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Equality, Recognition and Social Justice: A Hegelian Perspective Announcing Amartya Sen

Egalité, reconnaissance et justice sociale : une perspective hégélienne annonciatrice d’Amartya Sen
Cyrielle Poiraud
p. 1-28


Le principe d’égalité formelle renvoie à l'idée selon laquelle les institutions doivent porter une attention égale à chaque citoyen et constitue désormais un prérequis à toute idée de justice. Amartya Sen (1992 ; 2009) suggère par exemple que l’égalité est une composante nécessaire des théories de la justice sociale pour répondre à l’exigence d’impartialité. Partant de ce constat, le présent article soutient que le concept de reconnaissance est indispensable pour expliquer de manière claire pourquoi le processus de mise en pratique de l’égalité nécessite une médiation institutionnelle. C’est ce que nous appelons la « reconnaissance objective ». Elle nous conduit jusqu’aux limites de l’égalité formelle appliquée à la justice sociale, dont le but est supposé être la liberté réelle. L’article affirme alors que l’égalité formelle est une condition nécessaire mais non suffisante de la liberté. En s’appuyant sur la théorie sociale de G.W.F. Hegel et sur la discussion post-hégélienne de la théorie de la reconnaissance, nous suggérons que la subjectivité a également besoin d’un espace d’émancipation dans la sphère sociale : nous explorons la dialectique de l’universel et du particulier montre en quoi la reconnaissance de l’identité et celle de la différence sont des processus distincts qui doivent cependant cohabiter afin de fournir les conditions de la liberté. Les analyses de Hegel et de Sen ont en commun cette pensée de la liberté réelle et de ses conditions de possibilité : l’un comme l’autre affirme ou suggère la nécessité de l’égalité formelle et le besoin de reconnaître la particularité selon une perspective dialectique. Le présent article vise à approfondir la compréhension de cette dialectique et montre comment elle s’applique à la conception sennienne de la justice.

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  • 1 This statement is present in the Idea of Justice (2009), but is also mentioned in Sen’s works since (...)

1Several political and social justice theorists have shown that the general principle of equality is ubiquitous in the field of distributive issues. Ronald Dworkin (e.g. 1977; 2000) with the principle of equal concern, Will Kymlicka (e.g. 1990; 2002) with his discussion of the “egalitarian plateau,” or Amartya Sen (e.g. 1992; 2009) and his “egalitarian formula,” highlight the fact that equality is a constitutional principle of any normative theory. Indeed these theories all uphold the basic idea that institutions should have equal consideration for all individuals. Kymlicka (2002) adds that this “basic notion of equality is found in Nozick’s libertarianism as much as in Marx’s communism,” speaking of “the abstract notion of equality” (Kymlicka, 2002, 4) that Dworkin considers necessary in that “every plausible political theory has the same ultimate value, which is equality” (ibid., 3). Sen (2009) develops this view, arguing that equality allows enforcing the requirement of impartiality that every theory of justice has to meet.1

  • 2 The term “formal equality” is to be found in the literature at least since Aristotle who refers to (...)
  • 3 Following the simple idea that providing people with rights is not enough for them to achieve freed (...)
  • 4 Recent studies have suggested that this work constitutes in itself Hegel’s theory of justice. For i (...)

2Equality is therefore necessary for distributive issues and, as a “basic notion,” it is to be considered here as “formal equality:”2 an abstract, general norm of equality that refers to concepts such as equal concern, equal treatment, or prescriptive equality, the role of which is to acknowledge citizens as equal moral subjects, unconditionally. Hence the object of social justice is assumed to be real freedom. However, one can see that formal equality cannot provide actual freedom on its own.3 Sen himself, while acknowledging the necessity of formal equality for reasons of impartiality (2009), nevertheless develops a conception of capabilities that recognizes human diversity and individual capacities of choice and action as central. Formal equality thus appears as the necessary but not sufficient condition of justice, if justice is to allow true freedom. This paper aims at showing why formal equality is necessary and how introducing the concept of recognition provides elements to overcome this gap when considered through the prism of Hegelian dialectic, in order to solve the tension between formal equality and actual freedom. According to Hegel, the universal and the particular are the two fundamental principles of ethical life in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820), namely the moment of justice,4 meaning that people evolve in a sphere where their particularity as individual subjects and the social dimension of their being must both be acknowledged by institutions for freedom to be attained.

3The aim of the paper is first of all to further our understanding of the idea of formal equality in the light of Hegelian concepts, showing how it implies a type of recognition that can be qualified as “objective” and, as Kojève pointed out (1981), strictly institutional. However, we consider that social justice aims at achieving real freedom, which includes not only the power of individual will for self-determination but also the related conditions to do so, notably in terms of choice and opportunities, which often depend on individual circumstances and on the established social structure. Now, from such a perspective, objective recognition from institutions appears to be a necessary but not sufficient condition. The question then becomes: should normative theories concentrate on acknowledging the equal and identical character of human beings, based on their “shared humanity” (Sen, 2009, 144), through a universal and uniform process of recognition of everyone’s moral capacities and thus free-will—that is to say recognition of identity in a formal perspective—or, should they focus on the acknowledgement and possible empowerment of everyone’s particularities, that is to say recognition of difference, in a particular perspective? The study of more recent literature still related to Hegel’s thinking suggests that we might alternatively consider recognition in the context of social justice as linked to the acknowledgement of claims made by people and groups, regarding their specificities and the ones that need to be considered in order to ensure actual freedom equally. This form of recognition should allow the emancipation of subjectivity which, according to Hegel’s social theory, is essential to achieve real freedom.

  • 5 Honneth makes the distinction between self-determination (Selbstbestimmung) and self-actualization (...)

4These recent studies notably include the works of Nancy Fraser (e.g. 1995; 1996) who discusses the place of recognition regarding distributive issues in terms of the “age of identity politics,” and Axel Honneth (e.g. 1992; 2010; 2012; 2014), who asserts through his theory of recognition that modern theories of justice must “ground [their] legitimacy in the freedom of the individual or the self-actualization of social individuals” (2010, 172). Fraser and Honneth (2003) have different views concerning the place of recognition in the framework of social justice: Fraser tends to see redistribution and recognition claims as part of two separate fields while Honneth sees redistribution as a derivative of recognition. Honneth’s conception is the more widely accepted view: Feldman (2002) targets Fraser’s lack of development concerning “the role of the state and ‘the political’ in struggles over distribution and recognition” (Feldman, 2002, 410), while Yar (2001) criticizes her “overly narrow ‘culturalist’ understanding of recognition” (Yar, 2001, 289). Douzinas (2002) and Lucy (2011) focus more specifically on the legal aspect of recognition, mentioning respectively “legal equality” or “juridical equality,” in line with Kojève’s account of impartiality, and give insights to understand formal or legal equality as a necessary but not sufficient condition for justice. Douzinas, in particular, shows that its “defect” comes from the universality of law, which “cannot meet the demands for the full recognition of the postmodern self” (Douzinas, 2002, 379). Ege (2009) and Ege and Walraevens (2011) emphasize the specific dimension of the modern individual who must be taken into account to fully understand the notion of freedom, as conceived by Hegel, just as Honneth does in his own works, putting forward the idea of self-determination, or self-actualization.5 Church (2012) supports this view, claiming that Hegel “provides just such a developmental account of modern subjective self-determination that strikingly articulates the inner logic of our own contemporary theoretical developments” (Church, 2002, 1022). Finally, Boldyrev and Hermann Pillath (2013a) shed light on links that can be made between Hegel’s and Sen’s thinking, aiming at “orchestrating a Hegelian turn in Sen’s approach” (2013a, 19), through the notion of recognition and the emphasis on the role of institutions regarding the achievement of freedom. This paper supports this view and tends to contribute to this line of thought by showing how Hegelian categories allow formalizing an implicit distinction in Sen’s works concerning equality, and revealing the importance of the concept of recognition in his own conception of justice and freedom, although it is virtually absent from it.

5In order to shed light on the idea of formal equality through the prism of recognition, and show the interdependent and dialectical relationship between objective and subjective recognition as relevant principles for normative theories, including Sen’s, the paper begins with an account of formal equality as an objective form of recognition, only made possible by institutional mediation in the form of Kojève’s “impartial and disinterested third party” (section 1). Then, Hegel’s account of the civil society (1820), based on the dialectics between the universal and the particular, helps show the importance to recognize also people’s singularity in the framework of social justice (section 2). Finally, the discussion between Fraser and Honneth (2003), which focuses on the relationship between recognition and distributive issues, leads to assert that recognition of singularity, or of subjectivity, makes sense for the Senian concept of capability and his own idea of justice, including his theory of democracy (section 3).

1. Objective Recognition: A Necessary but Not Sufficient Condition

6Hegel’s concept of recognition is central in the development of self-consciousness (Hegel, [1807] 1977, 111), necessary for the individual to achieve freedom. This process involves the experience of two opposed though interdependent principles in Hegel’s system, namely the universal and the particular, which are especially interconnected in the sphere of civil society, which comes second in ethical life in his Philosophy of Right (Hegel, [1820] 2003, 220-274). First, the analysis of the concept of formal equality—which is settled here from Amartya Sen’s argument of the necessity of impartiality for normative theories—relies precisely on Hegel’s account of the principle of the universal as it shows the necessary general and abstract nature of law. Second, I argue that formal equality is thus confined to this institutional framework and appears as a form of recognition that can only be granted from the outside, in an objective way, which supposes an institutional mediation that can be understood in the sense of Kojève’s “impartial and disinterested third party.”

1.1. Formal Equality and the Universal

  • 6 Mainly here, Inequality Reexamined (1992) and Idea of Justice (2009).

7In his works concerning social justice,6 Sen has developed an idea of justice that puts forward equality as a fundamental requirement for any normative theories. Because it is based on the demand for impartiality, it is inherent to the concept of justice itself: the “egalitarian formula” (which refers to the fact that, according to him, every normative theory must include a basic principle of equality) is necessary in the sense that “in the absence of such a requirement, a normative theory would be arbitrary and biased. There seems to be here recognition of the need for impartiality in some form for the viability of a theory” (Sen, 2009, 293). I shall call this idea of equality ‘formal’: as a general and basic form of equality, it must not be achieved as such; it only acts as a principle that directs the development of justice by being its condition of possibility. The demand for equality refers to a will of justification, as “the absence of such equality would make a theory arbitrarily discriminating and hard to defend” (Sen, 1992, 17), which means there could be no justice without impartiality and there is no such thing as impartiality without a fundamental conception of equality.

8Formal equality thus intervenes at a normative level and has a specific role in the elaboration of principles of justice: as its condition, it determines a context of “non-discrimination,” that is to say of shared identity. Indeed, the requirement of “seeing people as equals” implies that certain institutions will recognize a strict identity between all members of society, as citizens (as the State does in Hegel’s Sittlichkeit) entitled to the same fundamental and basic rights, as equally relevant members of the community endowed with the relevant powers of participation. Without this uniform and global process of recognition, the theory of justice under consideration would suffer from partiality and be excluded from the field of justice, thus contradicting its own nature. This is how Sen establishes the necessity for such general, formal equality—although he does not call it this way. Therefore, “formal equality” based on the requirement of impartiality also expresses itself in terms of equality of consideration: every individual, every life, every interest, must be taken into account to the same extent by institutions, and must receive the same level of recognition. Impartiality and equality of treatment are joined in the obligation of equal consideration, i.e. political, and institutional recognition, of people’s equal moral capacities. This is where the issue of autonomy and freedom as the objects of social justice comes into play.

9Now according to him, the idea of equal treatment is based on a “universalist demand” (ibid., 117) in the sense of total inclusion in the political sphere that determines a context of impartiality where everyone is “morally and politically relevant” (ibid.), that is to say identically acknowledged as moral beings, and aims at providing people with the basic conditions for achieving freedom: this sense of universality echoes Hegel’s idea of totality related to the nature of the fully developed objective spirit.

  • 7 Kojève, from his reading of Hegel, actually developed his own interpretation of the struggle for re (...)

10Indeed, Sen’s universalist approach makes his conception of equality, which is close to the Hegelian concept of right, appear somewhat abstract. Considered as a “universalist demand,” equal treatment does not necessarily refer to a global requirement: the principle of the universal, as defined by Hegel, is more of an image that points to the character of social institutions under which people share the same principles of action and are acknowledged as identical. Thus, the universalist character of formal equality implies that the relevant form of recognition is purely institutional: formal equality, for instance, is more about identity than equality in terms of resources. Being formal it cannot be mutual as with two different parties recognizing each other. This is clear in the dialectics between the lord and the bondsman (Hegel, [1807] 1977, 115-119), and made even more so by Alexandre Kojève (1981).7 Indeed he shows the necessity for third party intervention in order to guarantee impartiality and effectiveness in the acknowledgement of equal consideration of the members of a community. This leads to see formal equality exclusively in institutional terms.

1.2. Kojève’s “Impartial and Disinterested Third Party”: The Need for Institutional Mediation

  • 8 Here the idea of symmetry does not concern specific interrelationships but the overall structure of (...)

11As a general norm for social justice theories, formal equality operates as an abstract principle which allows developing a structure of symmetrical social relationships between the members of a community.8 This implies a form of recognition which cannot be based on mutuality or reciprocity between the individuals themselves: it must come from the community and institutions in order to achieve the principle of impartiality. The process of intersubjective recognition implies many contradictions and cannot be fulfilled since partiality always seems to be involved due to individual subjectivity. The role of institutions is therefore to provide an objective framework in order to develop the structure of equality that is necessary to acknowledge equal autonomy as the first condition for real freedom.

12Now, in his Outline of the Phenomenology of Right (1981), Alexandre Kojève shows that this normative imperative of impartiality for justice is to be achieved by the intervention of a third party acting as an institutional mediator in order to supersede the unilateralism characterizing the struggle for recognition model. According to him, the law that allows justice to be achieved is incarnated by the “impartial and disinterested third party” (Kojève, 1981, 257) in the sense that the interaction between two individuals, each fighting to gain the other’s acknowledgement, is first determined by an unsatisfactory outcome, because the recognition derived from it is not only unilateral but also ineffective, as Hegel previously pointed out:

[the lord] is the pure, essential action in this relationship, while the action of the bondsman is impure and unessential. But for recognition proper the moment is lacking, that what the lord does to himself he should also do to the other, and what the bondsman does to himself he should also do to the other. The outcome is a recognition that is one-sided and unequal. (Hegel, [1807] 1977, 116)

13Indeed, the struggle for recognition as in the lord and bondsman dialectics relies on the opposition between the victor and the vanquished, where only the former is acknowledged by the latter, and where recognition is not effective in the relationship since the latter is not capable of an actual act of recognition because he is not himself recognized. In such a relationship, the acknowledgement of the lord by the bondsman is merely “pure illusion” (Kojève, 1981, 241): the bondsman is qualified as such for having abandoned the struggle and is thus assimilated to an “animal.” Now, according to Kojève, recognition relies on “anthropogenic desire,” namely a desire which concerns another desire, that of “willing to be recognized.” And it is precisely the satisfaction of this desire that makes man what he is, in that the recognition of a man by another constitutes his very being (ibid., 239). Hegel already stated that “self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another, that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” (Hegel, [1807] 1977, 111). Thus, if one of the parties in the struggle choses the “animal life” and abandons this desire, it becomes impossible for the struggle to result in an equal and effective model of recognition of both parties. This dialectics of recognition shows that one cannot be free unless others are too, which implies the need for strict formal equality in an institutional system aiming to allow individual freedom. Now, formal equality can be achieved through the intervention of incarnated impartiality.

14The intervention of a third party becomes necessary in order to bring a satisfying outcome, and this third party must be “impartial” and “disinterested,” after Kojève’s terms, so that it can moderate individual expectations which stand in the way of a satisfactory outcome—that is to say death or capitulation of the struggle by one of the parties. The third party has to grant each “combatant” a strictly equal and identical form of recognition: the acknowledged parties become equal for the one who acknowledges them (Kojève, 1981, 242) under the action of impartiality, which, by making the individuals interchangeable (i.e. completely identical), suspends their subjectivity: if only in the sphere of abstract law, it negates their particularities as individuals, leaving their essence only filled with a legal status that acknowledges their moral capacity as human beings, as persons. This refers to the scheme through which the Hegelian ethical life is developed: intersubjective relations are mediated by a universal principle, which makes them effective and satisfying. This also refers to the basic structure on which any normative theory should rely according to Sen and recalls the way he settles the imperative of impartiality as inherent to the idea of justice.

15It is thus a question of abstract equality that is recognized in the temporary negation of the parties’ interests and subjectivity in a particular sphere of sociality. The impartial and disinterested third party objectivizes people’s interactions by changing them into juridical situations and thus freeing the persons from the violence of the struggle for recognition and offering a satisfactory outcome. Ege (1987) explains that the figure of the third party constitutes “the human recognition detached from the individuals, removed from the control of the particular will, exteriorized as a law and coming back to the same individuals in order to transform them, in this movement, simultaneously and irreversibly, into legally free subjects” (Ege, 1987, 152). This sums up the stakes at work in the process of recognition thus achieved, which is purely legal and related to the action of objectification described by Hegel, notably through the concept of contract. Indeed, the contract tends to objectivize the relationship of the contracting parties who “relate to each other as immediate self-sufficient persons” (Hegel, [1820] 2003, 105) so that their will is only subjective and partial. It is a tool for the achievement of justice, which is based on impartiality. The specific stake at this stage of “abstract right” is to proceed towards the suspension of the parties’ subjectivity so that their will can be objectivized, notably in order to proceed to an exchange of property. This process of objectification allows the spirit to be removed from the self and to be mediated by an objective institution, especially in the experience of formal equality achieved through the contract, in which individuals abandons their particular and immediate substance in order to meet alterity—which is nevertheless recognized to be the same, under the principle of formal equality.

16This is why we shall call this type of recognition not only institutional or legal but also objective. It relies on the principle of the universal, based on abstract right, which, as Douzinas (2002) points out for instance, is designed “to help establish one part of the recognition necessary for the constitution of a full self. … The interpersonal relation of right offers recognition of what is universal in every particular” (2002, 390). Objective recognition constitutes a step in the dialectics between the universal and the particular: it is necessary in order to achieve freedom through the development of self-consciousness but seems to be however not sufficient: formal equality actualizes the universal principle but cannot meet the demand for acknowledgement of individual singularity, which is growing in modern societies. Now, the expression of subjectivity, which is, as we saw, suspended in formal equality, is crucial in Hegel’s system and for individual self-development. This suggests that objective recognition is not the only constitutive principle of justice that conditions freedom.

2. From the Universal to the Particular: Recognizing Subjectivity

17Hegel’s political system involves a duality in the principles on which it relies, especially in the sphere of ethical life, where the dialectics between the universal and the particular is most present. Now, although formal equality is clearly based on universality, thus providing a necessary objective form of recognition to ensure minimum conditions of justice (and the development of people’s freedom through actualization of self-consciousness), the recognition process does not seem to be complete. Indeed, Hegel’s account of the civil society shows the importance of emancipation of subjectivity, for which objective or institutional recognition is not sufficient: formal equality acknowledges people’s sameness thus making them interchangeable legal subjects, but does not allow people’s singularity to be expressed and be taken into consideration. What is at stake therefore is the extent to which institutions are responsible for the recognition of people’s subjective dimension, what should be acknowledged other than their strict equal character of moral beings in order to allow their self-development. This section first sheds light on the reasons why objective recognition constitutes a necessary but not sufficient condition for justice to achieve real freedom. Then, based on Hegel’s account of civil society, I argue that it is also necessary to acknowledge people’s “subjective” dimension, in view of the nature of modern society, which is something that Axel Honneth also considers to be a crucial element in order to understand institutional duties in terms of recognition and justice regarding people’s freedom.

2.1. The Dialectics of Recognition

  • 9 However, this brief description needs further development: one can see that civil society acknowled (...)

18In the Philosophy of Right, the objective spirit goes through three stages which are part of a dialectical progression, namely abstract right, morality and ethical life, where objectivity and subjectivity meet. Indeed, a dialectical movement refers to a thinking process that associates contradictory statements which can be reconciled by synthesis: these contradictions become inseparable as they constitute a unit that makes sense. This is what happens more specifically in ethical life, where the universal comes to meet the particular in order to constitute a functional system that aims at allowing freedom of the spirit. Here, the crucial items in our analysis—as they refer to the sphere of justice—are civil society and the State. To put it simply, formal equality or objective recognition refers to the sphere of the State while civil society represents the space where subjectivity can achieve emancipation “in public.”9 The idea is to show to what extent both spheres must be considered complementary, as in a dialectical process, in other words, show that the State alone cannot provide the conditions for real freedom, as Hegel did when highlighting the shortcomings of the Ancient State which saw itself as self-sufficient.

19So formal equality misses a growing demand for justice that implies the recognition of people’s singularities and meets the need for emancipation of subjectivity within the institutional sphere. Social justice is thus confronted to a dual challenge, based on the relationship between the principles of universality and particularity, which relies according to Hegel on the specificities of the modern individual, recognized to have free-will and the right to follow his own interest, outside of the political community. He is no longer determined as a being existing and realizing himself through the State—as was the case in the Ancient model—because his effective freedom is considered to be actualized mainly through the realization of what he has reason to value for himself and not only through his power to participate in public life, making his happiness part and parcel of the common good.

20Thus the modern individual cannot be fully understood only through the legal perspective of objective recognition. Modernity has brought a new conception of freedom—essentially based on individual freedom—which puts forward notions such as autonomy and with it, the right for people to develop their own conception of good and to choose the principles of life they have reason to value. The individual has become a key and even paradigmatic notion of modernity, with consequences on the way of conceiving political theory and the place of institutions regarding issues of social justice. Institutional objective recognition alone is not sufficient because people’s specificities now intervene in the public sphere:

  • 10 See also Remarks of § 185 of The Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Hegel, [1820] 2003, 222-223).

The modern state contains one specific institution which separates it decisively from earlier and less developed social orders: Hegel’s name for it is ‘civil society’ … Civil society is the realm in which individuals exist as persons and subjects, as owners and disposers of private property, and as choosers of their own life-activity in the light of their contingent and subjective needs and interests. In civil society, people’s ends are in the first instance purely private, particular and contingent, not communal ends shared with others through feelings (as in the family) or through reason (as in the state). (Wood, in Hegel, [1820] 2003, xviii)10

21Acknowledging a person’s legal status—objective recognition—does not include taking into consideration all of the individual’s specificities but tends to suspend them, focusing on what is general. Douzinas (2002) goes further, explaining that the law—strongly connected to the notion of formal equality—suffers from “formalism,” from “the lack of concern for the material circumstances that allow the realization of rights” (2002, 397), thus providing only a formal type of freedom but no actual means for individuals to enforce them. This is to be linked to the lack of concern for people’s singularities and connected to Sen’s theory of capabilities to which we shall return later: formal equality ensures the minimum (but necessary) legal conditions for achieving freedom, but one must then focus on the specific means individuals require to implement their basic rights and convert their resources into actual achievements. This is precisely what is at stake in the sphere of Hegelian civil society: superseding equality’s formalism in order to acknowledge people’s right to follow their own interest and not only act for the common good, so that the system of needs has to be efficient and develop freely, yet allow people’s subjectivity to be expressed effectively by acknowledging particularity.

22Honneth (1992) developed a theory of recognition along the same idea: through the elaboration of a model of recognition that includes three distinct social spheres, he suggests there is a need for a sphere that supersedes the sphere of law, arguing that modern law, which acknowledges the universal qualities of human beings, differs from the social form of recognition, which must target personal specificities and requires a medium that considers subject distinctiveness in a universal manner and is “intersubjectively binding” (Honneth, [1992] 2000, 148). After Hegel who stated the relevance of subjectivity in the public sphere, Honneth asserts the role of institutions and of the State in the acknowledgment of people’s subjectivity, claiming that without this social form of recognition, this social esteem, as a dialectical complement to objective recognition, individuals cannot be fulfilled as beings, i.e. cannot be free.

23This shows the necessity for both formal equality and acknowledging people’s particularities, in a dialectical manner. Church (2012) also pointed out that “self-determination happens to be the foundational norm all contemporary democratic theorists take for granted … For Hegel, it is crucial for citizens to recognize their own identities and agency expressed in these institutions” (Church, 2012, 1037), so that institutions do have a role to play regarding the principle of the particular: being embedded in the social sphere, in “ethical life,” people, as persons or citizens, also need to be acknowledged as subjective beings with their own particularities in order to reach actual freedom.

2.2. Modernity and Subjectivity

24It is in Hegel’s civil society that we find mention of the need for subjectivity to become emancipated within an institutional (objective) sphere, and this is so because it is based on the dialectics of the universal and the particular. Indeed, the section begins with the claim that the first principle underlying it is the particular while the universal comes second:

The concrete person who, as a particular person, as a totality of needs and a mixture of natural necessity and arbitrariness, is his own end, is one principle of civil society. But this particular person stands essentially in relation [Beziehung] to other similar particulars, and their relation is such that each asserts itself and gains satisfaction through the others, and thus at the same time through the exclusive mediation of the form of universality, which is the second principle. (Hegel, [1820] 2003, 220)

  • 11 This structure is however to be emphasized until the structure of the State is reached, when, accor (...)

25The dialectics of objective and subjective recognition is thus central at this juncture. The principle of particularity implies that the “concrete person,” as a subject of right, is an end to itself: people follow their own interests in order to satisfy their own needs and desires. Nevertheless, at this stage of ethical life, being “essentially in relation to other similar particulars” makes people part of a social structure, therefore open to the community, the public sphere, that is to say, connected to the universal where legal, objective recognition is needed. Indeed, this social relationship is seen as mediated by the “form of universality,” and therefore based on formal equality. Ethical life, in which civil society is included as the second stage, gathers a plurality of individuals who get into relationships with each other through a norm which imposes itself on everyone. This norm relates to the life of institutions and bestows rights and duties on each member of the civil society, thus allowing them to recognize each other as members of this institution who can effectively proceed to exchanges and fulfill their needs and desires within a structure of equality.11

26According to Hegel, civil society is thus a necessary stage in the political structure in that it asserts the right to follow one’s particular interest in order to achieve freedom. This is why he criticizes the model of the Ancient State for missing the stage of civil society. According to Ege and Walraevens (2011), it is absent because the Ancients feared subjectivity: civil society, as the stage of particular interest, is related to the “reign of the emancipation of subjectivity that is the realization of individual happiness” (Ege and Walraevens, 2011, 236). And according to Hegel,

The state is the actuality of concrete freedom. But concrete freedom requires that personal individuality [Einzelheit] and its particular interests should reach their full development and gain recognition of their right for itself (within the system of family and civil society) … The effect of this is that the universal does not attain validity or fulfilment without the interest, knowledge, and volition of the particular, and that individuals do not live as private persons merely for these particular interests without at the same time directing their will to a universal end [in und für das Allgemeine woollen] and acting in conscious awareness of this end. The principle of modern state has enormous strength and depth because it allows the principle of subjectivity to attain fulfillment in the self-sufficient extreme of personal particularity, while at the same time bringing it back to substantial unity and so preserving this unity in the principle of subjectivity itself. (Hegel, [1820] 2003, 282)

27The State at stake here is the modern State: Hegel explains that the Ancient State rejected the idea according to which effective freedom consists in the principle of singular individuals allowed to be their own particular end. The Greek State thus rejects the “particularity associated to needs”: it “has not yet become part of [the realm of] freedom, but is confined to a class of slaves” (ibid., 379). Ege (2008) shows that this rejection of particularity is related to the fear of destruction of the State as a consequence of “indifference with regard to the principle of the universal” because particularity would swallow universality, which is why the State only welcomes within itself “the individual dispossessed from any particular determination” (Ege, 2008, 36), that is to say a legal person, with the State only providing objective recognition.

28Thus, the role of civil society is to recognize people’s right to act according to their particular determination, so that they can both identify themselves as members of an institution and as singular persons with their own subjectivity. With the emancipation of subjectivity, self-realization becomes possible, according to each person’s needs, values and preferences, notably through the acknowledgement of their singularity and free-will. These are the premises of what is needed in terms of recognition regarding distributive issues. This is the specificity of civil society, whereas the State is moved by the principle of the universal which tends to deconstruct people’s differences in order to recognize their sameness. Ege and Walraevens explain that

In the ‘State’, the difference is swallowed up by an abstract order which represents the ‘whole’. In such an all-encompassing whole the individual is invited to renounce all of his qualities, which constitute his uniqueness compared to others, because the State requires the equality and the similarity of citizens. (Ege and Walraevens, 2011, 243)

29Civil society is the institution that allows the expression of subjectivity and acknowledges otherness so that people are treated equally in the sense that they have a symmetrical power, that their interests matter equally even though they may diverge, and that they can use their power differently according to their own free-will. In his theory of recognition, Honneth also points out what is at stake in modernity, mainly asserting that modern individualism instituted the right to particularization [“Besonderung”] (Honneth, [1992] 2000, 44), and that individual—or “negative”—liberty, which is a necessary step towards actual freedom, is a “demand” (ibid., 54).

30Furthermore, Honneth aims at providing a more modern version of Hegel’s political system by developing the project of a “theory of justice anchored in contemporary social analysis” (Honneth, 2009, 171), given that

such a project must be in alignment with modern theories and conceptions of justice, meaning that it must connect the legitimation of a social just order with the modern hypergood of the individual’s ‘self-determination’ or ‘autonomy’. No modern theory of justice can refrain from grounding its legitimacy in the freedom of the individual or the self-actualization of social individuals. On the other hand, such a theory must also take into account the insight of sociology and social analysis that almost all of the collective real forms of human freedom have social contents and goals that have to be developed and reproduced within the community. (ibid., 171-172)

31Thus, the particular dimension of the modern individual that we mentioned becomes a crucial issue for normative theories, and the recognition of people’s subjective dimension appears to be a demand that must stand along with the one of impartiality, that is to say, as a necessary condition of freedom.

3. The Recognition of Subjectivity: A Modern Demand of Justice

32I shall now explore more specifically the reasons why the question of recognition is central to social justice and distributive issues. As Sen (2009) has shown, what I called formal equality is a fundamental requirement for any normative theory based on the imperative of impartiality, but considering the object of social justice is real freedom, then both types of recognition, objective and of subjective, must be present, since freedom requires the possibility of expressing both identity and difference. In a more recent perspective, Nancy Fraser (e.g. 1995; 1996) point out the duality of the issue very clearly: is recognition in relation to social justice a matter of acknowledging sameness or difference? This is the point I shall explore first in this last section. Furthermore, she debates the issue with Honneth (Fraser and Honneth, 2003), who offers a renewed approach of Hegel’s social theory. Finally, the idea of recognizing subjectivity allows one to go back to Sen’s own conception of justice and argue that this subjective form of recognition is somehow connected to his notion of capability, which makes the dialectics of recognition relevant to his idea of justice.

3.1. Identity versus Difference: Recognition and Redistribution

33A central question of Nancy Fraser’s recent works on distributive issues and recognition concerns the dual nature of the problem: “Should we opt for a politics of redistribution that aims to abolish class differentials? Or should we embrace a politics of recognition that seeks to celebrate or deconstruct group differences?” (Fraser, 2003, 16). This question arises in the “age of identity politics” (Fraser, 1996) which is seeing demands of recognition, especially from groups that are regarded as minorities. Thus, the issue of subjective recognition, beyond being a matter solely related to the modern individual, constitutes a wider issue that involves justice at a more general level: the emancipation of subjectivity as a goal of social justice in order to provide the conditions for freedom does not only concern individuals, separate from the community, seeking to realize their own self-interest as can be interpreted in Hegel’s account of civil society, but also any entity with specific claims. For example, a particular cultural or ethnic group may demand the recognition of particularity in order to live according to its own values and have its collective interests considered, while aiming at actual freedom.

  • 12 This idea of deconstructing the particular determinations of people is well expressed in the terms (...)

34Now, the second part of Fraser’s question is very significant regarding the dual nature of the recognition issue in relation to social justice: will it tend to “celebrate” or “deconstruct” differences? Celebrating differences in people or groups does involve the recognition of subjectivity (which implies a differential scheme of distribution aiming at self-determination by providing basic conditions of life according to individual needs), whereas deconstructing differences corresponds to the idea of formal equality, that is to an objective form of recognition because the people are left with no more than their legal essence, undetermined and interchangeable, expressing their universal character as moral human beings within an institutional framework.12

35Now, for Nancy Fraser, the “politics of recognition” is linked to equal respect (Fraser and Honneth, 2003, 7). “Recognition” itself “has become a keyword of our time” and “is proving central to efforts to conceptualize today’s struggle over identity and difference” (ibid., 1). It is a truly modern issue and what is at stake is “a difference-friendly world, where assimilation to majority or dominant cultural norms is no longer the price of equal respect” (ibid., 7). Here, the intervention of an impartial third party is crucial to equalize people’s conditions, stop the violent process of struggle for recognition, and give people equal opportunities to claim their interests, which leads to see democratic principles as fair. Axel Honneth, who discusses the issue with Nancy Fraser asserts that

under the conditions of modern societies, every conceptions of justice must have an egalitarian character from the start, in the sense that all members of society regard one another as having equal rights and each is therefore accorded equal autonomy. (ibid., 176)

36This is again the point of objective recognition: acknowledging the basic moral capacities of all subjects, meaning that they can develop their own conception of good, and even then, enter a process of mutual recognition. The same idea is present in Hegel’s political theory through the concepts of law and contract which tend to objectivize people’s spirit in their social relationships, as well as in Sen’s conception of justice, especially when he asks “Why equality?” (Sen, 1980; 1992) and shows that impartiality leads to assert that some form of general equality is the basis for every normative theory (Sen, 2009).

  • 13 Indeed, she proposes an “analytical distinction” (1997, 15) according to which redistribution polit (...)
  • 14 Yar (2001) also questioned Fraser’s dualistic model and more specifically its “overly narrow ‘cultu (...)

37However, Honneth recalls that “from Hegel we learn, above all, that modernity’s promise of freedom demands that we help individuals in all their legitimate freedoms to exercise their rights in the social order” (Honneth, [2014] 2015, 198). Indeed, as formal equality is only a condition for formal freedom, there is also a demand for group and individual specificity, notably in the cultural domain, to express itself and develop freely. Again in the wake of Hegel, Honneth claims that “no modern theory of justice can refrain from grounding its legitimacy in the freedom of the individual or the self-actualization of social individuals” (ibid., 171-172). This rightly targets the dialectics of objective and subjectivity recognition as well as equality and difference, so that they appear as two interdependent conditions necessary for the realization of real freedom. Now, Fraser suggests that “theoretically, the task is to devise a two-dimensional conception of justice that can accommodate both defensible claims for social equality and defensible claims for the recognition of difference” (Fraser, 1996, 9), given that “social equality” here can be considered to refer to what we call “formal equality” as it seeks to establish symmetry in social relationships, thus objectivizing them. She considers equality must be acknowledged in redistribution politics whereas recognition must ensure the acknowledgment of difference, thus assuming that redistribution and recognition are two separate fields: “I assume that justice today requires both redistribution and recognition” (Fraser, 1995, 69).13 And although she asserts that they are very much interdependent, considering that they are “in practice intertwined” (ibid., 15), and that this distinction is only “analytical,” I would rather conceive the two as being overlapping: recognition is the premise for redistribution and as we saw, formal equality is the fundamental requirement in any normative theory that seeks to establish a fair social structure. Therefore a fair system of recognition (objective, institutional) should ensure the minimum conditions for fair distribution (from a subjective—or particular—perspective). Honneth defends this position while discussing the issue with Fraser: he would rather see distribution as a “derivative” of recognition, as a “subvariety of the struggle for recognition,” which actually leads him to conceive a “normative monism” of recognition, considering that it constitutes the “fundamental, overarching moral category” under which distribution should be subsumed (Fraser and Honneth, 2003, 2-3).14 Thus regarding the question “Does justice require the recognition of what is distinctive about individuals or groups, over and above the recognition of our common humanity?” (Fraser, 1996, 32), the answer shall be yes, considering the degree to which the dialectical principles of formal equality and recognition of subjectivity are intertwined. The recognition of our common humanity which established objective recognition is necessary but must be complemented by the recognition of singularity—which is linked to both recognition and redistribution, thus allowing the emancipation of subjectivity if institutions provide people with the means they need accordingly to their specific circumstances. Now, we argue that this idea is to be connected to Amartya Sen’s notion of capability.

3.2. Back to Sen: Towards a Comprehensive Conception of Freedom

38Hegel’s social theory and the recent discussion around it reveal how the dialectics of the universal and the particular apply to distributive issues. It is so notably in relation to the quest for actual freedom and this is essentially why it appears specifically relevant when applied to Sen’s conception of justice. Indeed, his theory, mainly through the notion of capability, and his theory of democracy, aims to establish an exhaustive definition of freedom and define the conditions for its actualization, that is, following Hegel’s and Honneth’s idea of elaborating a social system providing the conditions to make actual freedom possible.

3.2.1. Sen’s Notion of Capability

39Sen built his capability theory in reaction to three main views: addressing the shortcomings of utilitarian, total utility and Rawlsian equalities in his 1979 speech at Stanford University, he develops his concept of “basic capabilities” and defends it as the proper space for equality, basic capabilities referring to an extended form of Rawlsian “social goods” where people can actually choose between different options in order to achieve the type of life they value. Now, one of Sen’s goals with the elaboration of his notion of capability was to express human diversity, notably in terms of needs, preferences and culture. This was specifically pointed out in what he considers to be the shortcomings of Rawls’ theory of justice. Indeed, in this article he criticized Rawls’ conception of equality in terms of primary goods. Sen’s main argument against equality of primary goods is linked to the idea of human diversity and conversion problems, namely the idea that even if people are provided with equal primary resources, they will not all have the same capacity to turn those resources into actual well-being, so that primary goods do not fully account for people’s actual opportunity to realize what they initially intended. Human diversity implies that people do not all have the same needs, which means that equal primary resources will not give them the possibility to attain equal situations, and that they must be differentiated in this respect.

40Thus, Sen’s concern for human diversity as a crucial element in distributive issues led him to insist on people’s actual capacity to achieve their goals with their resources, which differs from one individual to another. Legal or objective recognition, which provides people with an equal power of participation in social life, though only formally, is therefore not sufficient to let them achieve what they want because different people may have different possibilities and a lower or higher capacity to use this recognition in a concrete way. Institutions must therefore take into account their real opportunities in order to target real freedom, and objective recognition, though a necessary condition, is not sufficient to do so. Capabilities should thus “reflect the actual freedom that people respectively enjoy in being able to live the kind of lives they have reasons to value” (Sen, 1990, 460). This echoes the idea of subjective recognition in that it suggests that institutions must acknowledge the people and group specificities in order to ensure that they have the specific conditions they need for that possibility, “respectively.

41The dialectics between objective and subjective recognition therefore appears to be relevant to Sen’s own conception of social justice: the principle of formal equality is fundamental as he himself asserts that any normative theory must meet the requirement of impartiality, which is inherent to the concept of justice itself. But this is only the basic, starting point of justice. Equal consideration needs to be completed by a process of differentiation aiming at “reconstructing” people’s specificities and allowing self-determination according to what they have reason to value and to their actual opportunities to achieve it. The concept of capabilities suggests that institutions have a role to play in providing them with the conditions to achieve self-determination or at least reduce inequalities in that sphere. Indeed, acknowledging people’s particularities implies treating people according to what they are able to achieve and thus involves a specific scheme of distribution linked to the actual possibility they have of converting their resources into “functionings,” that is to say into actual achievements. Functionings “represent parts of the state of a personin particular the various things that he or she manages to do or be in leading a life” (Sen, 1993, 31), so that recognition clearly appears to be a matter of distribution as Honneth’s previously mentioned statement suggests: the distribution scheme and criteria defined depend on the extent to which institutions acknowledge people’s specificities, or in Sen’s terms, “human diversity.” Such a conception targets real freedom, notably by taking into account the possibility that people really have of achieving what they intend to achieve, so that the subjective parameter is also present. Indeed, the recognition of subjectivity, at institutional level does not deal with the acknowledgement of people’s individual subjectivity in terms of their personal emotions, for instance, but in terms of their specificities, values and preferences, which include their capacity of choice and their real opportunities.

  • 15 Especially in order to avoid the “culture-dependent” aspect of basic capabilities, in the “weightin (...)

42However, Sen’s own conception in terms of “basic capabilities” has actually evolved towards equality in terms of “capabilities” only,15 and he acknowledged in his last book (2009) that capabilities are not to be regarded as the absolute relevant criterion in that it also presents shortcomings. Indeed, according to him, the concept of capability does not reflect the “procedural dimension” of freedom, i.e. the process of choice itself:

  • 16 On this specific topic, see in particular Baujard and Gilardone (2015).

A theory of justice—or more generally an adequate theory of normative social choice—has to be alive to both the fairness of the process involved and to the equity and efficiency of the substantive opportunities that people can enjoy. Capability is, in fact, no more than a perspective in terms of which the advantages and disadvantages of a person can be reasonably addressed.16 (Sen, 2009, 296-297)

43He thus makes the distinction between two forms of freedom, which are both necessary to reach an exhaustive and relevant conception of freedom: a procedural dimension on the one hand and possibility on the other hand. The procedural aspect of freedom refers to the process of choice itself and allows the deliberate character of one’s decisions to be evaluated, whereas the possibility dimension relates to the actual opportunity one has to achieve something and is contained in the concept of capability (Sen, [1999] 2003, 32). So we begin to understand how trying to reach a full definition of freedom is central to Sen’s work. He has even called into question his own theory of capabilities, admitting it does not offer such a comprehensive account. However, including the procedural dimension is not sufficient according to us: it is clearly evidence of Sen’s efforts to propose an adequate definition of freedom but this formal distinction does not reflect the social dimension of freedom, which is developed elsewhere in his theory of justice: it is mainly in his views on democracy that we find the issue of recognition and with it that of social relationships. Now, Sen’s theory is also to be linked to Hegel’s thought at this point.

3.2.2. Democracy Performs the Synthesis

44The main political regime that Sen defends as a relevant condition of real freedom is democracy. He defines it as “government by discussion” (Sen, 2009, 324), the expression of “public reasoning”: it is central to his thinking and is seen as the political structure that can welcome the dialectics of objective and subjective recognition. Indeed, it supposes a strict equal power of participation in terms of basic political rights, which involves formal liberty through the enforcement of legal or formal equality, but democracy aims at allowing people to express their voice and assert their interests and rights, so that the principles of justice established can constantly be revised and improved. In this respect, it is also based on the recognition of subjectivity because it represents the public place where subjectivity can be emancipated and taken into consideration, thus becoming effective following Hegel’s idea that institutions are the necessary intermediate for people to actualize their actions and make them effective (Hegel, 1820, §141).

  • 17 At this stage, he is mainly criticizing the rule of majority as the essential characteristic of dem (...)
  • 18 Sen’s concept of “open impartiality” is based on his analysis of the Smithian impartial spectator a (...)

45Furthermore, in his article “Democracy as a Universal Value” (1999), Sen insists on the fact that providing people with formal rights, such as the right to vote, is not sufficient to create a real democratic structure.17 The conditions needed to exercise these rights effectively must also be generated. He thus defines the three essential functions, intrinsic, instrumental, and constructive, that democracy must fulfill. The intrinsic dimension refers to political freedom as “a part of human freedom in general, and exercising civil and political rights is a crucial part of good lives of individuals as social beings” (Sen, 1999, 10); this is reminiscent of the basic formal dimension needed to live and develop oneself as a human being. The instrumental dimension, as Sen explains, refers to giving people the capacity to make claims and thus get their interests considered: democracy should allow “enhancing the hearing that people get in expressing and supporting their claims to political attention (including claims of economic needs)” (ibid.), which is the subjective dimension of recognition when considering redistributive issues. Finally, the constructive dimension of democracy, largely connected to the idea of public discussion in a framework of open impartiality,18 refers to the collective dimension that is necessary for the deliberation process (ibid.). This process is therefore seen as a dialectical method that should result in enlightened and reasonable decisions—that is, providing the conditions of freedom through interaction between the universal and the particular, between objective and “subjective” recognition.

46Democracy therefore allows the possibility of mutual recognition, thereby superseding Kojève’s conception. Indeed, while objective recognition enforces formal equality—that is, a symmetrical structure of social relationships albeit artificially and from the outside—through the mediation of an institutional third party in order to overcome the impossibility of reciprocity at that moment of the struggle for recognition, democratic dispositions enable people to recognize each other, especially, in Sen’s theory, through efforts to create the conditions for real deliberation between citizens. This is the point developed in the sphere of the State in Hegel’s theory: citizenship refers to the expression of the principle of the universal, while acknowledging particularity in civil society.

  • 19 See footnote 6.

47This also appears to be a central point in Honneth’s social theory, especially in comparison with Kojève’s reading of Hegel. Indeed, while Kojève seems to reject the possibility of mutual recognition,19 Honneth sees it as the condition for individual self-development, especially in post-modern societies: mutual recognition is inherent to his model of freedom, which comes to an end with social liberty in the “democratic formation of the collective will” (Honneth, [2014] 2015). Intersubjective recognition thus becomes possible and is necessary because it contributes to self-recognition: people can consider themselves as right bearers and juridical persons only if they acknowledge others as such (Honneth, [1992] 2000, 132). Moreover, mutual recognition, at the time of post-modern right, involves the recognition of the subject’s moral faculty and autonomy, but also of the concrete dispositions required to make use of this faculty (ibid., 143). Thus, issues of distribution clearly appear to be included in the field of recognition since the issue is to determine what kind of basic needs must be fulfilled to ensure people’s ability to actualize their freedom: Honneth explains that rights include new material content that pays more attention to individual differences in terms of luck opportunities that allow actualization of socially ensured liberties (ibid., 144). This post-Hegelian conception is again in line with Sen’s capability approach in that the question of considering people’s own circumstances and capacity of choice and conversion is at stake: the major issue is then to develop an exhaustive conception of freedom and that allows drawing parallels between these theories.

48Relying on Honneth’s work, Hegel’s political theory looks relevant to Sen’s conception of justice, notably regarding the importance of institutions. Indeed, although Hegel did not favor democracy as the best system, he nevertheless defended social institutions as the condition for the effectivity of people’s actions. Now, Honneth’s point is to “demonstrate the current relevance of The Philosophy of Right by proving that it can be understood as a draft of a normative theory of those spheres of reciprocal recognition that must be preserved intact because they constitute the moral identity of modern societies” (Honneth, 2010, 5), which shows that the central role of institutions in to ensure recognition. Indeed, “Hegel retained the idea intact that the freedom of individuals is finally only implemented in that space where they can participate in institutions whose normative practices assure a relationship of mutual recognition” (Honneth, [2014] 2015, 181): just as Sen looks for the optimal conditions of fair participation in public life, with specific importance given to public debate, it was crucial for Hegel to develop a system that would take into account the right dispositions of the ethical sphere, without which freedom could not be achieved. “Hegel can conclude that individuals only really experience and realize freedom if they participate in social institutions that are formed by mutual recognition relationships” (ibid., 185): indeed, only such institutions can provide the conditions for actual social recognition, which means that the spirit must be seen through the prism of objectivity.

49Formal equality, which engages objective recognition, is founded on the demand for impartiality, which Sen asserts to be a necessary principle of justice (i.e. something that has to be) and relates to the principle of the universal. But the notion of justice must then be defined more precisely: “universality of inclusion,” or equality of treatment involves considering each interest with the same level of attention, which implies including particularity. Sen’s conception of justice therefore involves a dialectical movement between objective and subjective recognition, the latter including distributive claims.

4. Concluding Remarks

50Having asserted that formal equality is the fundamental principle of every contemporary normative theory, we derived the idea of objective recognition, which mainly concerns and categorizes formal dispositions necessary, though not sufficient, to provide the basic conditions of actual freedom. From this results a demand for the acknowledgement of strict identity between people at a certain level (here determined to be the legal sphere, where subjectivity is suspended), which ends up forming, following Hegel’s terminology, a “totality.” The institutional mediation offered by a third party objectivizes the interactions of people, who thus become interchangeable, or identical, through the suspension of their subjectivity, so that they are acknowledged as legal persons, strictly equal at the social level. This process, which we call “objective recognition,” is a necessary condition for justice. However, such recognition is not sufficient, particularly in view of the characteristics of modern individuals, who demand the acknowledgment of singularity. Now, what Hegel establishes as the principle of civil society is precisely this duality between the universal and the particular, between the objective and the subjective. This duality, which operates in a dialectical manner, is to be connected to the to-and-fro movement between the notions of identity (i.e. sameness) and difference, and to the processes of “de-differentiation” and differentiation (Fraser, 1995). The recognition of subjectivity is thus asserted to be necessary for two major reasons: people have the right to follow their own interest and to choose for themselves the kind of life they have reason to value, and institutions must take into consideration their differences in terms of opportunity to achieve this and actualize their freedom. This directly echoes Amartya Sen’s notion of capability. In that sense, the dialectics of objective and subjective recognition refers to the dual nature of the concept of equality put forward by Sen in his conception of justice, when he makes the distinction between two fundamental questions: “Equality of what?” and “Why equality?” (Sen, 1980). Finally, Sen’s quest for an exhaustive conception of freedom reveals the importance of the concept of recognition for his own theory, especially in relation to the social dimension of freedom, which the works of Hegel and Honneth highlight.

I wish to address a special thanks to Ragip Ege, Herrade Igersheim and Alfonso Sanchez Hormigo for their very useful remarks, but also to the participants of the 21st Annual ESHET Conference and of the 19th Summer School on the History of Economic Thought for their comments. My thanks also go to the referees and editors of this journal for the time and work they dedicated to the publication of this paper.

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1 This statement is present in the Idea of Justice (2009), but is also mentioned in Sen’s works since his 1979 Tanner Lecture on “Equality of what?” where he begins to point out the importance of another question, namely “Why equality?”, gradually denoting the fundamental character of impartiality for normative theories in relation to a general and formal type of equality.

2 The term “formal equality” is to be found in the literature at least since Aristotle who refers to it in Nicomachean Ethics as the principle according to which “things that are alike should be treated alike” (1131a-1131b).

3 Following the simple idea that providing people with rights is not enough for them to achieve freedom if they do not have the means to make use of them.

4 Recent studies have suggested that this work constitutes in itself Hegel’s theory of justice. For instance, Axel Honneth calls it a “normative theory of social justice that, by reconstructing the necessary conditions of individual autonomy, tries to determine what social spheres a society must comprise in order to give all its members a chance to realize their self-determination” (Honneth, 2010, 18).

5 Honneth makes the distinction between self-determination (Selbstbestimmung) and self-actualization (Selbstverwiklichung) as two different models of “reflexive freedom”: the former refers to an “autonomy-based” concept of freedom, following the idea of individual freedom, while the latter is the “self-actualization oriented concept of freedom” (Honneth, 2009, 173), suggesting the social dimension of freedom, more in line with the model of “social freedom,” i.e. requiring recognition. Indeed, in Freedom’s Right (2011) Honneth establishes three models of freedom: the first, negative freedom, refers to the enabling of free will to fulfill all of one’s desires. The second model, reflexive freedom, involves autonomy in that the norm of our actions shall be ours. Lastly, social freedom attempt to complement the latter as it shall enable people to “perform the reflexive acts required for self-determination only if they interact socially with others who do the same” (Honneth, [2011] 2014, 42). Concerning, our enquiry, this “graduation” of freedom seems to be relevant: we shall endorse self-actualization as reflecting our conception of real freedom in order to provide an exhaustive conception, especially as it integrates the former models. Eventually, real freedom can be said to include the basic ability of the will to choose between all things as well as the power to determine its own norms of actions, and finally the power of people to recognize and be recognized as free beings. We shall see in what sense this conception is relevant to Sen’s theory.

6 Mainly here, Inequality Reexamined (1992) and Idea of Justice (2009).

7 Kojève, from his reading of Hegel, actually developed his own interpretation of the struggle for recognition, getting away from the possibility of mutuality in the process of recognition. He rather advocates in favour of a unilateral structure, what Abid (2012, 6) pointed out as problematic, but is actually relevant regarding the idea of formal equality. For the specificities of Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel, see also Kervégan (2008).

8 Here the idea of symmetry does not concern specific interrelationships but the overall structure of a social whole, merely meaning each entity (or individual) taking part of this whole is acknowledged the same power of participation or negotiation, constituting “symmetrical” and regular segments.

9 However, this brief description needs further development: one can see that civil society acknowledges difference while the State recognizes equality (in the sense of identity, according to the notion of shared identity of citizens). But, as civil society acknowledges individual free-will, it also acknowledges the equal moral and rational nature of people, while the State acknowledges the social dimension of the ethical sphere, that is acknowledgment of Others as different. Thus it appears to be a real dialectical construction: civil society and the State are meaningful only when taken together and seen as complementary.

10 See also Remarks of § 185 of The Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Hegel, [1820] 2003, 222-223).

11 This structure is however to be emphasized until the structure of the State is reached, when, according to Honneth, the human being is to be recognized as a concrete universal subject, namely a socialized and unique subject (Honneth, [1992] 2000, 36). Indeed, the specificity of civil society is its contradictory duality, which makes it an unsatisfactory stage in Hegel’s system because it is based on opposed principles, the universal and the particular, which have yet to be reconciled: the legal and institutional aspects are necessary to ensure the efficiency of individual goals and actions, which can be fully expressed here.

12 This idea of deconstructing the particular determinations of people is well expressed in the terms she uses when asking whether we should promote differentiation or de-differentiation (Fraser, 1995, 74). “De-differentiation” relates to the process of objective recognition, as it involves suspending the differences that characterize each person or group artificially in order to have a uniform community of identical selves from a legal standpoint—a totality—which actualizes the principle of impartiality necessary to establish a fair social structure, with no lord or bondsman. But again, the process of “differentiation” must intervene elsewhere in order to let people act according to their own needs and desires and thus ensure their freedom.

13 Indeed, she proposes an “analytical distinction” (1997, 15) according to which redistribution politics and recognition politics “assume different conceptions of justice” (1996, 6), “propose different sorts of remedies for injustice” (ibid., 7), “assume different conceptions of the collectivities who suffer injustice” (ibid., 8), and “different understandings of group differences” (ibid., 9). She therefore claims it is about a “redistribution-recognition dilemma,” separating socioeconomic injustice “rooted in the political-economic structure of society” (1997, 13), with exploitation, economic marginalization and deprivation given as examples, from cultural or symbolic injustice “rooted in social, interpretation and patterns of representations communication” (ibid., 14), with cultural domination, non-recognition and disrespect as examples.

14 Yar (2001) also questioned Fraser’s dualistic model and more specifically its “overly narrow ‘culturalist’ understanding of recognition” (2001, 289) that “cannot encompass redistributive claims” (2001, 296). He sees claims about redistribution as inherent to the struggle for recognition, which is what this paper defends: asking to be entitled to more material resources, for instance, is directly related to asking to be acknowledged in our singularity (gender, handicap, race, etc. are among the many parameters that enter Fraser’s “culturalist” or “symbolic” view but engage different needs in terms of distribution). Indeed, the harm generated by “cultural” or “symbolic” injustice, as she calls them, usually generates deficiencies in terms of material resources, involving unfair inequalities at the redistributive level and not only in terms of recognition: “redistributive claims, as moral claims upon others invoking the terms of justice and injustice, irredeemably have the character of recognition claims” (Yar, 2001, 295).

15 Especially in order to avoid the “culture-dependent” aspect of basic capabilities, in the “weighting of different capabilities” (Sen, 1980, 219). It is also why he refuses to draw up an established list of capabilities, which would imply a form of paternalism. On this issue, his approach differs from that of Martha Nussbaum (1988; 2011) who has listed ten fundamental capabilities aiming at human dignity rather than real freedom as with Sen. This is also one of the reasons why we decided to focus on Sen’s conception rather than on Nussbaum’s ideas: for Sen, the capability approach plays a role in the realization of actual freedom, which is also the explicit aim of Hegel’s whole theory and parallels can be drawn with the post-Hegelian discussion on the concept of freedom. Moreover, being established and defined, and fundamental and “central” to human agency, Nussbaum’s capabilities could even be linked to objective recognition only if this list should apply uniformly to all human beings without distinction, according to a principle of formal equality.

16 On this specific topic, see in particular Baujard and Gilardone (2015).

17 At this stage, he is mainly criticizing the rule of majority as the essential characteristic of democracy: “Democracy is a demanding system, and not just a mechanical condition (like majority rule) taken in isolation” (Sen, 1999, 9-10).

18 Sen’s concept of “open impartiality” is based on his analysis of the Smithian impartial spectator and aims at countering shortcomings he finds in Rawls’ concept of the veil of ignorance. It leads him to assert that “the idea of addressing the issues of fairness through the device of the Smithian impartial spectator allows some possibilities that are not readily available in the contractarian line of reasoning used by Rawls” (Sen, 2009, 70), and to define open impartiality as an “interactive process of critical scrutiny, open to arguments coming from others and sensitive to the relevant information that can be obtained” (ibid., 358-359), that is to say a reasoning process that goes beyond political, cultural and geographical borders―a tool for a broad public debate.

Sen also mentions the impartial spectator in his theory of democracy to show the importance of being able to be neutral, or more precisely to have a decentered outlook regarding the interests of local actors, mainly in order to neutralize the concerns for individual interests and thus respect their diversity in the process of collective choice. He indeed states that “one of Smith’s major methodological concerns is the need to invoke a wide variety of viewpoints and outlooks based on diverse experiences from far and near, rather than remaining contented with encounters―actual or counterfactual―with others living in the same cultural and social milieu, and with the same kind of experiences, prejudices and convictions about what is reasonable and what is not, and even beliefs about what is feasible and what is not.” (Sen, ibid., 45). Eventually one can see how the impartial spectator (as specifically used by Sen) differs from the role of Kojève’s impartial and disinterested third party: the latter represents an institutional device that ensures formal equality, whereas the former deals with the social recognition of difference, as a dialogical method.

19 See footnote 6.

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Cyrielle Poiraud, « Equality, Recognition and Social Justice: A Hegelian Perspective Announcing Amartya Sen », Œconomia, 9-1 | 2019, 1-28.

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Cyrielle Poiraud, « Equality, Recognition and Social Justice: A Hegelian Perspective Announcing Amartya Sen », Œconomia [En ligne], 9-1 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2019, consulté le 27 juin 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/oeconomia.5178

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