Recognition, Multiculturalism & Structural Apprehension

When I was a masters student, I found Axel Honneth very useful, and I had to read Kymlicka (whom I was less enamored of. Maybe I changed.) for my dissertation. In “Redistribution or Recognition?” (2003) Nancy Fraser made the distinction that recognition (as opposed to distributive justice) could be a liberatory politics if it were to involve recognizing identity as status, as opposed to essentializing identity. Unfortunately, in a conservative era, the recognition of identities as distributed status gets drowned out by essentialist interpretations of identity. As well, Patchen Markell has introduced caution about the empancipatory potential of recognition and multiculturalism.

Here are excerpts from an effusive (wordy) Amazon.com review of Patchen Markell’s Bound by Recognition (Main points in bold):

“…Markell’s genius lies in crafting one of the most gripping opening paragraphs (not simply a sentence) composed in the last several decades of contemporary political theory. Markell begins by narrating various instances among the countless acts of recognition, each sentence containing a separate case in point.

Consider a sample of the book’s beginning, which illustrates the complex dilemma of recognition: “Walking along a crowded avenue, you see a friend and call out her name: suddenly, a pocket of intimacy forms in an otherwise anonymous public space. Standing in a long line at the immigration office, you find yourself grateful for your Canadian passport, which you know will make it easier for you to extend your employment in the United States. You roll back the metal gates in front of your shop window, which now displays (next to the list of South Asian languages spoken inside) a new assortment of items prominently bearing the American flag. Sitting down with a calculator, you and your partner wonder weather it will be possible to get a home loan together at a decent rate without being married…Driving down a street in a predominantly white neighborhood, you are pulled over again by the police, suspended in mistrust while the officer runs your identification and plates. You recall how several of your male co-workers unexpectedly declared that they think you’ll be the next woman in the office to have a baby” (p.1).

BOUND BY RECOGNITION builds upon Hegel’s political theory in order to address the ways in which humans enter into moments of recognition. Humans constantly experience what Hegel calls a “struggle for recognition” (“Kamft um Anerkennung”). These intersubjective struggles involve individuals working out their asymmetrical relationships to arrive at a moment of mutually recognizing the humanity of one another in the hope that each will attain sovereign agency over their own mind and body.


As Markell shows, struggles for recognition many times do not lead to resolutions of conflict. Paradoxically, seeking sovereign agency and emancipation in recognition without questioning the normative sources of privilege in a system actually has the effect of reinforcing societal injustices.

Echoing Hannah Arendt’s Emerson-Thoreau Medal Lecture and writings on action, Markell contends we must first acknowledge the human condition of finitude and plurality by recognizing the non-sovereign character of human action when confronting issues of identity and difference. Doing so allows us to begin de-legitimizing normative structures of privilege while simultaneously theorizing ways in which persons excluded in a polity may gain greater inclusion beyond merely recognition.

 The book highlights recognition’s limits through an exegesis of Hegel’s thought, tragic recognition in the work of Sophocles and Aristotle, 19th century Jewish emancipation in Prussia, the contemporary movement of multiculturalism endorsed by theorists such as Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka, and central contemporary political theorists reinforcing conventional readings of Hegel on recognition such as Robert Williams and Axel Honneth.

Markell shifts the terrain of political theory by proposing a politics of “acknowledgment” (as opposed to a politics of recognition) which does not abandon the thought of Hegel. It brings out new dimensions in theorizing freedom and human agency in Hegel that Hegel himself did not fully theorize normatively.”

MF: Yuck: “acknowledgment.” Bad neologism. Glad that didn’t catch on. But the analysis is great. Better to push for a change in how we understand recognition: Recognition 2.

“Among the most powerful sections is Chapter 4, which contains an unorthodox reading of the PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT and Hegel’s writings on recognition. Markell unconventionally argues that Hegel possesses “two voices” regarding recognition (pp. 90-95): (1) the diagnostic voice [prominent in the PHENOMENOLOGY] and (2) the reconciliatory voice [prominent in the PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT]. Markell explains that Hegel does not hold a unitary concept of recognition. This claim offers space for shifting theorists’ attention to a politics of acknowledgment. 

Markell concludes by illustrating how his politics of acknowledgment differs from the politics of recognition through a critique of multiculturalism. He does not reject identity politics. He does reject movements like multiculturalism that recognize minority groups without changing the structures of oppression that grant limited sovereign space to these groups.

The aim of acknowledgment revolves around confronting human finitude, acknowledging the elements of sacrifice we perform in an uncertain world future, and restructuring the world to allow for increased human agency. I leave it to the reader to see how the author outlines pillars of this new politics, relating them to areas as wide ranging as ancient Greek tragedy, feminism, and critical race theory.

An aspect of the book other reviewers do not mention is Markell’s desire to link this new politics to contemporary democratic theory, and this radical link emerges in the closing sections.

The author’s Afterword discussing the choice of the book cover to the text’s theme (pp. 190-193): Markell’s literally binding cover shows a photograph from an unorthodox reenactment of the final scene of Aeschylus’s ancient trilogy ORESTEIA. It represents a case of recognition’s limitations. Markell notes reading about a production of the play in which the Furies, dressed in red ceremonial robes, are bound by recognition at the end of the EUMENIDES following their “taming” by Athena after they attempt to punish Orestes for murdering Clytemnestra and her lover. Dressing them in red-the robe color worn by Athenian resident aliens (metics) during the Panathenaic festivals-Athena decides to incorporate the Fury outsiders into Athenian society, relegating them to a subterranean chamber of a home.

What initially appears as Athena’s positive recognition of the Furies in fact ends up highlighting how the Furies become bound by recognition. The book cover portrays one Fury tied to a chair on stage. This sums up visually Markell’s moving thesis.”

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