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


Positive Recognition and Contemporary Social Ontology

When recognition as a concept in ethical theory is strongly bound up with the idea of an autonomous, fixed and immutable moral agent or subject, this presents a challenge not only to the sort of account I am presenting here, but also to social ontology in general. Of course, one could (and perhaps more traditionally would) present this quite differently from another point of view and worry that both contemporary social ontology and the kind of account of recognition I am providing here present a challenge to the idea of the moral agent or subject as autonomous, fixed and immutable.

Here in the background lies another transcendental argument: given that we do seem to be able to ascribe moral responsibility and make judgements about ethical character based on past deeds as well as current intentions and actions despite the fact that moral agents and human subjects are not autonomous, fixed and immutable (and given that, as I argue in Chapter Five, forgiveness and the taking of a position with regard to past states of affairs are central to our moral lives despite the fact that we are not entirely autonomous, fixed and immutable), what must be the case about our social reality, and ontology viewed from a social point of view ?59 To return to the distinction made in the Introduction to this work, social ontology in the sense that I am describing it is ontology in senses (a) and (c).60 It is an enquiry into social modes of being (and thus ontology in sense (a)) and also a meta-metaphysical enquiry into the most general sorts of relationships (and thus ontology in sense (c). Often, of course, it is approached from a phenomenological point of view, and thus is ontology in sense (b).

Whilst recognition studies and enquiries into social ontology have intersected in the last couple of years,61 questions of autonomy and immutability (and, closely related, freedom) have not generally been considered at the foreground of such research. Some very recent work, however, has framed the question in these terms. With the focus strongly on recognition, Axel Honneth’s most recent work on this topic has engaged directly with questions ofautonomy, and argued that social forms and institutions do not present a worrying challenge to individual autonomy, but rather that crucial (in the sense of personally, rather than definitionally, crucial) aspects of the person such as self-respect and self-esteem depend on the shared social values that are part of recognition, and thus that, as Hegel himself puts it, the I is possible only in the We.62 This, too, can be framed as a kind of transcendental argument - given that we operate as human subjects and moral agents with the help of features such as self-esteem and self-respect, and given that self-respect and self-esteem are dependent on social forms of recognition, what must be the case about our autonomy as human selves and moral agents? Honneth does not frame the question thus, but it is nevertheless germane to his enquiry. Certainly, his approach is broadly phenomenological in that it focusses on the practical as a way into theoretical questions about matters such as subject autonomy.

This part of recognition studies, then, comes closest to the questions I am considering in this chapter and work, even if the starting-point is not quite the same. Honneth’s basic point about moral autonomy can be considered in connection with some concepts from social ontology. One major area of research in social ontology at the moment is the concept of collective intentions. The main question runs as follows: is there a sense in which we can intend to do something that goes over and above you intending to do something and me intending to do something? John Searle uses the example of Hollandaise sauce - I can intend to stir and you can intend to pour, but can we together intend to make the sauce? Intention, here, is functioning in its meaning in ordinary language but also in a somewhat broader sense, as denoting a mental state. Can mental states such as intentions be shared? If they can, what are the implications for moral philosophy ? This is not a new question, but it is one that has not required as much attention as one might imagine it would warrant. One of the best accounts of it is by Margaret Gilbert, who also makes an important distinction between backward-looking moral responsibility (who is responsible for some past action having been taken) and forward-looking moral responsibility (who is responsible for responding to some future-related state of affairs, e.g. who will be morally responsible for cleaning up after some event).63 Questions about moral responsibility and collective intentionality will focus largely on backward-looking moral claims and the extent to which individual moral agents are responsible for some particular state of affairs having come about, but the idea of forward-looking moral responsibility is far from irrelevant to a discussion of positive recognition, forgiveness and the social world.

Gilbert provides a detailed account of how individuals might be committed to some joint action. This is an epistemic account taking account of factors like individuals’ knowledge of a collective’s joint commitment. It is a fairly broad and unrestricted view of what a commitment might involve, and what a collective might consist in (for example, the members do not, on her account, have to be personally acquainted) She then proceeds from this account to a definition of collective intention:

Persons X, Y, and so on (or, alternatively, those persons with feature F) collectively intend to perform action A [...] if and only if X, Y, et al. are jointly committed to intend as a body to perform A.64

It is the ‘intend as a body’ that is doing a lot of work in this definition and, in many ways, is the kernel of the question: this involves ‘together to constitute, as far as is possible, a single body that intends to do that thing.65 So, a commitment to tidy up the beach as a group does not mean that each member of the group has a commitment to tidy up the beach individually, it means that each member belongs to a group whose intention is to tidy up the beach (although, of course, the individual intention might also be present). Being part of a group with this intention does not even involve clearing up the beach.

Accounts like Gilbert’s and that of Joel Feinberg,66 who also deals with the moral consequences of collective intentions, provide us with a useful way into questions of autonomy and moral responsibility, although, at least on the most obvious reading, they each provide accounts that leave moral autonomy undisturbed. Gilbert’s reading places emphasis on the epistemic factors involved in the joint nature of joint intentions - did the person joining the group know precisely what the commitment to action was and what it involved ? If this is the key factor, it leaves autonomy intact, as the decision-making process allows the moral agent to be a law entirely to themselves. There is nothing that is being imposed from without; the choice to enter the group is freely made, and even after this decision comes into force the member can leave at any time so does not sacrifice any autonomy.

Gilbert’s account is, in fact, somewhat more nuanced than this picture of group intentions, which does not seem to reflect any real-life situation. Joint and collective action and intentions as detailed above, preserving autonomy completely, are quite easy to understand when one is discussing small groups who have all been personally known to each other when various intentions have been formed. They are much more difficult to understand when we are discussing large populations and group members who do not know each other. Gilbert is happy to accept intentions as joint even when not everyone in the group knows everyone else in the group, thus stretching the boundaries of what might count as agreement.

If we accept that autonomy as moral agents cannot be fully preserved in the case of a lot of joint intentions and collective actions, we are left with a number of options. Firstly, we might decide that, whilst there can be joint-ness of action and intention, we cannot regard these actions as some kind of model for how social life should operate. This is an objection from a moral philosophy point of view. Secondly, there might be a metaphysical objection: we might decide that there are no collective actions and joint intentions in the sense that is being described here, but rather actions and intentions involving a group of people that involves the over-riding of individual autonomy but not really joint-ness of action or intention. Joint-ness of intention and action therefore presents no particular problem, other than as an example of how personal autonomy can be over-ridden, with negative practical consequences. Both of these objections are to miss the practical point that a lot of action and intention in our social lives simply does have this j oint character. Again, a transcendental argument can easily be formed. Given the way our social lives seem to work, what must be true of the way that the intentions and actions that are part of these social lives, forming the backbone of morally relevant action, are developed and played out? A certain degree of joint-ness seems to be present.

If we accept that there are such things as joint intentions and collective actions, and that these phenomena simply do have an effect on autonomy as applied to the moral sphere, one obvious move is to approach moral social life in a Hegelian, rather than a Kantian, manner. It is something of an oversimplification to suggest that Kant treats the moral subject as if it exists in a vacuum, a self-legislating subject over and above the social world and Hegel, on the other hand, sees the self as free only in the Other, so that we can observe a Kantian and a Hegelian pole as far as autonomy and freedom is concerned. Kant does have an account of the social world, and nowhere is this more evident than in his account of forgiveness, which I discuss in more detail in Chapter Five.67 Indeed, he has a notion of moral development and progress which proceeds at the societal level, so we certainly are not atoms separated entirely from one another in the moral sphere for Kant. It is true to say, though, that Hegel goes much further in describing the extent to which our freedom is bound up with the Other, and therefore quite natural that an account which sees the restrictions on autonomy as a vital part of moral agenthood, rather than a barrier to it, arises from the Hegelian tradition. For Judith Butler, this is the case. She describes and argues for a narrative view of moral agenthood which takes into account limited autonomy, not as a restriction on autonomy and freedom, but in some ways as a condition of it. Autonomy presupposes a kind of self-knowledge that Butler does not think is available to us - for her, the self is in some respects opaque to the self. The key quote is to be found here:

[W]e must recognise that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to come undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human. To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance - to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the selfsufficient I as a form of possession.68

Whilst there might be something aporetic about an account of ourselves from this place, it is what we have. Our ethical selves and the narrative of our ethical lives are fundamentally determined by our relationships with the Other, and this is not a relationship which can be continued whilst remaining completely opaque to the self and completely autonomous.

What is the relationship between opacity to oneself and autonomy? Is there a relationship here with the subconscious ? Certainly, Hegel sets a very high bar for self-knowledge, but does not have the same focus on autonomy apart from the Other as, for example, Kant does. For Hegel, true self-knowledge is not possible without having gone through a process of encounter with the Other that makes clear the lack of autonomy, or at least the limits of autonomy, of the human subject. Striving for complete self-knowledge and transparency is, in some ways, to strive for subjecthood without objecthood.69 If the human subject is to be completely known to itself, this neglects or ignores that aspect of the self which is determined by the Other. The self is not only subject, determining the world around it, but also object, determined by its interactions with the Other. These interactions are, to some extent at least, outside its control. Moreover, and as I argue in Chapter Three, intersubjectivity, properly understood, is intersubjectivity of action. Self-knowledge is not pure contemplation, as Kierkegaard (through the Judge) points out:

The phrase gnothi seauton is repeated often enough and one has seen in it the aim of all human striving. Quite right, too, but it is equally certain that it cannot be the goal if it is not also the beginning. The ethical individual knows himself, but this knowledge is not mere contemplation, for then the individual would be specified in terms of his necessity; it is a reflection on himself which is itself an action, and that is why I have been careful to use the expression ‘to choose oneself’ instead of ‘to know oneself’.70

For Kierkegaard, as for Hegel, and as for the account which I am presenting here, recognition is ‘re-cognition, a rethinking of oneself which is not silent contemplation but very much action-based, involving encounters and confrontations. That access to oneself which is knowledge is gained through encounters which are outside our control. If we are not the creators and authors ofourselves that would be required for complete transparency, that we cannot be perfectly self-regulating, either.

What are the specific consequences for forgiveness and love of this insight? Our understanding of forgiveness is strongly transformed, because underlying notions of blame and responsibility are also challenged, tapping into a wider debate about free will and culpability. The ‘could have acted otherwise’ criterion for moral responsibility - that is, the rule that someone is morally responsible for some action only if they could have performed a different action, or none at all - is inadequate once we bring in questions of jointness of intention or collective actions, and certainly once we have a picture of a partly opaque subject whose autonomy is restricted. As I will argue in Chapter Five, forgiveness involves both the potential forgiver and the candidate for forgiveness standing in a particular relation to the offence.71 How can this be usefully assessed, much less achieved, when questions of responsibilities are complicated?

One potential response to this is to say that it can be accounted for in the relationship which the potential forgiver or candidate for forgiveness has with the offence. Both are relevant, as the potential forgiver also has to understand the relation in which he or she stands to the offence (or perceived offence) - lack of total autonomy, as traditionally understood, and lack of total transparency of the self to itself, also affects this relationship, as it means that the self is not fixed and immutable. If the self is not, in some important way, the same self as the one at the time when the offence was committed, is it appropriate for the present self to forgive? The precise same question, of course, can be asked of the candidate for forgiveness. We can account for the fluidity of the self in both the person of the candidate for forgiveness and the potential forgiver if we accept this picture of the self and use it as a reason to regard forgiveness as a social phenomenon.

In this chapter, I have attempted to sketch out the historical and contemporary parameters of the concept of recognition as outlined in the Introduction. I have attempted to show where the discussion originates, but much more importantly, what is at stake from the point of view of contemporary philosophy. In the next chapter, I return first of all again to Hegel and the German Idealist context to look more closely at the concept of intersubjectivity and the particular relationship between the ontological, theological and ethical that is brought into focus by this discussion.

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