Tag Archives: pragmatism

Ananta Kumar Giri (ed.), Pragmatism, Spirituality and Society: Border Crossings, Transformations and Planetary Realizations (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021)

In its ordinary use, “pragmatism” is almost a pejorative term, suggesting an efficiency-driven, no-prisoner-taken concentration on getting things done, without much or any room for deeper reflection or reconsideration. Philosophically, however, the same word recalls a US-born school of thought and, in particular, the work of “pioneering thinkers and savants such as Charles S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey” (xi). These thinkers and savant, according to the book’s editor, aimed at rediscovering the ancient Aristotelian spirit of praxis-centred intellectual inquiry and the Hegelian one of purposeful social normativity, neither of which is inherently inimical to deep thinking and/or to openness to self-reassessment.

The book hereby reviewed is the third instalment in the editor’s series on “Practical Spirituality and Human Development” for the Asian branch of Palgrave Macmillan, but also the companion of a scholarly tome entitled Pragmatism, Spirituality and Society: Consciousness, Freedom and Solidarity. It is, in short, part of an original, multi- and interdisciplinary attempt at bringing together the much-neglected philosophical tradition of pragmatism and that streak of contemporary scholarship, in the humanities and the social sciences, offering erudite musings and insightful meditations on known forms of spirituality arising from Western, but above all Eastern, religious traditions. As such, it falls into the domain of religious studies that, in the history of Nordicum-Mediterraneum, have frequently found room in the published book reviews and in our readers’ cultural interests.

Moving between US pragmatism and relevant tokens of spiritual wisdom from the world’s religions, novel and somewhat unexpected intellectual bridges are built in this edited volume, linking together seemingly remote thinkers and conceptions of nature, the self, moral conduct, human knowledge, and/or the pursuit of a meaningful existence, at both the individual and collective levels. All these bridges, quite obviously, comprise building materials excavated clearly and conspicuously from the pragmatist tradition, but they do not limit themselves to this tradition.

Exemplarily, the second chapter of the book (the first chapter serving as an introduction to the book), i.e., Ananta Kumar Giri’s “Pragmatism and Spirituality: New Horizons of Theory and Practice and the Calling of Planetary Conversations”, establishes a possibly unprecedented theoretical conversation involving Sri Aurobindo, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. This is done, with great exegetical finesse and considerable creativity, so as to cast light on the fundamentally praxis-based institution of human language, the personal self, and the social context in which these two meet and interact magmatically.

A similar syncretism and a shared focus on (A) the composite nature of and, above all, (B) the many spiritual paths allowing for the construction of transient yet long-lived forms of consciousness by way of complex interplay between the actual individuals and their socio-cultural milieu, are to be retrieved in most chapters in Part II (of two) of the book. This is the case especially with regard to chapters nine (Alina Therese Lettner’s “Peirce’s Semiotic Pragmaticism and Buddhist Soteriology: Steps Towards Modelling ‘Thought Forms’ of Signlessness”), ten (Richard Hartz’s “Spiritual Pragmatism: William James, Sri Aurobindo and Global Philosophy”), twelve (Hans Bakker’s “Gandhi, Hegel and Freedom: Aufhebungen, Pragmatism and Ideal Type Models”) and fifteen (Kanchana Mahadevan’s “Pragmatism, Spirituality, and the Calling of a New Democracy: The Populist Challenge and Ambedkar’s Integration of Buddhism and Dewey”).

The book’s third chapter is entitled “Pragmatism, Geist and the Question of Form: From a Critical Theory Perspective”. Penned by Pietr Strydom, it explores the German roots of US pragmatism. Thanks to this line of study, Strydom shows how much of the German notion of “Spirit” was preserved in its Anglophone, pragmatist rendition, and which avenues this rendition still opens up before us in order to connect, in a constructive and authentically spiritual manner, with the world of nature surrounding us, which German philosophy had frequently highlighted and prioritised in many of its Romantic expressions as well as in some of its later ones.

The ecological focus anticipated in this chapter continues in the fourth chapter (“Naturalistic Spirituality, Religious Naturalism, and Community Spirituality: A Broader Pragmatic View” by Ann K. Kegley) the fifth (“Pragmatism and the ‘Changing of the Earth’: Unifying Moral Impulse, Creative Instinct and Democratic Culture” by Julie Mazzarella Geredien) and, to a lesser extent, the sixth (Marcus Bussey’s “Towards Spiritual Pragmatics: Reflections from the Graveyards of Culture”). Taken together, these chapters provide much food for thought with regard to our generation’s greatest challenge, i.e., the planet-wide collapse of all life-support systems, natural ones in primis (e.g., unpolluted water aquifers, self-sustaining oceanic ecosystems), but often human-made as well (e.g., well-funded democratically elected authorities monitoring and controlling both national and transnational corporate businesses). As we all know, the wellbeing and, eventually, the very fate of humanity’s future generations are currently at stake, probably like never before in history.

As to the remaining chapters, they address more strictly spiritual issues (e.g., Paul Hague’s seventh chapter, “Mystical Pragmatics”) or technical aspects of pragmatism and/or related disciplinary areas (e.g., Janusz Baranski’s eight chapter “Pragmatism and Spirituality in Anthropological Aesthetics”), while retaining at large the book’s overall syncretic character and multicultural body of expert references. As such, the book is bound to appeal to, and be approachable by, cultivated persons that are versant in both Western pragmatism and recent classics in Eastern spiritual traditions, notably Aurobindo, Tagore and Gandhi. Unsurprisingly, then, as far as the present reviewer is concerned, the eleventh chapter is the one that I was able to appreciate in greatest detail, for it chiefly addresses mainstream Western philosophical conceptions (i.e., Kant and US pragmatism) and the spiritual tradition that I am most familiar with (i.e., Roman Catholicism), showing how the neo-Thomist criticism of the modern metaphysical scepticism championed by Descartes, Hume and, above all, Kant, can be applied, plausibly if not successfully, to US pragmatism as well, given its anti-metaphysical stance, which has been purported most vocally, in recent decades, by the neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty.

The book’s essential wisdom is, however, as simple to grasp as it is deep and relevant. In short, if we wish to save ourselves from the errors and the horrors of modernity, as patently displayed by the ecological devastation of our planet, then the most practical, pragmatic thing to do may well be to pay some serious attention to the cultivation of the spirit, which has been neglected, if not ridiculed and abandoned, by far too many cultures and individuals that recognise only a very limited set of contingent, this-worldly, and largely sensuous values as worth pursuing and maximising. Sometimes, new, good ideas and praxes are old, forgotten ideas and praxes.

Basit Bilal Koshul, Max Weber and Charles Peirce: At the Crossroads of Sciences, Philosophy, and Culture (Lanham, Maryand: Lexington Books / Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)

This is an important book that would be easy to overlook. The main value of this book is that it makes an extended comparison between two very important thinkers who are rarely considered together: Max Weber and Charles Sanders Peirce. Weber is well-known for his “interpretive sociology” (verstehende Soziologie), while Peirce is well-known for his “Pragmaticism” and his triadic epistemology. Peirce is a founder of American Pragmatism, differentiating his version of William James’ Pragmatism by using the word “Pragmaticism” (he also said it was such an ugly word that no one would be tempted to steal it!).

Few thinkers have tried to connect Weber and Peirce. Even fewer have attempted to do that in such a brilliant fashion. I hope this book will provoke further discussion and debate. This is not a perfect book, but it is darned good. Unfortunately, this book is not likely to be on the radar for far too many scholars. The author is an associate professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in Lahore, Pakistan. That is, he is not in a European or North American research-intensive university and he is not an academic philosopher or social scientist. But he writes well in English and makes a significant contribution (one is left wondering how many scholarly gems are ignored because of factors such as geography, affiliation or publisher!).

Koshul points out that many of the interpretations of Max Weber have not been based on thorough scholarship. Naturally his own interpretation could be challenged by Weber experts. But he is miles ahead of some authors who make a casual reference to Weber because they vaguely know a bit about the so-called “Protestant Ethic” thesis from secondary sources. In some ways Weber’s comparative historical sociology and political economy were ahead of his time. Koshul draws that out. If the book had only been about Weber that alone would have been enough to merit attention. But the value of this book is even greater.

Koshul makes it clear that American Pragmatist philosophy and Pragmatism generally are important to consider when thinking through Weber’s epistemological contributions. Koshul clarifies Weber’s insights concerning philosophy of social science questions that are still in dispute today. Weber’s work allows for a deep set of insights into institutionalized religious organizations and not just Christian ecclesia (e.g. Roman Catholicism in the 13th century) or contemporary Christian churches. Weber is also important for the world religions (including Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, etc.) and the “indigenous religions” that tend to be more localized (e.g. North American Plains Indians like the Lakota and the Cheyenne). The philosophy of physical science and the philosophy of religions are drawn together.

There is no indication that Weber ever read Peirce. But Weber was well-versed in German-language philosophy and historical research. Peirce was also well-read in that same body of knowledge. Weber’s mature epistemology involves the notion of interpretation involving “understanding”. He borrows the epistemological and ontological notion from Wilhelm Dilthey. Dilthey argued that it would be possible to have what we today tend to call a Cultural Science. He translated the term “moral sciences” from John Stuart Mill as “Geisteswissenschaften”.

The term “Geist” as a philosophical concept (rather than just an everyday language word) is associated with George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The German language word “Geist” is problematic and connotes many different things. But Dilthey was merely trying to emulate Mill and the idea of a “moral science” in Mill is a science that is not just restricted to the study of physical phenomena as natural and given. Another term that is often used today is “human sciences”. Indeed, in French it is common to speak and write of the sciences humaines. In the moral sciences (sciences humaines, Geisteswissenschaften) there is a need for interpretation of human “meaning”. In the physical sciences that is not necessary. One does not interview a rock or a star, a tree or a frog. Children’s books and just so stories anthropomorphize trees and animals, but no one would mistake a children’s fairy tale for a mature work in modern natural sciences.

The key similarity between Peirce and Weber is epistemological. Another major thinker who considered the epistemological differences between physical sciences of nature and human sciences is Wilhelm Windelband. He coined the terms “idiographic” and “nomothetic”. Weber was familiar with those terms. For Weber it was reasonable to consider a third, intermediate level. He referred to that third level as a matter of working with “ideal types” limited in time (t-n) and space (s-n). Ideal types are not completely idiographic but they are also not thoroughly nomothetic. Instead, if we conceptualize a continuum between the nomothetic and the idiographic then the use of ideal types is somewhere in between the two polar opposites.

A truly nomothetic law must be true for all relevant Times (T-u) and Spaces (S-u) for a particular “universe”. (That particular universe does not have to be the whole infinite Universe; it can simply be this planet earth as a “universe” relevant to certain kinds of laws having to do with, for example, biological sciences.) A truly idiographic description must be very specific, but few idiographic descriptions are limited to only one very specific time (t-1) and one extremely local place (p-1).

Some authors use the term “thick description” to mean essentially the same thing as idiographic description. The idea of thick description is associated with Clifford Geertz’s work on Indonesia, especially Java and Bali. Geertz did excellent anthropological, ethnographic fieldwork. But very little of his work is really thick “idiographic description”. He actually often makes ideal-type generalizations. For example, his generalizations about the Balinese cockfight are relevant to many cockfights during several decades all over the island of Bali. He does not give us a detailed blow-by-blow of the cockfights, but quickly resorts to summary statements. That is well and good, but Geertz seems to not have fully realized that he was using a Weberian (or possibly Neo-Weberian) approach, albeit in anthropology rather than historical and comparative sociology.

Peirce did no empirical work in anthropology, psychology or sociology. That is, he was not a social scientist. Instead, he was a natural scientist, mathematician and philosopher. Weber, on the other hand, did no natural-science research and was not a mathematician. He borrowed ideas from academic philosophers like Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert. But he is not considered an academic philosopher. (He did, however, have epistemological insights which are very relevant to the philosophy of natural sciences and the philosophy of social sciences.)

One relatively minor deficiency in this book is that there is no detailed discussion of the Methodenstreit, or Windelband, Rickert and others therein involved. Geertz is also not mentioned. Nevertheless, I recommend this thought-provoking and intelligent book as a jumping-off point for continued study of the relationship between two giants who are not often thought of as having very much in common. Scholars in the sociology of religion and the sociology of science will enjoy aspects of this analysis. Weber scholars and Peirce scholars will no doubt find some minor (or perhaps even some major) flaws. But that would not be a bad thing. What would be bad is if this book got no recognition of any kind due to the fact the author may not be well-known in certain networks in North American or Europe.

The deficiencies could also be corrected in a new edition if the author pays some attention to G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx’s importance to philosophy and Marx’s relevance to Weber, It would also be worth making a deep analysis of the work of Wilhelm Dilthey on the Geisteswissenschaften generally. I myself have written quite a bit on a number of topics directly related to the questions Koshul raises and attempts to answer. For example, I have written about Dilthey and about Weber’s epistemology.

My own dissertation was about land tax policy during the so-called “cultivation system” in Java. The kultuurstelsel (1830-1870) was a policy of increasing cultivation of export commodities using indirect rule and traditional labor obligations (corvee). Marx commented on it in a letter. He saw the village system of collective responsibility as an old system, but it was in part reinforcement of the older system due to taxation policy (Other parts of the dissertation deal with my speculations concerning the applicability of Weber’s ideal type of Patrimonialism to Javanese civilization.) My Ph.D. advisor was Prof. Irving Zeitlin. (His brother Maurice Zeitlin is the more “Marxist” of the two.) Zeitlin taught us to see a clear relationship between Marx, the elder, and Weber, the junior scholar in the pair (because Weber was a boy when Marx died).

That is contrary to the thesis that Parsons tended to push about the two of them being opposed epistemologically. There is a grain of truth in Parsons’ views but the key factor (at least to my way of thinking) is that they have a great deal in common. For example, when Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past” he is saying the same thing echoed by Weber in when he writes about the switchmen who control the train tracks (cf. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with Other Writings on the Rise of the West, 4th edition, tr. Stephen Kalberg, New York: Oxford University Press, 3-58).

C. Wright Mills (1958) echoes it again when he writes in The Sociological Imagination about private sorrows and public issues. Mills is another author worth considering in terms of the issues raised. If nothing else, I hope readers of this review will at the very least skim this excellent book and order it for their college or university libraries. Koshul’s book is indeed “at the crossroads of science, philosophy, and culture” in many important ways. Perhaps some will regard this book as overly ambitious. But others will see the merit in the suggestions made, even if some aspects of the problems raised could be further elaborated.

Deweyan Democracy: The Epistemic Context

Dewey’s characterizations of democratic conduct show that he thinks of it as involving a give and take. One’s contribution (according to ability) creates a claim (according to need). The individual has duty to his or her community (or society) and society has corresponding duties toward him or her. The mutual dependence of individual and society is the dynamic that generates values. Intellectual freedom, cultural and intellectual diversity, growth and participation are examples of central values made possible by the democratic dynamic. Democracy for Dewey is thus primary: It is an ideal because of the conditions for value formation that it creates. Other values are then (or can be) derived from the democratic ideal.

It is in this complex sense that Deweyan democracy is a “way of life.” The claim is not that democracy is just one of many possible choices of a way to organize society or a way to live. It is in Dewey’s view the only possible framework for the ever-increasing intricacies of the modern world.

There are two ways to explore the conception of democracy sketched here. One is a thorough exegesis of Dewey’s works to investigate whether this characterization of his view makes sense – to check its correctness. Another is to look beyond Dewey and see whether the approach to democracy so inspired by his philosophy is a good approach to democratic theory, if the goal is to seek a useful justification of democracy. In this paper I am interested in doing the latter. In what follows I will attempt to show that “Deweyan democracy”—i.e. the idea of democracy as a way of life—offers interpretive possibilities that help understand how we can both have a substantive notion of democracy and put it in a justificatory framework where rejecting it is certainly possible, but fails to make sense unless, before rejecting it, one is prepared to accept it, in which case rejection, of course, does not make sense.



The democratic ideal—democracy as a way of life—looks like a moral concept. It has, obviously, a moral side to it in the sense of presenting a morally superior way of organizing social life (to use Deweyan vocabulary) to other available ways of doing so. But it is a mistake to overemphasize this moral side of the concept (although a frequently to be seen in comments on Dewey’s philosophy). The moral side in my view is less important than the epistemic side of Deweyan democracy. Democracy as a way of life provides the environment that protects and fosters science or, more generally, inquiry. The reason is proximity in method: In a democratic arrangement moral and political problems get a treatment similar or even analogous to what scientific method would dictate for inquiry. One must be careful not to take the analogy too far however. It does not mean that the method of science should be used to solve moral issues, but it is a recipe for moral cognitivism. Moral as well as political problems should be approached by reason and argument: Democracy is the intellectual environment that fosters reason and argument.

One should also follow Dewey in drawing a distinction between the idea of democracy and the manifestations of democracy (Dewey 1954, p. 143-144). The forms of power associated with democracy, such as representative government, majority rule, parliaments, elections etc. are no necessary features of democracy. Democracy is thus characterized by its ends rather than by the specific means that have traditionally been used to reach them.

Deweyan democracy has evoked considerable discussion in recent years. Many philosophers, who are generally sympathetic to Dewey, have been skeptical about his democratic theory and some have rejected it outright. Robert Talisse has argued that if democracy is a moral ideal it must be treated as other (possibly competing) ideals and values, from the point of view of value pluralism. Talisse correctly points out that from this perspective one cannot think of it as a shared or basic value, it would only amount to a moral value which could certainly be chosen or desired by any reasonable person, but could equally well be “reasonable rejected” by anyone adhering to different values (Talisse 2012, p. 109). For Talisse, Deweyan democracy fails the “pluralism test.” He argues that Deweyan democracy is simply one version of perfectionism because of the emphasis on human flourishing that it entails. In other words, if we read Deweyan democracy from the point of view of a Rawlsian conception of liberalism, the democratic ideal turns out to be just one more “comprehensive doctrine” which can never serve as a basis for a political organization acceptable to all reasonable persons (Talisse 2012, p. 112-114).

Matthew Festenstein points out—contra Talisse—that the notion of reasonable rejectability is not the kind of constraint that the pragmatist (i.e. the Deweyan) could accept. Since it only proposes a fixed standard to adopt or reject basic values it amounts to an a priori evaluation, which is not very useful from a pragmatist point of view. While Festenstein recognizes that one can reasonably reject the democratic ideal that, in his view, does not exclude it from being a possible “basis for the justification of state power.” It is difficult to see, however, what is gained by his result, since relativizing the democratic ideal does not remove Talisse’s objection, it only refocuses the difficulty (Festenstein 2010, p. 42).

Eric MacGilvray picks a useful element out of Deweyan democracy when he argues that it provides a kind of a test, similar to the pragmatic maxim, to determine whether one or another belief is fit for public discussion. It means that holding—and promoting—a belief about how to justify state power e.g., requires willingness to present it in experimental terms. The threshold for access to discussion about basic values for the social contract need in his view not be higher than that. If a belief can be tested and discussed experimentally—it would not have to be experimentally tested—and its meaning (conceivable consequences) for society can thus be assessed and discussed, there is no way to say that it is unfit for providing a justification of state power (MacGilvray 2004, p. 163-167; see also Festenstein 2010, p. 33). While MacGilvray provides a more interesting way of filtering issues fit for public (and political) discussion, his argument is no direct counterargument to Talisse’s. He carves out a role for Deweyan democracy, i.e. to offer a framework for determining the democratic meaningfulness of beliefs. While I think this is an interesting and in fact very useful and practical way of using the idea of Deweyan democracy, it limits it to a methodological tool.

Other authors such as Elizabeth Anderson have praised Dewey’s experimentalist account of democracy and yet other, such as Cheryl Misak, suggest that by using the more rigorous Peircean approach to inquiry as a model for understanding Deweyan democracy, one can exploit the inquiry/democracy analogy and apply methods of inquiry to the search for common solutions to social, political and even moral problems (Anderson 2006, p. 14-15; Misak 2000, see p. 45-47).


The question still remains whether and why Deweyan democracy should be chosen as an ideal, what kind of choice that would be, and what one has so chosen. I think this choice must be seen as a result of two related beliefs:

  1. Value articulation: The choice of democracy as a way of life implies accepting the claim that democracy is a necessary condition for articulating central activities, goods and values in community such as freedom and equality, education, public discussion, openness and opportunity.
  2. Opportunity creation: Democracy is a better way to create opportunities for inquiry, experimentation and in general solve problems using best available means and methods than other models of social organization.

If these beliefs can be sustained, one could see democracy as a prism through which certain values become articulated rather than itself a simple or core value. To reject democracy is therefore to refocus or rearrange social or moral values. If a democratic approach is not seen as basic, values such as the ones already mentioned, as well as many other central values of modern society such as pluralism, toleration and participation loose the meaning that democracy as a way of life gives them. Democracy thus should be chosen as “a way of life” in the sense of a principle of articulation and arrangement.

I depart from the authors I have mentioned in this paper since I want to show that the best argument for democracy comes neither from the independent standard that a Peircean model might create, nor from the experimentalist vision that it entails. The public action test does not per se provide an argument for democracy it only explains how we can make a useful distinction between issues that properly belong to public discussion and those that don’t. One might simply argue, of course, that there is no alternative. In a very practical way democracy is accepted as the only viable kind of social and political arrangement in modern society. The superficial acceptance of democracy does not mean that democracy is ideally practiced (or even practiced at all) in every case. It only reveals the dominance of the discourse of democracy.

There are however alternatives to democracy, some of them quite powerful. Sometimes these alternatives are presented as the necessary basis of democracy and there are social forces that promote them as necessary restrictions of democracy, since without certain restrictions democracy could lead to undesirable results.

As Bo Rothstein has shown, the correlation between democracy and good life is not always in democracy’s favor (Rothstein 2013, p. 15). Many surveys show it to be negative over a range of accepted indicators measuring quality of life. Good governance seems, on the other hand, to be strongly correlated to success in improving the lives of citizens, and increased democracy may lead to deterioration in governance. The alternative to democracy might thus be efficiency and justice in the design of institutions, as well as basic liberties that promote equality and individual freedom in accordance with liberal principles. It is clear in any case that if increased democracy is shown to go against improving the quality of life for citizens that indeed would deliver a strong argument against democracy.[1]

My contention is that by “choosing democracy” one is not choosing a particular method or procedure for a specific kind of decision-making but rather a general framework for public choice and deliberation. One could see such democratic commitment as a moral commitment. In such a case one would argue that the fairness of democratic approaches should commit one to them, even in cases when certain problems might seem better solved using a different approach. But the commitment is clearly epistemic as well: If there is an approach to problem solving best described as democratic to which one is committed, then one is also committed to the limitations of the approach. While Dewey seems not very keen on providing a moral justification for choosing democracy, he seriously attempts to provide an epistemic justification, i.e. argue that democracy will, in the long run, provide a better environment, better tools and on the whole better approaches to problem solving than other conceivable (or available) approaches.

From the Deweyan point of view the epistemic commitment must therefore be seen as prior to the moral commitment. It means that democracy should be seen as a way of dealing with and solving problems. It would not do to argue simply that democracy somehow ensures that the best methods are used or that solving problems democratically will always yield the best solutions. What it does mean is to take seriously the duty to seek not only solutions that can be had by majority decision or solutions that can be forged by negotiation and compromise but to seek the best solutions. If “real” democracy often (even most of the time) falls short of the democratic ideal, this does not make the idea of democracy any less clear. Quite the contrary, since it is the idea by which political decisions should be elucidated and criticized.



In the last part of the paper I want to sketch how I think that the idea of Deweyan democracy should be used to discuss and judge political and administrative practice. The objective is on the one hand to see how democratic practice falls short of an ideal of democracy (or not), on the other to provide a healthy angle of democratic criticism. Dewey’s emphasis on experimentation in connection with democracy, i.e. seeing democracy as the free exchange and discussion of ideas where the point is to have a generation and selection process based on making full use of “intelligence” is key to understanding this conception of democracy (Dewey 1985, p. 362). This means that in democracy as a way of life, individual contribution to decision and policy-making is matched with (conceivable) individual influence on decisions and policy.

In addition to the two basic democratic beliefs—that it is a framework for value articulation and opportunity creation—one should think of two central conditions of democracy:

  1. The efficiency condition: For each participating individual success does not necessarily entail being able to convince others of one’s point of view or being in the majority but on the efficiency of democratic process. Success is to be a part of a conclusion based on discussion, fact-finding, deliberation, debate and eventually (perhaps) voting that harvests the input of the participants.
  2. The integrity condition: A decision made, or policy adopted, must be a result of what has been democratically concluded. If the logical space of decision-making is different from the logical space of reason-giving, the procedure used is meaningless.

The efficiency condition deals with the ability of a group to come to a conclusion and the integrity condition with the relation between that conclusion and an eventual decision or action. Democratic failures may appear in both parts undermining either grounds for policies or legitimacy of decisions. The work of parliaments often evokes suspicion about the integrity of the democratic process when the connection between arguments and information revealed in deliberation and the eventual decision seems vague or absent; when positions are known in advance, more or less, and the debate carries only a symbolic function.

The give and take mentioned earlier need not be understood as individual willingness or commitment to participate in public debates or policy-making and therefore the efficiency condition does not depend on actual participation. Instead of seeking a standard to determine the content of public reason, one should seek a framework to connect participation and policy. The point should be access rather than inclusion, where the possibility of participating, not only in exercising free speech, but in actually providing input into policy, is at stake. The problem with participatory approaches taken by governments is often their reluctance to acknowledge the importance of public participation seeing it rather as a possible hurdle in successful governing. Therefore there is tendency to both limit the power of extra-institutional participation and place all kinds of security valves on the possible decisions to be reached by such extra-institutional participants. To illustrate this and at the same time probe the conditions of democracy and the basic democratic beliefs, I want to discuss four recent examples from Icelandic politics:

  1. National assemblies 2009 and 2010
  2. Annulment of the elections to the constitutional assembly 2011
  3. The first Icesave referendum 2011
  4. National referendum on the constitutional bill 2012

After the financial collapse in Iceland in 2008 there was considerable pressure on the government to use unorthodox methods to change the course in Icelandic politics and promote democracy. The first attempt to create a public voice in order to influence policy systematically was made by an independent group of people who formed an NGO called “The Anthill”. The Anthill organized a so-called National Assembly (Icel. Þjóðfundur) whose purpose was to articulate basic values and general policy goals for Icelandic society (Gunnar Hersveinn 2010). The National Assembly consisted of over one thousand people, a random sample from the general population, who were asked to participate in a meeting held in one day, 14 November 2009. The Anthill then planned to have the government accept the results of the assembly as guiding principles in the political renewal ahead.[2] Although it turned out to be problematic to simply adopt the results of the National Assembly and include them in the various tasks of the government, these results were taken seriously. The government adopted the methodology used in organizing National assemblies for public consultation regionally and nationally. In 2010 the Constitutional commission, whose task was to prepare for the Constitutional assembly, held a second National assembly elected in 2010 in order to revise or rewrite the Icelandic constitution.

There were several problems in the selection of participants for the National assemblies, which strictly speaking make it difficult to talk of participants as random samples of the population. Some other organizational problems have also reduced value of the results, but here I will focus on something else.

The task of the first National assembly was to articulate core values to guide governmental policy. The task of the second was to identify the core values to guide the revision of the constitution.[3] In both cases a number of general policy statements were also generated by participants to further identify policy goals. The problem with these results was their generality. The meetings neither provided priority rankings for goals nor any interpretation of value commitments and therefore policy-makers could hardly use them to plan policy. Therefore, even if the meetings were admirable exercises of public participation and engaged all kinds of people in thinking and talking about political issues—many had perhaps never been consulted except by occasional opinion polls—their overall usefulness was difficult to see. These meetings may have carried some meaning for participants who saw certain general value commitments articulated in a dramatic way as a result of the one-day meeting. They could however hardly have seen it as an opportunity for inquiry since the meeting was not deliberative. Its purpose was to express rather than critically engage the views of the participants. The assembly also fails both the efficiency and the integrity condition. The lack of systematic discussion created a gap between whatever was said during the meeting and the results published after the meeting. No problem was dealt with during the meeting and therefore nothing can be said about efficiency in doing so. Worse since the results were overly vague, it was difficult to see how the integrity condition could be fulfilled either. The relation between these results and eventual decision-making could not be spelled out. From the perspective of Deweyan democracy one could then say that the meetings were democratically meaningless, since while it allowed symbolic participation, it could not effect policy- or decision-making in any meaningful way.

Elections to the Constitutional assembly were held 25 November 2010. A large number of candidates ran for a place in the assembly – 525 competed for 25 seats. The elections were unusual in many ways. The government was criticized during and after the elections for many flaws in how the elections were conducted. There were certain problems with the design of the ballot, the ballot boxes, the voting booths and some of the procedures used. After the elections a group of citizens complained to the Supreme Court who then reviewed the elections and found it to be flawed in six respects. Although the flaws were technical and gave no reason to conclude that the elections had been rigged or the vote misrepresented, the Supreme court used its authority to annul the elections.

One might argue that a decision, made by a judicial body such as the Supreme Court, should not be evaluated in terms of democracy since it is based on the law and on judicial authority. It was clear however, that having pointed out certain flaws in the way the elections were conducted, the Supreme Court had a choice to annul or not annul the elections. Since the results were not in dispute, the Court had no democratic reason to annul, i.e. doing so did not serve to ensure that the democratic will of the electorate was protected, in fact the will of the voters was in this respect not considered to be the most important issue. The decision was thus undemocratic and one could even argue that it was anti-democratic, or, in other words, an attempt to put an end to a democratic process, rather than facilitate it.

From the point of view of Deweyan democracy one should argue that the Supreme Court had a duty to point out the flaws in the elections but also to base its decision on a commitment to serve democracy. As was later pointed out by critics of the decision, it is not in accordance with the rule of law that a judicial body may decide to annul a democratic election conducted legally, without significant failures and whose results clearly express the will of the electorate.[4] Here a commitment to democracy should have guided the Supreme Court. It is an epistemic commitment in the sense that the will of the people was known, it is also a moral commitment since serving democracy will then be seen as a more important value than technical perfection in the conduct of elections.

One of the bitterest issues debated in Iceland after the collapse of Iceland’s international banks, was the so-called Icesave case. Landsbankinn, one of the three big banks that collapsed in October 2008, had in 2007 started individual savings accounts in Britain and Holland that were quite lucrative for private savers. When Landsbankinn’s foreign operations were separated from its Icelandic operations and declared bankrupt, thousands of people lost their savings but were partially compensated by the British and Dutch governments in accordance with the European banking insurance policy. The British and the Dutch claimed that the Icelandic government was liable to pay the compensation and so they demanded to get back the amount paid to the individual savers. The Icelandic government to begin with accepted its responsibility and an agreement was negotiated. When the agreement was put to the parliament for ratification, a huge controversy ensued. Although the agreement was passed in the parliament it was clear that it created much anger among voters, who felt the Icelandic nation was being forced to pay debts created by irresponsible bank managers. The Icelandic president intervened by refusing to sign into law the bill on the agreement passed by the parliament, after having received petitions to do so from thousands of Icelandic citizens.

The Icelandic constitution stipulates that if the president refuses to sign a law, it must be put to a national referendum. As the referendum was being prepared, however, the government entered into new negotiations with the British and the Dutch. When the referendum on whether to accept the agreement passed by the parliament or reject it was conducted, the agreement was no longer relevant. It made therefore no difference whether the voters accepted or rejected the agreement since the government already had an offer that was clearly better for the Icelanders than the one they were voting on, even if not a formal signed offer or agreement. The referendum was therefore meaningless, and no democratic purpose in conducting it. One might argue that from some formalistic perspective it was unavoidable to conduct the referendum since it had already been scheduled. Parliament could however also have revoked the bill. The question here should be what would be more democratic to hold the referendum or abandon it. From the perspective of Deweyan democracy a referendum that fails to give a meaningful result—whatever the result—is not democratic. Other approaches might yield positions such as that holding the referendum is harmless; anyone who fails to see the point in participating could refrain from doing so, and so on. But it seems to me that if there is no problem–solving purpose in holding the referendum, and the whole point of doing it has become secondary, i.e. declaring support for (or opposition to) the government it has lost its democratic legitimacy. Whatever purpose there may be in participating (or not participating) it is different from the question being voted on.

Finally I want to discuss the national referendum on the constitutional bill submitted by the Constitutional Council.[5] The bill was submitted in the summer of 2011 and was meant to be passed before the end of the term in the spring of 2013. In October 2012 a consultatory referendum was held on the bill and at the same time participants were asked to express their view on six key questions on the content of the new constitution. While expressing support or opposition to the bill itself was relatively straightforward and yielded clear results (around two thirds were in favor of the bill, 50% of the electorate participated), the questions were vague and the results therefore begged the question. I will not go into detail in describing the various questions or the problems the evoked. It will suffice to take one example. One of the questions had to do with the national church. Iceland has not taken the step to separate the national church from the state. The current Icelandic constitution says that the state must “support and protect” the Evangelical Lutheran Church.[6] The question in the referendum was whether the voter thought that the new constitution should have a clause dealing with the national church. It did not ask what (if anything) the voter thought the constitution should say about the National church. Since (to many people’s surprise) the result was that the majority wanted there to be something on the church in the constitution, it was unclear how to interpret the will of the voters in that respect.

Again, from the point of view of some democratic theories this flaw in the referendum might not be taken to mean that it was undemocratic, but from a Deweyan perspective one would be able to conclude that since the result was democratically meaningless the referendum did not fulfill the epistemic conditions of democracy. The answer to the question made problem-solving more, rather than less, difficult, and the referendum therefore was meaningless for democratic problem solving.


Dewey’s discussion of democracy and the framework referred to as Deweyan democracy makes sense of a democratic commitment according to which we can assess democratic initiatives and results from an epistemic and moral point of view. The epistemic commitment is prior to the moral commitment since in many cases the moral commitment is a result of the epistemic commitment. Once democracy as a way of life is understood in this context, there is no need to fear that a democratic commitment amounts to committing oneself to a comprehensive doctrine such as an ideology or a religious belief. It is simply to make demands not only about democratic procedure, participation or deliberation but also in regard to the results of democratic decision- and policy-making.


Anderson, Elizabeth. “The Epistemology of Democracy.” Episteme (2006).

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press, 1966.

—. Reconstruction in Philosophy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

—. The Public and Its Problems. Athens: Swallow Press – Ohio University Press, 1954.

Festenstein, Matthew. “Pragmatism, Inquiry and Political Liberalism.” Contemporary Political Theory 9.1 (2010): 25–44.

MacGilvray, Eric A. Reconstructing Public Reason. Harvard University Press, 2004.

Misak, Cheryl J. Truth, Politics, Morality. Routledge, 2000.

Talisse, Robert B. “Can Democracy Be a Way of Life? Deweyan Democracy and the Problem of Pluralism.” Transactions of the Charles Peirce Society XXXIX.1-21 (2003).

—. Pluralism and Liberal Politics. New York: Routledge, 2012.


1 The terms democracy and governance are sometimes conflated. In his introduction to a collection of papers on democracy, Giorgio Agamben maintains that “the word democracy is used in most cases to refer to a technique of governing” (Agamben 2011, p. 1). While it is probably true that the term democracy is often used inaccurately, the distinction between governance and democracy is quite clear. Agamben probably overstates the confusion. There is however a tendency to describe administrative restrictions of democracy as part of a democratic framework.

2 The website created for the 2009 National assembly only has information in Icelandic. See thjodfundur2009.is. In the Q and A section of the page it is stated that the goal of the assembly is to create “a strong common vision” for the nation which will help “solve difficult and complicated problems”. In another section the intention to present them to the government with, as well as to institutions and associations whose role it will be to contribute to the recovery of the country after the crisis.

3 The National assembly (also referred to as National forum and National gathering) is described on its website, also available in English. See http://www.thjodfundur2010.is/english/ n.d.)

4 Reynir Axelsson, Athugasemdir við ákvörðun Hæstaréttar um ógildingu kosningar til stjórnlagaþings. Published 23 February 2011 at stjornarskrarfelagid.is.

5 The Constitutional Council was appointed by parliament after the nullification of the elections to the Constitutional Assembly. All 25 elected Assembly members were appointed except on who decided not to participate in the appointed body.

6 Constitution of the Republic of Iceland, Article 62. See: http://www.government.is/constitution/.

Good, Evil and Successful Recognition. A Processualist View on Recognitive Attitudes, Relations and Norms



“The identity of the idea with itself is one with the process 

(Hegel, The Science of Logic) [1]




In discussions about recognition today, one stumbles almost instantly on a widespread consensus about a distinction between two kinds of theory of recognition. Constructed as tracing back from Butler to Althusser, the first or the so-called “pessimistic” one, understands recognition as intrinsically problematic, whereas the other, referred to as the Taylorian or Honnethian, “optimistic” one is constructed as regarding (proper) recognition as good. Now, in such an ambivalent situation, a desirable outcome might be a theory of recognition that places the problems of recognition at its very core, while giving even more reason for optimism than the optimistic one. The prospects for such an account seem not very promising. But the reasons for trying are good.


As a matter of fact, I believe there to be two stories of recognition intending precisely this. The first of these stories is told by Hegel in the section on “Conscience, the Beautiful Soul, Evil and Its Forgiveness” in his Phenomenology of Spirit. Whereas Hegel is widely acknowledged as the founding father of theories of recognition, the author of my second story, John Dewey, has not been considered as a recognition theorist nearly at all. Yet, whenever he is attempting to elaborate his social philosophical perspective systematically, Dewey is relying on, what I argue to be, a recognition-theoretical conception of a “general pattern of social conflicts,” which is, I believe, of great relevance for the systematic recognition-theoretical efforts of today (cf. Dewey 1939 and 1973; Dewey & Tufts 1932, Part III). 


Here I will not be able to give enough textual evidence of the hermeneutic work that my reflections are based on. Hence I will confine myself to highlighting some of the conceptual consequences that I believe to result from a close reading of these two stories. My hunch is that by drawing attention to the conception of recognition in play in the section of “Evil and Its Forgiveness” and interpreting Dewey as essentially trying to further develop what Hegel is saying there, marks a shift in ontological implications and commitments of talking about problems of recognition. This is shift is a transition from basically action-theoretic, relational or institutional conceptions of recognition to a processual conception. The “processual view” I am proposing claims further to be able to include, or to speak Hegelian, to determinately negate, the earlier ones. The claim is, thus, to present the ambivalence of recognition not merely as a moment but also as a phase. But before I tell Hegel’s and Dewey’s stories, some pre-considerations are needed.


Firstly, it is important to note that the selection of precisely these two texts for considering problems of recognition is all but arbitrary from a systematic point of view. “Evil and Its Forgiveness” is the closing section of the chapter on “Spirit” in Hegel’s Phenomenology; and as such, it marks a significant achievement for the experiencing consciousness. On the phenomenological “path of despair,” this specific struggle for recognition presents, namely, the first successful “experience of consciousness.” It results in a standpoint that is not to be sublated as falsely one-sided in the following chapter. As the end of the movement of spirit and as the result of the successful movement of recognition, it forms the conceptual emergence of the inclusive standpoint that Hegel calls “absolute spirit.” Since this success is presented in recognitive terms, it also gives us an account of what successful recognition or even successful struggling for recognition might be. Therefore, one might even argue this to be the most convenient section in Hegel’s work for clarifying ambivalences of recognition.


Surprisingly, this applies in a way to Dewey’s version of the struggle for recognition as well. Dewey, namely, understands his social philosophy as a systematic attempt to aid in the resolution of social conflicts (cf. Dewey 1973, pp. 45-53; Dewey and Tufts 1932, Ch. 16). Social conflicts are, according to Dewey, based on problems of public of recognition between social groups (cf. ibid. 1973, pp. 72-81). Now, for the experimentalist social philosopher, the task is to reconstruct the one-sided conceptions and “ideologies” arising in such conflicts and pathologically blocking their resolution. Thereby the experimentalist claims to be able to work out a more inclusive social-philosophical standpoint, which is reached not in a deliberate conception of absolute spirit, but in a theory of the democratic public become “in-and-for-itself.” Dewey’s version of the movement of recognition presents as such the “general guiding principles” for social-philosophical reconstruction (Dewey 1973, p 64). Thus, for both Dewey and Hegel, the recognition-theoretical accounts considered here are attempts to offer an inclusive standpoint, from which to overcome one-sided perspectives that block a process of successful recognition.


Secondly, there is much to recognition that is already worked out at this point of argument forming its background. “Evil and Its Forgiveness” presents the last movement of recognition in the Phenomenology, and thus, according to the method of the “logic of experience,” it preserves what was true and negates what was false in the conceptions of recognition at play in earlier conflicts. As such it offers richer accounts of both the nature of recognitive problems as well as of the grammar of their resolution. The two most important lessons to keep in mind, I think, are those of the experiences of mastery and servitude (a) and reason (b):


  1. Firstly, the essential lesson to be learned from the recognitive failures of mastery and servitude, namely, is the concept of spirit as it emerges “for us,” according to which, among many other things, recognition cannot be understood as a one-sided act, but as a dialogical complex of mutual attitudes. A mere recognitive attitude of one party towards another does not suffice to constitute a relation of recognition. On the contrary, according to a dialogical conception of proper recognition, it takes the attitudes of both parties. In other words, in order for a recognitive relation between two persons or groups of persons to succeed, one group’s recognitive attitude towards the other group must be recognized by this other group as relevant.[2]
  2. The “abstract” relations and principles of recognition presented in the chapter on “Reason” result in the concept of an ethos (Sittlichkeit), according to which such dialogical complexes of mutual attitudes must be understood to be institutionally embedded as practices or habitualized as coventions if they are to actualize freedom. Recognition-theoretically elaborated institutions are not, at best, to be understood as external “necessary conditions of the possibility” of freedom. On the contrary, they present an internal moment of the concept of freedom itself.[3]  


Now, the question is, what is the lesson about recognizing in which the chapter on “Spirit” results? My suggestion is that “Evil and Its Forgiveness” gives reason to understand recognition not merely dialogically and institutionally but also processually. I read it as making explicit the processuality of recognizing implicit at all earlier stages of recognition in the Phenomenology. Such an interpretation is not only saying that it “makes a difference” whether one is speaking of recognition in terms of a relation or a process.[4] Rather, I think Hegel is putting forward the more robust claim that one ought to understand recognitive relations and institutions as functional distinction within a processual totality.




Both Dewey and Hegel reconstruct the process of a struggle for recognition, firstly, from the perspective of the parties involved, their self-conceptions and their conceptions of the other. Secondly, they present it from the external perspective of the social philosopher observing the development of the one-sided conceptions and working out a more inclusive one. Contrary to earlier shapes in the Phenomenology, in the case of “Evil and Its Forgiveness” these two methodological tracks of “for consciousness” and “for us” coincide at the end. Furthermore, Hegel and Dewey both distinguish three phases of such a process.


The first phase Hegel (1977, §§ 632-654) calls “conscience” and Dewey (1973, p. 77) “the period of tacit acceptance of the status quo”: Here consciousness regards “duty” as a recognitive norm claiming universal validity. “Pure duty” is a universal form that can be applied to any relation of recognition as its content. Consciousness has immediate awareness of manifold concrete duties; that is to say, it has habitualized generally acknowledged reciprocal treatments and corresponding attitudes. Confronted with this multitude of recognitive norms, consciousness might find them conflicting or else ambivalent. How can consciousness choose between conflicting duties let alone formulate new ones? As an immediate certainty of duty, the only ground consciousness can fall back on is its own conviction of the good, that is, in Hegel’s terminology, it becomes “conscience.”


The second phase is characterized in Hegel (1977, §§ 655-666) by the attitudes of “evil,” “the beautiful soul” and “the hard heart”; Dewey (1973, pp. 77-8) calls it the phase of “challenge.” Acting on such conscientious decisions can, obviously, either succeed or fail: If all goes well, the act as a public expression of a conviction of the good is acknowledged as in accordance with the publicly effective conception of the good. This might, however, as well, not be the case: The success of such conscientious decisions is arbitrary. Thus, in case of failure, there occurs a diremption into two consciences. The first of is a conscience acting according to recognitive norms justified by its own conviction of the good, the second a conscience judging in accordance with effective recognitive norms and the publicly acknowledged conception of the good.


As learnt from the lesson of mastery and servitude, recognitive conflicts are characterized by “Doppelsinnigkeit,[5] meaning, firstly, that whatever happens on the one side of the recognitive relation has immediate consequences on the other and, secondly, that the relata will both identify with and negate each other as well as themselves (Hegel 1977, § 183).


Now, the acting party first negates what it sees as the false consciousness of the public judging it. It thereby also negates itself as the acting party by withdrawing from public expression in the “dread of besmirching the splendour of its inner being by action” (ibid., § 658). The attitude of such pathological withdrawal from any attempt at resolving concrete recognitive problems at hand, Hegel calls “the beautiful soul” (ibid.).


The publicly judging party, on the other hand, responds by judging the beautiful soul as “evil.” Since, in placing its own inner law of conscience above the acknowledged universal, acting conscience is, in fact, evil, as the concept has widely been conceived since Kant. Hegel and Dewey, however, give the concept of evil a recognition-theoretical push by conceiving it as the intentional “singularizing” (Hegel 2007, p. 206) or “isolation” (Dewey 1929, p. 245) of oneself in a recognitive process.


Now, it is precisely on the basis of this judgment that the acting party can identify itself with the party of the judging public. In denouncing the acting party as evil, the party of the acknowledged universal is, in fact, itself appealing to its own particular law, which, since the other party’s withdrawal of its acknowledgement, is no longer an acknowledged universal. It thereby presents itself as exactly as evil, negates itself and legitimizes the self-isolation of the acting party by placing itself alongside the latter. By experiencing the evil of the judging party, the acting party identifies itself with the former. In an attempt at a one-sided recognition, it admits to its being evil and expects mutuality. The judging party, however, rejects this attempt at public reconciliation and, thus, it, in turn, becomes a “beautiful soul” and makes the experience of evil corresponding to the one made earlier by the acting party.


The third phase, entitled “forgiveness” by Hegel and “fruition” by Dewey, marks a transition that for us observing philosophers seems like a necessity, but for experiencing consciousness requires a moral self-transcendence: Having made the corresponding experience and seen the evil consequences of its particular conception of the good, the judging party is able to identify itself with the acting party. In a mutual attempt at coming to terms with the recognitive problem, the judging party surrenders its one-sidedly particular conception of the good like the acting party puts aside its one-sidedly singular conception. Together they are able to cooperatively resolve the recognitive problem at hand by formulating a new conception of the good, which is not anymore “abstractly universal,” but a concrete universal as including the singularity of conscientious deliberation (as represented by the acting party), the particularity of concrete historical situatedness (as represented by the judging party) and the universality of the law formulated in mutual public recognition.


I am inclined to infer that this kind of cooperative public constitution of concrete universality might be labeled “successful recognition.” Such public recognition comes with an insight into the fallibility of one’s singular and particular judgment. Such a recognitive attitude Hegel calls “forgiveness.” Dewey (1973, p. 80) calls it an “attitude of inquiry,” with a clear reference to the recognitive struggle’s being a process of social problem resolution. It involves an openness and willingness to cope with recognitive problems cooperatively and, correspondingly, as Dewey (ibid., p. 76) puts it,  “to be recognized as an operating component of the larger society.”


To Dewey, this sequential unity of the three phases of a struggle for public recognition forms a general pattern of social conflicts, repeatable on ever-higher levels. Concrete universality as its result is not to be understood as merely an achievement or a state, but as an ongoing process of social reconstruction (Dewey 1929, p. 151). Cooperative democracy is this pattern made reflexive by institutionalizing and habituating the recognitive attitude of inquiry. Therefore Dewey does in no way regard evil as a necessary stage of all social conflicts.




I would like to conclude by briefly indicating how such a processualist approach to struggles for recognition might include some of the central recognition-theoretical concepts such as recognitive relations and attitudes (a), norms (b) and values (c). The challenge is to present them as functional distinctions within this process.


(a) Such an account distinguishes, obviously, between unproblematic and problematic relations of recognition. Furthermore, both problematic and unproblematic recognitive relations seem to come in two kinds. Firstly, recognitive relations can be unproblematic in the sense of being indeterminate; that is to say, constituted by immediate, habituated everyday attitudes and not being claimed by anyone as problematic. Secondly, recognitive relations can be seen as unproblematic in the sense of being determinate; that is to say, achieved through struggle and constituted by attitudes creatively habituated as a kind of mediated immediacy.


There seems to be two types of problematic relations of recognition as well. Firstly a recognitive relation and habitual attitude can become thematized as problematic, because it is experienced as involving domination or wronging or else as bad. These are the kind of claims that mediate between the first and the second phase. Secondly, recognitive attitudes can be seen as problematic in the sense of Hegel’s concepts of “the beautiful soul” and “the hard heart.” Both authors consider such highly problematic attitudes as evil. They might occur in the second phase as the intentional withdrawal from any attempt at cooperative problem resolution.


(b) Such a processualist approach regards social norms as means of an enduring direction of recognitive relations. The kind of processual account, I have been reconstructing, presents struggles for recognition as responsive to pre-existing norms in the sense of reacting to failed norms or practices. The struggle for public recognition originates in a disintegrated situation of a community where recognitive norms are experienced as ambivalent and are unmasked as containing relations of domination or wronging. But precisely this negative response to pre-existing norms in the second phase seems to indicate a generation of new recognitive norms. As such, the struggle for public recognition is also generative of norms in the sense of being creative of new ones as intended to resolve the problems of the old ones and bypass the relations of domination or wronging in them. Thus, this approach understands successful recognition processually as mediating between norms-become-problematic and emancipating norms-in-view.


It might be worth noting, at this point, that the processualist approach could claim to be able to integrate multidimensional theories of recognition, such as those presented by Charles Taylor (cf. 1992) and Axel Honneth (cf. 2011), as accounts of unproblematic recognition. There seems to me to be good reasons for the processualist to distinguish between diverse dimensions of unproblematic recognition, such as, for instance, being correctly treated according to the best available conceptions of ones particularity, singularity and universality or as being esteemed, loved and respected.


(c) As mediating between problematic and unproblematic recognitive attitudes, relations and norms, the struggle for public recognition, furthermore, presents a process of collective valuation, since it marks the formation of new values and projection of them on future recognitive relations. The struggle for public recognition begins in an indeterminate situation characterized by the need of a novel direction of certain relations of recognition. As a consequence the acting party attributes a negative value to the kind of direction of recognitive relations effective, whereas the judging party values it positively. New values emerge, according to Dewey, always as simultaneously negations of existing conditions and affirmation of an intended future situation. As such, values constitute conceptions of good or better direction of recognitive relations. Thus, they seem to give participants reasons how to treat each other. Such reasons constitute norms of recognition, and if followed, they can become social institutions.  


Therefore the processualist recognition-theorist seems to be a representative of the branch of value-based recognition theories (cf. Laitinen 2002). According to this branch, values give persons reasons for ways of mutual treatment and such ways can be understood as social norms. This does, however, not commit the processualist to any kind of strong value realism, since he regards values as essentially transitional entities: A novel direction of recognitive relations has “value” according to its resolving a problematic relation of recognition. Or better: Recognitive norms have “value” in so far as they emancipate.


A recognitive problem counts, namely, as resolved, if the relata of the recognitive relation and the participants of the recognitive process can act freely. Thus, freedom counts as a kind of ultimate value in the processual account. What freedom in any single case means in concrete, is left relatively open and “problem specific.” But anyhow, every resolution of a problem gives a sense of being at home in the world.





Brandom, Robert (2002), Tales of the Mighty Dead: Historical Essays in the Metaphysics of Intentionality, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.


Dewey, John (1929), The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action, in: John Dewey, The Later Works, Vol. 4, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.


Dewey, John (1939), Freedom and Culture, in: John Dewey, The Later Works, Vol. 13, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.


Dewey, John (1973), Lectures in China, 1919-1920, Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.


Dewey, John and James H. Tufts (1932), Ethics, in: John Dewey, The Later Works, Vol. 7, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.


Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1977), Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (2007), Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Volume III, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Honneth, Axel (2011), Das Recht der Freiheit. Grundriß einer demokratischen Sittlichkeit, Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.


Ikäheimo, Heikki and Arto Laitinen (2007), “Analyzing Recognition: Identification, Acknowledgement, and Recognitive Attitudes towards Persons,” in: van den Brink and Owen (eds), Recognition and Power: Axel Honneth and the Tradition of Critical Social Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge Univerity Press.


Laitinen, Arto (2002), “Interpersonal Recognition: A Response to Value or a Precondition of Personhood?”, in: Inquiry, vol. 45, no. 4.


Taylor, Charles (1992), “The Politics of Recognition,” in: Amy Gutman (ed.), Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”, Princeton: Princeton University Press.




[1] I am grateful to Federica Gregoratto and Arto Laitinen for critical comments and helpful remarks most of which I wish I had been able to elaborate further in this paper.

[2] I read Heikki Ikäheimo and Arto Laitinen (2007) as putting forward such a dialogical conception of recognition in the contemporary debate.

[3] I read Axel Honneth (2011, Part A, Ch. III) as proposing an institutional conception of recognition somewhat in accordance with this move in the Phenomenology, although he is implementing a very different strategy than the phenomenological one to overcome the conventionalist difficulties of a Sittlichkeitslehre.

[4] I read Robert Brandom (2002, Ch. 7) as suggesting this ”less robust” thesis about processuality.

[5] A.V. Miller (Hegel 1977, § 112) translates ”Doppelsinnigkeit” as ”double significance.”