At the heart of the chaos and fragmentation which seems to characterize modern society lies a notion of the self which rests upon deep, often unnoticed, philosophical assumptions that shape not only how we think of ourselves as individuals in relationship to others but how society as a whole thinks of itself, how it frames its moral discourse, and how it decides who does and who does not truly count. To justify these claims, it is helpful to revisit a point made by the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel.
Hegel begins his famous section in the Phenomenology of Spirit on lordship and bondage with the following statement:
Self-consciousness is in and for itself, when, and by the fact that, it is in and for itself for another self-consciousness; that is, it is only as something recognized.
The point Hegel is making is important: selfhood is a dialogue, even a dialectic, between self-consciousnesses. I may intuitively think of myself as defining who I am but in fact my identity, or sense of selfhood, is the result of my interaction with my environment, specifically with other self-consciousnesses. This process Hegel characterizes as “recognition.” This is not recognition in the simple, commonsense manner in which a friend might call to me across the street as she recognizes my face. Rather, it is a more significant sense whereby I am ascribed legitimacy and value by another and, therefore, in relation to that other. A good illustration of this is provided by the creation of Eve in Genesis 2. Upon seeing her, Adam declares that she is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” He has clearly recognized her as different from all other creatures, possessing an affinity with himself that he shares with no other. We might say that Adam truly comes to know himself at that point precisely because he knows (recognizes) Eve.
Hegel’s notion of recognition is important not simply because it exposes the falsity of our intuitive sense that each of us is sovereign over our own selfhood. It is also important because it highlights the fact that our sense of selfhood stands at the nexus of freedom and belonging. The desire to be free—indeed, the intuitive feeling that I am, or at least should be, free—is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. Unlike other animals, we are intentional beings. The beaver builds a dam instinctively; humans build dams intentionally. There is indeed some truth to the idea that for us existence precedes essence. I could have chosen numerous careers, but I chose to be a teacher. I could have remained single, but I chose to marry. And yet freedom is not all there is to being human. We also want to belong, to be recognized. Everything from the language I speak to the way I dress is a means by which I am located in, and belong to, a wider society. We might say that the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of recognition are not set by me but by the world into which I am born and by which I need to be recognized. And this arguably involves a sacrifice, or modification, of my freedom with reference to social rules and conventions in order that I might belong to (be recognized by) that society.
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