of Paris intellectuals at the time who had no experience of Hegel prior to Kojeve’s extremely influential analysis.42 Kojeve himself, as Robert Williams points out, ‘fails to make a careful analysis of recognition while developing his own view of heroic individualism’.43 At the same time, however, Beauvoir and Hegel both seem to adopt a far more psychological and less historical view of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic than Kojeve does. Kojeve seems to interpret the dialectic more as a historical narrative, whereas the two others see it not as a stage of history, but as a constant state of humanity. Whilst Kojeve must be seen as something of a refracting lens, he certainly does not completely dominate the interpretations of Sartre and Beauvoir.

The second, more convincing reason to reject Sartre’s analysis of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is suggested by Majid Yar. He expresses it succinctly in the introduction to his article:

In the phenomenologies of Sartre and Levinas I discern an unwarranted ‘pathologi-

zation’ of the dynamic of Hegel’s formulation, which in both readings results in the

equation of recognition with an annihilative intersubjective hostility.44

Sartre’s analysis leaves no room for any kind of normatively positive relationships between conscious or self-conscious beings - no possibility at all, that is, of positive recognition. Epistemological intersubjectivity becomes impossible, as does recognition in any humanly useful sense.45 ‘Recognition, which is of course no recognition at all, is reduced to the object-slave’s fearful regarding of the subject-master. The latter objection does not emerge solely from my explicitly-stated wish to expound a concept of recognition that is ‘postive’ in a broad sense, but from a major premise of the master-slave dialectic itself: how can the recognition that emerges from the slave be any kind of recognition worthy of the name ? To recognise, one must surely be a subject and not, as Sartre sees the object-slave, a mere thing.

We must also enquire as to the status of this annihilation in the context of the life-and-death struggle. Is objectifying the same as negating or ‘killing’? If killing is to become the literal annihilation of the bodily subject, Sartre’s analysis is empirically unconvincing as it is not a historical account: the conflict continues throughout the story of human existence and the master-slave struggle is the only way humans can relate to each other at all. Whilst Sartre did live in violent times, in the Paris of the 1930s and 40s not everyone was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with everyone else. If killing is to be the same as objectification, and the master ‘kills’ the slave, the slave’s recognition becomes completely worthless. The slave is then not capable of bestowing subjecthood on the master.

The third objection is also of an empirical character. It is difficult to see what basis Sartre has when saying that no-one can be a subject and an object at the same time. To ascertain whether this is true, we must ask which points of view are here in use. It is easy to construct a situation where a conscious, embodied being is at the same time both subject and object. We could think of a life model at an art school, who is an object for the art students who concentrate on the lines of her body, but at the same time a perceiving and thinking subject. From her point of view at least, she is a subject, whereas from the point of view of the students she is an object. There is no inconsistency here at all.

This cannot really be what Sartre means. For one thing, the object-slave is still a thinking being, otherwise the possibility of it ceasing to be a slave, casting off its shackles, would not exist. The object-slave is still a subject from its own point of view, at least in some sense. Even if the object-slave is not conscious of itself as being a thinking being and therefore a subject , it can still conceive of itself as overthrowing the master, otherwise, again, this possibility would not exist. How could the slave conceive of mastery if it sees itself as pure object ? The slave would be permanently enslaved, and it is difficult to see how it is therefore to be seen as human at all.

More convincing would be an interpretation that sees the crucial point of view as that of the Other. To be a subject, one must be a subject for the Other, must be recognised qua subject. The slave is a slave because he recognises the master as a subject, but fails to make the master see him as a subject. In this case, the smallest of psychological adjustments would be necessary in order to move oneself from the status of object to that of subject. Whilst the slave might have little influence over how the master views him, he has full control over how he views the master. He could cease to see the master as a subject, and the master would therefore cease to be a subject, as it is the point of view of the slave as Other that is crucial. The struggle thereby becomes internal - it is merely a question of how one sees the Other, and that opinion could always be changed if the psychological strength is there.

The whole element of interaction seems to be submerged. Is being a slave simply the same as suffering from bad faith? Bauer offers the following interpretation in the context of Sartre’s famous keyhole example:

His crouching behind the doorway is a result of a frictionless momentum toward the door, produced by the spontaneous admixture of his unreflective (in this case jealous) consciousness and the simple objective fact that (there are signs that) something is happening on the other side of the door. The only thing that could counteract this momentum would be a change in his consciousness. In principle, Sartre insists, a human being is ontologically capable at any time and under any circumstances of willing such a change in consciousness; that is, such changes can occur without any change in the ‘simple objective facts’. But in reality, he suggests, human beings often pretend to themselves that they are the helpless victims of these facts, thereby exhibiting what Sartre famously calls ‘bad faith’.46

Sartre here, at least according to Bauer’s interpretation, seems to be approximating something that comes rather closer to Nietzsche’s slave than Hegel’s: the slave is thrown into circumstances he cannot change (or, more precisely, is unwilling to change) and therefore is forced in some way to come to terms with these circumstances.47 The difference between the master and the slave, on this interpretation, is that the slave is more prone to this kind of bad faith, and is less willing or able to make the mental step, which takes place entirely internally, of asserting his own subjecthood.

The difficulty in the interpretation arises because the discussion of being an object and of being a subject will always require further clarification in terms of which perspective this is from. Neither Sartre nor Hegel wishes to argue that there is such a thing as a view from nowhere, or, as Nietzsche would put it, ‘an eye turned in no particular direction’.48 Asserting that no-one can be a subject and an object simultaneously will either be straightforwardly false on empirical grounds, or will lead one to the assertion that all the slave need to in order to escape his shackles is to put mind over matter, in the everyday sense of this phrase. In either case, the idea of partially re-enchanted nature and the socialised transcendent subject is not possible on Sartre’s terms. Being fully human in the specific sense that is at issue here is, for Sartre, going to involve de-socialising oneself, or resisting socialisation, in order to achieve mastery in the sense of subjecthood. There is no room at all for partial re-enchantment in McDowell’s sense. If anything, it seems that Sartre’s conscious being falls into the psycho?logical trap of wanting a view from nowhere as regards the self, and wanting that view from nowhere to be one’s own view - the desire is to be the ‘I’ that fills the world. Indeed, this is only consistent with the analysis of subjecthood and objecthood expounded by Sartre - Sartre himself is struggling for subjecthood and mastery, which precludes the possibility of seeing himself as other. For this reason, it is little wonder that, at the end of Being and Nothingness, Sartre doubts the possibility of any ethics at all given his existential analysis.49

Gardner argues for a convergence between Sartre and non-Hegelian German Idealism, admitting at the same time that such a conclusion has a vital piece of evidence to speak against it, namely Sartre’s complete lack of familiarity or engagement with German Idealism beyond Hegel. Gardner’s statement on this history of these philosophical figures is as follows:

In the course of deconstructing Hegel’s ‘ontological optimism’, Sartre reconstructs Schelling, Hegel’s great antagonist: Sartre’s philosophy is as it were a partial reconstruction of Schelling’s employing different materials and not brought to completion.50

As Gardner points out, Sartre might be thought in this sense to be a lapsed Hegelian, albeit lapsed in a way that is in fact positive and that can lead to coherence in his own philosophy. The key criticism of Hegel, which Gardner ascribes to both Schelling and Sartre, is the assumption of the symmetry in concepts of being and nothingness, whereas in fact their symmetry is extra-conceptual.51

Sartre’s fundamental objection to Hegel’s ‘metaphysics’, as Gardner calls it, is certainly an objection to Hegel’s conceptual framework as discussed above. Sartre claims that Hegel sees non-being as the opposite of being, whereas in fact it is its contradiction. Being is logically prior to non-being, since non-being supposes an ‘irreducible mental act’.52 In this way, Sartre fundamentally objects to Hegel’s account of negativity and negation, and their accounts are metaphysically at odds with one another.

Although Sartre and Hegel cannot be reconciled on a metaphysical level, Gardner suggests that an ontological adjustment, that is, adopting an onto-the- ology, can solve central problems in Sartre’s account. Whilst Gardner’s account focuses on Schelling, it is clear that Hegel’s ontology is also an onto-theology in the sense which Gardner is describing. In Gardner’s account, in fact, it is onto- theology that opens up the possibility of intersubjectivity in the Hegelian sense, even though Gardner himself does not describe it in these terms. Gardner sees the problem of Sartre’s account as being the fact that he cannot make the transition from affirming personal freedom to affirming freedom in general, and thus has no genuine way of affirming the freedom of others.53 All Sartre can say is that ‘I stand under an obligation to value the freedom of others, because my being as a for-itself is essentially that of a revelation of being.’54 He does not even have an account of reason such as that of Kant which would allow the individual to construct practi?cal laws based on maximum objectivity and autonomy. What would be necessary is some way of the individual tracing back its point of origin to some pre-individual being, which is what Gardner sees as a kind of onto-theological turn.

It seems possible that the term ‘freedom’ could perhaps be replaced by ‘consciousness’ in an account of Hegelian intersubjectivity. An argument could be constructed that an affirmation of consciousness in general, and therefore the consciousness of others, could be reliant on such an onto-theological turn. Gardner’s point about Sartre lacking a broadly Kantian conception of reason does not, of course, hold true for Hegel: an affirmation of freedom could be made through a conception of shared rationality. However, this would not be adequate for an account of intersubjectivity.

Simone de Beauvoir, whose interest in Hegel and the problem of self-consciousness in this specific regard predates that of Sartre, rejected the idea that one cannot be both subject and object simultaneously, arguing that in fact this ambiguity is an inherent part of the flourishing of self-consciousness as full humanity. According to Beauvoir, our attempt to negotiate and reconcile ourselves to this inherent ambiguity of situation is a necessary precondition of the moral life - I would extend this and tie it to the conditions of possibility of an existence that is distinctively human, and therefore include the kind of epistemological conditions that were discussed in the previous chapter. Beauvoir ties these insights closely to the established concept of women as objects and men as subjects. This view, she argues, should be superseded in the light of the fact that all conscious beings are both subject and object.55

If the idea that the desire for subjecthood is symptomatic of a wider desire for a self and world that can be seen from no particular perspective is a useful one, Beauvoir’s comments in this respect can be extended. Allowing the thought that one is object as well as subject is tantamount to acknowledging the necessity of one’s own situatedness, and therefore the impossibility of a view from nowhere. The inherent problem of ambiguity can now be restated - one must find one’s own view whilst simultaneously acknowledging that this view is not a view from nowhere, as it would be if one were ever to achieve absolute subject- hood. Nor, indeed, is it a view from everywhere, giving one a view of the reality that is constructed intersubjectively. One is part of this intersubjectivity whether or not one is aware of this. The desire for subjecthood is the desire to be the only one that creates reality. The first part of the equation is as important as the first - whilst one can never fill the world with an I as the only subject, one is at the same time a subject as well as an object. The message therefore becomes one of liberation as well as resignation, not just a coming-to-terms, but some relief from the existential fear Sartre correctly characterized as belonging to the thought that one could be just an object. If this analysis, and that of Beauvoir, is correct, one cannot be enslaved in the Sartrean sense of being made an object. We might return to Hegel and now see how it is that the slave is never permanently enslaved. The slave remains a subject as he interacts with the world, thereby finding himself in the position of a subject. He is not merely used, but also uses objects he finds around him.

The idea that ambiguity is a tool for the rejection of the view from nowhere can be closely linked to the arguments of the previous chapter. In some ways it could be seen to mediate between the naturalist and transcendentalist interpretations of the Phenomenology, and is certainly useful in the consideration of the McDowellian concept of the partly re-enchanted nature.56 The enchantment, in this sense, is the realisation that the bald naturalism of scientism tied to a view from nowhere (the two seem to entail each other to some extent) is impossible, and that the human being can never be an asocial creature. The socialised transcendental subjects that constitute reality are a clear reason to reject the possibility of the view from nowhere - there is nothing (at least nothing epistemologically relevant) that one could find by getting outside the human point of view. The fact that the psychologically appealing view of objecthood and subjecthood - the view that there can be a view from nowhere with respect to ourselves - causes an ontological or even existential worry for the conscious being does not mean that such a view is actually possible, any more than the fact that bald naturalism or scientism is psychologically appealing or comforting is a strong argument for that view.

Given Sartre’s account of recognition and subjectivity, it is no surprise at all that he cannot provide a satisfying and positive concept of forgiveness, and cannot see forgiveness as recognition. His engagement with the theme of forgiveness is most obviously literary than philosophical, but, as with his literary works in general, demonstrates his philosophical worldview. His The Flies is a re-writing of the Oresteia, Aeschylus’ tragedy that centres around the question of justice and revenge, during the German occupation of France. He takes on the classical view wholesale, associating forgiveness strongly with the feminine and objectified, and revenge with the masculine subject. Certainly, the view of forgiveness is a ‘negative’ one in John Milbank’s definition as discussed in Chapters Two and Five.57 Forgiveness means to negate the fault and the offence; there is no progress or moral development. Revenge, order and rationality are all associated with the male and paternal, and the more humanised, forgiving aspects with the female and maternal. Sartre does not side with one aspect or the other, which partly explains why the message of the play is still a matter for debate, and seen as ‘morally ambiguous’.58 It would be to misunderstand Sartre in general to expect him to be morally didactic in his literary works, but his The Flies shows precisely what kind of forgiveness could be expected in a world without ambiguity or recognition.

The examples of Sartre and Beauvoir, perhaps precisely because they are not steeped in a knowledge of and familiarity with Hegel that spans many decades, help to illuminate precisely how, for better or worse, a concept of recognition might work in our actual social lives. As I argue in Chapter Four, it is possible to draw a line from these existential and social, feminist and political critiques of Hegelian recognition to contemporary debates and discussions of recognition, many of which focus on the political and the practical. The remainder of this chapter is dedicated to examining how questions of recognition fit in to the contemporary discourse on social ontology.

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