Issue #17 October 2018

Better To Have Loved & Lost: Recognition, Love, And Self

Johannes Vermeer — Het glas wijn (1660) (detail)

“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

— Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam

I think it is generally the case that people agree with Tennyson’s famous line (often misattributed to Shakespeare), but it’s often for reasons which are superficial. Often it has to do with the wonder of the experience of romantic love — that emotional insanity which is unlike any other. But aren’t we selling love short when we reduce it to merely this romantic experience? Isn’t love more than just this obsessive attraction? I think it is, and I think everybody knows it, but they do not know quite what it is in any intelligible sense, nor do they tend to understand how important love really is in regards to our being.

Human love is not simply an emotion, it is not simply an attachment. Love includes a commitment, a rational willing, a reason that looks past the momentary sea of emotions whether they are high or low, and thus it is a feeling mediated by concepts and social norms. What we think love is and how committed we are to it determines how we deal with its correlated emotions. We don’t stop loving when those we love no longer make us happy, become a burden, or even cause us harm. We also do not necessarily make those we love happy in immediate form; we sometimes must show tough love. Further, love, despite many believing it a mere contingent nicety which we could do without, is a necessity without which we cannot be fully human. Tennyson’s famous phrase is true, not because love is an amazing experience, but because it is a necessity for the development of a substantial free self.

Just what drives the feeling of love? With love, we desire something, but what is it that we desire? In general it is in fact no common desire we are normally aware of, and yet we are quite aware of what we desire when we experience it: we desire to be desired, to be wanted.


A way to look at the concept of love is through Hegel’s concept of recognition as it appears in the Phenomenology of Spirit’s section on self-consciousness.1placeholder The common conception of recognition involves a one way acknowledgement of something, such that when we recognize or are recognized we do not think of it as more than a recognition for us and nothing to do with what is recognized in relationship to itself and us. For Hegel, however, recognition is an active relation between multiple individuals in one process where those who recognize are constituted and maintained by this very relationship of mutual recognition. Recognition is a mirrored social activity, and it is the universal (unity) in which those recognized and recognizing are differentiated as parts of a process and identified as one through partaking in the process.

In recognition, we find two consciousnesses which hold each other as objects of their awareness (this awareness of objects being the structure of consciousness itself), and in beholding something like themselves they come to self-consciousness. In this relation, consciousness holds another consciousness for its object, is capable of knowing what consciousness is and does — knows that it is awareness of otherness as objects — and in knowing this knows that the other holds the first as object of awareness. In being aware of consciousness, the first now becomes aware of itself by being aware of the other which is aware of it; thus, self-consciousness is achieved in primitive form as our consciousness reflected back at us through another. To put it more simply: I become self-conscious through my awareness of your awareness of me, and in knowing you are the same kind as me, I am aware you too are (or can be) self-conscious; thus, consciousness of consciousness transforms into self-consciousness of self-consciousness.


Now, Hegel builds self-consciousness from the concept of desire,2placeholder which is a basic form of consciousness. Desire is consciousness existent as the split of itself and its object, where a lack is posited outside desire as its own object of desire, and desire is itself also the active turn to negate this lack. Desire desires objects, negates them and takes pleasure in their negation, but there is a problem: If there is nothing to desire — if the object of desire is fully negated — desire disappears and it dies if it has no new object of desire (e.g. manifest in depression and the lack of desires for which to live). So long as there is something to desire, however, consciousness is forever chasing satisfaction only to lose its object and itself the moment it accomplishes the task. What desire needs is an object which will provide satisfaction being destroyed in negation. Desire ends up finding itself incapable of subsisting without recognition, for only in the mirror of recognition does it find an object which gives enduring satisfaction. Desire, in fact, is the first form of experienced recognition, in which desire knows the presence of another desire and makes it and its activity its object of desire, i.e. desire desires the other desire as object and activity of desire.

Desire and Negation

The satisfaction of desire comes from negating (changing or differentiating) its objects of desire, the most basic form being consumption. Satisfaction’s negation includes not just activities of negation, but relations of negation where something may already have been negated, yet in being negated (differentiated) it satisfies us. We can, for example, negate ourselves in the act of working out and maintaining an athletic body, and further we take satisfaction in our having an athletic body itself; thus, we have satisfaction in activities of negating and in the mere fact of negation in difference from. We can negate a common branch by carving and curing it into an fine walking stick and marvel at its craftsmanship. We can negate colorful plants, canvas, and coal and transform them from raw materials to Art. We can negate other humans in categorizing ourselves in one class and they in another, holding some difference between us which makes us superior in some way (I have/am X which others lack). Negation and pleasure have a near infinite range of forms. Satisfaction, however, is not only because of our negation of things, though it is one of the most obvious. We find satisfaction in other persons negating things as well as from negation itself whether we do it or not, e.g. things going in your favor by sheer luck without anyone’s doing or the enjoyment of a simple flower (its individual difference is a type of negation).

Regardless of all these forms of satisfaction, however, desire is always seeking to negate the objects of desire and is forever unhappy either in an endless chain of consumption where we never have enough of what is desired or we are caught in an endless chain of boredom where the attainment of our desires only nullifies desire and its satisfaction. No ordinary object of desire can provide enduring satisfaction and desire must always seek new objects and negations. What if there were an object that was negated but not destroyed in this negating? What if this very act of being negated was the positive being of this object itself, and thus was an inexhaustible form of satisfaction? Desire is itself a negated and negating being which subsists through its own process of negating. As an object, desire is a self-consciousness which subsists precisely in its self-negating activity, and self-negation is self-determination, i.e. freedom. When self-conscious desire encounters self-conscious desire it finds exactly what it has been looking for, a negativity which negates itself for us, yet in self-negating it only asserts its own existence and persists without having perished.

The ultimate satisfaction of desire is desire itself. Desire desires desire’s desire, or, we desire to be desired by another like ourselves, and further we want them to desire that we desire them. Desire as living self-consciousness negates itself and in so doing determines itself, differentiates itself, and unifies itself; thus, it is free in that it is the source of its own being and acting. To give an example: we enjoy greatly when others do things for us because they want to. We want them to do specific things, but want them to want to do those specific things — for them to freely do them; that is the pleasure of recognition, that it is given freely by one whom we deem like and equal or greater to ourselves.

In recognition desire finds its satisfaction in simply being recognized, to be held as a worthy object of satisfaction in simply being itself. Since the being of this self-conscious desire is self-negation, satisfaction is found in the freedom of this object of desire. Further, in this desiring of desire we are brought to new desires through the desire of the other for us. In an everyday sense this is apparent in that what others desire of or for us becomes what we desire for ourselves, but in a deeper and more developed sense it concerns desire for ourselves as such.

It is clear that love is a desire. Further it is a recognitive desire; thus, it involves self-consciousnesses. The desire to be desired, again, is not to be understood as static such that we merely desire to be desired as an object, but must be desired as desiring — we want the other to want us to want them. Love as desire desires love; it desires recognition. There is no pleasure in having a slave say that they love you; they are, after all, a slave — an object made property — and it is their duty to obey. But when a lover says “I love you,” it is done freely, and that makes it all the more pleasurable, for we desire their desire, and if we are lucky, they desire ours as well.

Johannes Vermeer — De schilderkunst (1665–1668) (detail)

Love As Recognition

Love is a recognition, but desire as recognition in general precedes love and is necessary for it. We can, in the end, only love those we truly recognize. Without recognition of the other, they cannot even love us in any way that we can experience as love — the connection is impossible, and the love of the other is meaningless as well as without value to us.

Is love impossible if we are not loved in return? Yes, it is indeed impossible when it comes to the full reality of love, for without its return love is only the existence of a frustrated desire to be desired. The desire and need for love exist, but love does not. Here a peculiarity of the Hegelian conception of love arises against notions of love as simply an outpouring towards others such that one can believe love exists, that one can love, without being loved in return.

In the fullness of love to love is to be loved, the many become one under spirit, the love for the other becomes love of the self, and love of the self is love of the other. Love in its fullest meaning, however, concerns a “we” and not individuals separate from each other, i.e. I love you just as I love myself, you love me as you love yourself, and this love is truly a love for us. Lovers are one that exist as two. The one-sided expression of love where only one shows this and not the other is love, but it is incomplete and frustrated love which finds no direct nor full satisfaction. — It must be repeated, this is not about romantic love alone, for this is part of all love relations including familial and friendly.

Abstract vs Concrete Love

There exists an ambiguity with love in our everyday uses of the term. Love is both a mere base feeling of desire as well as a high state of conscious recognition. It is considered both as mere abstract desire of desire — a vague but powerful feeling — and as total concrete recognition of the self. When we speak of a higher sense of love — total recognition — we cannot confuse it for its lower sense as an abstract desire. Love as feeling is not immediately this higher form of love though it is a necessity for its achievement. This higher sense of love requires that love be supplemented with more complex desires.

What is often considered a higher notion of love, ‘true love’, is not mere desire of desire. Human love is inextricable from the network of conceptions and recognitions we engage the world with. For us love is always already modified and placed within a context of recognitions beside it and which subsume it; thus, it is almost impossible to speak of mere love as detached from true love, for the object of love’s desire and the idea of its maintenance is already a socially mediated conception. While love already logically implies the freedom of its object of desire when it involves recognition, this level of freedom need not be anything more than the free action of the other to love us according to its natural whim. True love, however, for us involves the desire for freedom of the other on a level far higher than the mere whim of feelings of attraction and attachment. We know we desire the other and that we desire them to love us freely. What social conception adds to love’s desire is a modification of what we understand by the self and its freedom. What we conceive a person as such to be leads to who we recognize as a person and what we are to do to elevate them to such capacity if they are lacking, or to share with them in such capacity if they are already there.

Now, where does love begin? Neither romance nor friendship are our first love; it is the love of our parents. Further, this love is no mere contingency for us to take or ignore without consequence to the self, in fact it is the very beginning of our concrete comprehended sense of self as opposed to a mere intuition of our own experienced unity.

Love As Foundation of Self

The impossibility of love without recognition is determined not just logically, but from our deepest experience since infancy. From the day we are born we are, as Jay Bernstein says in his Phenomenology of Spirit lectures, “born lovers”3placeholder in the vital need for our parents’ love. We desire to be desired by our parents and the success or failure of this first recognition has immense effect on our own capacity to love and our very conception of what love is thereafter.

Assuming that one is not a sociopath or psychopath for whom the social needs of normal human beings are not a felt issue (this is and leads to other issues), if we are not loved in these crucial moments of our lives, we find it increasingly more difficult to love ourselves in the reflection of our rejection. Depending on the rest of our development, in the absence of love we may develop in various ways such that we may grow coldly self-centered and not believe any such thing exists or is even desirable, or we may find it hard to accept ourselves and forgive ourselves — to believe in and to value ourselves — in light of the failure, and as such we develop a sense of self which is broken and does not see itself as worthy of love. In either case the self has been damaged and both of these damaged selves may project an outward appearance that is quite similar. The self which refuses to love either out of its own ignorance or because it is too afraid fails to concretize its foundations and cannot achieve the highest recognition as a self. The self thus fails to realize its deepest social desires — its inner life is lonely, its mind caught in despair of lack even while consciously rejecting such desires.

We all will almost certainly fall in love, and we all have opportunities for friendships, but when the self is significantly damaged there are defensive barriers which become our own obstruction to the realization of love even when the other genuinely loves us — though we may recognize the other we refuse to believe the other can recognize us. We become trapped by a thought: “If I don’t love myself, if my family does not, how could anyone else?” How can we come to love others and let others love us when we feel this is the case? Here popular self-help psychology and spirituality charges to the front and proclaims the answer: To love others, we must first love ourselves.


The concept of self-love is strange given that love is something social as well as that the emotional relationship experienced is not the same as with love for another. Self-love seems like a misnomer for something else: self-esteem or self-valuing. Nonetheless, the term does have some affinity with love as such when it comes to the notion of desiring ourselves, albeit this does not inwardly mirror love’s form of desire for what we find in our self-desire is not our desire for us to desire our desire.

The notion of self-love as love and not simply as self-esteem is actually only possible in a relationship of love, however it is in this sense not self-love in any way we normally comprehend. When I love you and you love me, your love reflects my love back to me; thus, I find self-love through my love for you, but… I find that the love of self is not separate from the love of us — in fact, the self itself cannot be conceived and is not experienced as anything in the relationship of love other than as us. The self which this self-love concerns is not the individual, but the united plurality, and it is towards the sustaining of this plurality of desire that love’s desire is aimed. Nonetheless, the common notion of self-love is to be included in this consideration because it is indeed important for a healthy form of love and it is also generated by a healthy love.


Given that generally the original failure to realize self-love (self-esteem from here on) lies in the failure of being loved in return by our parents, consider that the reality is that one cannot love oneself before loving another and being loved in return. Consider that no matter how our confidence soars in many areas of our lives, it will not mean we love ourselves, for however we succeed, it is itself not the success of love as that full recognition of the self as a ‘we’. We find and build a sense of self through recognition from others of much of what we do, of our capacities and skills, but these recognitions do not of themselves add up to the recognition of love — the recognition that a self as self is desired and valued.

Because the self as inner is emotionally, conceptually, and socially reflected from other selves as outer, we are constituted first by our social relation and love for and from others. What others think of and see in us is a significant source of what we come to think and see in ourselves; their praise, their disappointment, their love, and their hate constitute us in our earliest years. Self-esteem is not an individual phenomenon, it is entirely social. It is social not just in the presence of other individuals we relate to but in the very concept of esteem itself, a concept which is a social cultural product. Here it should be clear that self-love is part of the order of the higher notion of love, it is a conceptually mediated desire where what we desire and how we desire it is ordered under higher considerations. Because self-love is recognitive it is not logically nor emotionally possible under lone circumstance.

As a recognition it logically follows the mirror structure: if I recognize you and you recognize me, then I must recognize (love/esteem) myself. But if this is logically necessary, how come we see it fail to realize in the world with people who are loved but lack self-love? How and on what level this recognition occurs is of prime importance: there is a rational as well as emotional level of this self-recognition and love, and in the case of self-love it is the emotional side which is most important though the rational side is not far behind. Our rational self-conception is important in correcting a lack of self-love, but it is itself not enough. Recognition is always a desire to be desired and as such it is an emotional connection which opens up the self to construction or destruction. The logic of emotions and desires, however, is something quite different from our conscious rational logic, it is comparatively irrational due to its natural and individual contingency such that no logic of the unconscious is universally applicable in a concrete sense — sometimes all that reason can manage is to contain such a problem.

With the first love of child and parent the sense of value and worth in the child is generated such that it recognizes itself as valuable through its parent’s desire for it. When this fails how could one love oneself afterward without someone to love and love us in return? How do we value ourselves without the other which reflects this value to us as something objectively real and not fictitious?

Johannes Vermeer —De muziekles (c. 1662–65) (detail)

Delusions of Self-love

The self-love and self-help gurus are often mistaken about love and exchange it for an impossible divine state, a self-absorbed anti-social insanity, or a disengagement with reality for the sake of an insular world of positivity. We are to find unconditioned self-love in the recognition of a divine agency, e.g. God. While divine love may leave us satisfied and without need for human companionship, it is also something extremely few ever manage to find, and those who are so ‘enlightened’ tend to be an interesting mess of personalities no more saintly than you or I. This divine love is often sought in mystical experiences of oneness which, though experienced as something amazing and fulfilling, is also impersonal and abstract such that the real relation of love fails to exist as an active living recognition of individual to individual. With the notion of a personal God who does take interest in us, however, the situation tends to not fare much better in the silence which usually answers our cries and prayers regardless of our faith.

With self-centered notions of self-love, such that love is disengaged from any real other, we only delude ourselves about the nature of love and our relation to ourselves. At worst, we end up rejecting our loneliness not as our fault, but the fault of others to live up to the loftiness of ‘true unconditional love’. We are to have a blind acceptance of who we simply are without any qualifications for improvement or restraint, e.g. “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.” At best, we are told to pamper ourselves as we wish a lover would, to reward ourselves as someone who has expectations for us would, to talk to ourselves in the mirror and delude ourselves that it is really someone else who tells us we are beautiful or handsome, that we are great, that we are getting better and that they are proud of us — all in all, we are to concoct our own fake lover to delude us. We are told to get rid of negativity and toxicity, to surround ourselves with yes-friends who echo back to us the nice things we want to hear, yet almost everyone but those who truly manage self-delusion know this is in fact fake and never believe it. Why can we not believe it? Because we know it’s not real recognition. Recognition is meaningless without genuine freedom for its own sake and not just because it is what we want to hear without regard to the nature of the source of these claims of recognition. Ultimately, however, we delude ourselves in thinking the problem is solved by mere self-improvement: if only we were more beautiful, smarter, this or that, then we would be able to love ourselves. Love is not deserved, it is not a result at the end of a challenge to be met, nor is it something felt for any single specific thing about ourselves; thus, no amount of self-improvement or achievement truly could grant us the satisfaction of self-love for the self and not for merely an aspect of the self.

Let us shift to considering a realized self-love. What does it look like? It does not look much different from love for another in its results.

Love for The Other

In the full relation of love we find the desire to reveal ourselves fully to the other. Because of the uniqueness of the relationship there are events, emotions, and actions which are possible only in this relation but in no other, and in this we find for ourselves unprecedented and unexpected aspects of ourselves which we might have no prior awareness of. In such relationships we discover new things about ourselves and come to better comprehend ourselves. In these events there are in the best cases personal developments, however, the growth of the individuals is not equal and one may outgrow the other in various ways such that despite the desire for each other being present it is necessary for the individuals to part ways.

We have all heard the phrase, “If you love them, set them free.” That is a major part of the true meaning of love in its higher sense. When we love someone, we desire that they be free to the highest degree possible, and our actions are toward the end of enabling our beloved’s freedom. This freedom, however, is no cheap freedom — no mere immediate happiness and pleasure as a mere reprise from boring and depressing life. When we love, we push those we love to their greatest extents towards realizing themselves as the best they can be even if it requires pain to achieve it. Sometimes it requires pain for us, them, or both. Though the desire for the other’s desire is always there in any form of human love, we still find love appearing in partial form in the one-sidedness of our love for another, and though tinged with some longing sadness, we still find that we can be happy for those we love who have found their freedom away from us.

The desire of love is to love and be loved freely: to be loved for who I am and to love them for who they are. Love as mere desire, however, only desires desire’s freedom, not freedom as such. It is only with the attainment of the concept of freedom as the essence of human beings that the freedom of the other as they should be comes to be a desire which transform’s love and subordinates it in such a way that this freedom overcomes even the bond of love’s abstract desire itself when it obstructs freedom. When freedom as such is part of love’s desire, what we desire of the other is the concrete realization of themselves as an individual not simply as an end but also as a process — the desire for freedom includes the capacities of freedom itself. In freedom, however, the possibility of the other choosing to harm us arises, yet love contains within it the overcoming of such diremptions by including forgiveness.

Returning to self-love, it is clear that this desire for freedom is present in it as well. To love myself is to want the best for myself, the highest freedom, and yet it is also to forgive myself and understand myself as a fallible being who is not perfect and can fail to live up to expectations; when I love myself, I still want myself even if I fail myself; I forgive myself even for my failure to love myself. Love and self-love are not static states or permanent feelings, but dynamic active relations that are realized precisely in the ways we act towards each other and ourselves and how we feel with these changes.

Better To Have Loved & Lost

The nature of self-consciousness, desire, recognition, and love come together in the appearance of the fully-realized human being. Without love we are not fully ourselves, we are not fully self-conscious, and we are not fully recognized. To be self-conscious — fully self-conscious — requires that we love and be loved. It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all because in having loved, we found ourselves, we recognized ourselves, and we became ourselves. It is in fact not true that love of one kind precedes another; rather, they come together. When we truly love another we also learn to truly love ourselves and we also gain a new experience of ourselves.

While most believe that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all merely because the experience is amazing and unforgettable, and usually they are thinking exclusively about romance, the truth is that it is better simply because it is the experience of being truly fully recognized, and thus it is also the experience of being fully validated and valued as a self; this experience is a necessity for all of us. With our lovers we are ideally free to be what before others we cannot: fully ourselves in our strangeness, eccentricity, and quirkiness; free to speak our minds; free to express ourselves; free to be us and they to be them, and most importantly it provides the objective stamp that as a self we are valued as we concretely are.

With true love for the other and ourselves we push towards a positive construction of the self, enabling its own capacities of self-development and thus enabling its own power to self-develop as necessary for its material and mental circumstances. It is with the presence of these capacities that there arises the substantial self which can stand for itself in its own concreteness. Such a self is no simple consumer which has been given its self-hood by external powers, instead it is a critical appraiser of what is worthy to enter itself as well as a creator of self-hood itself by entering the process of a community’s life as an exemplar of a self to aspire to.

Antonio Wolf is a former philosophy student, and continuing autodidact. Currently he’s focusing on Hegel. He authors a blog, the Empyrean Trail, which tries to expound Hegel’s philosophy to make it accessible without watering it down.


Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Arnold V. Miller, and J. N. Findlay. Phenomenology of spirit. 1977. §178–185


Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Arnold V. Miller, and J. N. Findlay. Phenomenology of spirit. 1977. §166–177


See Bernstein’s lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit: Early Theological Writings D, 00:06:40


October 2018


Better To Have Loved & Lost: Recognition, Love, And Self

by Antonio Wolf

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by Lancelot Kirby

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by John C. Brady

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