Philosophically speaking, the concept of recognition always revolves around two distinct and autonomous agents. To recognize is to acknowledge an object outside of oneself as an autonomous being; to be recognized is to be acknowledged and affirmed in one’s being. The philosopher G.W.F Hegel theorizes this exchange of recognition as the condition for human self-consciousness. Only by recognizing an “other” as a conscious individual engaging in intentional action can the subjectrecognize her own action as conscious and intentional. This process of mutual recognition also allows for the establishment of a shared and normative rationality (Hegel, 1976). Mutual recognition also provides the conceptual foundation for human identity, as the development of identity requires a process of feedback and acknowledgement by others. The positive development of a person’s identity, which is inseparable from one’s body, depends on a degree of positive recognition and acknowledgement from other subjects (Taylor, 1989; Appiah, 1992). When recognized and acknowledged by another, the person is affirmed in their identity as an autonomous and valued being. Certain religious traditions have addressed this need by situating the positive recognition of one’s identity as rooted in God’s recognition of God’s creatures as valuable beings. For example, the Christian tradition teaches that human beings are valuable because they are created in the image of God. To be embodied, then, is to be a reflection of God’s own image and therefore recognized and affirmed by God as a valued being.
Misrecognition has the potential to inflict great harm on a subject’s perception of her own being. When misrecognized, subjects experience a devaluation of being that hinders their ability to see themselves as a whole subject. For example, when African Americans are misrecognized as less than fully human because of the color of their skin, there occurs a devaluation of their identity as created and valued beings. When this devaluation is experienced on a broad social level, the results can be devastating. For example, the philosopher and psychoanalyst Franz Fanon reads the experience of racism and colonialism as a failure of recognition that produces a psychological feeling of embodied racial inferiority within the colonized (Fanon, 1952). The psychological wound of this feeling reinforces the structure of dominance kept in place by the colonizer’s refusal to recognize the colonized as legitimate subjects. The demand recognition has also been an important part of thinking about social and political resistance under oppressive circumstances (Douglas 2012; Fanon, 1952; Bongmba, 2006).
Emphasizing the embodied character of recognition has significant implications for how it is understood. To recognize an “other” and to be recognized by an “other” are fundamentally embodied experiences. Processes of recognition begin and end with the body because without the body there would be nothing to recognize. Furthermore, by centering discourses of recognition around embodied experience, understandings of human consciousness and identity can be better grounded in the actual lived and embodied experience of human subjects.
Appiah, K. A. “Identity, Authenticity, Survival. Multicultural Societies and Social
Reproduction,” in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, A. Gutmann (ed.), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
In this essay, Appiah examines the tensions between individual and collective identities within a framework of multiculturalism. Appiah argues that multicultural politics tend to ignore or gloss over identities shaped by the particularities of religion, gender, ethnicity, race, and sexuality.
Bongmba, Elias. The Dialectics of Transformation in Africa New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
In The Dialectics of Transformation in Africa, Elias Bongmba picks up where Franz Fanon leaves off in The Wretched of the Earth. He argues that the post-colonial African crisis of poverty, disease, and violence is due primarily to a lack of political will in the post-colonial leadership. Turning to the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, Bongmba proposes a humanistic approach to Africa’s political problems centered on inter-personal relations.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, An American Slave”, in: The Classic Slave Narratives Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Signet Classics, 2002.
Douglass’ famous autobiographical narrative outlines his brutal experience of slavery and the freedom that he attained through an escape to the northern United States. By telling the story of his life within slavery and as an escaped free person in the north, Douglass provides an intensely graphic account of the dehumanizing reality of slavery and shows the challenges of African American freedom in a white dominated world.
Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks New York: Grove Press, 2008.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon uses psychoanalytical theory in order to describe the condition of black people under white racist colonial rule. Fanon shows how racist colonial frameworks inflict psychological harm on black people, leading them to develop an inferiority complex and attempt to adapt to the social norms of the white colonists. At the end of the book, Fanon turns to the body and its ontological reality as preceding processes of racialization as the site of resistance to colonial racism and domination.
Hegel, Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
One of the most famous books of the Western philosophical tradition, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit outlines the evolution of human consciousness. Hegel theorizes the subject’s recognition of an other’s self-consciousness as the condition for the subject’s own self-consciousness. Included in the massive volume is the famous discussion of the master-slave dialectic based on the impasse of recognition at the heart of human being’s struggle for mastery over one another.