Navegación – Mapa del sitio

InicioNúmeros24Artículos/ArtigosRecognition as a normative concept


Recognition as a normative concept

Jakub Kloc-Konkołowicz


The notion of recognition is one of the most important issues in the contemporary social theory, but also one of the biggest challenges that modern pluralistic societies face. Nevertheless, due to a strong reception of some Hegelian ideas (e.g. by the representatives of the Frankfurt School), the category of recognition is usually interpreted from the perspective of social struggle. The normative dimension of the mutual recognition processes in a stronger way – in the field of social philosophy is usually neglected. After some introductory remarks, this paper firstly, offers a genealogy of the notion of recognition in the framework of classical German philosophy. In the second part, this paper analyses how the classical insights can be made fruitful for the current debate.

Inicio de página

Entradas del índice

Inicio de página

Texto completo

The notion of recognition is one of the most important issues in the contemporary social theory, but also one of the biggest challenges that modern pluralistic societies face. The growing importance of the recognition processes in building social relations and institutions on the one hand, and the growing importance of the notion of recognition in social theories and in political and social philosophy on the other hand is not a coincidence. The core of both processes is intersubjectivity: be it in the practical form of ever stronger interdependence of individuals, be it in theoretical form of reconstruction of individual identity and self-conscience as results of intersubjective relations.

Nevertheless, due to a strong reception of some Hegelian ideas (e.g. by the representatives of the Frankfurt School), the category of recognition is usually interpreted from the perspective of social struggle ('struggle for recognition'). This generates some important problems, both within the framework of interpretation of the recognition processes and with regard to general aims of social theory. Now the too strong emphasis on the 'militant' dimension of recognition may result in assuming a purely descriptive strategy in analyzing this important social phenomenon. This strategy must be seen as insufficient if one assumes – just as I do – that the aim of social philosophy consists not only in the correct analysis of acts and processes of recognition, but also in working out criteria by which the claims for recognition made by individuals and social groups may be initially evaluated. In a democratic state, only citizens (through their political representatives) decide whether to accept such claims (and to what extent). Nevertheless, the aim of the critical social theory should be to develop principles which would allow to discern well-grounded claims for recognition from those which are unfounded or pose a threat to the fundamental rights of other individuals and groups.

In order to define such criteria, I advise to resort to the Fichtean theoretical model, which is historically prior to the Hegelian one. In the Fichtean model there is a stronger accent (rooted in Kantian philosophy) placed upon the normative dimension of recognition acts and processes. According to Fichte, mutual recognition is an appeal formulated on both sides of the intersubjective relation to respect each other's freedom.

In the Fichtean model, the complementarity of recognition actions, their mutuality as well as moral and legal obligations they imply are put forward more clearly than in Hegel’s conception. I admit that both thinkers – Fichte and Hegel – take into consideration the two dimensions of mutual recognition (the descriptive and the normative one). Nevertheless, the choice of the central theoretical metaphor (Hegel’s struggle for recognition vs. Fichte’s summons for recognition) influences the focus: in Hegel’s model the descriptive moment dominates, whereas in Fichte’s concept the normative one.

  • 1 Kloc-Konkołowicz, J., Anerkennung als Verpflichtung. Klassische Konzepte der Anerkennung und ihre B (...)

My idea can thus be described as being oriented towards demonstrating the normative dimension of the mutual recognition processes in a stronger way – in the field of social philosophy. This means: interpreting these processes as a source of moral and legal commitments undertaken both by those granting recognition as well as by those aspiring to it. The ideas I present in this paper, are discussed in a more detailed way in my Recognition as commitment1. I assume that the claims for recognition of status and rights of an individual or a social group can never be accepted at the expense of the recognition of status and rights of other individuals or social groups. I call it the first guiding principle of recognition. According to the second guiding principle I propose, claims for recognition that deserve acceptance should be accompanied by the readiness of those who raise those claims to assume obligations generated by the act of recognition. Nevertheless, those obligations should not violate the fundamental rights of the recognized party, they should be rationally justifiable and they must not exceed (with respect to their extent) the obligations that the recognizing party is bound to fulfil.

There is some important remark that has to be mentioned in advance. A social theory cannot replace the real institutions of the democratic constitutional state by trying to generate some sort of theoretical ‘deduction’ of acceptable forms of recognition. In this sense, my proposal has a formal character: its aim is rather to propose a theoretical procedure in order to evaluate whether the recognition claims fulfil necessary conditions to become a subject of public debate and of legal decisions. My proposal for reconstructing recognition processes focusses on the commitments that the parties undertake. I am convinced that this proposal corresponds with some widespread intuitions concerning these processes. The symmetrical character of recognition and of commitments resulting from it reflects the symmetrical nature of modern law which firmly connects rights and obligations and treats all subjects as equals. The law can be seen as the universal language that encodes in a stable and permanent way the mutual recognition of citizens. This is why most of the new aspirations to recognition must at the end be formulated in the language of law, which I consider, following Habermas, as a central sphere of the social reproduction of norms and values.

In modern societies, the law that is the fundamental guarantee of individual rights and private autonomy. Consequently, one of the central issues is the relation between the autonomy of the individuals and the acts and processes of recognition they undertake. This issue generates some important questions like: do the processes of recognition imply the autonomy of the parties involved in them? Or is it rather that those processes enable the development of the individual autonomy of their subjects? I suggest that the notions of autonomy and recognition are necessarily interconnected. Since they build up a constellation in which the interpretation of one of those notions unavoidably leads to the other one. Namely, the individual autonomy (precisely: its development) constitutes the aim of the processes of mutual recognition. This means that individuals and social groups demand recognition in order to ensure their development and the realization of their own autonomy. On the other hand, the shaping of one’s own autonomy (in the case of individuals just as in the case of social groups) in the context of modern society turns out to be possible only through the reference to other persons and groups. This reference takes the form of mutual recognition in the long run. We may also put it in the following way: no recognition without autonomy, no autonomy without recognition.

The above described mutual reference of the crucial notions of the modern moral philosophy and social theory leads us to another category which forms an integral part of the concept of recognition I try to develop: the category of self-limitation. I admit that individuals who strive for recognition undertake these efforts mainly in order to ensure their own self-realization. What is at stake is the widening of the areas and forms of one’s own freedom, understood as the right to decide about oneself. Nevertheless, in the course of the process of mutual recognition individuals discover that the accomplishment of this process depends on another autonomy-related attitude, i.e. on the readiness to self-limitation.

I trace back this motif to the moral philosophy of Kant who emphasized that the notion of autonomy implies both the ability of self-determination (the ability to dictate the law to which one is subjected) and the ability to restrict one’s own demands by taking into account the freedom and autonomy of the other person. At this point the polemic nature of my proposal comes again to the fore. Whereas the Hegelian inspired conceptions (especially Honneth’s conception) interpret recognition mainly as a mechanism enabling a broader self-realization of an individual, in my own model the ability of self-limitation appears to be an equally important dimension of the recognition process. The subjectivities striving for recognition expect from other persons and groups that they will be able to restrict their demands and the extent of their freedom in order to make it possible for the aspiring subjects to increase their self-realization. But this expectation, according to the above-mentioned principle of symmetry, may also be reversed. This means that also the ‘recognizing’ subjectivities have a right to expect the ability of self-limitation from the subjects that are being recognized. In this way the subject's ability of self-limitation, derived from the Kantian conception of moral autonomy, proves to be a necessary condition of undertaking ethical and legal commitments by both sides of the recognition processes.

I consider self-realization and self-limitation as two necessary dimensions of any act of mutual recognition. To be sure, anyone seeking recognition is mainly attempting to increase his chances for self-realization. In trying to achieve this aim, they nevertheless become aware that it is only possible through self-limitation of all the subjects involved in the act of recognition. Paying attention to both dimensions of recognition (self-realization and self-limitation) is in the long run only possible thanks to the development of social practices and institutions which deliver a framework for interconnecting aspirations and strivings of many subjects. This is why various (individual and collective) learning processes constitute a necessary condition of the emergence of a phenomenon I would like to call ‘the culture of recognition’. I define this notion as the totality of cultural transmissions, institutional structures and social practices which are connected with the processes of mutual recognition. This culture of recognition constitutes an indispensable background for the success of those processes. The processes of recognition can be seen as successful if the recognition acts result from learning processes and if they at the same time motivate to develop those processes further. Successful recognition processes open possibilities for the development of learning processes both by recognized subjects and groups and by recognizing subjects and groups. It is only on the assumption of the existence of the culture of recognition that such processes may indeed enrich the social structure, interconnecting individual and social aspirations and aims. Only then the involved parties in a recognition process can consider their commitments not necessarily as unavoidable ‘burdens’ or drawbacks in a symbolical struggle but rather as a discovery of new and unknown perspectives of realization of one’s freedom and as a discovery of new interpretation of one’s own identity – an interpretation that takes into account the aims and values of other persons or groups.

I will now proceed in three steps. Firstly, I will try to sketch the genealogy of the notion of recognition in the framework of classical German philosophy. In the second step I will try to see how the classical insights can be made fruitful for the current debate. I will end with some closing remarks which hint at the theoretical path on which I would like to proceed further.

The genealogy of the notion of mutual recognition in the framework of classical German philosophy

As a point of reference, I take the positions of Kant, Fichte and Hegel. There is an idea common to all those authors: the idea of interpreting the individual by means of intersubjective structures. I perceive Kant’s philosophy as a possible source of inspiration for the issue of mutual recognition. Nevertheless, I admit that Kant is not using recognition as one of the formal notions of his practical philosophy. Hence one can only look here for possible reasons why Fichte, as one of the most important Kant’s intellectual followers, introduces the formal notion of recognition into the vocabulary of his moral, legal and social theory. As the possible sources of the category of recognition in German idealism I identify the Kantian principles of respect and of reciprocal relation. Kant understands respect for the other as restriction of one’s self-love for the sake of the human dignity in the person of the other. It is important to stress the negative nature of this concept, according to which showing respect for other rational beings manifests itself mainly in the limitation of one’s own aspirations in view of the well-grounded strivings of those beings. Furthermore, Kant defines the respect towards the other person as identical with the respect towards the moral law. Thus, respect proves to be not only a negative relation between subjects (based on self-limitation), but also an abstract one (related with the general ability of rational beings to fulfil the demands of moral law). Therefore, one can only treat the notion of respect as a source of inspiration for the subsequent Fichtean idea of mutual recognition and self-limitation. There also are some less obvious inspirations which are suggested by Fichte himself. In the formulation of one of the early versions of his recognition concept, Fichte refers as his source of inspiration to Kant’s principle of reciprocal relation (one of the three so called analogies of experience) from the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant himself introduces this principle as the ‘notion of dynamic community’ which constitutes the condition of possibility of objects of experience. Kant claims that the experience of a simultaneous existence of objects in space is only possible on the assumption of their reciprocal relation (their mutual influence in the sense of cause and effect). Fichte adopts the theoretical principle formulated by Kant and gives it a practical meaning by translating it into the formula of the reciprocal influence of subjects by means of notions.

It should be emphasized that by re-interpreting Kant’s theoretical principle of reciprocal relation in the framework of his practical philosophy, Fichte discovers a characteristic feature of human relations, namely their discursive nature. Whereas the objects interact directly, through a physical influence, subjects influence each other by means of notions. The fundamental dimension of human interaction is therefore the discursive interaction. In this interaction the subjects are not confronted with coercion, but with arguments and reasons which appeal to their ability to understand and act freely. In Kant’s scheme we are not able to determine which object initiates the reciprocal action. We must regard both objects in two ways: each of them as an effect and as a cause. Similarly, in Fichte’s re-interpretation of this scheme, there is no way to determine the first subject who influences the other one. This leads to the understanding of both subjects as being initiators of discursive communication, as well as being receivers of such communication.

Although Fichte conceives his practical re-interpretation of Kant’s principle as a transcendental model, he nevertheless can easily identify events and processes which empirically realize this model. In this context he refers to the intersubjective nature of notions, language and rationality (often giving examples from the domain of education). By doing this, he anticipates much later conceptions that reconstruct the intersubjective nature of language, rationality and of the processes in which the individual identity is shaped (as in G. H. Mead). Due to this intersubjective perspective, the principle of reciprocity and symmetry of actions is being consequently upheld in Fichte’s theory of mutual recognition. Another person is always treated here as the first object of experience for any rational being. It is an unusual object, because its appearance in the field of experience has an unavoidable normative dimension which Fichte expresses through his notion of a ‘summons’ ('Aufforderung') directed by a subject to another subject.

This summons should be understood as an appeal to respect freedom of the subject issuing the appeal. The other subject may respond to this appeal affirmatively and restrict its own freedom for the sake of the freedom of the appealing subject. Otherwise, the other subject may also ignore the appeal and trespass the limits of the other’s freedom. Only by understanding the meaning of the appeal and by following it, a subject can manifest its own rationality. It is important not to forget the symmetrical nature of Fichte's recognition model: all the actions of subject ‘A’ towards subject ‘B’ must also be seen as the actions of the subject ‘B’ towards subject ‘A’. Fichte himself draws from it the following conclusion: I am ready to recognize another I (Ich) as a free and rational being only on the assumption that the other I is also ready to recognize myself as a free and rational being. In Fichte’s model, the recognition retains a consequently symmetrical and reciprocal character. Fichte summarizes the intersubjective constitution of rational subjects through the acts of mutual recognition by determining the category of individuality as a reciprocal notion. A monological constitution of a subject is consequently replaced here by intersubjective constitution.

The normative character of recognition is the most significant feature of Fichte’s recognition concept. As mentioned above, the interaction between subjects has an indispensable dimension of obligation. The other I appears in the field of my experience as a subject appealing to me for reflection, respect and reason-guided actions I undertake towards this other I. What is important is that Fichte also adopts from Kant the conviction that the basic condition of rationality is the ability of self-limitation. And it is exactly self-limitation that is demanded from an individual in the appeal of the other.

The abstract character of Fichte’s recognition concept may, however, be seen as a disadvantage of his theory. One of the results of this abstractness is that the criterion of rational, symmetrical self-limitation is applied to subsequent social practices and institutions only externally. Fichte’s Closed Commercial State is one of the works that demonstrate undesirable consequences of such methodology, like, for example, a paternalistic state. To avoid utopian consequences of Fichte’s normativism, Hegel conceives of recognition as a category rooted in determined practices and social institutions from the very beginning. This Hegelian concept is the most influential in the current theory of recognition.

Hegel understands mutual recognition as a kind of motor of social development, both in his early Jena period and in the late Berlin period. He demonstrates how the relations of mutual recognition contribute to the emergence of the crucial practices and institutions of the modern society, such as family bonds, property structure or the system of human needs. As the central sphere of manifestation of the principle of mutual recognition Hegel sees the domain of legal norms which codify the reciprocal recognition of citizens guaranteeing them the status of equal subjects (equality before the law).

In the Hegelian perspective, reciprocal recognition takes the form of a process which at the long run aims at the symmetry of claims and actions, though in its initial development it assumes an ‘asymmetrical character. This asymmetrical character is in the first place the result of the Hegelian strategy to link the category of recognition to the notion of struggle. The famous Hegelian ‘struggle for recognition’ takes place at different levels of social structure and assumes various forms. But its meaning remains the same: the attempt to exclude the other subjects leads to a struggle, the effect of which is a temporary dominance of one of the involved parties. In this case we can speak about unilateral recognition. It is only on the basis of a learning process initiated during this struggle that the relation of recognition gradually becomes symmetrical. Contrary to Fichte’s model, the symmetry of recognition is not taken for granted, as based on the reaction to a normative ‘summons’, but is rather interpreted as an outcome of the learning processes initiated during symbolical struggles. This is why Hegel is able to root the acts of recognition stronger than Fichte in real social processes, showing the role that recognition actually plays in shaping institutions and practices of the modern state.

Nevertheless, this strategy of strongly linking recognition to very specific and historically contingent relations and mechanisms associated with a determined social model may prove to be a disadvantage. Hegel gives the category of recognition a specific, social meaning, but one could say that the price he pays for this is the marginalization of the normative dimension of this category. Recognition becomes for Hegel – especially in the later period – only an element of historical processes and social practices interpreted in a descriptive way. The sense of those processes and practices is not being generated in the processes of recognition anymore, but is the outcome of a general plan of rationality being realized in the history (the Hegelian notion of the ‘objective spirit’).

The current debate

I claim that a satisfactory concept of recognition in the framework of current social theory should combine the advantages of the reconstructed positions. On the one hand, it should adopt the Hegelian heritage of considering the real processes and social phenomena, as well as the learning processes both as the background of successful recognition acts and as their long-term consequence. On the other hand, it should also adopt the Kantian-Fichtean perspective and reconstruct the process of recognition not only as a widening of the possibilities of self-realization of individuals, but also as an action of rational self-limitation. To put it another way, a comprehensive theory should not underestimate the normative dimension of recognition, i.e., the dimension that manifests itself in the well-grounded expectations (summons) formulated by one subject towards the other and in moral commitments generated by the acts of reciprocal recognition.

  • 2 See Honneth, A., The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge, UK (...)

It seems to me that the departure point is the fundamental question whether recognition should be seen as an object of struggle or as a source of obligations. In this regard, the main object of reference is Axel Honneth’s social theory, inspired by the above described Hegelian model of ‘struggle for recognition’2. According to Honneth, the aim of the struggle for recognition in its various forms and on different levels of social interaction (starting from the mother-child relation and ending with the relation of citizen with his political and legal community) is to enable the right balance between the process of individualization and the process of socialization of subjects in the first place. Successful processes of recognition, interpreted as struggles, make it possible for the involved parties not only to fulfil the demands of socialization but also to achieve individual autonomy. Nevertheless, Honneth hesitates to determine clearly the status of his category of recognition. In the earlier period he seemed to have ascribed a psychological character to this category by understanding it mainly from the perspective of its aim, i.e. the self-realization of individuals. Later he tended to interpret recognition as a transcendental-existential category, placing it in the framework of the renewed concept of reification (understood as a consequence of 'forgotten recognition'). In his book “Freedom’s Right”, he shifted the category of recognition into the context of institutional structures of modern society, a strategy that implicates some dangers already described with regard to Hegelian position. My polemic intervention consists of adopting the second of Honneth’s proposals and changing its sense. Namely, I claim that recognition should be treated as a transcendental concept and at the same time as a critical category that constitutes a necessary condition for the realization of individual autonomy. To specify the sense of this critical application of the category of recognition, I would like to return once more to the Fichtean concept. This time, I will not interpret it, but use it in the contemporary context. The most important feature of Fichte’s theory, as already mentioned, is its appellative (normative) dimension and its strong reference to the notion of self-limitation and to moral commitments generated on both sides of the recognition processes. If we apply the insights of this model, we can try to formulate the ‘guiding principles’ of recognition and put them in the hierarchical order. Firstly, the claims for recognition are well-grounded and they deserve acceptance if they do not imply diminishing the rights and the status of other persons. Secondly, those who raise such claims should be ready to undertake commitments resulting from the recognition of their rights and status, although those commitments are not supposed to exceed the range of the obligations of the recognizing party. Apart from formulating these principles, we can also analyze concrete examples which show the possibility of their application. Let us for example reflect upon the extent of obligations that a person demanding recognition as a member of a certain political community should be ready to accept (the issue of granting citizenship). While the obligation to learn the language of this community does not seem to violate the above formulated principles, the obligation to pass an examination in history and culture of this community may raise certain doubts (mainly because of the possible violation of the principle of equal range of obligations of the recognized and of the recognizing persons).

I admit that there are some important problems that may result from the recognition concept which I propose. One of those problems is the danger of recognition-related paternalism. With regard to this problem, I admit that my conception, inspired by Fichte’s philosophy and based upon the symmetrical model of recognition, may easily be misinterpreted as a theory reducing recognition to one of the social goods which can be an object of exchange or regimentation. Recognition may indeed easily become a good 'distributed' by the majority expecting acceptance of an inferior status and a weaker position (or readiness to refrain from raising any further claims or aspirations) from those that are being recognized in return for granted recognition. This paternalistic misinterpretation of recognition can only be rejected if we emphasize that the mutual commitment implied by any recognition act refers not only to certain reciprocal activities, but also to the readiness of both sides to initiate learning processes. These processes should lead towards a new definition of one’s own position and identity and towards new possibilities of realization of one’s own freedom.

Irrespective of such difficulties and possible objections with regard to my concept, I am convinced that this concept provides results that can be of importance for social theory. One of those outcomes is the interpretation of recognition processes not – or at least not only – as a struggle for status and position, but rather as an aspiration to participate in a community which is based on common norms, values and mutual commitments. I believe that my concept also helps to explain why reducing the phenomenon of recognition to an object of social struggle is connected with rather negative, ‘demanding’ attitude towards rights. I confront this demanding attitude with the rather positive interpretation of the new rights by an individual as an increase of that individual’s possibilities to make valuable contributions for his own political community. Learning processes associated with successful recognition acts should lead (on both sides of those acts) not only to a new definition of one’s own status or identity, but also to a discovery of new horizons of civil cooperation for the sake of the whole political community. Only then can an increase of one’s own freedom and opportunities for self-realization be understood as implying the commitment to undertake actions that would also increase freedom and opportunities for self-realization of other citizens.

Closing remarks

In the foreword he wrote for my book on recognition as commitment, in which I examined the above sketched ideas, Axel Honneth admits that the difference I discuss between the Fichtean model and Hegelian position poses a significant challenge for the current social theory. Following my suggestion, Honneth considers the discussion I proposed to be a ‘family dispute’. Both theories agree upon the significant role the notion of recognition plays in shaping the structures of morality and law. However, they differ with regard to the method applied to the reconstruction of the acts and processes of recognition. To be more precise, they differ on the emphasis they place on various elements of that reconstruction. Honneth points out that the perspective adopted by Hegel, his criticism of the Kantian-Fichtean normativism, implies a certain level of autonomy of the subjects involved in recognition acts. At the same time, he admits that this implication generates a non-trivial problem. And thus, whereas it can be easily explained why individuals maintaining relations of mutual recognition limit their claims and rights in front of intersubjective norms, it is more difficult to explain why those individuals should be capable of subjective self-limitation on account of those norms. Honneth does not want to give up the perspective adopted from Hegel. Nevertheless, he declares his readiness to engage in common reflection upon the adequate way to balance Kant’s individualism and Hegelian holism. Honneth is ready to search for an answer to a question of how subjects understood in a Hegelian way (i.e. rooted in some institutional order) may still become able to assume attitudes that would flow from their individual autonomy.

What I have learned from this discussion is that, if we want to move further, we have to explain how it is possible that an individual, which can only be individualized by its socialization – namely through its participation in intersubjective, institutionally framed practices – nevertheless develops the point of view of subjective autonomy which enables him to take a normative, even critical, stance towards the claims, acts and processes of recognition. So, I arrived at a new, but still related to my normative concept of recognition, set of problems such as: the meaning of privacy for development of individual autonomy or the institutional character of privacy and its relation to the whole network of social and public institutions. But these issues constitute a subject of the wholly new project.

Inicio de página


1 Kloc-Konkołowicz, J., Anerkennung als Verpflichtung. Klassische Konzepte der Anerkennung und ihre Bedeutung für die aktuelle Debatte, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2015.

2 See Honneth, A., The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1995 and Freedom's Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Inicio de página

Para citar este artículo

Referencia electrónica

Jakub Kloc-Konkołowicz, «Recognition as a normative concept»Revista de Estud(i)os sobre Fichte [En línea], 24 | 2022, Publicado el 30 diciembre 2022, consultado el 14 abril 2024. URL:; DOI:

Inicio de página


Jakub Kloc-Konkołowicz

Warsaw/Frankfurt am Main

Inicio de página

Derechos de autor

Salvo indicación contraria, el texto y otros elementos (ilustraciones, archivos adicionales importados) son "Todos los derechos reservados".

Inicio de página
Buscar en OpenEdition Search

Se le redirigirá a OpenEdition Search