On Mutual Recognition by Richard Gunn


In recent years, the term ‘mutual recognition’ has become more central to what I write and argue and say. More specifically, the terms ‘recognition’, and ‘mutual’ recognition have been central to a number of papers that my friend Adrian Wilding and myself have jointly produced’.[1


 (This is an audio recording of Richard’s presentation to the Ragged University on the 31st of May 2018. It relates the text which he wrote that follows)


Currently, Adrian and I are preparing a book-length version of our views. This presentation attempts to give an account of what, by ‘mutual recognition’, we mean. The term ‘mutual recognition’ has a background in G.W.F. Hegel’s writings. It is, Adrian and I argue, pivotal to the thought and assumptions of Karl Marx. Some references to Hegel’s and Marx’s writings cannot be avoided. Here, I avoid as far as possible textual debate. And no knowledge of Marx’s and Hegel’s writings is assumed.


Let me start with Marx as his writings are the best known. Marx, who lived from 1813 to 1883, sought to bring about an emancipated society. The sort of society which he regarded as emancipated was a society of a communist kind.


How, a reader of Marx finds him or herself asking, should a communist society be pictured? I do not attempt a detailed answer to this question here. I should like, however, to quote a passage where Marx indicates what, he considers, a communist society involves.


In a communist society, he tells us, ‘classes and class antagonisms’ are ended: ‘we shall have an association, in which the free development of each [each human individual] is the condition for the free development of all’.[2]


The quoted passage is from the Communist Manifesto and the words that I have quoted are those with which Manifesto Part II of the Manifesto ends. The passage is important because it indicates how, in general terms, Marx sees emancipation. The passage is important for a reason which concerns us here. Marx’s picture of an emancipated society derives from G.W.F. Hegel’s work.


More specifically, they derive from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: a work which Hegel published in 1807 and which Marx knew well. Hegel was not himself a communist. But, in common with many members of his generation, he was influenced by the French Revolution of 1789. In his “earlier” writings, including the Phenomenology of 1807, Hegel was much influenced by French Revolutionary ideas. In his later writings, including his Philosophy of Right of 1821, he remained a ‘liberal reformer’.[3] – but his writings become less than revolutionary. He makes his peace with a no-longer-French-Revolutionary world.


Hegel’s Phenomenology is a lengthy and, notoriously, a difficult work. It is nonetheless the work by Hegel that concerns us here. In the Phenomenology, Hegel writes about recognition and mutual recognition – or, as he puts it, a society where individuals ‘recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another’.[4]


What Gunn and Wilding propose is that, for the author of the Phenomenology, a society where there is mutual recognition is a society which is emancipated in the French Revolutionary meaning of that term. Gunn and Wilding’s further suggestion is that, when Marx writes of a society where ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ [5] he pictures emancipation as a condition where mutual recognition obtains.


It is true, of course, that Marx and Hegel are very different theorists. Hegel does, indeed, write about property whereas Marx devotes a life’s work to the obstacles which private property places in mutual recognition’s path. The notion of emancipation which is fundamental to his work is, nonetheless, a notion which Hegel in his still-Revolutionary period shares. Or so Gunn and Wilding maintain. At this point, we must glance into Hegel’s Phenomenology in greater detail. In a short but intensely difficult passage, the notion of ‘recognition’ is introduced.[6]


It is introduced in what Hegel terms its ‘pure’ form.[7] A reader gathers that recognition in its ‘pure’ form is recognition that is mutual: Hegel traces a pattern of recognition between two (or at least two) individuals: ‘each does itself what it demands of the other’, [8] The recognition that the passage traces is reciprocal: ‘each does itself what it demands of the other’.[9] It is at the end of this passage that Hegel says, in summary: ‘They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another’.[10]


At this point, it is helpful to glance forward towards the lengthy sections on history that the Phenomenology contains. According to the Phenomenology, each phase in history is a distinctive pattern of recognition – or distinctive pattern of social acknowlegement. The distinctive patterns of recognition have, however, one thing in common, namely, they are patterns of recognition of an alienated or contradicted kind.


The passage which introduces the ‘pure’ idea of recognition – the passage to which I have alluded (Phenomenology pp. 110-112) – makes it clear that, where recognition exists, a to-and-fro process of interaction is in play. Where this process is impeded – for example, where recognition is ‘one-sided and unequal’ [11] – recognition is alienated or (to say the same thing differently) exists as other than itself.


Only ‘mutual’ recognition is non-alienated or (to use Hegel’s term) ‘pure’. For recognition to be ‘mutual’, the to-and-fro process of interaction must be untrammelled. Recognition’s to-and-fro process must follow its own internal logic – like a conversation that follows its own subject matter, wherever that subject matter leads. Like a “good” and rigorous conversation, mutual recognition is not random or chaotic. In that it follows its own logic it is anarchistic, however – as Gunn and Wilding are very happy to admit.


Throughout the course of history, according to the Phenomenology, recognition is alienated . It exists as other than itself. Only when the French Revolution takes place, does ‘mutual’ recognition come on the stage (see Phenomenology pp. 355-63). When it does, not merely recognition itself but freedom (which Hegel understands as self-determination) comes into being in a non-alienated form.


For the Phenomenology, freedom and mutual recognition come into being together and in the same movement. History ends, for Hegel, when interactive and self-determining freedom obtains. Marx’s terminology is different. But it is to the same effect. When the ‘prehistory of human society’ closes when, in a communist society, private property as an obstacle to mutual recognition’s to-and-fro motion is removed.


A listener to the present presentation will be relieved that my dip into Hegel’s and Marx’s writings has reached its end. With luck, he or she will have a sense of why we find the notion of emancipation as mutual recognition attractive. The reference to ‘mutual recognition’ draws together ideas in Hegel’s and Marx’s thought. In commentaries, Hegel is frequently referred to as Marx’s ‘teacher’. What did Marx learn from Hegel?


Gunn’s and Wilding’s suggestion is that emancipation as mutual recognition is the key. Why did Marx devote years and decades to the analysis of property? Not – Gunn and Wilding propose – because he thought of property as intrinsically important. It is because he thought of property, in its capitalistic versions, as the chief obstacle that stood in emancipation’s way. Marx, Gunn and Wilding maintain, must not be read as an economic determinist. He must be read as a writer who points beyond property’s rule.


These reflections commend the idea of mutual recognition to your attention. I have said that the notion of mutual recognition has assumed a central position in my thinking. It has taken on this importance not merely for reasons of the history of ideas. A more important consideration is that, via the notion of mutual recognition, a picture of emancipation in and through association with other people comes into play.


Let me explain. Quite frequently, liberal thought pictures the individual as isolated from other people. He or she is held to be free depending on how much space the individual has. Metaphorically, an individual is free depending on the size of the garden that the owner of a suburban bungalow has. At the end of this line of argument, lies an individual who exists alone on the face of the earth.


Only such an individual – only such a Robinson Crusoe – can be maximally free. If we shift attention from liberalism to Hegel’s Phenomenology and Marx, the picture is very different. If emancipation equates with mutual recognition, then individuals are free in and through one another. They may be free in and through one another because freedom is constitutive (and not merely cognitive). Individuals who recognize one another do not merely delimit one another (as do the boundaries of suburban gardens).


By seeing and acknowledging one another’s freedom, we call into being and accentuate the freedom of the individuals who are “seen”. A society of mutually recognitive individuals do not merely exist alongside one another. Through their recognition, which is reciprocal, they illuminate one another’s freedom. Just as each individual who joins a “good” conversation illumines fresh and new perspectives Each individual who joins a mutually recognitive conversation opens horizons where hitherto undreamed of possibilities lie.


Once emancipation is pictured as mutual recognition, we may, I think, link notions of dignity and emancipation in a challenging way. If we choose to prioritise considerations of security over considerations of openness, we unleash scenarios of paranoia and introversion that the world has come to dread. To be sure, a human situation can be one where another person is one person too many. But, if “one too many” is our primary image of another, conceptions of an alternative society must be set aside.


Richard Gunn

MAY 2018


References to Heathwood Papers

  1. R. Gunn and A. Wilding ‘Revolutionary or Less-than-Revolutionary Recognition?’ [published online by Heathwood Institute and Press (www.heathwoodpress.com) on 24 July 2013]; R. Gunn and A. Wilding ‘Occupy as Mutual Recognition’ [published online by Heathwood Institute and Press (www.heathwoodpress.com) on 12 November 2013]; R. Gunn and A. Wilding ‘Recognition Contradicted’ [published in South Atlantic Quarterly Vol. 113, No. 2 (Spring 2014)]; R. Gunn and A. Wilding ‘Marx and Recognition’ [published online by Heathwood Institute and Press (www.heathwoodpress.com) on 24 November 2014].
  2. K. Marx and F. Engels Collected Works Vol. 6 (London: Lawrence and Wishart 1976) p. 506.
  3. I borrow this term from Frederich Beiser Hegel (London: Routledge) pp. 215 and 216.
  4. G.W.F. Hegel Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1979) p. 112.
  5. See note 2, above.
  6. Phenomenology pp. 110-112.
  7. Phenomenology p. 112.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Phenomenology p. 116.