Inaugural Address: Pennsylvania State University

Mitchell Aboulafia

Last fall I presented a commentary at the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy on Nancy Fraser’s new book, Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange, a work that she co-authored with Axel Honneth. I had thought that for this inaugural I might extend my analysis of her position as a way of presenting my own thoughts on recognition. Briefly, Fraser has been trying to reconcile claims for just distribution with those of recognition, that is, the politics of identity with more classical neo-Marxist and leftist commitments to economic justice. It is not uncommon to view the question of recognition through the lens of neo-Hegelian concerns with ethical life, which typically focus on identity issues. This is the manner in which Charles Taylor proceeds, for example, and it is also the approach that Axel Honneth finds most congenial.[1] For Honneth, recognition should be addressed in terms of a practical relation to oneself, one that entails self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem, and his position is clearly informed by his reading of Hegel. But for Fraser contemporary discussions of recognition have moved too far into the circle of identity politics, and this being the case, economic concerns have been left by the wayside. There is in her words a “one-sided fascination with the politics of recognition”.[2] Or to put this a bit more dramatically, since Marx is now the dead dog that Hegel was once accused of being, we are in danger of falling into idealism once again, fighting slogans with other slogans, ideas with other ideas, wandering off into the world of the symbolic, and losing sight of concrete analyses of actual historical conditions. Fraser certainly doesn’t want to deny the immense importance of identity politics, but she wants to place it in the proper perspective. Her move here is rather clever and economical, namely, she suggests that if we can come to see distribution and recognition as problems of justice, instead of as distinct problems of justice and ethical life, then perhaps more attention would be paid to the distribution of material resources. She offers a principle, the principle of parity of participation, and argues that both recognition and distribution can be addressed through this principle. In other words, to bring the problem of misrecognition together with that of maldistribution, we must stop viewing recognition as a problem of ethical life or psychological development, and rather view it as one of justice. Fraser, who has deep roots in pragmatism, takes a deontological turn here, which is quite analogous to Habermas’s, but without the complex machinery that his theory of communicative action requires.

Now there is much that I wanted to say about her gambit and its implications for politics and political philosophy. For example, I don’t believe that her principle of parity can function without bringing in concerns of ethical life, for the notion of parity is itself functionally constrained by sensibilities drawn from this sphere. Nor do I believe that her principle can adequately deal with the expressive dimensions of the politics of identity, as Taylor might suggest; this is a problem that also plagues Habermas, and which can be seen in his misreading of George Herbert Mead. These themes are certainly worth developing because they relate to so many contemporary social and political discussions, including those on race and globalism. Nevertheless, I have decided to take a different course for this inaugural.

Thus far many of you have only known me as an administrator, and although I do not recognize myself primarily in this fashion, I have to face the fact that it is the way in which I often appear to you and to others in this institution. So there is a temptation here to cut against the grain and to do something quite technical, strut my philosophical stuff, so to speak. Yet this doesn’t feel quite right, for my position as an administrator is beginning to make demands not only on my time, but on the way in which I think about what it means to be able to do philosophy in a certain kind of institutional setting. And this has become a pressing concern for me; so much so that not to address it would feel like I was dodging the existential and tarrying with the inauthentic. I will try to avoid descending into the abyss of autobiography, but there is a relationship between the structure of the university, the position of department head, and departmental life that has something to say about pluralism, recognition, expressivity, and community, themes that I have been concerned with for quite some time.

When one wears the dual hats of administrator and philosophy professor, one sees on a daily basis the extent to which academic life is constrained by the demands of the larger society. I want to draw briefly on Habermas here to provide a framework for my observations. Habermas has attempted analyze contemporary society in terms of economic and administrative systems, that is, of money and power media, and the life-world. For him, the capitalistic economic system clearly has its place, and we are better off in many ways because modern markets and administrative systems exist. Nevertheless, market relations come to infect the communicative, personal, and interpersonal relations of what he calls the life-world. And so do administrative systems, whose bureaucratic rationality Weber so famously dissected. To simplify matters for the limited purposes at hand, if we think of the life-world in terms of communicative action, that is, action oriented toward mutual understanding, then we must think of the spheres of capital and power in terms of strategic action. Communicative action, aimed as it is at mutual understanding, is a quasi-transcendental condition of strategic communication, which is oriented toward success. Strategic communication is in fact parasitic on mutual understanding, for example, lying to accomplish a strategic objective depends on a tacit commitment to a use of language that is grounded in mutual understanding. Habermas’s position, of course, is an intersubjective variant of Kant’s moral philosophy. Language first aims at understanding, not at strategic success that may entail using others solely as means. Tom McCarthy summarizes Habermas’s typology of the kinds of validity claims that we can expect to find in our linguistic interactions as follows.

[W]e are constantly making claims, even if usually only implicitly, concerning the validity of what we are saying, implying, or presupposing—claims, for instance, regarding the truth of what we say in relation to the objective world; or claims concerning the rightness, appropriateness, or legitimacy of our speech acts in relation to the shared values and norms of our social lifeworld; or claims to sincerity or authenticity in regard to the manifest expressions of our intentions and feelings.[3]

Approaching and expecting others to respond to us in terms of truth, rightness, and authenticity is crucial to sustaining the life-world, but the life-world, according to Habermas, has been colonized by the media of money and power. Many of the political movements that we have seen the last few years, environmentalism, feminism, and even certain fundamentalisms, can be viewed as attempts by actors to resist the pervasiveness of the strategic in the sphere of interpersonal and value laden relationships.

Of course this is simplification of a complex position, and there are certainly problems with Habermas’s analysis; for example, it’s not clear that he can maintain the division between the strategic and communicative in the manner that he wishes to. So I will employ these terms heuristically here. It’s also not clear that transcendental arguments can successfully be brought to bear to defend his claims. Nevertheless, there is an intuition here that is worth thinking about in terms of how an academic department functions. Leaving aside whether Habermas is correct about his analysis of the contemporary scene, it is reasonable to claim that in a philosophy department, especially in one committed to the study of the history of philosophy, mutual understanding is both an end and means, and presumably strategic action, action oriented to success, although very much a part of any set of human interactions, should not become the primary mode of philosophical exchange. What, in fact, would success mean, philosophically speaking, if it were only realized in strategic terms? While we do not have to accept the manner in which Habermas enshrines consensus, there is much to be said in favor of striving for mutual understanding and not strategic advantage in philosophy.

But it is no easy task to avoid slipping into the strategic, nor should we always expect not to do so. We all come to the task of doing philosophy with philosophical commitments that we would like to see accepted and appreciated, and we wouldn’t be true to our own philosophical passions if we did not defend these commitments. Philosophy entails fighting the good fight at times and sticking up for one’s convictions. The agonistic certainly has its place, as does self-assertion. Yet this doesn’t mean that the strategic should be viewed as the primary mode of philosophical interaction. To better understand the implications of these rather bald assertions, I need to enlarge the discussion.

Although at times it certainly feels as if a department is a place unto itself, it is very much a part of a university, in our case a research university, which is, among other things, a giant fund raising machine. The university is connected in a multitude of ways to the non-university world through the media of money and power. It is a commonplace to note that as commercialism expands throughout the world it also infiltrates the academy. Given this, it is certainly not accidental that grants and external funding have increasingly become markers for the successful professor, and even the successful graduate student. These activities surely involve strategic action, as anyone who has written a successful grant application or raised money from donors knows. We protest that we were not trained for these sorts of activities. Yet there they are.

The situation, however, is actually more complicated than it first appears to be, for the academy is a strange hybrid of economic and administrative systems, and the life-world. Academics have pretensions to living in a humanized life-world in which mutual understanding, scholarly commitments, and personal relationships take precedence over power and money, but we are deeply connected to these media in so far as a department is in an institution that can only survive through its connections to the larger economy. However, in many disciplines, especially those in the humanities, we don’t actually produce anything that is typically valued in the marketplace. We make no widgets and we sell no products. The way in which serious academics produce value is through being recognized by other academics as having produced something of value. So as far the institution is concerned, without this recognition there is in fact no value. By producing recognition generating work, academics are in a position to receive certain rewards from institutions, which will in turn trade on their professional recognition. But while there is a pressure in the direction of the commodification of esteem in academy, for academics the commodity form is often tainted by its association with an economic system in which strategic success dominates. It is a system, after all, which is frequently quite comfortable with measuring quality in quantitative terms. Or to put this in another fashion, academics are often seduced by their own expectations for mutual understanding and assumptions about the life-world, but the organization and needs of modern institutions harness faculty and students alike to economic and administrative structures in which commodification and strategic success dominate. The strategic, then, is not merely a sphere of rhetorical ploys that we might use at our discretion to convince others of the correctness of our philosophical position. It is a realm of goal oriented demands that intrudes on aspects of the life-world that we would wish to preserve.

So how might the colonization of this, our, life-world be resisted? The answer on one level would seem to be obvious: we need a community that can resist the commodification of recognition, and we need to work toward a community of mutual recognition, that is, one in which both difference and commonality are in play in the process of recognizing the accomplishments of our colleagues. There must be sufficient solidarity in this community to allow us to appreciate the contributions of others as contributing to the general good. But how is it possible to achieve this goal given the constraints and imperatives of the larger institution and economy? Before exploring in more depth the notion of recognition, and attempting to begin to answer this question, I want to make some remarks about a path that we should not tread in seeking to address these sorts of issues.

There is a scene in the Cohen brother’s recent film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” in which three escaped convicts, who are as good natured as they are inept, and who happen to be the heroes of the tale, find themselves trapped by the long arm of the law. Awakened from their nighttime slumbers in a tinderbox of a barn, they find lawmen dousing it with gasoline. It doesn’t look too good for the heroes of the tale. The leader of the threesome, a stand-in for Odysseus in this tale, played here by George Clooney, has come to the same conclusion. In a near-hysterical, yet marvelously understated fashion, he repeats and repeats, “Damn, we’re in a tight spot.” “Damn, we’re in a tight spot.” And it is actually worse than he thinks, because the leader of the lawmen, a marshal or sheriff of some sort, is not just a sheriff, he is the devil incarnate, and one filled with all of the racism and narrow mindedness that we have come to associate with the Deep South of the Depression. Now in America of 2003, as in America of the last century or two, the tendency here would be to not focus on what the sheriff stands for, or the social structures that give rise to such folks, but on his person. The problem is the sheriff, as the problem is Saddam Hussein, or Osama Bin Laden, or George Bush for that matter, not the social conditions and institutional structures that foster and support certain sorts of behaviors, behaviors that time and again put us all in a tight spot.

Whether this sort of focus on the purely individual has its roots in a Protestant Salvationist tradition, or in the ideology of capital, or in another set of reasons, I leave for another day. But I want to note the seemingly obvious, that is, otherwise critically minded academic folk often succumb to this form of explanation when discussing their own departments. Speak to any person who has been an administrator in an academic department and you will eventually hear the following, “You know, it’s always just two or three people who create all the problems.” Or a variant of this intoned by a depressed department chair, “98% of my heartburn is due to just two or three people. If I could just get rid of Tom, Dick, and Harry, the world would be set right or at least I could sleep nights.” After years of hearing such statements, I have been led to a simple but unassailable conclusion. It must be same three guys who keep showing up in everyone’s department. I mean, what else can we conclude, since they certainly sound and act like the same people? In the end only some well worn philosophical argument about how corporeal substances can’t occupy more than one place at one time, keeps me from fully endorsing this conclusion.

Joking aside, there is a serious point here. No doubt in every institutional setting there are difficult actors. There are those who wear their psychological problems on their sleeves, there are those who are prepared to use others solely as a means to their own ends, and there are the ontologically insecure, to borrow an old phrase from R.D. Laing, who can not be reached by the sort of support or nurturing that is possible in most institutional settings. I have had the experience, on several occasions, of teaching philosophy in a maximum security prison in Texas. I can report, just in case that you might think that Aristotle needs some support here, that in addition to difficult actors, there are really bad ones. But here is the thing. One cannot predict in advance, based the heinousness of their crimes, how criminals will act once they are in prison. For many the institutional arrangements are transformative. Seemingly violent natures turn tractable and even become models of exemplary interpersonal behavior.

Fear not, my point here is not to turn the Philosophy Department into a penal colony. The Foucauldians would have my head. Rather, in thinking about departments that have become dysfunctional -- for example, some of those that have been put into receivership or those that have required family therapy, which, I kid you not, has happened--in thinking about such situations, it would be a mistake to focus on personality alone. There are reasons, aside from personality, that certain kinds of damaging interpersonal behaviors are seen over and over again in departments in every academic field in every corner of the land. We need to focus on the structural and functional conditions that give rise to them, and how certain procedures militate against our efforts at community and mutual understanding. We need to avoid focusing on the personal if we are going to carve out a habitable life-world in a setting increasingly dominated by the media of money and power. To borrow language and an insight from a time that many of you in this room are far too young to remember, preoccupation with personality and individuality is a way in which the system keeps us from concentrating on the system itself.

I would like now to return to the issue of the nature of recognition. Some distinctions are called for, and I think that for the purposes at hand we can loosely follow Honneth’s categorizations. There are at least three levels or types of recognition that we can distinguish, even if only in a skeletal fashion. First, there is the affirmation that the parent should give to the child, the sort of recognition that says on an affective level, you are valued human being, one with a worth that transcends any specific set of accomplishments for which you might be recognized. We often associate this sort of affirmation with being loved. For Honneth, this sort of recognition leads to self-confidence. Second, there is the recognition that one receives as a morally responsible agent, that is, as an ethical, legal, and political subject with certain rights and responsibilities. At this level we expect to be treated as a responsible agent, equal before the law, and entitled to self-respect. And finally, there is the recognition that we gain from our peers for our talents and accomplishments, which leads to self-esteem. Here we expect that our uniqueness will come to the fore. We will be recognized in our particularity.

Certainly there is much that could be said about the assumptions behind such a typology, and we could make finer discriminations, but for our purposes it should be of assistance. Critiques of the notion of recognition often focus on one level or another, while from a neo-Hegelian vantage point all of these levels must be considered, and this of course includes the neo-Kantian second level of self-respect. Now one of the disputes between theorists of recognition and theorists of asymmetry, such as Levinas, is the contention by the latter that models of recognition leave no space for transcendental ethical claims, and without such a claim there is ultimately no way to fully fathom the wrong of violence and hopefully stop it. System swallows responsibility in the world of mutuality, and the political displaces the ethical. The “saying,” in Levinas’s language, becomes submerged in the “said.”

Yet the problem at hand is not how to understand the ultimate ground of ethics, if there is one -- that is, ethics with a big E as I once heard it described at a conference--but how to utilize the dialectic of recognition to explore specific social conditions. The problem as I see it, drawing on the typology I employed a few minutes ago, is that in a department and in a university setting, we are dealing with the commodification of esteem, which has ramifications for the issue of self-confidence, for in spite of the typology just presented, in practice it is exceedingly difficult to escape the fact that self-confidence often depends on self-esteem. Few of us have been fortunate enough to have been blessed with uncompromising self-confidence, that is, to have been so loved and acknowledged as children that we need never worry about whether we are esteemed by our colleagues. But this is not our, or even our parents’, failing. It is in fact very difficult to achieve the integration and integrity of self-confidence in our society, given the early countervailing imperatives of being recognized for specific accomplishments and the commodification of those accomplishments. The Greek fame culture has little on us in regard to the intensity with which we pursue recognition generating activities and accomplishments. We are as competitive as they come. And as academics there is the additional twist that I mentioned earlier. Recognition, esteem itself, is the common currency of our world. It’s not just how much money one makes or one’s net worth that are tokens of success. For academics, it is, what do you think of my work, which translates into, what do you think of me? Further, appealing to legal rights, or my personhood as a responsible moral agent, is not going to be of much assistance here, for this appeal is already at a level of universality that bypasses what is actually at stake, my individual self-confidence and self-esteem. I not only want legal personhood; I want to be esteemed for who I am, for being me. To conflate the two is to commit a social category mistake. (After all, I don’t want a court or judge to grant me tenure. I want my colleagues to do it.)

In his well known essay on “Multiculturalism,” Charles Taylor makes the following comment, which has become rather well known in certain political philosophy circles.

The thesis is that our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or a group can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people of society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being. [4]

And Taylor goes on to note, “Due recognition is not just a courtesy that we owe people. It is a vital human need.”[5]

There are two points to immediately note about these passages. First, we can be imprisoned in a distorted or reduced mode of being if there is a failure of recognition, and, therefore, suffer real harm; second, the recognition of others is a mirror that is necessary for the self to be or to know itself. The latter point regarding the other as a mirror is certainly not a new one, and actually extends back at least into the Enlightenment. Here is Adam Smith.

Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face....Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before.[6]

Taylor would defend the notion of self’s dependence on others in the following fashion:

The crucial feature of human life is its fundamentally dialogical character. We become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining our identity, through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression. [ Taylor then notes that he is defining language rather broadly and goes on to say] People do not acquire the languages needed for self-definition on their own. Rather, we are introduced to them through interaction with others who matter to us — what George Herbert Mead called significant others. The genesis of mind is in this sense not monological, not something each person accomplishes on his or her own, but dialogical.[7]

For Taylor, the self certainly develops socially and has an on-going need for recognition. Taylor also makes the point that as romantics and post romantics we live in a world in which the importance of expressivity has become commonplace. As a matter of fact, modern notions of authenticity can be located in the early expressivists. Taylor invokes the name of Herder in this regard, noting that he “put forth the idea that each of us has an original way of being human: each person has his or her own “measure.”[8] And Taylor also notes, “Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, which is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing a potentiality that is properly my own. This is the background understanding to the modern ideal of authenticity, and to the goals of self-fulfillment and self-realization in which the idea is usually couched.”[9] And we can also quote Hegel here, “The power of Spirit is only as great as its expression, its depth only as deep as it dares to spread out and lose itself in its exposition.” (6, Phenomenology, Miller)

So expressivity is not simply something that the self does; it is what helps define the self. Or, in other words, we don’t really know what we want to say, until we have said it. Potencies are only known through acts, but since we are dealing with expressive acts, which are by definition at least somewhat unique, we can not know the self that generates them until they have happened. We are defined through our own articulations, as paradoxical as that may seem, but it could not be any other way given the implicit linkage of uniqueness with expressivity. Expressivity, in so far as it is tied to human creativity, has deep religious resonances as well as secular roots in the West, and is, to use Taylor’s phrase, a strong valuation. Additionally, in the West, especially in America, expressivity is deeply entangled with another strong valuation, namely, self-actualization. I want to explore the theme of expressivity further, and I will do so by briefly turning to Mead in order to see if he can be of some assistance in developing the connections between the intersubjective dimension of the self, expressivity, authenticity, and recognition. After this discussion, I want to turn back to the issue of recognition in an academic context.

Mead had a fully intersubjective model of the self’s development, which addresses the expressivist dimension of modernity that Taylor examines. Starting from an analysis of the gesture, Mead argues that human beings develop significant symbols. Significant symbols are gestures that entail a reflexive anticipatory dimension. Instead of merely responding to them, in the manner in which a dog may respond to the growl of another dog, I anticipate the behavioral responses of others to my gestures, and I can position myself to respond to the responses of others even when these others are not present. I can speak to myself. For Mead, mind itself has its origins in linguistic exchanges that become reflexive and, therefore, self-conscious. Mead follows much of the German Idealist tradition in connecting the self with self-consciousness. The self then, on one level, is a cognitive object, that comes into being through social roles, but only takes on the more complex form that we label “the self” after the responses of others are crystallized into a network of relations referred to as the generalized other. Without the mirror of this generalized other, the “me,” or the self, would not develop or maintain itself. Recognition by others is both a fundamental part of the development of the cognitive structure of the self and the continuing affirmation of this self. We literally would not know who we are without the recognition of our responses, traits, and characteristics by others as we are developing. In fact it would be accurate to say that the self is located in the other, and the other in the self, and that both find themselves in a larger network of social relations that is constitutive. This is classic Hegelianism transformed into functional and behavioral language, and given the imprimatur of developmental psychology. But how does Mead’s dialogic account of the self’s development relate to authenticity and expressivity, which Taylor takes to be features of the self? And how does all of this relate to the issues of recognition in a department setting?”

Mead is well known social psychological circles for his I/me distinction; the “me” is the social self that is dependent on recognition, and the “I” is the source of spontaneity, which is also at times thought of as a sort of functional transcendental ego. Unfortunately most students are introduced to these notions in elementary sociology classes, where it is rather difficult to see just what could be philosophical about Mead’s position. Briefly, for Mead, the “I” and “me” are actually functional distinctions. They are not ontological categories. Each of us can be viewed under either description, and also in terms of the interaction of these attributes. For Mead, there is not only the social self, described above as the “me,” but there is also spontaneity and originality.

While we can not this pursue this trail today, we can say that what makes Mead interesting here is the way in which his approach provides a path for giving both recognition and expressivity their due. He certainly appreciates the fact that novel expressions or creative actions that fail to become integrated into a system of social relations will not be able to sustain themselves. And what helps to integrate spontaneous or novel responses and actions into our lives is precisely the recognition of others that these are not only novel responses, but that they are worthwhile and promising ones. As a matter of fact, there is a certain kind of precariousness to lived experience for Mead, for we are continually being called on to integrate our own spontaneous expressions with our former selves and actions. On one level we are windowed monads of the social world, continually reflecting the social world from a myriad of vantage points, but from another we are subjects in the modern romantic sense, that is, sources of spontaneity and creative activity. Our task is to unite these two dimensions. And this we do with the help of others. Or to put this in terms of Taylor’s notion of expressivity: we come to define ourselves through our expressive acts, but the impact of these acts is not immediate integration into our self-narrative. Integration requires mediation through the recognition of others. In sum: not only are there are no private languages, there are ultimately no sustainable private expressive acts.

This account of Mead is far too sketchy to convince. But I take this to be an inaugural, that is, the beginning of a conversation. I hope that these claims at least suggest that a developmental model is available to us that can account for why recognition is so basic. Certainly I can not provide a sustained defense of this claim today. And you may also wonder how this general account relates to the earlier typology that I brought to bear, namely, in terms of self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem, since I seem to be using the term recognition rather loosely at this juncture. Once again I will have to provide a promissory note. I can say here that there is a function or form and content distinction at hand. What I have been describing is the general mechanism of recognition and transformation through expression, which Mead’s model can help supply. The specific content or character of a self is certainly subject to the vagaries of circumstance and place, and this includes how we think about ourselves, for example, as rights bearing creatures with specific responsibilities.

It is Taylor’s contention that to deprive one of the mirror of the other is to give rise to a serious harm. And a society that systematically does so, through racist assumptions, for example, is a society that commits a grievous wrong. I will not attempt to defend Taylor’s insights any further today. I will follow his lead and presume that misrecognition can be a harm. And I will now return to my initial question, why should the commodification of recognition prove to be as potentially problematic as I first suggested in the life of a department?

If Mead and Taylor are on the right track, then we certainly do not have to go very far to find the answer. We spoke earlier of the life-world and its colonization by systems of money and power for Habermas. Certainly if self-confidence and self-esteem are dependent on the recognition that we receive from others, then commodification of recognition in the academic world is some sort of perverse social category mistake. How so? I will turn to this question momentarily. First, a caveat. What I am about to suggest would require a string of qualifications, were it not offered as an idealization. I abstract or idealize here for the sake of clarifying a social setting. For example, in actual practice we do not depend on local others to the degree that I am about to suggest. But then again, Hegel’s Dialectic of Recognition surely does not describe the empirical in all its contingency and rough edges. It is an idealization.

Social psychologists and therapists will often talk about group dynamics in terms of “set ups,” that is, a way of organizing of social interaction that undermines the express desires and ends of the participants, who are not typically aware of how their own actions might be self-defeating. Academics departments have in some sense been “set up.” Consider the following points. First, expressivity is part and parcel of who we are; second, recognition is crucial to our self-definition; third, the commodification of recognition is a reality in contemporary institutional settings; and fourth, we depend on the support of these institutions to pursue what we value, namely, scholarly work and pedagogy. We wish to have our labor, our expressive activities, recognized by peers or mentors. Our relationship to ourselves is, after all, mediated by these others. But given the pressures of the institutional framework, we are led to become, through little fault of our own, like Aristotle’s honor seekers, too dependent on others. We all build internal audiences, so to speak, that recognize our successes and failings. At some point we need to reconnect these voices to actual others. We can do so in many locales. But our resources and daily intellectual gratifications are provided in the context of our intellectual home, the department, and in this setting we are continually being called on to make direct or indirect judgments of our colleagues. Such judgments are called for by our own intellectual commitments, but they are also called for by the institution. And there is a lot a stake here. Careers and reputations rise and fall due to judgments, which involve the recognition of our work by our colleagues. If I may be permitted some latitude in expression, I would say that the present system leads everyone to seem like management to everyone else. Further, our identities in the larger academic world are to some degree tied to a department. We may wish to become stoics here and invoke Epictetus’s warning not to become too identified with our surroundings and possessions; as he warns us, do not think that you are handsome because your horse is handsome. This, however, is a difficult path to follow in an academic world in which others are determined to see us as part of a particular stable. With pressures so great and so little room for error, as well as a political and economic system that emphasizes individual responsibility, how could we not become hypersensitive to the perceived misaffirmations of our colleagues? In this respect, we have been set up for failure. And solidarity must seem a fool’s paradise.

In a culture that places an excessive demand on us to commodify recognition, there will be a tendency to seek ways to guarantee that we have accumulated enough of this commodity to protect us against future scarcity. So here then is another possible pitfall of the present system. There will be a propensity to surround ourselves with friends and the like-minded who will help us put the required commodity in the bank, so to speak. Of course there are good and legitimate reasons for wishing to surround ourselves with those who share our intellectual interests. But this is not what I am talking about here. What I am addressing is how the role of recognition in the institutional setting of the modern university can lead to a flattening out of differences or to the balkanization of departments. And without the edge of genuinely contrasting views and sensibilities, impoverishment will be the inevitable result; for although I said earlier that mutual understanding was the goal, I also noted that the agonistic is part and parcel of the philosophical enterprise. The dialectic of philosophical growth requires both challenge and affirmation. We can’t be so different that no mutual understanding is possible. But we can’t be so alike that we know what each of us is going to say before we have said it. So we are in a constant bind. We want our uniqueness recognized, and we need the edge of difference that is conjoined with expressivity in order to grow, but actual differences may cut against achieving the commodified recognition that we need to acquire institutional and professional recognition, which means institutional rewards and security.

No doubt I have portrayed too stark a picture. There are surely countervailing forces that resist such a flattening, including the good sense and integrity of the members of a department, and the good will and intellectual commitments of those who administer academic institutions But we should not ignore the constraints of our situation, for while we try to maintain the civility and goods of a community, we live in a nation that is becoming little more than a giant civil society, a society in which reciprocity is seen increasingly in terms of market relations, abstract rights, and strategic considerations. A community of mutual recognition, in which differences are relished because there is an overarching mutuality, sounds good as an alternative. I advocated it earlier. But we do not live in Hegel’s state, nor would we wish to do so. And we cannot become an island. And we can not live in denial. Damn, we’re in a tight spot. Yet we have resources. We can collectively discuss and understand the nature of the situation. (Yes, I guess I do believe that the truth can at times set you free.) We can utilize procedures and policies that are transparent and intelligible, which will diminish fear, distrust, and an inclination to reflexively turn to the personal. We can keep our eye on the prize and not let the personal weaknesses and foibles of our colleagues become the focus of our attention. We can foster collective and individual means for recognition that are outside of institutional constraints. We can be good pragmatists and give meliorism a chance. We can take a clue from William James on belief, and believe in the possibility of community in order to make community possible. And most of all, as philosophers, we must never forget that the head only speaks the gospel truth.


1. This is not to say that Honneth is in agreement with Taylor . Honneth criticizes the latter’s emphasis on cultural difference in struggles for recognition. See Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange, trs. Joel Golb, James Ingram, and Christiane Wilke (New York and London: Verso, 2003) 122-124.

2. Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange, 207.

3. Thomas McCarthy, “Introduction,” in Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume One (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984) x.

4. Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” in Multiculturalism, ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994) 25.

5. Taylor, 26

6. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, eds. D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976; reprinted, Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1982) 110.

7. Taylor, 27

8. Taylor, 30

9. Taylor, 31