Jamie Aroosi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His first book, “The Dialectical Self: Kierkegaard, Marx, and the Making of the Modern Subject,” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), is the first comprehensive analysis and synthesis of G. W. F. Hegel’s two most important disciples and critics, Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Marx. It argues, contrary to conventional accounts that see them as opposed, that the two thinkers are actually deeply complementary halves of a larger whole. He can be reached through his website at www.jamiearoosi.com.
I sat down to speak with him about Hegelian recognition theory and his critique of it in light of Kierkegaard’s thought.
Isaac Fried: Thank you for joining me. Your research is about intersubjectivity and recognition theory, which deals with a particular, more truthful way that two people can apprehend one another. I know that much of your work also deals with community. This is interesting, because recognition doesn’t seem to play much of a role in the constitution of community. If anything — at least on the surface — it seems a threat to community’s constituent fabric. The things that come up in an individual interaction can disturb accepted ideas of how we should interact.
Jamie Aroosi: Theories of recognition are not only interested in understanding how more honest or truthful forms of intersubjective disclosure might come about. They’re also concerned with how our recognition of one another is often mediated by way of social constructs. For instance, theorists of recognition see community itself as a social form maintained through recognition. That is, it exists in how we, as members of a community, see ourselves. And these social selves are themselves the product of recognition, because our sense of self develops within the context of how others see us, just as we serve as the context in which other people form their sense of self.
So, you can talk about intersubjectivity in the ideal sense, as the truthful or honest encounter between one subject and another, but it’s also a theoretical framework for understanding human development more broadly, including how we develop our social selves, and how we often struggle against these social selves in our search for a truer account of who we are.
Isaac Fried: If I remember correctly, your research differentiates between Hegel’s idea of recognition, and an analogous idea from Kierkegaard.
Jamie Aroosi: That’s correct. Contemporary theories of recognition largely derive from Hegel. For example, Axel Honneth’s The Struggle for Recognition looks to Hegel for his theory of recognition, and then adapts and employs it to offer a contemporary analysis of society. Charles Taylor is another important neo-Hegelian, who works on questions of identity and recognition. Their work has shaped how many contemporary theorists think about identity and recognition.
This neo-Hegelian discourse has been a dominant approach for a number of years, but having my background in Kierkegaard, I always approached Hegel’s theory of recognition through the lens of Kierkegaard’s critique, which I think is particularly penetrating. In fact, there happens to be a few contemporary political theorists who are also trying to point out the limits of Hegelian recognition, and are unintentionally using elements of Kierkegaard’s critique to do so. However, because contemporary political theorists typically don’t read Kierkegaard, they’re often accessing his critique in a sort of second-hand way, by grabbing elements of it from other thinkers who were themselves inspired by Kierkegaard, such as Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt. It’s almost as if they’re reconstructing Kierkegaard’s critique without realizing that this is what they’re doing. But if they were to turn to Kierkegaard directly, they’d find the post-Hegelian theory of recognition for which they’re looking.
Isaac Fried: So what is Hegel’s idea of recognition? And what is Kierkegaard’s critique?
Jamie Aroosi: That’s a complex question. First, recognition is ultimately interested in what it means to apprehend our true selves, so we need to understand what actually constitutes our true selves. For Hegel, our most fundamental nature lies in self-consciousness : in our ability to look at ourselves, or to be self-aware.
Isaac Fried: Is “self-consciousness” a state that we have all the time, or a state that we can have? Because normally, when I exist, I don’t really look at myself. I just exist — one could say, naively.
Jamie Aroosi: Hegel would say that you’re always self-conscious; that it’s an innate and inalienable part of what it means to be human. However, he doesn’t mean that you’re constantly ruminating about yourself, but that we each have a sense of who we are, and that this sense of ourselves shapes how we act in the world.
For instance, as I mentioned earlier, this is how communities are formed. Our sense of self develops within the context of our society, so that social beliefs about who we are come to constitute how we see ourselves. This sense of self then circumscribes our sense of possibility — it forms the horizon of how we imagine possible actions for ourselves — and we then live within that horizon of possibilities. Consequently, we can notice all the types of similarities, such as in beliefs, customs, and behaviours, that we typically associate with any particular community. But we couldn’t create this social cohesion unless we were at some level aware of ourselves, because it is by shaping how we see ourselves that we then learn about the range of possibilities for our action.
This capacity for self-consciousness is a fundamental element of Hegel’s philosophical anthropology, as is the freedom that self-consciousness allows. Without being able to reflect on ourselves, we wouldn’t be able to imagine different possibilities for action, and we subsequently wouldn’t be able to exercise our freedom. So, we might not always be aware that we are self-conscious creatures, but we always are, because acting in the world depends on it.
Isaac Fried: It seems that another way to describe Hegel’s idea of self-consciousness is to say that any act of will presupposes self-consciousness.
Jamie Aroosi: Definitely, but this isn’t a claim that’s exclusive to Hegel. For instance, Nietzsche is quite insightful on this point. At the end of On the Genealogy of Morals, he says that we would rather will nothingness than not will. And he’s demonstrating the same point — that our will depends on self-consciousness — because we need to be able to reflect on ourselves in order to give our will a direction.
So, when he distinguishes between not willing and willing nothingness he’s distinguishing between a world that is truly meaningless, one in which our will lacks a prerequisite for its activity, and a world that we simply determine is meaningless, in which case we’re imposing the meaning of meaninglessness on the world. And in this latter case, meaninglessness is actually a meaning that allows us to exercise our will. And as Nietzsche notes, this latter world is a world we prefer, because within it, at the very least, we’re free.
Isaac Fried: For Hegel, what would it look like if man was exclusively aware of his self-awareness? This Hegelian picture of freedom reminds me of a line from Sartre in Existentialism: “There is no determinism, Man is free, Man is freedom.” But for Sartre, you then have to choose an identity.
Jamie Aroosi: For Hegel, freedom isn’t a state where we haven’t chosen an identity. It’s a state where we’ve chosen our true self. I think we have a tendency to view freedom as a sort of absence, as the ability to do anything we want. But freedom is actually a substantive component of who we are; we might call it our will, for instance, but this “will” is actually a quality that we possess, and not merely an absence of obstacles. Therefore, becoming free is not only a process of overcoming limitations that impede our freedom, but it also entails the process of discovering the freedom that exists within us. Consequently, true freedom means that we are taking actions consistent with our freedom, and a free society is not an anarchic free for all, but a society organized in a way that is similarly consistent with our freedom.
This is also where, to my mind, we begin to run up against the primary theoretical limitation in Hegel’s work. Hegel imagines human development within a social context, because he believes that our sense of self is primary formed within this context. What follows is that he imagines that the difference between a free society, and the more limited societies that precede it, resides in the fact that a free society offers its members a social identity consistent with our true identity as free selves.
But herein lies the problem. If a true society is socializing us into its image, albeit an image that happens to be true, it seems to me that we wouldn’t be truly free. Rather than having authentically appropriated our individual freedom, we would be living according to an idea of freedom that happened to be true, but without necessarily recognizing that we are free in a deeper sense. In other words, we might come to believe that we are free in the same way that we tend to believe whatever identity our society offers us, but unless we have existentially appropriated our freedom more directly, unless we have a deeper and immediate experience of our freedom, we might merely be conforming to an idea of freedom without truly become free.
Isaac Fried: We’re getting back to Kierkegaard’s critique. Whether a society that socializes us into freedom produces freedom, seems a problem of means and ends. In other words, does there have to be a particular path of development, what you called an “appropriation,” for freedom to be meaningful?
Jamie Aroosi: I would agree that we wouldn’t want to be too rigid in describing the path to freedom, as different people have to struggle with different obstacles in order to achieve it. That said, for Hegel, the process of emancipation is always a social process, while for Kierkegaard it’s a religious or spiritual one. That term, religious, tends to scare people away. But I think that, in part, what Kierkegaard is trying to say is that freedom cannot be encapsulated within any social context, no matter how expansive the social identity is, so that we have to imagine emancipation in transcendental, or religious, language. This isn’t merely a matter of means and ends, but about what freedom itself is, and about what the process of emancipation entails.
Isaac Fried: When you talk about social identities being expansive, you mean more than just “allow us to do more things.” You mean that we recognize that we have more capabilities, or aspects to ourselves.
Jamie Aroosi: Exactly. Those are two sides of the same coin. If you give people more autonomy and freedom in social life, that generally reflects a more expansive view of who we are. Identity and action are correlated for Hegel. The way we see ourselves circumscribes our range of action, just as our range of action reflects how we see ourselves.
Isaac Fried: Is it fair to say that if you allow a broader range of action, you not only accept the existence of more aspects of the self, but you also grant them legitimacy? For example, a repressive, Christian society might believe that man is inherently sinful. Sin is then a human characteristic, but not one that society is willing to translate into permitted action. Or take a traditional valuation of promiscuity. It would acknowledge that man is inclined to be promiscuous, but won’t translate that into something positive.
Jamie Aroosi: I think that there’s a couple of things happening in your question, and that we should be careful to distinguish between them. In the first case, there’s the issue of human identity, which pertains to how we see ourselves in the broadest possible sense. At some level, the religiously repressive individual and the sexually liberal individual might actually have a similar understanding of who we are, insofar as they both recognize sexuality as constitutive of human identity. And sometimes, you even find that the proponents of repression, such as sexual repression, have a more expansive understanding of that which they’re attempting to repress. In other words, you can’t repress that which you don’t acknowledge as existing in the first place. But this point aside, the underlying question of human identity pertains to the expansiveness by which we recognize what it means to be human. That is, it pertains to that which we include in our definition of human beings, regardless of how we judge those qualities.
But then the second, and primary, part of your question had to do with morality. Rather than the question of who we are, you’re asking about the question of what we should permit. And these questions are often answered within the context of that underlying question of human identity. As you pointed out, we might accept that human beings have a sexual aspect to their nature, but we might disagree about what should follow from that. Should we repress our sexual instincts or act on them? And if so, to what degree and in what way? But I think that generally these latter types of questions are less interesting to Hegel and Kierkegaard, because in some ways they come off as petty moralisms, and both Hegel and Kierkegaard have a more expansive understanding of morality that related to the underlying question of philosophical anthropology.
For instance, while Hegel saw our struggle for truer recognition as the driving force propelling history, it was less against the repression that acknowledges but attempts to control an aspect of our personality, and more a matter of the very frameworks through which we see ourselves. So, we might adopt a social identity that fails to account for human sexuality, thereby failing to give it expression, but this is different from a social identity that recognizes the diversity of human sexuality, and that then attempts to repress part of it.
But this aside, it seems like you’re alluding to the idea that freedom is a state of license in which we each get to do whatever we please, and which then necessitates a certain level of repression, lest we all kill one another. But I think that however common this idea is, it actually reflects an impoverished understanding of what freedom and morality are. Freedom isn’t merely an absence of external (or internal) obstacles, but as I tried to allude to earlier, for both Hegel and Kierkegaard, freedom is actually a substantive and constitutive element of the self. In other words, to be free isn’t a matter of eliminating all obstacles to action, but it instead entails the appropriation of the quality of freedom that we each hold within us. And because it’s substantive, because to be free means to be something very specific, freedom actually entails acting in a way that is consistent with our freedom.
Granted, some might argue that our actual freedom nonetheless remains a sort of unbridled willfulness, but this isn’t what freedom is for either Hegel or Kierkegaard. And this is also where theories of recognition can help, because they would generally argue that the process by which we recognize freedom in ourselves also entails the reciprocal recognition of freedom in others too, so that freedom and mutual respect are one and the same. It is therefore here, rather than in some particularist attempt to control our behaviour, that true morality resides.
Isaac Fried: How does one overcome instinctual life without repressing it?
Jamie Aroosi: I think the answer, and this isn’t only Hegel’s answer but dates back to Plato, is that having our will governed by our instincts is a form of servitude itself. And, for Hegel, I think the story is similar, in that the essential narrative is about freeing the will, and not explicitly about freeing the instincts to express themselves. That said, while recognition is not about recognition for sexual identity per se, it does require recognition of the whole person, which means accepting sexuality as part of who we are. For instance, given that sexuality is clearly a part of human life, if we failed to afford this part of ourselves a proper role, we find ourselves in the territory of psychoanalysis, because this is going to have all types of unhealthy consequences. So, the instincts do clearly have to play a role in our lives, but they also have to be sublated, so that we’re not being governed by them.
Isaac Fried: Let’s get back to Kierkegaard. If he agrees with Hegel in so many fundamental respects — that the essential feature of man is his ability to recognize himself as a self-choosing creature — then what exactly is his problem with Hegel’s vision?
Jamie Aroosi: For Hegel, recognition is a social process that ultimately resolves itself when we arrive at a society that offers us a truthful conception of who we are. In such a case, we might say that we know the truth of ourselves because we possess knowledge about what a human being is. However, for Kierkegaard, true self-knowledge isn’t the consequence of properly understanding ourselves in this intellectual sense, but rather, it’s the consequence of a much deeper existential or religious act of self-appropriation.
So, Kierkegaard isn’t very interested in this sort of philosophical knowledge, and in many ways he even takes Hegel’s account for granted, because he’s instead interested in the kind of self-knowledge that entails an intimate understanding of who we, as a particular individual, happen to be. This sort of recognition, which entails a disclosure of our own unique selves, isn’t an intellectual phenomenon, but an existential or religious one. And this type of recognition doesn’t happen through our intellectual faculties, but through love.
Isaac Fried: But love is a passion, isn’t it? Wasn’t that what Kierkegaard and Hegel were trying to get away from?
Jamie Aroosi: Kierkegaard doesn’t have in mind romantic love. Instead, when we truly recognize the other for the unique and valuable human being that they are, Kierkegaard would say that we love them. And this relationship isn’t an intellectual relationship where we “know” the other because we know their anthropological composition or the list of attributes that’s uniquely theirs. Instead, it’s an intimate relationship in which we, as unique individuals, are disclosed to one another.
For Kierkegaard, the obstacle to this type disclosure isn’t a lack of philosophical knowledge, as in the case of Hegel, but rather, the complex psychological and spiritual motivations that often lead us to hide from one another. True disclosure is terrifying, as our most intimate fears and desires are laid bare for the other to see. But when we are loved, we find the courage to disclose ourselves.
Isaac Fried: And this is not the same thing as passion?
Jamie Aroosi: Kierkegaard would call it a passion. Maybe not “passion” in the romantic sense, but he would call it a passionate engagement with our life, rather than the dispassionate act of thinking or deliberating, which is something that we often do to distance ourselves from our lives. Kierkegaard thought that we were an overly reflective and distant culture, and that we spent too much time out of touch with the activity of living. And he wanted us to be passionate about life; he wanted us to take the activity of living seriously.
Isaac Fried: When I think of living passionately, I think of more sensual things, like beauty. It’s not a philosophical idea. It’s not even the experience of a philosophical idea. It’s more of a feeling.
Jamie Aroosi: There is something experiential about this kind of passion, because I think he would say that love is something that we feel or experience, and not something that we think, so long as we don’t lump it back into the category of the instincts or emotions. And we can see this with one of his most known concepts, the leap of faith, which is the existential movement by which we find love. This is hardly a description of a dispassionate or intellectual experience; it’s a description of an awe-inspiring and transformative experience. We don’t think our way there, we have to take a very dramatic “leap.”
Isaac Fried: You can feel a rush of excitement in an intellectual process, if you discover something that you think is right. Physicists can feel this way, or philosophers can feel this way. Something akin to that, where you discover “We’re all self-aware agents!” could exist. But that’s still different from the passion you’re describing.
Jamie Aroosi: That’s like a eureka moment. But Kierkegaard might ask if this truth is one that fundamentally alters your life? And intellectual discoveries don’t really move us in the same way that existential or religious discoveries do, because the experience itself is transformative in a way that intellectual experiences aren’t. These existential discoveries, Kierkegaard would say, are discoveries that you can’t ignore — they compel you. It would be like Moses going up Mount Sinai and saying that God spoke to him, but that on second thought, worshipping the Golden Calf seems alright too. In an abstract sense, it remains a possibility for him, but in an existential sense, it isn’t an option anymore.
Love, for Kierkegaard, is exactly this way. Once we find it, we can’t ignore it.
Isaac Fried: It sounds like Kierkegaard is saying there is a passion for recognizing others as equal, and our obligations to others. Although I don’t know if he’d use that word —
Jamie Aroosi: Obligations? He might. Although he would speak of it as an obligation to God that’s expressed in how we relate to others.
Isaac Fried: Okay. But if we take God out of the picture, we’d say we have an innate faculty that demands that we have a connection to other human beings. Say, like Rousseau’s pity. But it seems like it’s also the case that we like living our individualistic lives. Maybe if you have God in the picture it then makes it easier to turn moral claims into metaphysical claims. You can say, “Well this is fundamentally what human beings are, God said so,” and subsequently shut out all the aspects of humanity that you don’t like.
Jamie Aroosi: Well, for Kierkegaard, there is no taking God out of the picture, but there is the very good question of what, for Kierkegaard, God is. And I’d suggest that it’s much different than the type of God you describe, which almost seems like a rationalization for legitimizing moral claims. But without going too deeply down this rabbit hole, I’d at least want to suggest that God, for Kierkegaard, is a way to describe the very real experience of transcendental love. Far from a purely imagined deity, it’s a language that he uses to describe something that’s very real, if problematically, it’s also an experience that not everyone has yet experienced.
But this aside, if you’re thinking about it in terms of Rousseau’s pity, there are limits to how far this analogy can go, because pity is instinctual or emotional. So, if you’re living according to pity, Kierkegaard would say (and Rousseau would agree), you’re living a life of immediacy, because how you feel is directly determining how you act. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Rousseau does want us to get back in touch with this part of our instinctual life, but only so we can then decide to act according to it. But we still must decide to act according to it, because we aren’t simply instinctual creatures. On the other hand, for Kierkegaard, love isn’t this kind of instinctual or emotional quality that we’ve lost touch with, but something higher that we’ve yet to find.
Isaac Fried: It sounds like the sort of recognition Kierkegaard wanted wasn’t an immediate recognition. Even though it’s not intellectual, it still takes the form of a rational commitment.
Jamie Aroosi: He calls it a “second immediacy.” We begin in the earliest stages of childhood as instinctual creatures, but then our self-consciousness develops and we become mediated creatures who choose how we want to act. And this is where debates in political philosophy and ethics take place, because we’re basically arguing about that which we believe should serve to mediate our lives. For instance, should we decide to act according to our pity, as Rousseau might want, or should a more dispassionate notion of reason guide our behaviour, as Kant might counsel? And our answer to the question of how we should act reflects our underlying belief about who we are as human beings.
And this is where Hegelian recognition appears: rather than all of the particularist ideas of ourselves that preceded him, Hegel doesn’t see our essential nature in any specific idea by which we might recognize, and therefore mediate, ourselves. Instead, our very capacity for mediation, our very self-consciousness, constitutes the essential nature of human beings. And in a way, this is both liberating and truthful, because Hegel overcomes all particular definitions of human beings in favor of a truly universal one.
However, for Kierkegaard, the story doesn’t end there. Despite the truth of Hegel’s understanding of human identity, Kierkegaard argues that because we remain within a mediated relationship with ourselves, we remain alienated from ourselves. And so, beyond our mediated lives, Kierkegaard argues that there’s a second immediacy in which we rediscover ourselves more authentically. This rediscovery isn’t simply a return to instinct or emotion; it’s a higher immediacy, in which we existentially appropriate our full selves. And we do this through love, which is the type of accepting relationship that allows us to be honest about who we are. Love therefore becomes the relation of recognition through which we see ourselves and others, and it compels us to act, because it reveals the true value of the people around us.
Isaac Fried: I see how you can have a rational appreciation of others’ equality, and that you can even feel that as a motivating emotion — some of the time. But it sounds like Kierkegaard is saying that you should train yourself to feel that way all the time. Isn’t that basically self-indoctrinating?
Jamie Aroosi: If anything, I think this is an accusation that Kierkegaard levies at Hegel. Insofar as Hegel views the process of recognition as a social process, he believes that an individual born into a “true” society founded on freedom and equality would be an individual socialized into the truth. For Kierkegaard, however, even if you were socialized into such a truth, this “truth” would also be something that you would have to overcome in order to have an authentic experience of others’ equality. In other words, for Kierkegaard, even the idea of equality is something that can inhibit our ability to more intimately experience ourselves and others, because it exists as an idea through which our relationships are mediated, so that we need to overcome even this truthful form of mediation if we want to see clearly. And for Kierkegaard, this experience transforms us in a way that remains with us ever after.
As with the example of Moses, there’s no going back after Mount Sinai. He’s been transformed. This doesn’t mean that he can’t betray what he found, but I think it does mean that he can never go back to a point prior to his transformation. Or, we can think of this in terms of a secular example, which I think gets even closer to the truth. In Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, Nora discovers a sense of self-worth at the end of the play that she didn’t have at the beginning. She realizes that this sense of self-worth is irreconcilable with her oppressive marriage. At this point, she can still betray her self-worth in any number of ways, but she can’t go back to a life where it didn’t exist.
Thinking about self-worth can help us understand the kind of transformation that Kierkegaard has in mind. In some abstract sense, Nora was always worth the value that she only later discovered, because every human being is similarly valuable. But a sense of self-worth that we don’t feel isn’t really a sense of self-worth. Others might see this value in us, but until we see it in ourselves, it’s not a sense of self-worth. And there’s no way to indoctrinate or socialize someone into an authentic sense of self-worth. They might come to believe in their worth, but without the underlying experience of self-worth, it’s merely a belief.
Isaac Fried: How does that transformation happen?
Jamie Aroosi: Kierkegaard would explain it in religious terms. These are even the terms that Nora uses to explain it, at least to a degree: she exclaims that she’s discovered “the sacred” in herself. That is, she’s discovered the immutable value of herself as a human being.
As Kierkegaard says, this discovery really does require a “leap of faith.” Up until her discovery, she lived, as we all do, within the confines of the type of social world that Hegel describes. But in order to find her sense of self-worth she has to “leap” beyond her mediated social existence in order to have a more authentic and immediate experience of herself and others. Yet, she can’t know what, if anything, she’ll discover once she takes this leap beyond the social universe. However, once she takes this leap, she discovers her true self on the other side, just as she discovers her own immutable value as a human being. It’s this transcendental value that is revealed through Kierkegaard’s account of love.
Isaac Fried: Is that what transcendental means? That something is there even though it’s not yet there?
Jamie Aroosi: For Kierkegaard, this value is transcendental because it transcends the type of social world that Hegel describes. We began by talking about community, and how it’s formed through a process of recognition in which we learn to see one another as our society wishes us to be seen. However, for Kierkegaard, the true value of human beings isn’t something that can be resolved into such a world, because you can’t be socialized into this value but you have to experience it yourself. Consequently, it transcends the social world, no matter how truthful, in the Hegelian sense, this world happens to be.
As a result, we have to leap beyond this world — we have to leap beyond our social selves — in order to find it. And if we did, we would discover a new type of authentic sociality that’s based on a true recognition of the value of the other. However, as Kierkegaard recognized, this new social reality is one that we each need to find for ourselves through our own leap of faith. So, in Ibsen’s play, Nora leaves her husband behind. Unless, that is, the “most wonderful” thing were to happen: her husband would have to make a leap of faith of his own.
Isaac Fried: Thank you for joining me!
Jamie Aroosi: My pleasure, thank you!