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Primary Recognition and Secondary Recognition


Heikki Ikäheimo



One of the open questions in the present discussions on recognition seems to be whether we should understand recognition as always already embedded into the basic structures of our life world – into norms, institutions, ‘the space of reasons’, or pre-given values or value horizons – or whether we should understand it rather as constitutive of these basic structures. The thought that recognition is always already embedded into pre-existing structures of our life world, comes in many variations.



Let me briefly mention four. Firstly, Axel Honneth and Arto Laitinen have argued that recognition or the recognitive attitude is a response to pre-existing values, value properties, or ‘evaluative properties’. If I am right, this involves the suggestion that values or evaluative properties, or at least part of them, exist independently of recognition.



Secondly, Matthias Iser has in his recent dissertation argued that critical theory needs to focus on a concept of justified recognition. This proposal, if I am right, suggests there is such a thing as recognition which is or can be justified through pre-existing norms, reasons or values and which is thus secondary to these.



Thirdly, Axel Honneth and Heikki Ikäheimo have claimed that recognition always takes place within ‘the space of reasons’. This would seem to imply that the space of reasons somehow pre-exists recognition.



And fourthly, Emmanuel Renault has recently emphasised that institutions determine or affect the recognitive expectations and recognitive attitudes of persons. If I understand it correctly, this proposal suggests that institutions, or at least some of them, pre-exist or exist independently of recognition. All in all, these views suggest that recognition is in some way or another constituted by or on, and is thus ontologically secondary to, pre-existing or independently existing structures of the life world, whether norms, institutions, reasons or values.



But there seems to be a problem. Namely, wasn’t the original Hegelian idea of the transition from the basically animal desire-orientation through the ‘battle for recognition’ to a state of recognition (Anerkanntsein) precisely the opposite? Wasn’t the point precisely that we become humans, or as Hegel says, ‘concrete subjects’, or again as we would say today ‘persons’, through recognition. And if the transition from mere animality to personhood comes about through recognition, then recognition cannot be ontologically secondary to the life-world-structures of norms, institutions, practical reasons and values, since, arguably, these are simply not available for mere animals. Rather, their being there is ontologically dependent on there being persons, whose life-worlds they are structures of. It is a fundamental feature of persons, which distinguish them from mere animals, that persons govern their actions with norms and constellations of noms called ‘institutions’, that they act and think on reasons and that they see the world in light of specific kinds of values or valuations which animals are incapable of grasping, namely intrinsic values or valuations. Thus, since persons, norms, institutions, reasons and intrinsic values come about only through recognition, recognition seems to be ontologically primary to these.




Is it then perhaps that we have two significantly different concepts of recognition, one on which recognition is ontologically secondary to norms, institutions, reasons and/or values, and one on which recognition is primary to these? Is one of these concepts mistaken or can we adopt both of them? That is, do both of them grasp real phenomena and is there some meaningful way to understand both as species of one genus, namely that of recognition? To answer these questions, we obviously need to spell out as clearly as possible both of these concepts, or if they have several variations, all of them.


In what follows, I will try to sketch the outlines of a conception according to which recognition is indeed an ontologically foundational phenomenon, precisely in the sense that it is only thanks to recognition that the phenomena of norms, institutions, practical reasons and intrinsic values exist. If this sketch of what could be called ‘primary recognition’ is illuminating enough, it should also help in seeing in which ways the conception of ‘secondary recognition’ differs from it and thus help us to see to which extent those arguing for recognition as secondary and those arguing for recognition as primary are talking about the same general phenomenon of recognition.



The critical moment of my theoretical sketch, as I see it, has to do with what I believe is a possible risk in the line of thought according to which recognition is secondary in relation to life world. This risk consists of reification of norms, practical reasons and values, or in other words in seeing these phenomena as ‘brute’, ‘natural’, intentionality-independent phenomena. My claim, which I hope to substantialize in the following, is that norms, practical reasons and values are all intentionality-dependent phenomena, and that they are more exactly dependent on a very specific form of intentionality, namely on recognitive attitudes (or more colloquially recognition). This does not mean that norms, practical reasons and values are somehow a product of merely willful and contingent ‘projection’, but rather that they only exist in relation to the intentionality of creatures who have recognitive attitudes, namely persons. Since recognitive attitudes are ontologically constitutive of these persons themselves, having or not having them is not something that they can willfully choose as they can choose having or not having ice cream after dinner. A creature not having any of these attitudes at all is simply not a person in any meaningful sense of the word. Think of robots or primitive animals incapable of sociality.


Love, Respect and Esteem


When I talk of primary recognition, I talk of the recognitive attitudes of love, respect and esteem. If one wants to understand these as central concepts in social ontology, as I do, then they need to be defined as clearly as possible. And to the extent that social ontology claims to be a general philosophical theory of the structures of any form of human sociality or rather, since ‘human’ is a name for a biological species among others, sociality of persons, then we should look for concepts of love, respect and esteem, that may meaningfully be seen as constituents of any such form. Or, as we might say, we should look for the universal ‘core’ senses of love, respect and esteem. As audacious as such an enterprise may sound, I believe it is indeed a meaningful enterprise.




To clear up some of the most prevailing conceptual confusions around the term ‘love’, it is useful to distinguish between three different types of phenomena that are often called by this singular term. These are (1) concrete human or personal relationships , (2) constellations or complexes of attitudes, emotions and feelings instantiated in concrete personal relationships, and (3) single components of these complexes. All these allow for an immeasurable number of variations. That is, there are immeasurable number of variations concrete human relationships take and the same is true of the complexes of attitudes, emotions and feelings that can be instantiated in various types of concrete relationships. And independently of how one individuates attitudes, emotions and feelings, their number is certainly numerous. Many of the types of (1), (2) and (3) are of course historically and culturally specific.



What I believe can be meaningfully understood as the universal core form of love specific to persons (note that f.ex. sexual desire is not specific to persons) is a single attitude. This is the attitude which already Aristotle mentions as the core sense of philia, which by the way should be distinguished from the three more famous senses of philia in the Nicomachean Ethics – pleasure-philia, utility-philia and philia between the good – which, unlike philia in the core sense, are different types of concrete personal relationships, not single constituents of such relationships. This core sense of love or philia as a single attitude is caring about someone’s happiness for her/it’s own sake. For Aristotle, this attitude can have as it’s object the loving person herself or other persons. Another way of spelling out the same attitude is, I believe, that it is seeing someone’s happiness as an end in itself, or yet, seeing someone’s happiness as intrinsically valuable.



Since loving in this sense is caring about something for it’s own sake, or

seeing it as intrinsically valuable or as an end in itself, loving cannot be based on reasons which would refer to some other valuable thing or end to which the object of love is useful or contributing. And, as f.ex. Harry Frankfurt has recently reminded, nothing can have contributory or instrumental value from the point of view of a person, if nothing has intrinsic value to that person. In other words, loving as taking something as intrinsically valuable introduces a whole universe of valuable, whether intrinsically, contributively or instrumentally, things, properties and states of affairs into the life world of a creature.


Even accepting that the subjective horizon of primitive animals perhaps contains values in some sense, it seems clear that having intrinsically valuable things in one’s horizon is a fundamentally different and more complicated modification of intentionality, than the immediate value-orientation of animal desire. Following Aristotle and Frankfurt, it seems thus that loving is a fundamental modification of intentionality specific to persons, or in other words, one of the features that ontologically distinguish persons from non-persons, such as primitive animals or robots. And if Aristotle is right (and Frankfurt wrong) in thinking that it only makes sense to love persons (and not non-persons such as good wine or abstract entities like ‘justice’), then indeed the recognitive attitude of love towards persons (oneself or others) is one of the universal distinguishing features of persons and a universal organization principle of the value-dimension of their life-world.




As was true of ‘love’, ‘respect’ is also used in many different senses. We talk for instance of respecting forces of nature, respecting rights and respecting persons. It seems to me that we can mean several things with all these expressions. What could then in some meaningful way be understood as the universal, fundamental or core sense of respect for persons. I do not think that respecting someone’s rights, at least without qualifications, fits the bill, since having rights presupposes a complicated process of social development, which as such, as I will argue shortly, has to include recognition in some forms. Also, I do not think that something like respecting the dignity of all humans, what ever that means, fits the bill, since it simply takes too much intellectual sophistication to get to the rather abstract idea of humanity in general.

What seems to be a universal interpersonal attitude, constitutive of all forms of sociality between persons, is relating to someone as a co-authority on the rules or norms of the concrete relationship in which one is with that person. It seems plausible to say that something like co-authorship of rules or norms of interaction is a fundamental feature of relationships between persons, and that to the extent that someone is not treated as a co-author on the rules, principles or norms on which she is being treated, she is not being respected as a person. Co-authorship of the norms of interaction is one of the dimensions of recognition that gradually starts evolving in the relationship of the lord and the slave/bondsman.

If we accept that one of the ontologically distinguishing features of persons is that their action (including thinking) is always in some respects governed by norms, and if we accept that norms necessarily require co-authorship – in other words, that there cannot be purely individual norms – then it seems that co-authorship on norms is a universal and fundamental form of the sociality specific to persons. And if there is no co-authorship without the parties in question taking or treating each others as co-authors, then the recognitive attitude of respect in the sense of treating someone as a co-author on norms is indeed a universal core dimension of the intentionality of persons. In other words, respect in this sense is one of the features that ontologically distinguish persons from non-persons and a universal organization principle of the normative dimension of their life world.


Holding in esteem


No doubt, the terms Wertschätzung, esteem or holding in esteem can and are be used in many senses. But I believe the sense in which Axel Honneth uses them can be seen as pointing to a universal and fundamental feature of the forms of sociality specific to persons (in distinction from animals). According to Honneth, holding in esteem is valuing someone for the capabilities or achievements contributory to a common good.



I believe we can specify this in the following way. Persons who love, i.e. take something as intrinsically valuable also value contributively what ever contributes to those intrinsically valuable ends. To the extent that someone loves somebody, whether herself of other persons, that person values capabilities or achievements of third persons that contribute to the happiness of herself or the others she loves.

It is important to distinguish contributive valuing from instrumental valuing. Holding someone in esteem is not treating her instrumentally. A lithmus test for holding in esteem in the sense of a recognitive attitude is, I believe, gratitude. We are not grateful to what we see as valuable instruments, but we are grateful to what we see as persons contributing to what we value. But we need to be even more exact. Namely, it seems that we are not grateful to persons who by their actions ‘contribute’ to what we value, but who do so only accidentally or for purely selfish reasons. This applies also to persons who do what they do under coercion, and therefore for prudential, or selfish reasons.


Think of a doctor who saves lives efficiently, but does so purely for the money or fame, without the slightest genuine concern for the well-being of her patients for their own sake. There’s every reason to value her activities instrumentally, but they hardly call for/invite genuine gratitude. Or think of a slave. The master can genuinely value her slave and the activities of the slave instrumentally, but since the activities are not done freely, they hardly arouse gratitude in the master. If to hold someone in esteem includes being grateful to that person, then it seems that we hold persons in esteem only for actions that we believe contribute to we value intrinsically, and which are done at least partly for the sake of that what we hold as intrinsically valuable and at least to a sufficient degree freely. Perhaps it is right to say that only these actions are seen as genuine contributions worthy of gratitude and esteem.



If the above arguments are plausible, then it seems indeed that the notion of common good needs to be taken quite restrictively. Gratitude and thus the recognitive attitude of esteem takes place between persons who value intrinsically the same ends, and if it is right that only the happiness, flourishing or good life of persons can genuinely be taken as intrinsically valuable or as an end in itself, then it can only take place between persons who care intrinsically about the same persons. Thought so, the paradigmatic environment for gratitude or esteem seems to be the family or a circle of friends whose relationships can unproblematically be said as involving genuine love, i.e. intrinsic caring about.


But what about relationships in a modern civil society? It seems that care work is the paradigmatic realm of gratitude and esteem there. But only care work ‘for the right motives’. Think of nursemaids, nurses or primary school teachers who are expected to do their work, at least to some degree, out of genuine love or caring for their patients or pupils. We have the moral feeling that if someone is taking care of our children, or sick or elderly relatives purely for the sake of money, without the slightest degree of genuine concern for these people for their own sakes, then they are not appropriately motivated, and do not earn our genuine gratitude and esteem. (Of course we may still value them instrumentally.) It seems to be precisely for the reason that we hold in esteem care workers for their unselfishness, that their argumentative resources for better wages are so restricted. Esteem and compensation are uncomfortable bedfellows.


Much of the relationships between persons in a modern civil society are of course mostly instrumental. In other words much of the activities within the civil society are seen simply as instrumentally valuable, but not as ‘genuine contributions’ worthy of gratitude and esteem – because we expect that they are done for motives in which genuine concern for what we are genuinely concerned about, plays very small if any role.



But is there any sense in which one could meaningfully see the recognitive attitude of esteem as one of the universal core dimensions of sociality of persons, and hence as one of the ontologically distinguishing features of the persons as such? I believe there is. A lengthy argument would probably be needed to substantialise this claim, so I will have to content myself to only some provisional suggestions. In any case it is true that primitive animals incapable of intrinsic valuing are not capable of gratitude and hence esteem. Persons are, but is it still plausible to say that gratitude and esteem is a feature of any form of sociality between persons? Minimally, I believe, it is indeed plausible to claim that there has never been, nor can there ever be a community, society or state of persons which is wholly devoid of the social cement of gratitude and esteem, or in other words, in which all relationships between persons are purely instrumental.



Without trying to argue this further here, I believe we can meaningfully understand gratitude and thus the recognitive attitude of esteem as one of the universal distinguishing features of the life of persons and as a universal organization principle of the cooperative dimension of their life-world.


Recognitive attitudes and the basic structures of the life world


values and motivating reasons


If it is true, as I think it is, that it is the recognitive attitude of love which reveals something as intrinsically valuable, and if it is true, as I believe it is, that loving in the sense of taking something as intrinsically valuable cannot be justified with reasons, then it seems that it is only in the subjective horizon of a loving person that anything is intrinsically valuable. For if intrinsic value would be independent of intrinsic valuing, then it would be possible to give reasons or justifications for valuing intrinsically, i.e. for loving something/-one. This would mean that it would be possible to ground the claim that someone ought to or should be held as intrinsically valuable with a ‘because’-sentence. As far as I can see, this ‘because’-sentence could in principle have two forms:


(1) X should be held intrinsically valuable because it is contributively or instrumentally valuable for Y

(2) X should be held intrinsically valuable because it is intrinsically valuable.


Both fail.


(1) fails because X’s being contributively or instrumentally valuable has nothing to do with X’s being intrinsically valuable.


(2) fails because claiming that something is intrinsically valuable, i.e. expressing that one holds it intrinsically valuable is as such no reason for others to hold it intrinsically valuable.



To put it simply, if someone does not care about her own happiness or of someone else, arguments are not the cure since there simply are no arguments for loving oneself or others. Loving cannot in the end be justified, as it were foundationally. Even if there are ultimately hence no reasons for love, love can clearly have causal conditions. I believe it is phenomenologically accurate that we can be moved to love when we realize someone’s eudaimonistic vulnerability, i.e. are somehow emotionally moved by the fact that her life can be ruined or that it can flourish. This is what usually happens to an adult when she looks at her newborn child. If it does not happen, we tend to think that something is seriously wrong, even if we do not think that we can give a good argument for why any parent should or ought to love any child. (That is, any other arguments than the mere claim “but look, the life/happiness of your children is intrinsically valuable”.)



People’s sensibilities differ as to their susceptibility to be moved to love and the scale on which it differs is the scale of degrees on which someone genuinely sees intrinsic value in the world. For for a person who has no love for herself nor for anyone else, nothing is genuinely wort doing, since if nothing is intrinsically valuable, no action is contributively valuable either. To put it in an other way: for a person who does not care about anything nothing is a motivating reason for action. Love is the source of motivation of persons, who by definition act on motivating reasons.



Thus I take it to be true that the recognitive attitude of love is the fundamental modification of intentionality without which there is no intrinsic, contributive or instrumental value, nor a single motivating reason in the horizon or life-world of a person.


Social norms and institutions


Social norms and the constellations of norms that we call institutions exist only to the extent that they are acknowledged. If the collective acknowledgement of a norm or an institution collapses, then the norm or institution simply vanishes. Often an institution can survive for some time even when there is very little genuine collective acknowledgement left. Fear may motivate acting according to the content of a norm, but if there is no-one who really acknowledges the norm, in the sense of genuinely thinking that the content of the norm is what ought to be done/not done, there is no reason to fear of being punished for not acting according to the content of the norm. Fear for pure coercion is another thing, since coercion without justification involves as such no norms. Thus a social order based on pure coercion – hardly possible in the real world – is not a normative order at all.


A normative order, or in other words a form of life governed by norms only exists to the extent that it is collectively acknowledged to a sufficient degree. Not everyone’s acknowledgement is usually taken as equally important. To the extent that someone’s acknowledgement of a norm is taken as constitutive of the norm (or the lack of it as destructive of it) is the extent that she is being respected as a (co-) author of the norm in question. There are no norms without collective acknowledgement and there is no collective acknowledgement without persons respecting each other as relevant acknowledgers or co-authors of the norms in question. ‘Moral norms’, how ever they are defined, are social norms in the above sense. A proposition like ‘though shall not kill the innocent’ is a content of a possible norm, but a social norm with this content only exists to the extent that it is collectively acknowledged in a society.



Acknowledging a norm is in principle based on some motivating practical reasons (how ever conscious/unconscious, informed/well-informed, enlightened/indoctrinated etc.), and these motivating reasons, as I tried to argue above, refer to what the acknowledgers care about or to their ends. Someone caring about nothing intrinsically doesn’t care about norms either, since nothing is for her worth protecting with collectively acknowledged norms. It takes the recognitive attitudes of love and respect to have social norms and institutions.




Social inclusion comes in three dimensions.


A) to be loved, i.e. as seen as someone whose life/happiness is intrinsically valuable,


B) to be respected as a co-author of the norms of interaction/action in which one is or can be involved,


C) to be shown gratitude or esteem for something that is being regarded as genuine contribution.





All in all, I have tried to argue above that the recognitive attitudes of love, respect (and esteem) are necessary conditions for there being values specific to persons (in distinction from ‘merely animal’ values), for there being motivating practical reasons, and for there being norms and institutions. Does something follow from this as regards to the notion of secondary recognition? Here’s just some sketchy comments and questions to the friends and colleagues mentioned in the beginning, to open a discussion:


I To Honneth and Laitinen: It might not be altogether clear what it means to say that recognition is responsive to valuable properties or evaluative properties, if it is true that anything is valuable only in the light of the recognitive attitude of love. Here is an alternative way of understanding each of the recognitive attitudes as both receptive of something and productive of something (else):


1.The recognitive attitudes are responses to someone’s ‘real personhood’, or to the claims someone’s being a person presents us with and in this sense modes of ‘taking someone as a person’. Taking someone as a person is however productive of ‘status-personhood’ of the object of this taking.


2. ‘Real personhood’ has three dimensions corresponding to the species of the recognitive attitude. The recognitive attitudes are responses to these dimensions of real personhood: a) eudaimonistic vulnerability, b) rationality, c) contributiveness. Love is a response to claims that a person’s eudaimonistic vulnerability presents one with, respect is a response to claims that a person’s rationality presents one with, gratitude/esteem is a response to claims that a person’s genuine contributiveness (attempts or actions) presents one with.


3. ‘Status personhood’ has similarly three dimensions corresponding to the species of the recognitive attitude. The recognitive attitudes produce these statuses: a1) someone whose life has intrinsic value , b1) co-author on norms, c1) an object of gratitude and/or esteem. These dimensions of status-personhood and the corresponding dimensions of ‘real personhood’ are dialectically related: f.ex. the rationality of a child will never develop properly, if she is not treated as rational, i.e. not ‘attributed’ the corresponding status through the attitude of respect (which is revealed in appropriate actions).


II To Iser: It might not be altogether clear in what sense recognition can be justified. If justification refers to values or practical reasons then it refers to something that presupposes recognition in the sense of love. If justification refers to norms, then it refers to something that presupposes collective acknowledgement and thus the recognitive attitude of respect. Another problem: can we have justified claims (or rights) to be objects of certain kinds of attitudes, or only of certain kinds of actions? If the notion of justified recognition implies, as it seems, that recognition consists of actions, what precisely is it that makes an action ‘a recognitive action’?


III To Honneth and Ikäheimo: If what one means by ‘the space of reason’ is the space of actually motivating reasons of someone, then it presupposes the recognitive attitude of love, without which no reasons are motivating reasons for a person. Should we perhaps say that love (in the form of self-love and/or love for others) and the space of motivating reasons are equiprimordial, or in other words start developing hand in hand? Think of infants. There is probably more work to be done here.


IV To Renault: Could it be that norms/institutions have different kinds of effects on those who acknowledge them and on those who don’t? It might be interesting to analyse further the institutional entanglements of recognition from the point of view of feelings of disrespect, or in other words feelings of being excluded from the community of those whose acknowledgement counts as constitutive of the existence/validity of an institution (and thus to those whose criticism of the norms/institutions counts).