There and Back Again – A Nostalgia Trip

The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien
, Harper Collins, 2005 [1968]

In case you didn’t already know it, I used to be a massive nerd. However, during the last ten years the time I’ve spent on reading fantasy and sci-fi or playing various board games has been in a constant decline and, thus, I like to think of myself as more massive but less of a nerd nowadays. Anyway, this Christmas I surprised myself by buying a fancy edition of The LotR – the book that sparked my interest in elves, dwarves, dark lords, and anything in-between. As everyone knows how the story goes, what is offered below is just some random thoughts and impressions that it raised this time.

Tolkien, the lyrical genius. Now with pictures.
  • This was actually the first time I read The LotR in English and I had heard some rumours that the book would be closer to ‘high fantasy’ – that is, more might and magic – in its original language. I was glad to find out that this was not the case. The Finnish translation has a superb down-to-earth feeling to it but so does the original too. In any case, this comparison is based on pretty vague memories of the Finnish version as it has been over ten years since I read it the last time. My perspective might have also changed a little in those ten years as now some parts felt like adventure books that are meant for teenage boys.
  • Faramir is a real jack of all trades. He knows his lore, he is a competent general and a fighter, and he is also a ladies’ man. On top of this he is a nice guy. One of my favourites alongside with Sam (this time I quite liked his naive rambling) and…
  • Éowyn – perhaps the most interesting character in the whole book. There would have been potential to make a nice feminist point with her but Tolkien does not take that chance. Éowyn is chained to a social role that she cannot stand, falls for Aragorn (but only as a mean to escape her own role), develops a death-wish in order to escape her situation, and finally – and this is the part that I don’t think Tolkien handles that well – finds her piece and place with Faramir. This leads to a somewhat obvious observation:
  • Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is extremely conservative. While I like the general line that we should respect and love nature, this same ‘conservation principle’ seems to extend to the social world too. Kings are kings and lords are lords because they have always been so. The lesser men must know their place and any time that anyone tries to stray from their natural place and natural responsibilities, problems follow. As for the elves, almost all that they do is to try to keep the world from changing and hold onto their past glories. This all of course follows from the way Tolkien has built his world: everything diminishes as the time goes on and being conservative is pretty much just trying to stay in touch with what was pure and innocent in the beginning of times.
  • If Tolkien was alive and offered to write lyrics for any of the bands in which I play, I would say a resolute no to him.
  • There is something wrong in people who don’t like Tom Bombadil.

Did I still find the book entertaining? Last night I stayed up until almost 6am to finish the last 400 pages of the over 1000-page tome and that probably tells something. I had some tears in my eyes when Sam stated, on the very last page, that “Well, I’m back”. When a book does that you, you know that it was only right and good to read it.


With Hegel, against Honneth

The Critical Theory of Axel Honneth
Danielle Petherbridge
, Lexington Books, 2013

It has taken me a long time to read this. During the last nine months the book has traveled with me to Belfast, Amsterdam, Sydney, and multiple boring airports but somehow I never quite managed to dig into it. When this fact is combined with a less than perfect memory, what follows might not be the most complete presentation of the contents of the book.

Who designs these book covers?

Excuses aside, Petherbridge offers a really close reading of Honneth’s work, focusing mostly on his theory of recognition. The key claim is that while Honneth’s early work presented some interesting takes on power, this has been forgotten later on. Recognition theory, as it currently stands, “does not yet adequately provide the resources to address power as productive of subjects, identities, and institutions” (p.199). Petherbridge sees that Honneth is stuck with a view that sees power as mere domination while she would prefer a constitutive, Foucauldian, view of power. In short, power should be understood as always present in social relations and as an important or necessary part of those interactions that define us. This is not a new view as such: Broadly similar arguments have been presented at least by Jean-Philippe Deranty (2009) and Lois McNay (2008). These sentiments were also repeated in Paddy McQueen’s book that I read a while ago.

I certainly agree that it is better to think of recognition as something imbued with power rather than as something that is separate from power. The problem might not be that grave for Honneth though. After all, it is exactly the negative cases of domination that we want to get rid of through the struggles for recognition and not the inescapable ‘power’ that is always present. Furthermore, thinking of power in an extremely broad – somewhat Foucauldian – sense might make it a concept that it is pretty much useless. What I mean is that if we say that there is power present in all social relations, does this just mean that there is something happening in social relations that can affect us and in some sense constitutes us? This alone does not give us anything with which we could differentiate between good and bad forms of social interaction. And this, in turn, seems to be one of the points of critical social theory.

To get the title of this post, this book got me thinking about one particular argumentation strategy that is often used in philosophy. Namely, reading the same classics that the person you are criticizing has read and claiming that s/he has read them wrong. For example, Petherbridge does good job in going through Hegel’s work and through that casting some doubt over the conclusions that Honneth draws from Hegel.

On the one hand it is perfectly fine to offer a close reading of historical sources used by other authors. After all, there is some virtue in knowing what Hegel actually said if one is drawing inspiration from his work. However, herein lie some worries too. Firstly there seems to be some tendency to think that the historical thinkers got ‘it’ right and we just need to uncover that ‘it’ from their cryptic texts. A closer-to-the-original reading of Hegel is certainly good if the aim is to see what Hegel said but if the aim is to make relevant critical social theory, it may well be that what Hegel really said is not that interesting. I don’t want to claim that Petherbridge is thinking that Hegel got things right but there are certain moments where her argument seems to just be that her reading of Hegel is better. (This in itself is an interesting claim as Hegel’s texts are notoriously hard to read and there seems to be no consensus of the right interpretation.) Anyhow, I guess my point is just that my preferred style of philosophy is more about arguments in this time – where historical figures work as an inspiration – than about what the past thinkers really said.

Collective responsibility

Workshop @ University of Jyväskylä, 4.-5.12.2015

One week, two workshops. Again, what you find below should be taken with a pinch of salt. Most of the papers in this workshop were quite technical and the details of the arguments won’t be that well represented here. Also, there is no guarantee that I remember all the claims made by the speakers and thus if anything sounds really odd, one should blame me first.

Stephanie Collins – Filling in Gaps by Taking up Slacks

In the series of papers with nicely rhyming titles, this one was looking at the possibilities of avoiding responsibility gaps and the problems that we might have in distributing the costs when a group has failed to discharge its duty. The idea here was that individuals have obligations to pick up slack in cases where others’ actions or omissions can be “reasonably foreseen to lead to the group reneging on a duty”. However, as it makes no sense to talk about duties if the group is not a group agent (as a non-agent cannot really have any duties to fulfill), only members of group agents with shared responsibilities and shared ends have duties to ensure that the shared end is reached.

Steph is aiming to pick up the slack when it falls from the ceiling.

It seemed to be the case that most of the argumentative work for having duties was done by the shared ends. As the background theory of group agency was not explained in any great detail, one could doubt if group agency is actually needed at all for duties to pick up the slack. After all, it is possible to imagine that we have some shared ends without group agency. Then again, perhaps what Steph meant with commitments to ends is something so strong that leads into group agency or a commitment to form a group agent to reach those ends.

Frank Hindriks & Olle Blomberg – Responsibility for Acting Together

The main claim here was that, firstly, we have a higher responsibility in the cases where we are intentionally acting together than in the cases where we are engaged in a merely strategic action (that may be dependent on the actions and intentions of the others). Secondly, in acting together unintentionally, a single individual may be responsible for the whole outcome of the acts. Frank and Olle made a distinction between shared (I, interlocking) and joint (we, group) intentions and combined this with the idea that responsibility is connected to the strength of commitment and reliability with which the outcomes are brought about. In comparison to shared intentions or strategic action, joint intentions are more stable and better in ensuring that the ends are reached. In short, ‘stronger’ forms of collective intentionality come with more responsibility.

One could easily doubt – like Bill did – that forming joint or group intentions is really better in bringing about wanted outcomes. At least empirically this does not seem to be the case. Furthermore, if stronger collective commitments bring more responsibility and if we imagine individuals to be independent and mostly rational agents, then joining a group might become merely a matter of calculating the costs (responsibilities) and benefits (personal gains through collective action).

Bill Wringe – Never Mind the Gap: Non-Reductive Collective Responsibility and Responsibility Gaps Without the Quantum of Blame Mistake

Quantum of blame – now that’s a great term. Sadly it was not related to any weird moral theory based on quantum physics but instead Bill used it to designate the mistake that we make when we assume that there is a fixed amount of blame that has to land somewhere.  If we think that there are global collective obligations, this seems to be an issue that has to be dealt with. Bill discussed four possible ways to avoid the problem (1. thinking in terms of forward-looking responsibility, 2. prioritizing accountability over blame, 3. focusing on rights and not on harms, and 4. loosening the link between responsibility and blame) and various objections to these claims.

Most of the discussion concentrated on the conceptual distinctions made in the talk and it got me thinking that maybe there is one big issue that has been underanalysed in the collective responsibility circles. Namely, what constitutes responsibility and blame(worthiness)? Well, now that I think of it, maybe this is not really a problem. Perhaps I would just want to see a push towards the Hegelian direction where there is more talk about the social and intersubjective practices that are supposed to constitute moral agents.

Holly Lawford-Smith – Rationalizing Collective Punishment

Holly outlined what is at stake when we talk about punishing groups. While there are various rationales for punishment (deontic, consequentialist, expressive, transitional justice), it seemed to be the case that the punishable group in question needs to be a moral agent as it does not make sense to punish anything else than moral agents. I should have also taken a good picture of the whiteboard where this all was nicely drawn out.

Anyway, while punishment might be required to make a moral group agent function within norms, at the same time one could think that in cases of groups that are not moral agents we might still have moral reasons to make them function in a certain manner, even if that kind of ‘directing’ is not punishing as such. I would have also wanted to hear more about the ‘abolishment’ option according to which punishing in itself does not make much sense. At least in the case of individuals different forms of therapy seem to work much better in getting people to follow norms/laws than mere imprisoning.

Arto Laitinen & Marketta Niemelä (plus Jari Pirhonen) – Social Robots, Elderly Care, and the Need for Recognition

Like it or not, robots will take a larger role in elderly care. This seems to be an idea that troubles many as they see ‘robot careworkers’ – especially if they take social and emotional roles – violating the dignity of those that they are supposed to care for. This paper showed examples of different roles that robots might have in elderly care and highlighted the fact that if one takes the ‘capability approach’ to dignity, then robots could be seen as ensuring that elderly people have the capabilities that enable dignified life. While there are multiple ethical issues involved, this just means that there is some work for philosopher to do. Also, the outcomes of the robotization are very much dependent on external social issues and not just on the robots themselves.

Raul Hakli – On Robot Sociality and Responsibility

Are ‘social robots’ really social? The empirical test cases seem to point towards the conclusion that there could be real sociality between human agents and robots – though there are some doubts about how conclusive these results really are. One interesting outshoot of this all is that we should analyze what is at stake when we talk about sociality. Raul’s take on this matter was to go against essentialism and think of sociality as graded and changing phenomenon. Sociality as socially constructed, if you will.

The audience is about as enthusiastic as they get after six hours of philosophy.

Säde Hormio – Corporations and Climate Change Responsibility

63% of CO2 emissions from 1751 until 2010 can be traced back to 90 corporate entities. Säde used this fact as a backdrop for her argument that we can/should attribute at least forward-looking moral responsibility to corporations and perhaps even backward-looking responsibility in the cases where they have stepped outside of their normal sphere of influence to actively hinder climate change mitigation. This is so because corporations can reason and they can also be considered to be part of the broader normative framework of moral reasons. That is to say that we do not necessarily need to argue for full moral agency of corporations. It is enough that moral reasons can figure in their reasoning.

While I am completely happy to blame corporations, it seemed unlikely to me that the ‘peripheral obligations’ towards humanity or immediate surroundings would trump the core obligations of a corporate entity. This really is the issue that we are in practice battling with: corporations might well be able to reason morally but they don’t do it because their action-guiding core reasons tell them otherwise. Also, they might well cite other moral reasons (like bringing about economic well-being) that may be in competition with climate-related reasons.

Titus Stahl – Three Pathologies of Responsibility in Collective Contexts

Titus analyzed responsibility gaps through the concept of social pathology. The idea was that responsibility is embedded in social practices and that social pathologies are, in turn, such features of these social practices that lead into effects that systematically counteract individual self-realization while making members unable to challenge these practices. Titus defended a strong social view of responsibility as a status and introduced three possible forms of pathologies related to it: gaps in responsibility attribution, paradoxes of individualization, and reification of responsibility.

Accountability was suggested as a term through which we could aim to avoid these pathologies but I think that we would have needed a clearer explanation of how that concept is related to the concept of responsibility to see how this really solves the pathologies. It might well be that I just missed this explanation as our paper was coming up next and at this point I was trying to remember what we were supposed to say.

Arto Laitinen & Onni Hirvonen – Self-interpreting Groups: Group Agency and Collective Identity

In a nutshell, our glorious argument went roughly like this: Self-interpretations matter for groups, especially in the context of identity politics. There are different kinds of groups, some of which do not define themselves, some of which do it in a very loose sense, and some of which have clear self-defined identities. At least in some cases it seems like a good thing to be able to strongly self-define and thus groups should organize themselves in a manner that enables this. Only proper group agency avoids legitimation and attribution problems with self-definitions. However, group agency is in itself a problematic concept as it is not clear in what sense groups really self-define themselves or if they are even able to understand their self-definitions. This is what we tried to show through the so-called problem of the first belief. Anyway, even if there are problems in forming or understanding group agents, it does not really matter as the unclarities concerning agency in the self-interpretations might not be that relevant in, for example, political struggles that aim to avoid identity-related oppression. Although ‘insider views’ may have some normative relevance, what really matters is that the broader culture/context changes in a fashion that makes the oppression disappear.

Most of the discussion concerned the problem of the first belief and I have to admit that it might be difficult to see how that relates to the broader points of the whole paper, or how that even is a problem, or if that really shows what we wanted it to show. To those who are still in doubt, of course it is a relevant problem that shows what it was supposed to show! 😉


As a finishing touch, we went to see Eläkeläiset play at a local rock club. I can’t really imagine a better ending for anything. All in all, the whole workshop was a wonderful event. More of these please – but not too soon as the continuous lack of sleep is finally catching up with me.

Social pathologies and mutual recognition

Workshop @ University of Jyväskylä, 30.11.2015-1.12.2015

In some quite limited senses I am truly enjoying life at the University of Jyväskylä right now. That is, this week there are two workshops that are directly related to my research and what follows is a report of sorts from the first one. Readers should be warned that the musings below do not necessarily reflect the key arguments of the given papers.

Bert van den Brink – The Struggle for Visibility

Bert and photographs.

The talk was about the normative grammar of news journalism, focusing especially on how news/documentary photographs are connected to struggles for recognition. There were lots of interesting elements here: photographs can be taken to leave more room for reflection than immediate intersubjective relations, the photographer has a key role in knowing the normative frameworks at play in the depicted situations and highlighting them, and there might be dangers in ‘beautifying’ suffering.

Having taught visual argumentation in the past, the paper left me thinking of what is the exact difference between struggling for recognition through photographs and the struggles through other forms of communication. Drawing from that background, the answer would probably be that there actually isn’t that much of a difference. Visual arguments often aim for a stronger emotional response and they may leave more room for interpretation but that’s roughly it. One big issue here might be that whatever our responses to photographs are, recognition of the actual people in them requires something more than just acknowledging the injustices shown in the photos.

Joel Anderson – Surplus Vulnerability as Recognitional Injustice

Joel focused mainly on what he called ‘autonomy gaps’. This means that there are cases where institutions are misaligned with the capacities of individuals. Some forms of public policies presuppose too high level of ‘autonomy skills’ and this causes some people to fall behind – under the threshold of being able to participate in the said institutions. Actual policy-making is not necessarily based on real capabilities and to avoid problems and vulnerabilities that follow from this, we can either raise individuals’ capabilities or make institutions less demanding.

I agree with the main gist of the paper. Then again, I’m not so sure if I follow Joel in his strong claim that the thresholds of autonomy are contingent and thus open to political decision-making. In addition. I tend to see autonomy gaps as something that may have positive developmental effects. That is, we should expect certain reasonable levels of autonomy from individuals as this basically teaches them to behave in an autonomous manner. It is obvious though that sometimes these demands might be unreasonable.

Hans Arentshorst – Rethinking Solidarity

This paper was a comparison of Axel Honneth’s and Pierre Rosanvallon’s theories of democracy that will hopefully be published as a part of a special issue on ‘recognition and democracy’ that I’m trying to compile. Hans claims that Honneth’s theory of a society does not manage to explain (or take in account) agonistic or deliberative politics as he assumes forms of pre-democratic agreements between people. Instead, Rosanvallon’s ‘realistic theory’ has no such normative commitments and thus gives a better analysis of democracy and its current problems.

In some senses this might be right but to me it seemed that Rosanvallon cannot avoid making some hidden normative commitments (like that democracy is good). Rosanvallon’s use of the term political seemed troubling also as it limits politics only to democracy – and that seems just odd. In other words, I tend to side with Honneth in this debate.

Arvi Särkelä – Social Pathology and Metaphysical Commitments

Arvi made a distinction between three senses of social pathology: second order pathology, pathologies as ill social organisms, and pathologies of social life or life-processes. These, in turn, go together with certain metaphysical dispositions. The argument was that we should embrace the last sense of pathology and process metaphysics along with it. My knowledge of metaphysics is pretty limited but Arvi’s argument seemed pretty convincing. Although, I am not completely sure if one can let go of the analogical understanding of social and organic pathologies (the ‘ill social organism’ model) without analysing in detail what pathology means in the context of biological organisms. That is, the last two senses of social pathologies might not as far from each other as Arvi would make us believe.

Arto Laitinen & Joonas Pennanen – Mutual Recognition and Essentially Contested Concepts

Getting to the last third of the day, my attention span was growing considerably shorter. Nevertheless, Arto and Joonas stated that mutual recognition is one of the conditions of essentially contested concepts. However, it was not clear what recognition really means in Walter Bryce Gallie‘s original formulation. The answer is that there are actually multiple senses of recognition at play. The main lesson here might have been that the term ‘essentially contested concepts’ actually refers to the whole intersubjective action of contestation and not to the properties of the concepts themselves. This process of contestation, in turn, presumes some recognition on behalf of the parties of contestation.

As a sidenote, Arto’s pun that was presumably included in the title of the paper, ‘Bittersweet Debates and Gallie Contestations’, required too much explanation.

Paddy McQueen – Towards a Politics of Gender De-Recognition

Paddy waves for the audience.

Paddy’s paper was closely related to themes of his book (see the last post for more on that). The main claim being that recognition is an ambivalent concept that is intertwined with power and might also have negative and oppressive effects. Thus, instead of blindly striving for recognition, we should see identities as fluid constructs that are open for interpretations and change. In practice this means that we might actually want to reduce the recognition of certain (e.g. gender) identities in social life. All in all, Paddy seemed to be striving for a middle ground position between the postmodern nomadic fluid identities and recognition of essential selves.

Jaana Virta – Social Construction of Gender in the Theory of Gender Performativity

Jaana used Haslanger in an attempt to make sense of what is really happening when we say that gender is socially constructed. The key questions were: who is the agent of construction (personal or impersonal agent), what is the product of construction (representations, facts, facts about humans), and what type of construction is at stake (causal or constitutive). These tools were then used to analyse Butler’s theory of gender performativity.

Though I think that the distinctions Jaana made are really useful, I also tend to agree with Paddy’s comment that it is not too sure if these can be used to analyse Butler’s theory as for her the agent itself is constructed through performatives. Thus, posing and an agent who socially constructs something through performatives seems like taking Butler in wrong order.


The workshop finished with a panel session on Paddy’s book and it was great to have him over to answer our questions – even if not everyone was completely satisfied with the answers. Overall, I have to say that I really liked the workshop. Great talks, good spirited discussion, and enough drinks afterwards. Now that I think of it, maybe I should have presented something myself too. Well, next time then.