All of us need recognition. We need it from those we love but also from the state if we are to enjoy our rights as citizens, and from society at large if we are to secure esteem for our achievements. In the absence of recognition we languish, unloved and unseen, without legal protection and without the basic sense that we matter as human beings. Think, for instance, of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which invisibility becomes a metaphor for recognition denied. “I am invisible,” the narrator writes, “simply because people refuse to see me.” He feels like a bodiless head at a circus sideshow, as if he were encased in “mirrors of hard, distorting glass.” Others who approach him “see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.” Because he is denied recognition, he is robbed of the necessary conditions for a fulfilling life. “I am not only invisible,” he says, “but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death.”
Philosophers, psychologists, and theorists of social interaction have long understood that recognition is crucial to human flourishing. The idea that we can only be fully human if we are recognized by others is a central theme of the tradition of political thought that runs from Aristotle to Arendt, in which the political sphere is conceived not as an empty stage for individual pursuits but as a common realm in which we first appear to one another and find our completion as human beings. Freud gave this thought a further twist with his theory of infantile socialization, according to which our status as moral agents is due to an early complex of transactions over love and desire that must find a proper resolution if we are to emerge into maturity.
But the same recognition that we need from others we also require for ourselves: if we refuse to recognize our own desires, they distort us from the inside and we succumb to illness. Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist and theorist of anticolonial liberation, united these insights in his claim that our sense of “human worth and reality” does not exist prior to our social interaction but is the consequence of social recognition. Asymmetries of power, such as that between colonizer and colonized, will distort this recognition or render it inoperative, resulting in structural injustice and personal distress. A truly just society would demand what Fanon called “a world of reciprocal recognition.”
In recent years, no one has pursued the idea of recognition with greater energy and acumen than Axel Honneth, a German-born philosopher from the so-called Frankfurt School tradition of social theory. Despite its name, the Frankfurt School was never a school with a single doctrine but a diverse group of mid-twentieth-century thinkers, including Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Friedrich Pollock, and Herbert Marcuse, who worked as affiliates of the Frankfurt-based Institute for Social Research, founded in the early 1920s. Though broadly Marxist in inspiration, the institute’s members had little patience for the mindless cant of the organized Communist movement or for the authoritarian bureaucracies of the Soviet bloc, which were socialist in name only. A loose and interdisciplinary collective of philosophers, psychologists, political scientists, and cultural critics, the institute was united only in its skeptical verdict on the capitalist world as a ruinous domain in which commodification and convention prevailed over genuine freedom.