Hegel’s Concept of Mutual Recognition:

The Limits of Self-Determination



Dr. Victoria I. Burke


Wilfrid Laurier University



            For Hegel, the ideal relation that two self-conscious beings might have to each other is one of reciprocal mutual recognition. According to Hegel, “a self-consciousness exists for [another] consciousness.” That is, self-consciousness is defined by its being recognized as self-conscious by another self-consciousness. In one formulation, Robert Pippin says that this means that “being a free agent consists in being recognized as one.” However, at the same time, Hegel values self-determination, which suggests a fundamental independence from others. The formative activity of Bildung, writes Frederick Neuhouser, “is not simply formative experience of any type, but formative experience that has a specific end, namely, self-determination.” The fully educated Hegelian moral subject is self-determining, and is capable of making and pursuing its own ends. In this paper, after diagnosing some misreadings of Hegel’s concept of mutual recognition, I will show that the very possibility of self-determination is undermined by the doctrine of mutual recognition, not by consciousness becoming subject to the recognition bestowed by others (and thereby being determined in part by others), but rather because of the very nature of its own act of recognition itself.