What Can the Human Sciences Say about Freedom Today?

Paul A. Kottman
The New School for Research

Volume 9, 2016

At a certain level of experience and self-awareness, questions like the following typically arise — What am I doing with her? What is he doing with me? What are we doing together? It seems safe to say that questions like these are voiced not only by philosophers or politicians, but also by many of us in the daily course of life with others. Can we make any sense of what we are doing together or give any reason for our activities and commitments – as distinct from just describing or narrating what happens to us?

And beneath these lie other questions: Am I the one who is doing this with her? Is she doing this with me? Are we doing it together? Or, are we fulfilling roles or duties that might be fulfilled by others? And how do we feel about what we are doing? Can we ‘live with’ what we have done? Can we affirm that these are really our lives that we are leading? Or, are we driven here and there by forces or circumstances well beyond our control? And how can we go about even answering these questions? These issues typically fall under the heading of what philosophers call the question of agency or freedom. There is the Kantian identification of freedom with reason (reason as autonomous self-legislation), and also Hegel’s view of history as “the progress of the consciousness of freedom,” whereby the autonomy of reason is revealed through a retrospective account of its historically achieved self-conscious realization, in individuals as well as in social institutions.

At the same time, for many — contra Hegel — human ‘actions’ and human history amount to nothing more than ultimately contingent events, movements or ‘stuff that happen to us:’ natural occurrences or social-historical power struggles or psychic processes. The substitution of the question of freedom by the phrase ‘it so happened…’ is commonplace enough to almost escape detection. It informs journalistic narratives that attribute the supposed ‘deeds’ of individuals to broader social forces or contingent circumstances; just as it informs theories that attribute aesthetic taste, or the selection of a sexual partner, to evolutionary-biological processes. So, too, we have neurobiological explanations of romantic love, and sophisticated sociological descriptions of consumer capitalism. In philosophical circles, there are robust defenses of the ‘it just so happened…’ view in schools of logical positivism or reductionist theories of causality. All across the human sciences, one now finds thick historical—or even densely concrete, “materialist”— explanations for individual acts of artistic creation, or for the particular deeds of Kings and Queens, or for broad social changes, or for seemingly personal acts of defiance or political initiative.

After all, the Hegelian view of history, freedom and reason did not go unchallenged in the nineteenth-century. The challenges to the autonomy of reason posed by those whom Paul Ricoeur called “masters of suspicion”—Marx, Nietzsche and Freud—have determined the course of much modern social thought, from psychoanalysis and post-structuralism to Marxist and Frankfurt school critical theory, to the other schools of thought just mentioned.[1] Freud’s theory of the unconscious, for instance, has done much to complicate the Delphic injunction ‘know thyself.’ And any contemporary graduate student versed in Marxism or critical theory quickly learns how to cast doubt on claims to authentic individual freedom by reminding us how our motivations and values are often shaped by broader social forces, like capitalism.

And yet, in spite of these suspicions, questions like those posed at the outset have not gone away quietly. At some point, our graduate student will likely find herself wondering: what am I doing? This same question has been voiced with increasing sophistication over the past century or so – in ways that cannot be simply dismissed as more of the ‘same, old Western tradition’ of thinking about free will or individual liberty. Jean-Paul Sartre, for one, was critical of attempts to deny either the ‘participant’ or ‘spectator’ position on one’s life by taking refuge wholly in either the one or the other, a refuge he called “bad faith”.[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, too, sought to distinguish ‘actions’ from ‘happenings’ without, however, invoking any deliberating “will” (or, mind or soul) in order to explain the distinctiveness of individual acts: “I do,” wrote Wittgenstein, “seems to have a definite sense, separate from all experience.”[3] And there have been many other powerful attempts to make sense of the distinctiveness of ‘what we do,’ such as in the work of G.E.M. Anscombe, Hannah Arendt, Peter Strawson, Stanley Cavell, Richard Rorty, Alasdair Macintyre, Bernard Williams, Cora Diamond, John McDowell, Richard Moran, Robert Pippin and a great many others. Already this abbreviated list of names – some of whom have gone out of their way to direct our attention back to the problem of ‘freedom’ by rebutting post-structuralist or ‘critical theory-based’ reservations about the very notion — gives some sense of the wide variety of positions that can now be discussed in this regard.

1. The Modern Human Sciences

We might take influential writings by Jean-Jacques Rousseau as inaugurating this modern humanistic inheritance.[4] Responding to a contest held in 1749 by the Academy of Dijon, which asked whether “the progress of the sciences and arts contributed to the corruption or to the improvement of human conduct,” Rousseau’s famous answer was “corruption” rather than “improvement.” And in 1754, responding again to an Academy question, Rousseau wrote his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. As Robert Pippin has pointed out, these two essays mounted one of the first attempts to mark out the limits “in principle, not limits based on temporary empirical ignorance, of modern scientific understanding in contributing to human self-knowledge, and so to insist on an unusual sort of necessary independence and privileged importance of moral and normative matters”.[5] By eschewing both the theological impulses of much of the European counter-enlightenment, and the dualisms embedded in Cartesian science, Rousseau exerted a major influence on German philosophy in its classical period and on the modern humanities generally.[6] In addition to expressing what have since become well-known complaints—namely, that modern forms of social life might be deeply unsatisfying and perhaps downright undesirable—what Rousseau delineated was the importance, or at least the possibility, of responding to those actions and events for which we might ask ‘why?’ without turning to inherited beliefs, theological revelation, or to the deliverances of the modern sciences. This is basically what we humanists still try to understand or respond to: actions and events, practices and artworks, small and large-scale cultural shifts, in response to which we feel justified in asking Why? – and in response to which we look to the words and deeds of human beings, past and present, for answers. Tucked into this kind of humanistic questioning is the outline of a practical, normative domain of human actions, or deeds done on purpose and for reasons. Being able to refer back to those reasons (even where they turn out to have been incoherent or indefensible) is crucial to any aspiration to understand what has been done.

To avoid one confusion, this does not necessarily mean asking after the intentions of particular agents – as if such intentions were the causa prima for whatever happened. Nor need we adopt a voluntarist view, according to which human beings are endowed with the capacity to initiate actions by a sheer act of will. After all, it seems far-fetched to think that we can shuffle off our ongoing dependencies or social entanglements and just make something happen by ‘choice’ or through sheer force of will. And, for another thing, we do not necessarily know our ‘real’ reasons for doing things at the time we are acting.[7] In asking after reasons, then, we are asking after motivations for actions that are intertwined with the routine, practical modes of justification that adhere in a given society’s self-conception. This is not to deny that we tend, as individuals, to also take subjective or reflective stances on what we do, or on what we think we should do — in light of others’ expectations, for instance. Doubtless there is an important connection between an individual’s relations to her own actions and whatever is actually done, collectively or individually. My point is simply that figuring out this connection cannot just be a matter of seeking its hidden cause — in some faculty, capacity or endowment or origin that lies outside or before the historical domain of human actions. Instead, this connection between individuals and actions, both personal and collective – in the context of which the humanist ‘why question’ can be asked – must be sought within the domain of actions, as constituted over time by our shared commitments and practices and their various transformations.

In this sense, to pose the humanist question ‘why?’ is not necessarily to set out to solve a mystery or riddle, or to get at the hidden cause of particular actions. Rather, we are interested in the possibility that there is no hidden mystery here; that any human action or practice presupposes a provisionally intelligible, historically determined, normative domain of actions as its condition of possibility.[8] Whatever we do ought to be at least tentatively explicable and intelligible. The aspiration, again, being to arrive – not just a disconnected list of ‘stuff that happened’ — but at sense-making narratives (if not ever a single Master Narrative). The explanatory power of the human sciences is anchored by distinct sorts of actions or events that can be grasped by appealing to our capacity to give reasons or sense-making narratives, rather than inferential-causal explanations or merely descriptive accounts, for what we do. We imagine ourselves to be capable of debating good reasons for interpreting a work of literature or a legal document in a certain way; of explaining the rise of futurism at the beginning of the last century; of arguing about the significance of twentieth-century music; of considering the importance of feminism as social critique and so on. And the humanities assume, further, that – in giving reasons for what we do – we are making a very strong claim about our actions: namely, that we do have, collectively and individually, our own reasons (not just external causes) for having done certain things, and that – even when they turn out to have been misguided or indefensible — our actions and practices are our own, potentially intelligible to us, rather than emanations from some higher, external power or causa prima. Indeed, perhaps it is because our practices or deepest values can come to seem misguided – or in some way unsustainable – that we can aspire to some account of ‘how we started doing the things we do.’

Folded into the methodological approach of the modern humanities are at least two very large claims about human beings generally – such that most attacks on the human sciences amount to repudiations of these claims: First, we can and do stand in some kind of reflective and deliberative relation to ourselves, to what we do, and to what we bring into the world (though, again, what this means will have to be discussed). Second, this stance is afforded not just by external powers – divine-given Ratio, biologically evolved capacities, social trends beyond anyone’s control – but rather by practically holding one another to account, by demanding reasons for our collective practices and interactions, and thereby gaining or revising our understanding of what we and others have done and might now do.[9] Both of these claims imply that we human beings invariably interact with one another in socially determined ways, norm-governed relations and institutional practices. Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of humanistic inquiry – one that, for instance, makes the study of history and old texts so crucial to our current conception of the humanities – is that we do not imagine that ‘reason-giving’ (both its formal possibility as well as the specific content of any given reason) can be separated from an awareness of the social structures and customs at a particular time and place. Although we mostly assume that only creatures with certain physical attributes have proven themselves capable of reflecting on their reasons for doing this or that, we also assume that such reflection entails an acknowledgment that we are socio-historical creatures all the way down – in a way that is continuous with, not separated from, our embodied condition as living creatures.

We have no ahistorical standpoint on ourselves – no standpoint ‘out there’ in (or on) nature, no divine or Archimedean point. Our reflections on freedom, and the understanding such reflections might afford, are unavoidably enmeshed in the history of our customs and practices. And this entails, further, seeing that our practices have also been forms of self-reflection all along. To invoke Hegel, to understand our historical practices as ours, rather than as expressions of some natural or divine power, means coming to see our commitments and rituals as (having also been) modes of deliberation and reflection – ways of figuring out good reasons for doing this or that.

2. Normative Autonomy

In order for what I have been calling humanist inquiry to seem important and necessary, it has to be shown that the history of our activities, our values and their transformations really is self-starting, self-determining all the way down – not brought into being by some pre-normative or non-normative ‘cause,’ nor wholly contingent.[10] And that is a tall order, to say the least.

It is, however, one that many others have not shied away from – starting, perhaps, with Hobbes’ account of how agents or ‘persons’ depend upon the establishment of normative bonds or “pacts” among a community, especially bonds of authority and mutual responsibility; or, in Rousseau’s conception of the “general will;” or, with respect to individual agency, in the Kantian theory of ‘giving oneself the law”.[11] So, too, we have Fichte’s theory of recognition and intersubjectivity, Hegel’s account of the struggle for recognition in the Phenomenology of Spirit and the work of many, many others since then – ranging from Michel Foucault’s analysis of the self-regulation of various normative domains, to John McDowell’s account of “second nature,” to a whole host of debates in anthropology, feminism, cultural studies, medical ethics, philosophies of ‘animality’ and so on.

In fact, many pressing issues in the broad post-Kantian inheritance in the modern humanities have been brought on by a perceptible shift away from what are sometimes called ‘philosophy of nature’ questions – such as, ‘what is it about nature or the natural world (what is ‘there’ in bodies, objects, natural processes or human beings) that makes possible meaning, freedom, self-determination (the practical domain of human culture, but also purposive life generally)?’ – and towards the sorts of questions posed by what I am calling ‘humanistic’ inquiry. Among other things, humanistic inquiry has displaced the primacy of ‘philosophy of nature’ questions by regarding them – not so much as wrongheaded in some absolute sense – but rather as just one part of an ongoing effort to understand the constitutive role of human discourses and practices when it comes to determining the outlines of natural processes, or of the human body, as well as related categories like ‘the environment,’ ‘desire,’ ‘sex,’ or ‘life.’

One way of describing this shift – within humanistic inquiry, at least – would be to say that we have moved away from looking to “nature” (or “desire,” or the “environment” and related notions) for full explanations of what human beings do; and, along the way, we have come to regard such explanatory appeals to nature (‘philosophy of nature’ questions) not as incorrect but rather as the upshot of certain discursive, practical conditions for which we can now at least begin to offer plausible historical-genealogical accounts.[12] To state the matter in fairly familiar Foucauldian terms, there is now broad agreement among humanists that ‘philosophies of nature’ – as well as the supposed referents themselves, ‘nature’ or ‘body’ or ‘desire’ — are formed in and by “power relations” rather than being merely explanations for power relations.

But then everything depends on how we understand that phrase – ‘formed in and by power relations.’ Sometimes this is glossed as meaning that ‘nature’ or the ‘body’ are ‘discursive constructs’ – where ‘discourse’ can mean everything from something linguistically structured to a more capacious notion of bodily productivity.[13] I will assume, for present purposes, that readers can call to mind other glosses of a similar sort. Although this is sometimes taken to mean that ‘nature’ or the ‘body’ are blank slates – void of meaning, or pre-meaningful – on which cultural values or meanings are then inscribed, I think a better formulation has been provided by Judith Butler, in her interpretation of Michel Foucault. “The point,” she writes, “has never been that ‘everything is discursively constructed’” – for, constructivism just ends up posing the familiar ‘philosophy of nature’ questions under the guise of what might be called a ‘philosophy of discourse’ [instead of looking to nature, one asks ‘what is it about discourse or language or the symbolic that makes possible social meaning?’].[14] The obvious problem with this approach, in other words, is that it makes ‘discourse’ the new a priori substance under investigation, thereby reinstalling a dualistic split between discourse (history, society, culture) and embodiment (nature, desire and so on). At the same time, as Butler notes, avoiding such dualisms also means understanding the ‘body’ (or, ‘nature’) not just as an “ontological thereness that exceeds or counters the boundaries of discourse”.[15] Hence, the task — taken up in various ways by the human sciences, with increasing sophistication, over the past few centuries – has been to think about how the limits of nature or of the body (or, again, of ‘desire’ and other related notions) belong to cultural-historical practices, which in turn are sustained through the practical delineation of such limits.[16]

Although there are now many competing viewpoints, one currently prevailing consensus seems to go as follows: If normative-practical domains are sustained through the delineation of their own limits, then they are said to require what Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe and others call a “constitutive outside”. Cultural domains thus amount to an “exclusionary matrix” or “hegemony” (as in Marx or Antonio Gramsci) that “requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings… the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject”.[17] Of course, such statements remain the topic of much debate and contestation; still, I think that at least these claims – versions of which can of course be found in the writings of many other scholars, if not entire fields and sub-fields — now have the status of an orthodoxy in the human sciences. There is broad agreement that the sustenance of normative practices and values not only entails but also requires the production of something or some ‘ones’ that fails to live up to those norms, a constitutive outside.[18] What the constitutive outside theory provides, in other words, is not just the assertion that human cultural practices are self-determining, rather than brought into being out of some divine, natural or pre-normative origin. Much more significantly, this theory also offers an account of how human cultural practices manage to be self-sustaining, self-determining, self-delineating.

To be sure, there are a number of explanatory advantages to this view. For one thing – to circle back to my invocation of Rousseau’s denunciation of modern societies – “hegemony” or the constitutive outside theory go some way toward explaining the bourgeois-modern dis-satisfaction with those very same modern forms of social life (capitalism, colonialism and post-colonialism, suburban drudgery, urban anonymity, rural deserts, exclusionary social practices and so on) for which we also take ourselves to be somehow responsible, and which at the same time seem to promise certain emancipatory possibilities, at least when compared to older, more traditional societies.[19] If the production of ‘lives that can be suffered but not led’ is inseparable from the production of ‘lives that can be led,’ then perhaps such self-revulsion is simply baked into the cake of normative autonomy. And this would be especially true for ‘modern’ societies in which we are, as it were, more aware of the socio-historical character of our lives together – hence, as Rousseau was among the first to make clear, we are more aware of its endemic injustices. Furthermore, if to live or lead one’s own life (to be seen as acting meaningfully within the enabling constraints of reigning social norms) is — as I think it is — the highest aspiration of those of us who live in late modern societies, then our heightened attention to unlivable lives or social injustices produced by this very same aspiration is bound to be all the more disquieting.

3. Musical Chairs

At the same time, however, there are significant drawbacks to “hegemony” or the ‘constitutive outside’ theory. First, it can make it difficult to see in social change anything other than brute contingency – what Laclau and Mouffe call “the logic of the contingent” — or the accidental results of various power struggles whose inevitability remains unexplained and uninvestigated. Very often, in contemporary debates, it as if every normative regime is the result of a merely contingent exercise of power – as if the autonomy of normative life resembled an endless round of musical chairs, continually producing legitimate ‘players’ by virtue of the exclusion of others, but without any convincing account of why this particular round of the game is being played. In other words, if the ‘constitutive outside theory’ (as well as precursors to this theory in certain structuralist analyses) helps us to see how cultural practices are self-sustaining or how social structures reproduce themselves, then it does not necessarily help us to better understand which norms or values are reproduced or why certain norms are contested, or become sites of power struggles. Indeed, it seems to lead to (or reflect) an impasse for the humanistic question, ‘why?’

For instance, if the production of lives both livable and unlivable invariably belongs to our commitments, habits and practices – to the success or failure of reigning norms – then might we aspire to anything more than a historical-sociological description of what different communities have taken to be normatively authoritative at different moments and places? Indeed, might we perhaps arrive at a better sense of why, after all, it has become ever more important to be seen as leading one’s own life? Might we better grasp why certain power struggles, around these matters, have been inevitable?

Furthermore, if we cannot explain to ourselves something of the necessity of past power struggles – if we cannot account for why, how and when certain norms get established or become contestable — then the brute contingency of power struggles, the game of musical chairs, starts to look like nothing more than a new candidate for the position previously occupied by ‘nature’ or ‘pre-normative’ causes of historical change. The ‘interests of power,’ based on contingent social and class interests, or “cultural hegemony,” starts to look like an explanans for everything.

In saying this, I do not at all mean to deny that an ideology or genealogy critique, such as one finds in Gramsci, or in the early work of Foucault, or in Pierre Bourdieu, helpfully exposes how primary institutions of late modernity – hospitals, prisons, bureaucracies, schools and so forth – derive much of their authority (to make life leadable or unleadable) from social-class interests inherent in bourgeois societies. We can agree, I think, that any discussion of a particular social problem (medical issues, education, crime, repressive regimes and so on) must ask, ‘who gets to define the problem and on what terms?’ But in asking such questions, are we not asking for more than a sociological-historical investigation that will turn out to be a story of vested interest or power-maintenance?

In other words, while we might learn a great deal from ideology critics about how claims to ‘knowledge’ (Foucault’s early term) work to legitimate repressive institutions and practices, do we not also want to know something about the alternatives? Alternatives, I mean, not just to the ‘powers-that-be’ – but, rather, alternatives to a vision of society in which the possibility of leading one’s life appears as the contingent result of hegemonic power formations whose historical necessity still remains unclear.

4. How Did We Get Here?

One step in the direction of such an alternative might be taken by interrogating Foucault’s view that power formations operate, according to broad historical conditions, on a variety of cultural norms concerning everything from sex, gender, kinship or marriage to crime, medicine, madness and so on. As readers of Foucault will have noticed, Foucault himself sometimes seemed to have been uncertain which (if any) of these normative domains – medicine, psychiatry, prisons, sexuality — best displays how “power” operates. Indeed, we might wonder if there really is such a thing as “power” under which all kinds of social and cultural norms can be subsumed and understood. Or, at least, we might suspect that each of these norms requires or instantiates its own dimension of power.

But then, what (if anything) would count as a significant dimension of ‘power’? That is, which customs and activities might be understood not to only require and institute their own distinctive normative domains — probably all activities, from playing Frisbee to seeking medical attention, do that – but also to do so in ways that perhaps foreground and hence educate us as to the implications of such ‘requiring and instituting’ more generally?

Do certain historical practices make possible — perhaps due to some requirement or characteristic of those practices — some understanding of what is required more generally for a particular activity to be sustained over time, to be seen as valuable or worth doing? Or, do all customs and activities – from relatively ‘new’ or modern arrivals, like highly experimental artistic practices or the enforcement of respect for individual rights, to ‘older’ ones, like sharing food at a meal or the social regulation of sexual acts – each display their own distinctive regulatory regime so idiosyncratically that it becomes impossible to ask how any of these historical practices, properly investigated, might shed light on a number of others?

Such questions speak, as well, to a productive tension between sociologically, ethnographically or historically fine-grained analyses of circumscribed practices and eras and the possible insights into other historical practices and eras – our own included – that are afforded by such analyses. Anyone who has read Jean-Pierre Vernant on Sophocles, or Claude Levi-Strauss’ analysis of aboriginal societies in The Elementary Structures of Kinship or Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil will, I think, see ways in which highly specific accounts of culturally specific human norms and practices offer insights into — or at least terms for discussing — normative domains that traverse cultural and historical bounds. Indeed, such accounts typically draw attention to this very possibility in self-conscious fashion.[20] So, there has been a broadly shared – so-called ‘structuralist’ — assumption that the study of the specific, historical conditions of possibility for certain social practices (Greek tragedy; the incest taboo in Indonesia; responses to the death of children) might yield insight into the durability of a very wide swath of our practices.

In one sense, of course, the validity of that assumption will be tested by our collective assessment of the particular insights yielded by such studies. In another sense, however, much will depend upon whether we think it is fruitful to talk about something like ‘culture’ or ‘power’ or ‘discourse’ or ‘social self-reproduction’ in a modestly universal (some might say, ‘philosophical’) sense – whether it is possible to go even a step beyond fine-grained philological, ethnographic, archival or sociological description in our analyses. This raises the related question of how discursive fields of inquiry – Elizabethan drama, modernist painting, maternity in Brazil, Indonesian kinship – accrue their claim to specific authority (that is, their claim to be irreducible to any sweeping claims about “culture” tout court). So, again, the question of the status of ‘culture’ or ‘power’ or ‘discourse’ – vis-à-vis what we take to be varying dimensions of ‘culture’ — gets begged. [Is the emergence of “post-modern” academic disciplines, like “cultural studies,” perhaps a throwing up of hands, or a suspension of this question?]

A great many broad debates since the latter half of the twentieth century have turned on these same issues. For instance, the shift from ‘structuralist’ to ‘post-structuralist’ modes of inquiry might be described as a shift away from attempts to discern universal laws of culture out of particular social practices – ‘the incest taboo’ in Levi-Strauss, or the ‘symbolic’ in Jacques Lacan – toward an increased skepticism about whether anything universally true about ‘culture’ (or ‘discourse’ or ‘language’) as such is discernable apart from its practical instantiations. In Undoing Gender, for instance, Butler offers a critique of the Lacanian notion of a “symbolic position” – “an ideal and unconscious demand that is made upon social life which remains irreducible to socially legible causes and effects” – by citing, approvingly, the conclusions of Pierre Macheray, in whose work “one begins to see that norms are not independent and self-subsisting entities or abstractions but must be understood as forms of action… the kind of causality that norms exercise is not transitive, but immanent”.[21] To my mind, it seems safe to conclude with Butler and Macheray that the discernable normativity of any given practical domain is an effect of its repetition – its historical durée.[22] It also seems right to say that the force of any given norm – its power to confer reality – is wholly dependent on its historical durée or active repetition.[23] Lacking practical iteration, norms fail.

But, then, this once again begs the question raised earlier: Can we explain, give reasons for, the duration or failure of certain norms or “power” formations – especially for the recent failure of quite powerful and long-lasting norms, like the sexual division of labor? Or the relative duration of others, like gender? In other words, even if we concur with the so-called ‘post-structuralist’ position, and follow Butler and Macheray in seeing norms or normative force – such as gender – in the practically repeated, iterated power to confer social reality, we still might want to know why, after all, certain normative practices ‘iteratively’ endure or fail. We might also want to know if when and how certain norms fail is significant – significant, I mean, for our historical self-understanding as well as for ethical-political questions, like ‘which norms do we require to make life bearable for ourselves and others’? In order to answer these questions, we probably need something more than a ‘musical-chairs’ vision of such success and failures – something more than the conclusion that “power” is historically contingent.[24]

After all, without some kind of answer to that question, we are left wondering why anyone should try to understand social change or the history of a normative domain in the first place.[25] Either that, or it starts to look as though humanistic inquiry can aspire to nothing more than asking, in a kind of survivalist mode, ‘what makes our lives bearable?’ or ‘what might make the lives of others bearable?’[26] Such pressing questions – of individual rights, of social justice — are surely essential to humanistic inquiry, but to conclude that humanistic inquiry is just a matter of addressing those problems seems rather shortsighted. At a minimum, all this begs the question (already raised) of why struggling to live one’s life ‘freely,’ or even just ‘bearably,’ ever came to seem important in the first place. To what view of a ‘free’ or even a ‘bearable life’ are we now committed, and why? Surely, these latter questions are not answered simply by pursuing, here and now, social justice and rights – even as any such pursuit must entail answering them.

5. Masters of Suspicion

So, it seems important to give some account of how we got here. We should be able to explain why the normative authority of a gender-based division of labor is collapsing in many parts of the world, or why access to birth-control or abortion has become a pressing ‘rights’ issue over the past few generations, or why gender studies or feminist thought now seem essential to humanistic inquiry. This is not to say there need be one single explanation to any of these questions, or any final demonstration of historical necessity. But with a good enough understanding of why certain previous normative regimes failed, we might be able to show that – given the contexts created by the ‘reasons given’ for certain activities, past and present – certain power struggles became possible (perhaps even inevitable) while other power struggles started to look senseless, not worth the effort.

To circle back to Foucault’s efforts, then, it does indeed seem useful to try to identify those domains of power – those normative regimes or activities — the understanding of which affords broad cultural intelligibility. It seems to me that Hegel sought to do precisely this in his investigations into various dimension of what he called “spirit” (the precursor to Foucauldian “power”): politics, religion, art and philosophy. Hegel chose to focus on these domains, to which he gave the name “absolute spirit” — rather than, say, on the history of medicine or sport or of fashion — because he wanted to show how certain activities, like art, or philosophy, or politics, or religion, were also essential modes of our self-education, ongoing ways of evaluating and making sense of our lives, our activities, our world, of the claims of nature upon us, and of what we do (or might do) and say with one another.[27] What Hegel and the German philosophers meant by “Absolute” was, in brief, some overall understanding of ourselves as both subjects—leading our lives—and as objects in space and time, subject to the laws of nature, ‘objectifiable’ by others.

Seeing art or religion or philosophy as essential modes of self-education or modes of “absolute knowing,” Hegel seems to have thought, not only helps explain historical transformations within those practices – why, for instance, ancient Egyptian rituals surrounding the care for the dead, or the organization of their society around the slave-labor construction of pyramids as tombs, could not rationally have resulted (historically or culturally) from medieval Christian religious or artistic practices.[28] It also allows us to account for broader social-historical reproducibility in a wide variety of domains (perhaps including sport or fashion or agricultural techniques). It is important to emphasize that Hegel did not think that art or politics or religion or philosophy just are more essential modes of self-understanding than tossing a Frisbee, horseback riding, or setting a fashion trend. Rather, he thought that they have shown themselves to have been more essential – inasmuch as their respective histories can be grasped as a series of attempts to justify their own internal transformations vis-à-vis prior crises or normative failures. Hegel also thought – as he makes clear in the Lectures on Fine Art or in the Lectures on the Philosophy of History — that a historically retrospective explanation should be eminently teachable, part of our transmissible self-understanding in University contexts. Art, philosophy and religion [“absolute spirit”] are essential parts of a curriculum, we might say, because the study of their normative historical development sheds light on the historical development of other activities as well, making culture or cultural history intelligible.

The very possibility of cultural-historical intelligibility seems tied to our prospects for identifying those normative domains that might shed light on social reproducibility, or social transformations, more broadly. It is, after all, plausible that the emergence of new modes of study over the past century or so — disciplines like anthropology, sociology, in the work Levi-strauss or Max Weber or Emile Durkheim – were not only efforts to understand things like ‘capitalism’ or ‘kinship’ as objects of study; but, more precisely, renewed efforts to map out those normative domains and activities whose study might form the very conditions of possibility for any such understanding. Moreover, this would, I think, explain the necessary emergence of new fields of study – urban studies, education studies, religious studies and so forth. What is happening in this regard, I think, is not just the scientific expansion of new objective ‘knowns’ or new ‘knowables’ — but rather a humanist effort, through the study of our collective practices, to get a better sense of how we got to be us, attempts at ‘absolute knowing’.

At the same time, à propos of this post-Hegelian inheritance, it should be clear that many features of contemporary society were not at all anticipated by Hegel (or, for that matter, by Marx and Engels) – and likely are not even graspable within the terms they provide. Again, whether cultural or historical intelligibility is even achievable – with respect to the broad cultural, political and economic developments of the past century, especially – is now an open question. Our collective “reasons” for participating in contemporary mass commercial culture, for instance, can seem desperately thin. Just why should anyone spend one’s days in a shopping mall, or surfing the Internet? Is contemporary commercial society even a way of life to which an individual can ‘commit’? What kind of normative domain is late capitalism, anyway – particularly if our other options seem so limited, and if we often cannot seem to escape from it? Does the intensity of economic growth and commercial expansion create new ‘needs’ (through advertising or other means) that effectively erode the historical intelligibility of our reasons for participating – or not — in consumerist societies?

I raise such questions, not to pursue them directly here, but simply to point out something that many others have already observed: namely, that participation in contemporary (late-capitalist, consumer) society can appear downright irrational – or, at least, historically unintelligible within the framework that the Hegelian tradition, broadly construed, provides. And on the political front, there has been a considerable expending of intellectual energy toward understanding death camps, totalitarian regimes, nuclear warfare, and environmental catastrophes. Certain forms of social organization – like national socialism in Germany, or totalitarianism in Stalinist Russia – offer thick, mediating ‘reasons’ for individual participation that have been manifestly disastrous.

Anxieties like these, about the limitations of the Hegelian inheritance, have produced a number of influential alternatives. Think, for instance, of Heidegger’s rejection of the Kantian-Hegelian lignée and his call for a return to the “question of being.” Similarly, Hannah Arendt sought to understand the bourgeois origins of totalitarianism by considering what it means to “lose” or “deny” distinctive features of the human condition. Others have called for an all-together different understanding of individual desire-formation and social organization – a need that motivates, in different ways, the Frankfurt school and psychoanalysis. For those whose views can be traced in different ways to Marx, Nietzsche and Freud (Paul Ricoeur’s “masters of suspicion”), historical intelligibility itself is regarded as suspect because the normative domain of ‘reason giving’ itself is seen as possibly a delusion. Indeed, for many, the very notion that we are leading our lives, and are able to answer ‘why?’ questions about our activities past and present, has started to look doubtful. Under this suspicion, our activities start to look like manifestations of something other than practical modes of ‘reason-giving’ – perhaps like signs of a determinate force, such as a structural relation between modes of production and social formations (Marx), or as manifestations of the unconscious (Freud), or of the will to power (Nietzsche), or the ‘forgetting of Being’ (Heidegger).[29]

6. Hegelian Suggestions

While acknowledging the limits of the Hegelian framework for an explanation of cultural shifts of the past two centuries, Robert Pippin has nevertheless managed to offer a compelling response to at least some of these broad concerns.[30] Above all, he has aptly and repeatedly stressed that the directions proposed by both the ‘masters of suspicion’ route — and, I would add, by the ‘musical chairs’ type of indeterminacy — point to their own practical unintelligibility.[31] Even if one is convinced that our activities and their conditions remain, at some basic level, opaque to consciousness – even if they are said to result from, say, the radical indeterminacy of our signifying practices; or, from the unconscious; or, from historically contingent connections between economic production and social formation – then a question remains: what would it be to practically acknowledge any of these states of affairs from the first-person point of view? That is, what would be it to live out — as a subjective way of life, or practical matter — the indeterminacy of one’s actions?

Can we simply throw out the very notion of first-personal experience, and just assume that we never do anything more than wait around to see what broader determinate (or indeterminate) forces will do with our lives? Or: Is not such ‘waiting around’ necessarily and unavoidably an effort to achieve some practical intelligibility, some understanding of what exactly we are up to – as depicted, say, in the dialogues of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot? After all — unless we have some way to circumvent the ‘waiting around’ part — a state of radical indeterminacy cannot be disentangled from, at a minimum, a Vladmir-and-Estragon-esque attempt to figure out what we are doing, or supposed to be doing – sleeping, arguing, singing, exercising, swapping hats, or pondering suicide.[32]

The point here, at any rate, is not just to insist on the unavoidability of subjective or first-personal experience nor to rehearse the existentialist claim that we are “condemned to be free”.[33] Rather, the point is that we would have to give up on practical intelligibility and humanistic inquiry – on the hope of explaining our actions, or our way of living, as ours — whenever we see our actions as just a matter of sheer habituation or tradition, or as determined by capitalism, the will to power, or the unconscious and so forth.[34] And, more pertinently, we simply have as yet no way, practically, to give up on practical intelligibility; that is, we have no way to abandon, at the ‘doing’ level, efforts to understand my actions as mine, your actions as yours, our actions and activities as ours. In this sense, freedom is not just a Sartrean “condemnation,” at least not primarily – inasmuch as living one’s life necessarily implies some minimally rational or affirmative (or, at least, a not-wholly-alienating) lived, practical relation to whatever one does, to whatever we do together. We cannot sidestep the challenge of practical intelligibility, of seeing ourselves in our own deeds, of affirming an activity or way of life as ours – any more than Vladmir and Estragon can just passively “wait”.[35]

Because I want to conclude by building upon — but also by proposing a revisal and rethinking of — Hegel’s (and Pippin’s) account, let me quickly summarize the salient aspects of Hegel’s theory of freedom as follows. In Hegel’s account – some features of which I have already touched on — the conditions of freedom are linked to the possible, historical realization (if not to the guarantee) of a non-alienated relation to our lives and actions, individually and collectively. First, for Hegel, ‘being free’ does not entail any kind of causal connection between doers and deeds – as, for instance, in voluntarist or Augustinian-Christian philosophies that regard actions as the caused result of our own ‘free will.’ Instead, Hegel sees freedom as the achievement of mutual recognition, of “being with oneself in the other” – although, rather than some blissful state, he seems to have in mind the dynamics of certain kinds of interactions through which this “being with oneself in the other” is provisionally achieved, socially and historically.

Secondly: Hegel sees the achievement of freedom as rational – as the product of practical reason rather than as the result of contingent libidinal impulses, external forces, social or natural pressures, or calculated responses to any of these. Having a rational (non-alienated) connection to whatever one does – a subject’s having some kind of self-aware, affirmative stance on a deed (‘Yes, I did it’ or ‘Yes, we did it’) – is, thereby, the practical achievement of freedom, even if only provisionally so. At the same time, both ‘reason’ and ‘freedom’ should be understood not as properties or faculties or substances, but rather as mediated by our interactions, practices and commitments, installed over time within some shared way of life.[36] ‘Reason,’ for Hegel, means something like my ‘reasons for doing such-and-such, given what I take my commitments to be’ – and ‘freedom,’ then, means having one’s reasons and actions accepted as such.

This in turn means that freedom entails striving for mutual recognition under conditions of a shared interactive life with others, its challenges and responses.[37] Only if others recognize me as doing such-and-such do I actually do such-and-such. Only if others regard my actions and motivations, roughly as I regard them, can I even claim such actions and motivations.[38] At the same time, recognition is not the exercise of a faculty, of certain creatures possessed of the power to recognize one another. Rather, acts of recognition reflect existent social conventions that govern how we become recognizable to one another. Our recognitive possibilities – and, hence, whatever freedom we might aspire to – are mediated and conditioned by a set of norms concerning what even counts as recognizable. This is the last point of my quick summary: Hegel’s view is that individual, subjective freedom entails and requires its “expression” [Äußerungen] “into the objective element” of the social realm, “in which it is universal and recognized, and it is just the fact that it is recognized that makes the deed a reality [Wirklichkeit]”.[39]

Although this rundown is admittedly hasty, it should at least serve to make clear that, for Hegel, freedom is the provisional realization of a certain kind of relationship or state of being with others – one that denies this relation’s dependency on external, contingent, natural or divine powers, and takes root in socially mediated forms of ‘reason-giving’ or ‘reason-providing.’

As I see it, the main advantages of Hegel’s approach in this regard are twofold. First, by focusing primarily on the institutional or “objective” dimension, Hegel emphasizes that it is through our actions and practices – by virtue of what we actually do and say, to and with one another – that we manage, or fail to manage, to find reasons and justifications for our way of life, our relationships and collective history. Each time we act it is as if we also expressed – to those with whom we interact – a reason for doing whatever we are doing. Where no such reason, or perceived intention, is manifested, it is as if we have not done anything, but merely moved about. And if one has not really acted – and thereby participated in a way of life with others — until one is recognized by others to have so acted, then to act just is to manage to offer others reasons for whatever one is doing, reasons that can then be contested, accepted, or rejected. As already noted, such ‘reason-giving’ practices are the dynamic through which agency is achieved. The collective achievement of freedom, then, is not a matter of psychological fulfillment – nor is it the teleological actualization of pre-existing human potentialities for free choice, happiness, satisfaction and so on. Rather, the achievement of freedom just is the (provisionally) successful installation of a reason for acting — the feat of recognizing one another as actors in the world, who actually make a way of life together, on our own.

Second, to see freedom as the achievement of what I am calling ‘normative autonomy’ – or, to use the Hegelian rhetoric, to see “spirit” [Geist] as a “product of itself” – is to move away from asking what it is about human beings or animals that makes us potentially free, satisfied or capable of being happy. While some have drawn upon Hegel’s emphasis on recognitional dependency (as sketched in the previous paragraph) to suggest that we are the kind of creatures that need recognition in order to live fully realized lives, or that we require recognition in order to actualize our potential for freedom and agency, Hegel does not refer to such capacities or potentialities in order to ground or justify ‘normative autonomy.’ The “struggle for recognition” – for esteem or respect or status, to use terms recently reinvigorated by Axel Honneth — is not, for Hegel, something that lies under, or behind, our acts of recognition or their normative-historical settings.[40] There is no natural or ahistorical standpoint on the basis of which to decide whether one has been ‘genuinely’ recognized, respected, loved and so forth.[41] By the same token, we should be able to abandon the notion that we are somehow possessed of an inherent ‘lovability’ or capacity for being recognized – or that, inversely, we are innately possessed of an innate (bodily or rational) dignity that can be dis-respected, destroyed or wrecked.[42] Our ways of recognizing one another — and the extent to which such acts of recognition are experienced by us as ‘free’ — depends not on any metaphysical or substantive or naturalist ground, but rather on whether such acts of recognition can be carried out, over time, as practical ways of life and modes of holding one another to account.

How then do norms – our ways recognizing one another — come to be lived as practical forms of freedom? Here, too, Hegel’s account is intriguing and helpful. First, and perhaps most obviously, we must stop seeing our ways of interacting and recognizing one another as somehow determined by natural or moral-cultural facts. ‘Traditional’ social forms — wherein modes of recognition (‘honorable,’ Chief, serf) are understood to be deduced from putatively ‘natural’ (tall, short, child-bearing, born of certain parentage) or putatively ‘moral’ (impure, virginal, untouchable) facts – cannot but fail to experience interactions as free or self-determining.[43] Minimally, our ways of recognizing one another must be seen as the achievement of our way of life – rather than as predetermined by natural or moral givens. As Hegel makes clear in the first two sections of The Philosophy of Right, “Abstract Right” and “Morality,” initial steps in this direction are taken when, historically, we start treating one another as rights-bearing, morally responsible individual persons – as members of a societas, as citizens, as represented by the rule of law. At the same time, Hegel does not think that merely treating one another as rights bearers or as moral individuals is enough. Rather, we have to see that we are rights bearers or moral individuals only in virtue of being recognized as such, treated as such, by others – and not as matters of moral or natural fact. It is this practical acknowledgment of our dependency on the way we recognize (and, hence, treat) one another that characterizes what Hegel calls “ethical life” [sittlichkeit] – the focus of the third, and last, section of The Philosophy of Right.

Let me emphasize this last point, since it is a point of departure for everything I will want to argue. For Hegel, freedom adheres in the dynamics of mutual recognition, where ‘freely recognizing one another’ entails not just treating one another with whatever dignity or standing our laws or traditions dictate – but, moreover, the practical acknowledgment that we depend upon one another’s ongoing recognition. This practical acknowledgment of ‘recognitional dependency’ is at the heart of what Hegel calls ‘ethical life.’ Each sphere of modern ethical life – family, civil society and state – has binding integrity only inasmuch as it requires us, practically, to acknowledge our dependence on forms of recognition that are determined not by natural or moral facts but rather by us, by our way of life.

7. Mutual Recognition and Freedom: Some Concluding Proposals

Let me now turn to one problem that arises for us today, when faced these Hegelian conclusions. From our historical vantage, Hegel was just plain wrong to have concluded that his own early nineteenth-century social context – with its institutions of the nuclear family and family love, the expansion of private property, and the rule of law [Rechtsstaat] – amounted to adequate conditions for freedom and mutual recognition. Indeed, for many, the task has been to figure out what ‘went wrong’ in nineteenth and twentieth-century social organizations, or what went wrong in the Idealist philosophical tradition or, for that matter, in Western ‘rationality’ tout court. These efforts range from trenchant critiques of modern Western reason itself, as in Heidegger, which can be pretty difficult to square with Hegel; to suggestions that the Enlightenment heritage of instrumental reason, or the origins of bourgeois society, led to totalitarianism or national socialism, as in Adorno and Arendt; to analyses that accept parts of Hegel’s view of freedom and reason, in order to diagnose the moral or social ‘injuries’ that follow upon being ‘misrecognized’ by others, as in Honneth and others in the left-Hegelian tradition. We can include as well efforts – like those of Pippin, Arthur Danto, Michael Fried, Eva Geulen, or the Adorno-inspired work of J.M. Bernstein and Gregg Horowitz – to think about certain modernist artworks, in the years after Hegel’s death, as responding to the ‘critical’ ‘needs’ of which Hegel spoke in his Lectures on Fine Art.[44]

‘Critical theory’ has thus become ‘social critique’ (or, as in Adorno, ‘aesthetic theory’) to some extent because of Hegel’s own efforts to take up the question of freedom as the diagnosis of different forms of sociality, of historical institutions – as an inquiry into what institutional forms of life or practices (political, artistic) might still be said to count as collectively achieved freedom. We seem left with the burden of interpreting the problem of freedom by asking: Which practices, institutions or social regimes best count as realizing – or as failing to realize — mutual recognition and collective self-determination? In this way, the ‘critical’ issue – freedom as mutual recognition, or ‘being with oneself in the other’ – tends to get absorbed (not just by Hegel, but also in contemporary debates) into a ‘historical-diagnostic’ issue about present social conditions and practices: namely, about whether our current institutional forms of sociality, or whether our artistic accomplishments, display and meet (or how they might better display and meet) the practical conditions of possibility for freedom and mutuality of recognition.

This sheds light on an otherwise puzzling feature of the reception and contestation of Hegel’s work: the deep connection between perhaps the greatest strength perceived in Hegel’s thinking, namely, his ‘critical’ account of freedom as mutual recognition or socio-historical achievement – and perhaps the greatest perceived weakness, Hegel’s highly questionable ‘historical’ conclusion, that his own early nineteenth-century society (with its institutions of the nuclear family, the expansion of private property, and the rule of law [Rechtsstaat]) furnished adequate conditions for ‘reason-giving’ between free individuals of mutually equal standing.

Can the promising be disentangled from the not-so-promising in all of this? For Hegel, we should bear in mind, the ‘critical’ investigation of freedom cannot be separated from the philosophical task of historically diagnosing those practices and forms of life that actualize the conditions for mutual recognition; the two are interwoven. Further, for Hegel, a critical understanding of freedom as mutual recognition and normative autonomy results from – and is only possible within – a practical, institutional way of life that understands itself, at the heart of its own self-constitution, to be capable of actualizing the conditions of freedom. Certain institutions and ways of life – which we might characterize, albeit hastily and inadequately, as ‘traditional’ or ‘pre-modern’ – do not historically qualify.[45] Such social institutions are therefore not only unfree but, by the same token, not (yet) critical or philosophical. Hegel’s “critical” philosophy, in short, was inseparable from his diagnostic-philosophical effort to comprehend his own milieu – which he saw as having sufficiently embodied the self-education of Geist.[46] Hegel thought he saw, in the 1820s, an emergent institutional rationality characterized by genuine equality and adequate conditions for mutual recognition between free subjects. Of course, as just noted, the problem is that this very same historical diagnosis itself – about European modernity — has come to look uncritical, philosophically suspect, if not downright false.

To try to find a way forward in this setting, I want to suggest that the impasse in the post-Hegelian legacy which I am describing derives from a particular problem that adheres in this absorption of critical philosophy into historical-institutional diagnosis – rather than merely from the falsity of Hegel’s particular historical diagnosis, or from the invalidity of the Hegelian ‘critique of recognitional dependency’.

Indeed, to save certain babies from being thrown out with the bathwater, let me first make clear my agreement with the Hegelian ‘critical’ emphasis on recognitional dependency (‘I cannot be free unless others are free; my freedom depends on theirs’) and hence my disagreement with the many varieties of liberal or neo-liberal skeptics who would want to argue for the free-standing individual as the basis for collective life (‘whatever is best for free-standing individuals qua individuals should be pursued as the best social arrangement’).[47] I say this not because I think (or because I think Hegel thought) that we just are dependent on others’ recognition for the achievement of our status as individuals – as if that recognitional dependency were somehow a truer description of ‘the facts’ or ‘human nature’ or ‘human culture’ than the Lockean individual, the ancient Greek “mortal,” Pico della Mirandola’s “dignity of man” or any other ‘theory’ of collectives and individuals. As I have tried to emphasize, Hegel’s argument for recognitional dependency is not rooted in a ‘philosophy of nature’ or in ‘philosophical anthropology’-type claims about human beings, or social creatures. Rather, Hegel’s position is tied – and this is the crux of the matter – to a hard won historical vantage in light of which it is possible to see, by examining social-historical transformations and prior failures of normative ways of life, just how dependent we have been, and hence must remain, on the recognition of others. In this sense, Hegel’s critical theory or ‘critique’ of recognitional dependency just is a historical diagnosis. And I want to agree with this much: a critical theory of our dependency on one another’s recognition can have no other basis than the historical practices in virtue of which various ways of recognizing one another succeed or fail.

Having made that qualification, however, I do want to suggest that the Hegelian overlap of ‘critique’ and ‘historical diagnosis’ also leads to a difficulty whose implications have not been fully appreciated or explored — not even by Hegel himself. On the one hand, as just mentioned, Hegel’s ‘critical’ argument for recognitional dependence as the ground of human freedom is not based on a theory of nature or scientific evidence; it is bound up, rather, with the specifically ‘humanistic’ claim that freedom, or the chance to lead one’s own life, is a historical achievement, belonging above all to modern ethical life. On the other hand, diagnostically speaking, the historical achievement of modern ethical life just is its acknowledgment of recognitional dependency as a necessary condition for freedom. Hence, we are left with what looks like circular reasoning: The historical achievement of freedom (in modern sittlichkeit, for instance) depends upon our deepening acknowledgment that freedom is an historical achievement.

How to defend such a statement as anything other than just faulty logic? How to defend its “speculative” truth, to use the Hegelian parlance? Part of the challenge concerns the status of what Pippin calls “recognitional dependency” in Hegel. If the argument for recognitional dependency is not to be based on a theory of nature, if recognitional dependency is not a biological or psychological ‘fact’ of life – if, rather, it is a matter of acknowledging our freedom as an historical achievement, belonging to the sustainability of certain kinds of practical interactions – then we ought to be able to see recognitional dependency, tooas the historical achievement of certain practices, rather than as an ‘original social dependence’ or ‘unconditional condition of possibility for freedom.’ After all, if recognitional dependency is a condition of possibility for our historical practices, rather than a result of our practices, then our humanist inquiry has failed and we have returned to offering up positive or empirical facts of the matter. In which case, the statement above really would be just circular, faulty logic.

If humanist inquiry is to find a way forward, then, we still need to be able to explain how recognitional dependency itself is the historical achievement of certain practices, and how the practical acknowledgement of recognitional dependence is part of this achievement. To my knowledge, this challenge has not been posed or articulated in the fruitful debates occasioned by the resurgent interest in Hegel’s work occasioned by Pippin, Brandom, McDowell and others.

For Hegel, our acknowledgement of “recognitional dependence” in our primary social dimensions (state, civil society, family) — our manifest appeal to recognitional dependency as the ultimate condition of possibility for freedom, mutuality and equality — is what characterizes modern sittlickheit. Thanks to the recent commentaries of Honneth, Taylor and others, this appeal to recognitional dependence as the ground of freedom, in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and elsewhere, is widely seen as forming the philosophical basis of an alternative to the liberal and neo-liberal tradition. Even Pippin — who is often critical of Honneth’s and Taylor’s appeal to a pre-normative “need” for recognition – urges us to follow Hegel in our acknowledgment of “a particular sort of original dependence necessary for the possibility of freedom — recognitional dependence.”[48]

However, in my view, this is a limitation of the Hegelian position when it comes to grasping the connection between freedom as historical achievement and our acknowledgement of recognitional dependency. On the one hand, “recognitional dependence” is called upon to change our understanding of freedom – to get us to see freedom ‘critically,’ as a historical realization, rather than as an empirical or metaphysical fact. On the other hand, freedom is seen as an historical achievement only inasmuch as recognitional dependence becomes a dogmatic given, an uncritical claim about the ultimacy of our “unavoidable dependence on recognition by others.”[49] For, in Hegel, recognitional dependency itself is not presented as an historical achievement. It is only our awareness of our recognitional dependency that has been historically achieved.

And, at the end of the day, if all we have achieved, historically, is an institutional or practical awareness of recognitional dependency as an ahistorical fact, or a pre-normative or causal ground for sociality – the acknowledgment, in Pippin’s gloss, of “a particular sort of original dependence necessary for the possibility of freedom” – then we have not yet managed a critical, humanist inquiry into our recognitional dependency.[50]

Departing from Hegel on this point, then, I want to suggest that the real mutuality of recognition also requires that recognitional dependency itself be regarded as a practical achievement, as the upshot of certain rational interactions, as something freely accomplished. If Hegel offered a phenomenological demonstration of a primary recognitional dependence, and of ethical life as the practical acknowledgment of that dependence, then we still need to grasp the conditions of possibility for that dependence as something other than a given fact or ultimate ‘need’ for one another’s recognition.

Can we see “recognitional dependence” itself — and not just our awareness of this dependence — as an historical achievement of our practices, rather than as a ‘given’ condition of possibility for those practices? In order to hold on to the ‘historical achievement’ part, I propose, we need to understand this acknowledgment as the upshot and reflection of lived experience, as an objective accomplishment of a particular set of subjective practices and interactions. Figuring out which set of historical practices qualify as a helpful site of inquiry in this regard is, I think, the current challenge for the human sciences.


01. See Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, 32). As Ricoeur puts it: “The philosopher trained in the school of Descartes knows that things are doubtful… but he does not doubt that consciousness is such as it appears to itself; in consciousness, meaning and consciousness coincide. Since Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, this too has become doubtful. After the doubt of things, we have started to doubt consciousness” (33).

02. In Sartre, the respective terms are “self as facticity” and “self as transcendence.” See the interpretation of Sartrean bad faith, in this same regard and in connection to Wittgenstein, by Richard Moran in Authority and Estrangement: An Essay of Self-Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), Chapters Three and Four.

03. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), section 620. And he continues in section 621: “What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?”

04. I borrow here from Robert Pippin’s helpful framing of the issue, “Natural and Normative,” Daedelus, Summer 2009, 35-43.

05. Ibid. 35.

06. On the influence of Rousseau’s writings in this regard, see Richard Velkley, Being After Rousseau: Philosophy and Culture in Question (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

07. Since Freud, if not well before him, many have made the point that we probably do not fully know what we are doing while we are doing it.

08. See G.E.M. Anscombe’s account of the question “Why?” in Intention (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963) 9-14.

09. This is not to say that evolved, natural attributes – like large craniums or other physical features – are irrelevant to our reason-giving practices. The point is that no reference to nature can do all the work of explaining our practices; hence, the necessity of what I am calling humanistic inquiry. 

10. When I use the term “normative” I mean to designate the self-determination of human actions and events. I am therefore using the term as it is used in recent commentaries on Hegel and Kant, as in Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity and Integrity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) and Robert Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) — though this usage of the term overlaps with its appearance in the work of, and commentaries on, Michel Foucault, wherein “normative” means not “legal or rule-based” but rather something like the self-regulation of historical practices. For a useful gloss of the term “norm,” see the discussion in Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, 41 and passim, especially her discussion of François Ewald’s and Pierre Macheray’s discussions of Foucault and normativity.

11. In her dissertation at the New School for Social Research, Meghan Robison convincingly argues that Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) inaugurates this ‘normative autonomy’ lignée in modern philosophy.

12. This is not to say that ‘environmental’ (bald naturalist, evolutionist) accounts of human historical practices do not continue to be written. Consider the popular success of works like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999).

13. See the helpful discussion of this trend in Johanna Oksala, Foucault on Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 117-121.

14. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge Press, 1993), 8.

15. Ibid.

16. I take it this is what Butler also has in mind when she writes of “the discursive limits of ‘sex’”.

17. Ibid., 3. For a well-known account of the Gramscian origins of the term “hegemony” in this regard, see Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (New York: Verso, 1985), Chapter One. Especially telling, in the context of my discussion here, is Laclau’s and Mouffe’s observation that “hegemony” takes hold as a theoretical notion precisely where Hegelian “historical necessity” withdraws (see 7-8).

18. The production of “unliveable lives” – lives that can be suffered but not led; unleadable lives – forms an essential precondition for lives that can be normatively ‘lived’ or ‘led.’ By the same token, transformations in the possibilities for leading a life are effected whenever that production is troubled.

19. Notably, the talk of freedom in modern philosophy, politics, art and social life seems to have brought in its train vociferous expressions of revulsion at the new forms of abjection produced by modern civil societies (extreme poverty, social alienation, new modes of discrimination and so on). Robert Pippin has articulated this puzzle on different occasions – though he declares himself unconvinced by the Foucauldian response that is my focus in these paragraphs. See his quick overview in “Critical Inquiry and Critical Theory: A Short History of Non-Being,” Critical Inquiry Vol. 30, no. 2, Winter 2004.

20. See, for instance, Scheper-Hughes’ remarks to this effect in the Prologue to Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

21. Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 45, 51. Butler elaborates this same critique of Lacan and Levi-Strauss also in the opening chapter of Antigone’s Claim (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 14-22.

22. Butler’s discussion of norms, as distinct from rules or laws, is helpful; see Chapter Two of Undoing Gender. Her discussion makes interesting use of work by François Ewald (especially, his reading of Foucault’s History of Sexuality) and Pierre Macheray.

23. As is well known, this claim underlines what Butler – drawing upon the work of Derrida and J.L. Austin – analyzed under the heading of performativity or “iterability” (in Derrida’s terminology).

24. I have in mind the discussion of “contingency” as found, for instance, in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (New York: Verso, 2000). Nothing I am arguing here – I hope it goes without saying – is meant that say that there is no contingency in human affairs; or, that arbitrary events like earthquakes or plagues or odd twists of fate cannot be historically or political consequential.

25. It seems to me that this question – begged by post-structuralism, as it were – might also explain the return of historicism (or the ‘new historicism’) over the past forty years or so. If our philosophical reflections are not sufficiently historical – that is, if they are not philosophical understandings of historical events and transformations (and if philosophy itself is not seen as one strand of such historical transformation) – then it will appear necessary to counter-balance structural or post-structural theories of human cultures with historical analyses. In this sense, the current pre-eminence of ‘historical studies’ in the academic humanities is just one symptom of philosophy’s failure to be sufficiently historical.

26. This seems, as far as I can tell, to be Butler’s suggestion at various points – as for instance when she connects the Hegelian desire for recognition to the Spinozistic desire to persist in one’s being. For another instance, see Undoing Gender, 17.

27. This is not to say that Hegel was uninterested in fashion. He even “made some passing remarks on the rationality of the idea of fashion: the emergence of the practice of changing fashions in clothing and decoration…” See Terry Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 193; also The Rise of Fashion, edited by Daniel Leonard Purdy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

28. See G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on Fine Art, volume Two.

29. Either that, or we cast doubt on the identification of any such determinations and are left with deep indeterminacy – perhaps something close to the poststructuralist ‘musical chairs’ of contingent power relations mentioned earlier, or to a Derridean “play” of signifiers. See Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses of the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). 

30. See, for instance, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, 216-17. In my view, Pippin’s recent invocation of the search for “traces of reason” (the German scholar Rüdiger Bubner’s phrase) in politics and civil society is certainly necessary, if not sufficient. That is, I think that we also need a search for ‘traces of reason’ by identifying dimensions of Hegelian “Spirit” that have not been recognized as such. See Robert Pippin, “Back to Hegel?” Meditations: The Journal of the Marxist Literary Group vol. 26, no. 2; Rüdiger Bubner, “What is Critical Theory?” in Essays in Hermeneutics and Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

31. See the discussion in Pippin, “Participants and Spectators,” www.onthehuman.org and Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2012), Chapter Four.

32. For a relevant discussion of the same problem, see Richard Moran’s discussion of deliberation and what he calls “the stance of agency” in Authority and Estrangement, 4 and passim.

33. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness Part Two, Chapter Two.

34. As Pippin aptly states the issue: “The dimension of a free life that Hegel [was] interested in has not, by virtue of [the ‘masters of suspicion’ or poststructuralist critiques] been superseded or gone away, unless we have some way of understanding what it would be to actually acknowledge such a departure in life.” See “After Hegel: An Interview with Robert Pippin,” Platypus Review 36 (June 2011).

35. That even ‘passive waiting’ is a kind of first-person activity or “drama” is, I take it, Beckett’s view.

36. See Terry Pinkard, Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

37. As recent, ‘left-Hegelian’ debates have revealed – for instance, in Charles Taylor’s and Axel Honneth’s work – the neo-liberal objection that a Hegelian notion of freedom is actually a submission of one’s autonomy to the will of others, or to the general will, makes (from Hegel’s point of view) “the false assumption that there could be anything like an individually free will apart from social challenge and response.” See Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, 188.

38. None of this need imply that recognition is transparently given or received; nor is implied that these others are the same as I am. Mutual or reciprocal recognition does not presuppose conditions of social or natural parity or equality, as some critics of Hegel suggest.

39. G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit §640

40. C.f. Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

41. If we follow Hegel here, then there is no independent standard according to which we can measure or decide whether certain historical forms of social life are more satisfying, freer, than others. The best we can do is to show how (or whether) changes in our ways of treating one another, of recognizing one another, amount to practical solutions to prior impasses or breakdowns in our shared way of life.

42. So, I am disagreeing with the basic premises – about a natural basis for normative dignity, “the high worth of the species” — offered by George Kateb in his Human Dignity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 3.

43. So, traditional social forms experience an internal crisis wherever the ‘deciding’ power of natural or moral facts appears questionable.

44. Gregg Horowitz, Sustaining Loss: Art and Mournful Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001); Arthur Danto, After the End of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Robert Pippin, “What Was Abstract Art from the Point of View of Hegel?” in The Persistence of Subjectivity. We could add to this list Adorno’s own Aesthetic Theory, and the reflections it has inspired, as in J.M. Bernstein, Against Voluptuous Bodies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

45. For a straightforward example, think of Hegel’s remarks on the limitations of “symbolic art” and the corresponding limitations in communal self-understanding in the Lectures on Fine Art.

46. On these points, see for instance Hegel’s concise discussion of the “enormous strength” of modern societies in contrast to antiquity in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 292-93.

47. By ‘liberal skeptics’ I mean a viewpoint that would include thinkers like John Locke or John Rawls or Jürgen Habermas, for whom – in spite of their differences — the basis of any community is an appeal to the rational will of its individual members.

48. Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, 215, my emphasis. Pippin elaborates: “… at its most ambitiously dialectical the full claim is that acknowledging, acting in light of, such relations of original dependence, is a necessary condition for the achievement of true independence, or true ‘self-realization,’ or the ‘actualized,’ ‘concrete’ freedom (which Hegel typically calls the highest human good, the realization of what it is to be a human being).” Ibid., 214. And, again: “[Hegel’s] ethical thought means to appeal at bottom to an inescapable, binding form of human dependence which when properly (normatively) acknowledged becomes itself the means for the achievement of a collective form of independence.” Ibid., 196.

49. Ibid.