Charles Taylor on “recognition,” “love relationships,” social life and identity politics

“It’s not surprising that we can find some of the seminal ideas about citizen dignity and universal recognition, even if not in these terms, in Rousseau, one of the points of origin of the modern discourse of authenticity. Rousseau is a sharp critic of hierarchical honour, of “préférences.” In a significant passage of the Discourse on Inequality, he pinpoints a fateful moment when society takes a turn towards corruption and injustice, when people begin to desire preferential esteem. By contrast, in republican society, where all can share equally in the light of public attention, he sees the source of health. But the topic of recognition is given its most influential early treatment in Hegel.

The importance of recognition is now universally acknowledged in one form or another; on an intimate plane, we are all aware how identity can be formed or malformed in our contact with significant others. On the social plane, we have a continuing politics of equal recognition. Both have been shaped by the growing ideal of authenticity, and recognition plays an essential role in the culture that has arisen around it.

On the intimate level, we can see how much an original identity needs and is vulnerable to the recognition given or withheld by significant others. It is not surprising that in the culture of authenticity, relationships are seen as the key loci of self-discovery and self-confirmation. Love relationships are not important just because of the general emphasis in modern culture on the fulfilments or ordinary life. They are also crucial because they are the crucibles of inwardly generated identity.

On the social plane, the understanding that identities are formed in open dialogue, unshaped by a predefined social script, has made the politics of equal recognition more central and stressful. It has, in fact, considerably raised its stakes. Equal recognition is not just the appropriate mode for a healthy democratic society. Its refusal can inflict damage on those who are denied it, according to a widespread modern view. The projecting of an inferior or demeaning image on another can actually distort and oppress to the extent that it is interiorized. Not only contemporary feminism but also race relations and discussions of multiculturalism are undergirded by the premiss that denied recognition can be a form of oppression.”

Bonus: Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man

“…human beings seek recognition of their own worth, or of the people, things, or principles that they invest with worth. The propensity to invest the self with a certain value, and to demand recognition for that value, is what in today’s popular language we would call “self-esteem.” The propensity to feel self-esteem arises out of the part of the soul called thymos. It is like an innate human sense of justice. People believe that they have a certain worth, and when other people treat them as though they are worth less than that, they experience the emotion anger. Conversely, when people fail to live up to their own sense of worth, they feel shame, and when they are evaluated correctly in proportion to their worth, they feel pride. The desire for recognition, and the accompanying emotions of anger, shame, and pride, are parts of the human personality critical to political life. According to Hegel, they are what drives the whole historical process.”

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