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Theses Doctoral

The Desire and Struggle for Recognition

Gomes, Bjorn Wee

In recent decades, the politics of recognition has become an important theme in political and social theorizing about justice and freedom. The desire for recognition, that is to say, the desire to have the approval, esteem, consideration or respect of those around us, whether as individuals or members of social groups, has in fact been described as a vital human need. The distribution of rights and obligations, wealth and resources, all turn on the theme of recognition; failures to recognize the humanity of others or their particular identities as worthy of respect or esteem often result in political and social outcomes that are deeply unjust. The central idea behind these debates is that an individual’s identity – her self-understanding of who she is – and her social and political standing in any organized community – the rights she has and the protections she possesses under the law – are all in part shaped by the recognition or misrecognition of others. As Charles Taylor describes it, a social and political world that reflects back to individuals a demeaning picture of themselves can lead to severe psychic damage and cause real harm; a political society that simply refuses to recognize the identities of certain groups of individuals as having any standing at all can result in radical denials of the basic rights individuals are entitled to as members of a political community. Indeed, many of the major cultural, ethnic, racial, gender and religious movements of the last decade are seen by scholars as organized around the principle of recognition – the struggle to have one’s identity be recognized by others as worthy of respect. In trying to make sense of the politics of recognition, scholars have, for the most part, turned to Hegel’s account of the struggle for recognition for guidance. His most prominent remarks on this subject occur in the Phenomenology of Spirit, where he discusses the struggle for recognition through what is famously known as the master-slave dialectic. While Hegel certainly offers an extremely sophisticated and important account of the subject, and although many have shifted the debate to other areas of Hegel’s corpus, the general neglect of philosophical treatments on this issue by other thinkers in the history of thought is regrettable. In this dissertation, I examine some of the most important precursors to Hegel on this subject, arguing that they did indeed take the struggle for recognition seriously. Moreover, I hope to show that their reflections on the subject are themselves important and worthy of consideration, not only historically, but also for how we might think about the struggle for recognition today. This dissertation focuses on the social and political thought of Bernard Mandeville, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. It has two main aims. First and most principally, I aim to throw new light on each of their political philosophies by examining their ideas through the lens of the struggle for recognition. Each of them, I will argue, in varying ways set the desire for recognition at the centre of their thought. Second, I attempt to account for the continuities and discontinuities of between their views on the subject.

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Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Johnston, David Chambliss
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
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