Lade Inhalt...

The Generalized Other in Recognition Theory and its Representation in Du Bois' "Of Our Spiritual Strivings"

An Essay

Essay 2014 5 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde


Introduction and Foreword

According to Hannes Kuch, Hegels “Herr-Knecht”-Relation disintegrates at a specific point, because “the dialectic of recognition makes the state of unilateral recognition fail” (Kuch 59). What he means with that is simply, that as a human in an ontologic construct, one is dependent of the recognition of others. This model is based on asymmetric states of recognition because through the “abolishment of unequal individual characteristics, generalized structures of reciprocity are established” and the “real universality [as a form of] mutuality emerges” (Kuch 60). This kind of recognition for the subject is provided by the ‘other’, which therefore is an essential part in the aim of reaching the state of self-awareness. The subject is dependent of recognition by it in an asymmetrical relation because it is namely this asymmetry, which forces the subject to try to reach the desired status of symmetry and equality. Kuch summarizes Hegels ideas in one sentence when he states, that the “basic idea is, that confidence can only occur as ‘general confidence’ namely because self-recognition presumes the recognition of others [and vice versa]” (Kuch 61). An important aspect here is the absolute respect for the complimenting object. There has to be a bilateral relation of recognition between the subject and the ‘other’ to make this model work. In simple words: the two parties have to be on the same level of recognition and respect or at least the criticized subject has to fully recognize the other. Kuch takes the matter of a writer being criticized by a reviewer as a practical example. A commendation by a critic who is inferior to the writer, in the eyes of the latter, is considered as worthless (Kuch 63). The aspect of seeing others as superior, inferior or equal will become most important when looking at the ‘other’ in Du Bois’ text.

Furthermore, Kuch points out that Hegel divided the term ‘other’ – or namely ‘great other’ – into two categories: the significant other and the generalized other. The former describes a primary relation of the experience of being completely and utterly at somebodies mercy. The relation between mother and infant would be a practical example for that relation. If the mother does not recognize her baby it will die eventually because it is unable to survive by itself. The latter, however, is a term used for a situation, in which there is a subject, whose aim it is to become a part of a social whole. Additional attention also needs to be drawn at the fact, that “a subject does not only exist through the fact, that it is recognized, but rather through its ‘Anerkennbarkeit’ [(which can roughly be translated as ‘recognizability’)]” (Kuch 69). The conceptual distinction between recognition and ‘recognizability’ allows it to differ between Subjects, which fulfill the inherit premise of the ability of being recognized and others, which do not (this would, for instance, be non-integrated persons in a social construct). This essay will take a closer look at the generalized Other in Du Bois’ “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” and try to explain the significance for the author regarding to his experiences.

The generalized Other in Du Bois’ “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”

Du Bois begins his chapter with a description of the approach on black people by the white majority, describing how they try to blandish the issue which actually interests them when asking questions. He explains how other people try to avoid to mention the main aspect of their inquisitiveness, which is namely the question of “how [it does] feel to be a problem” (Du Bois 363) with which he concludes his first paragraph. In the following he mentions that being depicted as a problem is indeed a “strange experience” (Du Bois 363), especially when this construct is manifested as the status quo in the minds of society. Du Bois firstly begins to challenge that condition when he has that specific ‘aha-experience’ as a young boy in school when a girl refuses to take his visiting-card. The trading of these cards was nothing more than a simple social process, in which all students should have participated. This is also as step towards something Hegel calls 'ethical life' (Kuch 59). By acting ethically, a subject shows its capability of self-determination. However, ethical life is nothing transcendent or predetermined (Saito 36). The dismissal of the girl towards the young Du Bois therefore can be seen as an act of 'misrecognition' and disrespect and consequentially as an indicator for a asymmetrical relation. Although the “understanding [of the] the basic human social bond as a rational one does not mean [...] an explicit invocation of principles“ (Pippin 736). This means, that for the young girl the act of not trading the cards was considered as normal. Her sociocultural background taught her, that people of darker skin are inferior and therefore not to be recognized. The blame her is not on the young girl, since though her youth she is naive and adopts the attitudes in which she is raised – namely those of being superior to others and having a strong self-determination. She has no need to require justification or recognition.

In the Lacanian concept of the mirror stage an infant sees himself in the mirror and recognizes his image as a form of the great Other (Evans 139). Du Bois’ experience can be compared to this phenomenon. This is his own personal 'aha-experience', as already insinuated in the foregoing paragraph. The girl is like a mirror for him, in which he sees a person, who may be physically equal to him – except for the aspect of skin color – but still differs from him when it comes to the matter of power and self-determination. He realizes, that his status in society is inferior to that of the white girl and therefore she does not recognize him. As a matter of fact there is an asymmetrical relation between him and the girl. It is this particular moment of realization in which he starts to strive for equality and acknowledgment and therefore also for something I described as ‘recognizability’ in the introduction. He understands, that only through education he is able to reach that goal. It can be said, that the encounter was the beginning of his transformation from an unknowing and innocent young boy to a member of the black educated class; constantly aiming to be more and more like his generalized Other.

Du Bois proceeds his essay with bringing in an ethical and religious aspect, when he asks a rhetorical question: “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in my own house?” (Du Bois 364). He even goes a step further when he brings in another aspect:

[T]he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, - a world which yields him to no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, […] this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others (Du Bois 364)

Hereby Du Bois draws a connection between the generalized Other and double-consciousness. Due to existing prejudices it is impossible for a black person in America to reach a state of true self-consciousness since the white majority depicts people of dark skin color as unequal and inferior. A 'Negro' is constantly torn between his identity and the adaption to his new home, America. Through a historical digression, Du Bios explains, that the aim of black people in America since the days of slavery always has been the attempt to reach self-consciousness through equality. As a consequence thereof, there was also the constant goal to gain acceptance and a life worth living. But despite of the emancipation-process the struggle of the black folk continued and through that process emerged a new problem, which is the double-consciousness. Still struggling for recognition, the black man in America now also seeks to find a way to somehow 'combine' the two races and forge a fully integrated and recognized black American human being.

Conclusion and Reflection

The whole chapter is built around the theoretical framework of Hegels generalized Other. Du Bois draws a framework for an utopia, in which through the nullification of individual peculiarities a true symmetry in recognition is able to emerge. The Du Boisian concept of double-consciousness is based on asymmetrical relations of recognition. Due to their color of skin and the 'misrecognition' by the white majority, black Americans constantly find themselves in a struggle between their historical identity and the idea of American liberty. Du Bois' experiences with the generalized other taught him, that it would be insufficient to focus on either the “training of brains [or] the training of the hands” (Du Bois 369). He rather proposed that the American 'Negro' should focus on freeing himself from the attitude of a slave and continuing his strive for recognition through education in various fields.

In his essay, he abandoned the idea of a blackness as a general problem and developed the idea of intellectual and (as the title of the chapter already implies) spiritual striving of black Americans. Eventually he discovered, that only through the virtue of education he will be able to break up the status of asymmetrical relations in order to reach full recognition.

Works cited:

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk; Of our Spritual Strivings. In: Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1986. Print.

Evans, Dylan: Wörterbuch der Lacanschen Psychoanalyse. New York, Turia + Kant, 1998. Print

Kuch, Hannes. „Hegel und die Anerkennung.“ In: Herr und Knecht: Anerkennung und symbolische Macht im Anschluss an Hegel. Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, 2013. Print.

Pippin, Robert. Reconstructivism: On Honneth’s Hegelianism. University of Chicago, /(, 2007. Online.

Saito, Kohei. Die Rolle der Differenz in Hegels System der Sittlichkeit. In: Hegel-Jahrbuch, Volume 2014, Issue 1 (2014), Pages 32-37. Print.


502 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main – Amerikanistik
Hegel Du Bois Recognition Theory Generalized other Kuch



Titel: The Generalized Other in Recognition Theory and its Representation in Du Bois' "Of Our Spiritual Strivings"