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. 😉 ]


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.

To feel or not to feel?

Earlier this year we  – that is, me and three other philosophers – wrote a paper on Charlie Hebdo where we argue along the lines that freedom of speech is a social freedom and thus it also has its limits. Right now, roughly two days after the most recent Paris attacks, the cold analysis of the different conceptions of freedom of speech that are used in the terrorism-discussions feels shallow, futile, and almost insulting. When I heard of the attacks, I felt an initial shock that quickly turned into anger, spite, and frustration with a hint of sorrow and empathy. All of these seemed to demand direct action (although it is still somewhat unclear to me what kind of action) and pointed towards the conclusion that a mere philosophical analysis is not helpful at all.

While having this minor guilt-trip and wallowing in the mixed bag of emotions, I started noticing an increasing amount of posts in my Facebook feed that highlighted the fact that attacks like this happen all the time in other places. The main claim seemed to be that focusing on Paris is somehow wrong as it makes us forget other terrorist attacks, like the one in Beirut a day before. Focusing on paris makes some (the white westerners) more equal than others (all the rest). In the name of moral universalism, everyone should have equal moral standing and thus these reminders that we should care about all of those who have been harmed seemed intuitive and justified. Am I then doing something wrong in feeling more for Paris than for Beirut? Perhaps. However, there are some senses in which I find the “don’t focus on Paris, focus on the world” comments problematic.

  • One way to understand the comments is that we should feel for everyone. This kind of ‘world pain’ comes pretty close to what my mother has but as a demand for everyone it is emotionally and epistemologically too demanding. It is unrealistic to demand that we should know the harms that happen in the world and that we should have equal or proportionally scaled emotional responses to these. (How much more one should feel for 2000 deaths than 129?) Emotions just don’t work that way and we have our limits for the knowledge (or the time to acquire the knowledge) too.
  • Another way to understand the comments is that we should not identify with Paris any more than with any other site or group that has been attacked. This is very much against the idea that our identities are formed in close relationships, smaller groups, and through comparisons with others. Should we all just identify with abstract humanity and deny any smaller identity groups? This claim sounds even more odd when it comes from leftist activist circles that have also very much concentrated on positive identity politics.

Although the posts on Facebook can be read in these two senses, in a more charitable reading, what people are saying is that we should not forget others or downplay their suffering. That is all good but if it really is what one is after, policing other’s emotional reactions and shows of empathy seem unnecessary at best. Demanding more equal media coverage and more equal institutional reactions to suffering, on the other hand, could do some good. And is there any room for philosophical analysis in this? Well, even if it does not save anyone from horrible violence, at least it can help us to waddle through the sea of knee-jerk reactions that follow.