Recognition and personhood

Workshop @ University of Jyväskylä, 5.12.2016

This workshop focused on the themes that have been an integral part of Jyväskylä’s research profile since the two Academy of Finland projects in the early 2000s. Recognition, its connection to personhood, and the political consequences of this all are probably topics that will follow me to my death and I was extremely happy to be able to organize this meeting, which was actually the very first workshop by our own Philosophy and Politics of Recognition reasearch group. Well, and it is always nice to get together to do something when Heikki is in town.

Orange apparently goes well with Hegel.

Heikki Ikäheimo – Intersubjective Recognition and Personhood as Membership in the Life-form of Persons

Heikki’s talk was a draft of a book chapter that is going to be published at some point in the future. One could also say that it was largely based on the first chapters of his book Anerkennung (2014) where he analyzes the different roles and meanings of recognition. The talk also expanded on this by mapping out the “essential features of human lifeform”. However, from an evolutionary perspective, these “essential features” are by no means anthropological constants. In short, Heikki offers a multi-dimensional view of personhood (yay!) with different kinds of person-making capacities, which come in degrees, and matching statuses that can be taken as threshold concepts. These were related to deontological, axiological and cooperative aspects of personhood – close to Honneth’s three dimensions of recognition.

One extremely interesting concept was that of a ‘norm-circles’ or ‘value-circles’. These seemed to relate groups of those whose “judgment counts”, so to speak. One can have conditional and unconditional memberships in these. It seemed extremely important to have a membership in value-circle or -circles but what was left in the open was how unified these need to be and is it possible to have shared value-circles in larger populations or within, for example, nation states. Especially so if we accept the so-called fact of pluralism and connect it to this age of mass immigration. In short, one could use Heikki’s analysis to say that there will be no shortage of potential for de-personalization or de-humanization in the close future – and that should call for inclusive politics.

Arto Laitinen – Actualizing Personhood in Human Beings and in the Social World: The Role of Institutional Recognition

Arto’s title was actually something else but equally long and impossible to remember. The first part of the talk dealt with sorting out the aspects of personhood while the latter concentrated on actualizing it. The aspects include capacities, statuses, and relations and they pretty much come in that order too. Capacities seemed to be fundamental for having a status of a person and also for the recognition of that status. Arto pointed out that this leaves one into a tricky situation where we, on the one hand, want to avoid too strong dependency of capacities that would leave, for example, disabled people or children outside of the set of agents that can be persons/personified. On the other hand, we also want to avoid speciesism. Although there might not be fully satisfactory middle-ground solutions to this issue, Arto suggested something called a species-norm as an answer. That is, if a ‘normal’ member of that species has person-making capacities, we ought to grant the status of a person to all members of that species – or something like that. I was not completely sure how this account avoids speciesism as such: It is clear that it refers to certain properties of a normal member of a species (and not to species as such) but one could perhaps still claim that we have a biased way of choosing the relevant species.

Arto seemed to hold a moral realist position where status of a moral person is not dependent on (mere) recognition. However, a key part of actualization of personhood is that we make the social and institutional world such that it recognizes those who ought to be recognized. Perhaps it is indeed the non-recognized personhood that offers us leverage to claim that there is something wrong with the current institutional world.

The audience was thrilled – as usual.

Heidi Elmgren – Exclusion and Non-recognition in Finnish Music Schools

Heidi’s presentation included something that one does not always hear in philosophical talks. Namely, an empirical element. She is currently doing an interesting study that looks at how, for example, ranking mechanisms in Finnish music schools affect the self-understanding and the motivational states of the students. It was clear that when recognition is based on merit, merit also functions as a principle of exclusion. Thus, meritocratic institutions always include the potentially troublesome feature that people are left outside or altogether without recognition.

One interesting point was that in the case of music schools it is sometimes unclear what exactly is being recognized. Is it talent, hard work, playing well or something else? If it is indeed talent and if talent is seen as a genetic or some sort of natural thing, this has clear motivation-worsening implications for those who are not seen as talented. In the discussion Heikki made a curious observation that even with all the unclarities, the standards of – at least classical – music are relatively clear in comparison to those of humanistic sciences or philosophy. As universities are institutions that are supposedly based on merit, this opens up a whole lot of venues for politics of what counts as merit in academic circles.

Jarno Hietalahti – Erich Fromm and Social Character: The Humanistic Synthesis of Marx and Freud

Jarno had just made his comeback to Finland from a two-year post doc position at The Erich Fromm Institute Tübingen and this presentation could be taken as an introduction to the Frommian thought and to Fromm’s idea of a social character. Fromm’s thought, in general, is a combination of Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxist social criticism, and positive humanistic thinking. I cannot claim that I would have completely understood what social character is – for that one probably needs years of study in Tübingen – but it seemed to denote characteristics that are common in a society and that motivate individuals to reproduce their society. Social character functions as a mediator between the material basis of the society and its ideological superstructure. It is not fixed but instead dynamic.

One interesting and related concept that was introduced was the social unconscious. This means the repression of the features (perhaps characteristics?) that are common to a group. It seemed that for Fromm social criticism is psychoanalysis for societies where the unconscious is revealed in a way that changes the whole culture (or social character) and further enables the realization of human possibilities. Perhaps one could claim that in claiming this Fromm is in fact defending (social) freedom.

Onni Hirvonen – Collective Agents and the Multiple Dimensions of Personhood

In my own talk I aimed to clarify some of the background assumptions behind an article that is coming out soon in The Journal of Social Ontology. My claims were roughly that we are better off in the group person discussions if we a) separate agency and personhood and b) allow for multiple dimensions of personhood. That is to say that personhood does not automatically flow from agency and that it is not just personhood as such but moral personhood, legal personhood, loved personhood, esteemed personhood, and so forth.

My position was roughly that there are three aspects of personhood: psychological (agential, intrinsic), social (relational, performative), and political (historical). One needs to have certain agential capacities or at least potentialities to be practically recognized as a some kind of person. The capacities and the forms of recognition may be contested and differ historically. With this sort of multi-dimensional concept of personhood one could perhaps point out the relevant differences between corporate persons, social robots, human persons, aliens, and whatever. Anyway, for a clearer explanation, read the paper when it comes out. 😉


[Edit 1.2.2017: Changed the first paragraph to match the ‘communication strategy’ of the research group. 😉 ]


4 thoughts on “Recognition and personhood

  1. Thanks Onni, this is a really useful little summary of current research on recognition and personhood. I’ll send you an email, because I’m working on a project at the moment that draws together a few of these themes.

    But let’s think about merit. I agree, the concept of talent is extremely murky. But say what we recognise is in fact ‘excellence’. What is then simultaneously clear, but also mixed, is that a combination of effort, aptitude, fortunate history, etc. has caused the excellence.

    Recognising excellence is not a direct recognition of personhood, it seems. It’s a valuation of work, production. But insofar as we identify with our work, and education is a kind of work ON the self, then the valuation is still hugely significant.

    Your thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Andrew! I’m happy to discuss whatever you have in mind. Onni.hirvonen (at) is the email address that is in the most frequent use.

      I completely agree that ‘excellence’ is closer to what is being recognized. Heidi wasn’t really claiming that it is talent either but there were some cases in the empirical interview material that seemed to think that talent is somehow central. Anyway, in my books recognition of excellence would be recognition of personhood. Not the whole personhood though but rather an aspect of it. (It is part of the multi-dimensional view of personhood that the different aspects can be recognized separately.) Looked from another angle, one would not be a so-called ‘full person’ without any recognition of excellence or merit or contributions – precisely because this sort of esteem has an enormous effect on our self-formation and relations-to-self.

      Of course some people want to reserve the term ‘personhood’ for a slightly different use like moral personhood but I find the multi-dimensional model somehow more useful – especially when one wants to know in what sense groups or social robots are or aren’t persons.


  2. Thanks for the reply Onni.

    “one would not be a so-called ‘full person’ without any recognition of excellence or merit or contributions”. Yes, that sounds right to me – “competence” perhaps covers much of this. Among other things, to be a person, I need to be recognised, and to feel myself to be, “competent” in a variety of ways. Of course, not everyone is going to be a competent musician, but that’s a rather specialised case, that is more developed and with a narrower sphere than many more general ones.

    There’s an interesting criticism in educational psychology of a “naive” approach to teaching, where one makes “ontological judgments” about a student’s talent (where talent here is their natural existence). Students are either “good” or “bad”, and come in fairly fixed variants of these. The true and more sophisticated judgement is the one that evaluates the students’ activity and production in the context of what material, guidance and opportunity they were afforded. There is an underlying presumption of more or less equal capacity that can be activated in different ways, and has already been activated by their life history.

    But once you hang around the corridors of a teaching department for a while, you realise that the naive view is pervasive…


    1. Ah, indeed. I’m also fairly sure that upon reflection most of the teachers would deny the naive naturalistic attitude but somehow it just persists in the teaching (and especially evaluation) practices. I’m most probably guilty of that too but luckily I do not teach much. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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