Recognition before Rousseau: Esteem and Self-Love in the Western Philosophical Tradition

Overview of the panel: In recent decades, critical theorists such as Axel Honneth and Charles Taylor have emphasised the importance of intersubjective recognition to the individual’s sense of well-being and selfhood. We justly demand that our moral and legal status qua human beings be respected by one another and by social institutions; yet we also yearn to be recognised as individuals, in all our particularity and subjectivity. This theory of recognition is deeply indebted to Hegel; and scholars interested in its history tend to assume that, prior to Hegel, only Rousseau grasped how living together shapes us both psychologically and morally. The aim of this panel is to challenge this conclusion in the strongest terms, by uncovering a much longer debate within the Western philosophical tradition regarding the profound consequences of the individual’s desire for esteem and recognition from others. Much of the best work in this field is currently being undertaken at Helsinki, by scholars who are participating in the Reason and Religious Recognition project.

Paper abstracts: (1) Ritva Palmén (University of Helsinki): ‘Self-love, excellence and esteem in the Middle Ages’ (20 mins) Axel Honneth argues that self-confidence, supported by love, is a universal precondition for self-realization in any community. Self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem are three modes of relating to oneself which are essential for the possibility of identity formation. They can only be acquired and maintained intersubjectively, through recognition by others whom one also recognizes. However, both respect and esteem have undergone a significant historical transformation. By exploring textual material ranging from late Antiquity to twelfth-century spiritual rehearsals and medieval university theology, I will ask how practical relations to self, and esteem in particular, were explored in the context of medieval philosophical theology. I analyze the problem of desire for excellence and the idea of self-estimation in a selection of medieval writings. In these texts, Christian authors underline how all people are equal before the eyes of God. On this view, pride is a kind of pathological (and sinful) mode of excessive self-estimation. Gregory the Great warns that “the proud observe other people’s conduct not so as to set themselves beneath them with humility, but so as to set themselves above them with pride”. Building on the authority of Augustine and Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas argues that the pride is an inordinate desire or love for one’s own excellence (appetitus/amor propriae excellentiae). However, Aquinas acknowledges that people differ from one another and notes that by practicing humility and right reason, each person may gain a true estimation of oneself (existimatio). This requires balanced evaluations of the capabilities and merits of oneself and others. Richard of St. Victor suggests that a person should learn to resist vain glory, pride and false self-esteem. One of the best means by which to do so is to cultivate one’s sense of shame.

(2) Heikki Haara (University of Helsinki) and Tim Stuart-Buttle (University of Cambridge/ University of York, UK): ‘Beyond individualism: esteem, recognition and sociability in Pufendorf and Locke’ (40 mins). Pufendorf and Locke are widely held to be leading representatives of a ‘modern’ tradition of natural law, which focused squarely on the individual who was possessed of a set of rights and duties. Insofar as scholars have explored the similarities and differences between their natural law theories, attention has focused squarely on their moral ontologies. The aim of our paper is to shift attention to their moral psychologies. To do so yields rich insights, which challenge the conventional understanding of seventeenth-century Protestant natural law theory and its relationship to later philosophical developments (most notably in Scotland). Pufendorf and Locke foregrounded the individual’s concern for esteem and recognition as essential both to their moral formation, and to the development of the bonds by which civil societies were held together. In short, the individual was shaped in the most profound of ways through interaction with others in society. This, both argued, was a beneficial – indeed, providential – process: it encouraged a shared sense of right and wrong (that is, moral consensus), and offered pressing incentives (praise and blame) which induced individuals to behave in ways of which others approved, thereby contributing to the common good of their society. Pufendorf’s and Locke’s emphasis on the positive consequences, for the individual and civil society, of this desire for recognition stands in marked and deliberate contrast to Hobbes’s treatment of this characteristic of human nature. For Hobbes, the desire for ‘reputation’, ‘glory’ and ‘fame’ destabilised civil society, and therefore had to be domesticated by the sovereign. For Pufendorf, and to an even greater degree for Locke, esteem and the sociability to which it led allowed for society to be conceptualised in terms which were to some extent independent of the state. Seen in this light, both Pufendorf’s and Locke’s emphasis on the dynamic shaping of the individual personality through interactions with others represented an attempt to challenge the fundamental principle of Hobbes’s political theory.

(3) Mikko Tolonen (University of Helsinki): ‘Pride and moral fitness in the skeptical sentimentalism of Mandeville, Hume and Smith’ (20 mins). Mandeville described self-liking as our propensity to ‘overestimate ourselves’ in ‘comparison with others’. Men involuntarily value themselves above their real worth. At the same time, they have a notion of the fact that they actually misjudge their value. This makes them dependent on the audience’s approval, which has further consequences. The best way to seek the good opinion of others is by mutual discretions. In Mandeville’s Augustinian theory, pride leads to social constructions such as politeness. One key component in this theory is that morality is based on a sentiment. It is very close to Shaftesbury and Hutcheson in this sense. The claim of this paper is that David Hume and also Adam Smith develop this line further. I call this ‘skeptical sentimentalism’ because I make a clear division between Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, and Mandeville, Hume and Smith. In the case of Shaftesbury and especially Hutcheson, the foundation of the theory is not skeptically flavoured, and it is bound to give such relevance to the idea of benevolence that it is psychologically untenable. In ‘skeptical sentimentalism’, I am particularly interested in self-liking and innocent pride or self-esteem as the basis of further theoretical constructions. I believe that to study this route is a way to understand the social nature of Hume’s philosophical project, and also the role of approbation and self-approbation in Smith’s moral theory.