Academic journal article Critical Studies

Recognition and Disrespect: Lordship and Bondage in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit

Academic journal article Critical Studies

Recognition and Disrespect: Lordship and Bondage in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit

Article excerpt

With regard to the contemporary discussion of recognition and disrespect in social philosophy, this chapter argues that Hegel is not only a seminal 'theorist of recognition,' but also a sophisticated 'theorist of disrespect.' By means of the relationship of lord and bondsman as developed in the Phenomenology of Spirit it is shown that for Hegel the emergence of recognition not only involves freedom and autonomy but can also result in dependency and asymmetry. Building on this assumption, the paper pursues a threefold aim: first, to show, through a reconstruction of Hegel's thoughts on the development of self-consciousness, that a successful form of subjectivation is only possible when a subject can actualize itself in so called 'egalitarian' and 'differential' acts of recognition. The second part aims at a re-reading of Hegel's thinking of the lord/bondsman-relationship. In opposition to the classic 'heroic reading' of this relationship, I make the case for a 'subaltem reading,' arguing that Hegel presents in the figure of the bondsman a form of asymmetric recognition, in which the subject is bound to those conditions that hold it in disrespect. Finally, the third part aims at a reinterpretation of Hegel's thought from the perspective of disresprect in order to show that the other side of Hegel's theory of recognition forms a theory of symbolic vulnerability. Starting from this theory one can understand the paradoxical dynamic of disrespect that leads subjects to identify with the relations that subjugate them.

One of the most famous relationships of subordination in the history of philosophy is certainly the relationship of lord and bondsman as developed by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit. First and foremost due to Alexandre Kojève's influential commentary from the 1930s, this relation was regarded for a long time as the core of Hegel's theory of recognition. Mediated by Kojève's interpretation, the figures of lord and bondsman became a characteristic motif of twentieth century French social philosophy. Whether in the writings of JeanPaul Sartre, as the relation of the gaze; in Jacques Lacan, as the imaginary transference relation; or in Frantz Fanon, as the relation between colonisers and the colonised - wherever intersubjective tensions were the object of theoretical reflection, the model of lord and bondsman was regarded as a key to deciphering the real nature of such conflicts: a struggle for recognition, in which it is not so much the physical but rather the social life of the participants that is at stake.1

More recently, an influential strand of the reception of Hegel has proposed that the Phenomenology, and with it, the lord/bondsman-relationship, already represents a first stage of decline in Hegel's theory of recognition. In particular, the younger representatives of critical theory, Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, have argued that in the Phenomenology, the crucial point of Hegel's theory of recognition has already been abandoned. Honneth names three reasons for this: first, a strong intersubjective concept of human identity is subordinated here to a developmental logic of consciousness; second, the historically productive role of the struggle for recognition is not taken into account sufficiently; and third, there is no productive differentiation between different levels of recognition (cf. Honneth 1995, 62f.).2

In contrast to this recent approach to Hegel, I would like to argue in this essay for a 'Return to the PhenomenologyV by taking up the strand of the French reading of Hegel that sees a special social theoretical potential in exactly this work. In my opinion, two reasons speak for such a return. First, Hegel shows us here more clearly than anywhere else the extent to which the development of subjectivity is intimately connected with the achievement of recognition. I would thus like to argue that the Phenomenology represents not a theoretical flattening, but rather a theoretical deepening of Hegel's thought insofar as it makes explicit that the subject's dependency on recognition is an existential matter. …

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