Note VI

At the heart of Hegel’s philosophy of mind is the idea that self-consciousness is essentially mediated: that a self’s recognition of its own selfhood is metaphysically dependent on its recognition of others and the reciprocation of such recognitive attitudes. This is a rejection of the foundational Cartesian doctrine of given self-consciousness. Brandom’s approach to this mediation structure is to consider the logic of the recognition relation itself. We say that x recognises y if x takes y to be a self. To say that x is self-conscious is then just to say that x recognises themselves.

Both the Cartesian and Hegelian perspectives insist on the reflexivity of the recognition relation. This is the property that for all selves x, x recognises x. (i.e. Both think that consciousness entails self-consciousness.) Where they differ is in the place they assign to reflexivity in the order of explanation. The Cartesian perspective takes reflexivity as given (via the cogito—more on this below), while the Hegelian sees it as something that must be derived from other properties of the recognition relation.

Brandom’s gloss of this derivation is rather neat. He notes that the reflexivity of a binary relation will follow if it can be shown that it is both symmetric and transitive.

  • symmetry: x recognises y implies y recognises x
  • transitivity: whenever x recognises y and y recognises z, it is also the case that x recognises z.

If both of these conditions are met then reflexivity follows by substituting “x recognises y” and “y recognises x” into the antecedent of the transitivity condition.

Developing an account of recognition that establishes both of these conditions is how Brandom reads Hegel as establishing that self-consciousness arises from consciousness. Symmetry will be a particular focus, with Brandom reading the master-slave dialectic as Hegel’s argument that asymmetric forms of “recognition” are defective in various critical ways. I will no doubt write something about that when I get there. But for the purposes of this post I want sketch out a few intuitions about the transitivity condition.

My first thought when I read this was that there is no particular reason to believe that recognition should be transitive. If my friend says that rocks have minds, the fact that I do not think that rocks have minds does not seem to commit me to revising my belief that my friend has a mind. But, as I realised, this is to misunderstand what Brandom is getting at. The key point is that recognition is not a belief, but a practical attitude. To recognise someone is not to think something about them, but to treat them a certain way. It is to take what Daniel Dennett has called the “intentional stance” towards them, to treat them in practice as having contentful mental states and making meaningful utterances. As Brandom emphasises, what this boils down to is treating them as subject to normative assessments, as having distinctive kinds of responsibilities and commitments.

The alternative to the intentional stance is what could be called the “causal stance,” which treats its target as a non-minded object whose behaviours are understood as differential responsive dispositions conditioned by causal laws. The causal stance is the stance we take to the parrot when we do not engage it in conversation, despite the fact that it is making the same pattern of sounds that would demand a response if uttered by a human. If taking the intentional stance toward something is to recognise it, then to take the causal stance towards it is to objectify it.

Back to transitivity. If to recognise someone were just to believe that they have a mind, then transitivity would clearly fail (if belief were transitive in this way it would seem to imply that disagreement is impossible). But once recognition is understood as a practical attitude its transitivity seems much more plausible. If my friend says that rocks have minds, then we can have a disagreement. But if I find my friend deep in conversation with a rock, things are somewhat different. If I continue to take the intentional stance toward my friend then the likelihood is that at some point I’ll have to take it toward the rock too. (When a child is holding a dinner party for their toys it is difficult to socially engage them without also engaging with their guests—to not do so would risk offending the host.) Conversely, if I want to maintain my causal stance toward the rock then at some point I’ll probably have to extend it to my friend as well, no doubt starting to wonder what extrinsic causal factors have produced this rock whispering behaviour and who I should call about it. Whence the phrase “they have lost their mind”1.

If an account of what one must be doing in practice to count as recognising another that satisfies both transitivity and symmetry conditions can be given, then reflexivity will follow as a consequence. This would imply that any self that has the capacity to recognise another thereby possesses the capacity to recognise themselves. If this picture is correct it would also imply that insofar as one recognises themselves, they are also implicitly recognising others and being recognised by them. This contrasts dramatically with the Cartesian picture. In that account recognition as practical attitude is not distinguished from recognition as belief. Reflexivity (self-consciousness) is then equated to the certainty that I am, as a direct consequence of the incorrigibility of the belief I think, and independently of any belief in other selves. This unmediated reflexivity then gives rise to the Cartesian problem of other minds, since there is no analytic reason to suppose that belief in other minds should be transitive or symmetric (as discussed above), and neither do these properties follow from reflexivity.

From the Hegelian perspective, the very capacity of a subject to form the belief I think indicates that they already recognise themselves in the practical sense (otherwise they would not be able to understand their own use of the first-person pronoun). To draw the conclusion I am is then just to make explicit what was already implicit in practice. But according to the Hegelian picture, if this is the case then there is already a lot more implicit in practice—in particular, the reciprocal recognition of other minds. The solipsist who believes in the existence of their own consciousness, but not that of others, therefore holds beliefs which are inconsistent with their practical attitudes. If their practical attitudes were to be brought into line with their beliefs they would recognise no-one (that is to say, they would objectify everyone). But in this case they would no longer be able to recognise themselves. The global causal stance of the sociopath (the practicing solipsist) must ultimately extend to themselves as well2.


  1. There are some similarities between these points and Donald Davidson’s ideas about communication. Davidson pointed out that in order to interpret another’s utterances as meaningful one must attribute mostly true beliefs to them. This captures the idea that a particular meaningful disagreement can only take place against a background of general agreement. When disagreement runs deep enough (i.e. interlocuters disagree about enough things) at some point it loses its content, and the interlocuters become unable to understand each other. It is at this point that people start throwing bad faith accusations around, slipping from the intentional into the causal stance and looking for extra-rational reasons why their interlocuters are saying things they perceive to be nonsensical. On Davidson’s view, therefore, the principle of charity is not just a methodological desiderata of rational discourse, but a condition of the possibility of communication. This can be seen as another way of closing in on the intuition behind Dennett’s intentional stance or Brandom’s recognitive attitudes. Where Dennett emphasises explanatory efficacy and Brandom normative reciprocity, Davidson highlights the (pragmatic) interdependence of truth, belief, and meaning.

  2. Here’s a thought about how something similar could hold in the converse situation. For one to objectify themselves, they require their self-objectification to be lensed through the objectifying gaze of another. Self-objectification therefore instrumentalises the other as an objectifier, failing to recognise both itself and the other. Narcissism and sociopathy turn out to be equivalent.