Symposium Introduction

Molly Farneth’s Hegel’s Social Ethics: Religion, Conflict, and Rituals of Reconciliation doesn’t try to make Hegel into a grassroots democrat. But, that doesn’t mean Hegel isn’t important for our current political times. Indeed, Farneth wonderfully balances clarity and concision when offering Hegelian epistemological and ethical insights in our shared political culture. In the conversations that follow, our panelists will probe into and challenge Farneth’s Hegelian offering for grassroots democrats. We’ll explore questions of power and authority, ritual and practice, Marx’s revolutionary praxis and Hegel’s own critique of private property, and—perhaps surprisingly—what Farneth’s Hegelian social ethics has to say to the bad faith troll.

Farneth’s lucid reading of Hegel is enough to merit attention. Many ethicists, anthropologist, sociologists, and philosophers have recently turned to the topic of “social practices.” Religious historians often approach this topic via lived religion, for example. Some philosophers and religious ethicists, however, are turning to a non-metaphysical, post-Kantian reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology. This Hegel is paradigmatically found in the pragmatic semantics Robert Brandom has been developing over the last three decades culminating in his recently released A Spirit of Trust. Farneth ably navigates this difficult secondary literature on Hegel in chapters 2–5, offering her own social ethical account where Hegel is primarily concerned with evaluation of relationships, practices, and institutions. Readers interested in getting a clear and insightful grasp on what Hegel is doing in Phenomenology should turn to Farneth’s book. In the rest of the book (chs. 6 & 7), and in this symposium, the conversation turns to demonstrate why such a reading of Hegel matters for our shared ethical and political lives.

By social ethics, Farneth does not mean the field of Christian ethical thought first invented in the United States by Francis G. Peabody and other social gospelers at the turn of the twentieth century. Hegelian social ethics and social practices have to do with normativity, authority, accountability, and responsibility implicit in shared activities of an ethical community. If we are to imagine a better political and ethical world, then the constructive work begins with the remains of the decaying one that currently exists. In the conversations that follow (especially in the essays by Joseph Winters, Ali Aslam, and Peter Capretto), it will become clear that Farneth and her respondents are not optimistic about the democratic viability of the current political institutions and structures. Once optimism is disregarded, the question that remains is a practical (and ethical) and epistemological one: what practices need to be cultivated in order to more deeply live into a democratic society where authority is legitimately established and held accountable to the demos. Farneth’s final two chapters attempt to illustrate this, and in doing so she illustrates how religion is nearly always a part of the conversation with Hegel, and so offers us illustrative rituals of reconciliation in confession and forgiveness. But Farneth also points to “relational organizing” exemplified in figures like Septima Clark and Ella Baker, and which I also see in broad-based community organizing affiliates like Faith in Action (previously PICO), IAF, and Gamaliel.

Winters and Aslam approach Farneth’s book with similar yet distinct questions relating to power and hope in practices of reciprocal recognition. Adorno, decolonianity, the dire limits of the liberal capitalist state are part of the conversation here. Then Vanessa Wills gives a rich Marxist critique of what might be a latent conservatism in Hegelian social ethics, and Farneth’s careful response engages material in the Phenomenology not utilized in her book. Capretto’s essay returns to questions of power and the political condition of practices of reciprocal recognition, but in a unique and interesting light: what to do about the bad faith troll? Pearson wraps up the symposium by asking for a finer grain analysis on what exactly Farneth means by “social practices.” Pearson’s question is a welcome one to my mind, because in the social practical literature it seems that just about anything can be a “practice” and what precisely is “shared” or “social” is often unclear. Farneth gives each of these questions their due, while offering avenues for future conversation.

Joseph Winters


Hegel’s Social Ethics and the Liberal Democratic Capitalism

For some time, the nineteenth-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel has received a bad rap, or at least a one-sided interpretation. Devoted readers of Kierkegaard, for instance, accuse Hegel of being the philosopher of totality, the thinker who sides with the universal over the singular, abstract reason against passion and faith. Hegel’s rational ethical system, according to Kierkegaard, cannot make sense of the existential angst that Abraham experienced when ordered by YHWH to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Although Theodor Adorno’s work draws heavily from Hegel’s dialectical approach to identity and difference, the former underscores the “negative” quality of the dialectic as a protest against Hegel’s emphasis on wholeness, reconciliation, and so forth. For Adorno, not unlike Kierkegaard, Hegel’s insistence on the “whole” being the form of truth devalues that which is divergent, dissonant, and fragmented. In the last two decades, a group of new Hegel scholars has contested the image of Hegel as the totalizing metaphysician, contending that the German philosopher has been mis-recognized. Commentators like Robert Pippen, Robert Brandom, and Terry Pinkard argue that Hegel successfully extends Kant’s critique of metaphysics and develops Kant’s concern about the limits of reason. In addition, these authors show that Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit does not have to be read as an ethereal, otherworldly text. Rather than being a sweeping, forward marching idea, Spirit is simply the name for the formation of social practices, practices defined by authoritative norms, mutual recognition, and reason exchange across difference and disagreement. Hegel, according to these authors, offers a conception of freedom that is socially constituted and constrained by norms, a conception that resonates with the best of liberal democracy.

Molly Farneth’s Hegel’s Social Ethics: Religion, Conflict, and Rituals of Reconciliation is the most recent attempt to offer a more nuanced and generative reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology in light of contemporary problems and in the spirit of agonistic democracy. As the author describes, “This book holds . . . two aspects of Hegel’s project together—epistemology and ethics, knowing and living well. In so doing, it gives an account of the relationships and practices that a community ought to cultivate, and of what happens when those relationships and practices are absent or deformed. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel shows what domination looks like and suggests that there is an alternative to it, a way of coping with conflict and forging solidarity. And while Hegel was no democrat, he describes how conflicts can be confronted and hope for reconciliation sustained through just means in diverse communities” (2). For Farneth, Hegel “has much to teach” contemporary society about the cultivation of practices that enable citizens to work through conflicts, practices of reconciliation that make room for tension and contestation. As she puts it: “A modern Sittlichkeit [ethical community] involves contestation as well as rituals of reconciliation” (ix). Consequently, Farneth wants to disabuse the reader of unfair readings of Hegel that accuse him of resolving difference and conflict. Farneth’s Hegel acknowledges that these qualities are essential to the health and integrity of a political community.

According to the author, conflicts within and between communities can be dealt with under the condition that participants realize that identities and commitments are normative, constructed, and mutable. In other words, a conflict becomes manageable when those involved in the conflict allow their commitments and attachments to undergo contestation and revision. According to Farneth, Hegel’s reading of Sophocles’ Antigone shows us how a society breaks down in the face of an irreconcilable conflict. Recall that Antigone is placed in a tragic predicament when the ruler Creon forbids her from burying her brother, Polynices, because the latter committed treason against the state. Antigone is placed between two incompatible obligations—the duty to her family and the duty to the state, the obligation to divine law and to human law. For Farneth, Hegel describes how a tragic conflict, or a situation in which “two goods or rights stand in [inevitable] opposition to one another” (32), is the result of individuals (like Antigone and Creon) who take their identities to be natural. The characters in Sophocles’ play uncritically accept their social roles and obligations, thereby avoiding “the responsibility to create, maintain, and transform them” (33). The characters in Antigone become emblematic of the problems with the Greek polis, with a society that does not fully realize how subjects are involved in the creation and transformation of norms. For Hegel, freedom involves self-consciousness; it requires a social world that teaches subjects to take responsibility for their commitments and actions—rather than blaming an undesirable situation exclusively on fate, nature, or superhuman powers.

In addition to the conflict between Antigone and Creon, Farneth draws attention to Hegel’s discussion in Phenomenology of the ostensible impasse between enlightenment and faith. This discussion provides resources for working through the interminable debates between religious groups and secularists, evangelicals and atheists. According to Hegel, enlightened reason and the perspective of religious faith share similar shortcomings and don’t realize that each position depends on the other. Whereas enlightened reason locates epistemic authority in the self-legislating subject, the person of faith locates this authority in the self’s immediate relationship with the divine. In both cases, the inner self that becomes the site of authority is imagined as detached from the actual social world. At the same time, both stances have something to offer. Enlightened reason can teach faith that one’s relationship to the Other is always mediated and constituted by concepts. And the faith perspective, when properly understood, can teach reason that thought and reflection happen within the context of community; reason is a product of norms, language, and shared practices. As Farneth points out, Hegel’s ability to mediate between Enlightenment and Faith suggests that religion has its own rationality and that conciliatory practices within communities will rely on rituals, virtues, and sacraments usually associated with religious faith.

This détente between reason and faith is important for Farneth’s understanding of the rituals of reconciliation that prevent conflicts from becoming static, reified, and tragic. When most people think of Hegel and conflict, they turn to the section in Phenomenology on the master/slave relationship. In this allegory, Hegel shows the reader that domination is the result of subjects who cannot see themselves reflected in the other without subordinating that other; objectification derives from a situation in which selves do not recognize certain others as co-participants in a common life. At the inchoate stage of the drama between lord and bondsman, one self-consciousness can only see another as a hostile adversary or as an occasion to project and extend the self’s desires. Within this initial struggle, the slave is in a position that results from the fear of death, from remaining in a state of nature and capitulating to the basic drive to remain alive. The master’s domination over the slave is unsatisfying as the former ultimately desires another free, responsible subject to be a member of his or her community. And the slave’s ability to work and produce, to make and create things, gives the slave a sense of independence and power, preparing the slave for participation in Spirit. As we see in the case of Greek tragedy and in the enlightenment/faith standoff, Hegel’s master/slave narrative demonstrates a movement from a hostile, adversarial relationship to one that moves, changes, and transforms into a practice of mutual recognition.

While Farneth acknowledges the importance of the master/slave dialectic, she draws the reader’s attention to an under-examined aspect of Hegel’s thought that has decisive implications for practices of reconciliation. For Farneth, Hegel’s discussion of confession and forgiveness toward the end of Phenomenology supplements the earlier struggle for recognition. The relationship between confessor and forgiver develops out of the hostile interaction between the wicked consciousness—the self that acts according to conscience and subjective convictions—and the judging consciousness—the self that evaluates and criticizes the wicked consciousness from a sense of objective duty. While the judging consciousness gets something right about the overly subjective pursuits of the wicked consciousness, the latter recognizes that the judging consciousness is also acting from a particular location. The interplay between judge and the wicked subject becomes a mobile, tension-filled relationship between two selves that acknowledge their mutual culpability, responsibility, and fallibility. They are called into a set of practices that involve both judging and acting, both confessing wrongs and forgiving evils (since the forgiver is implicated, to some degree, in the evils that need to be redressed). As Farneth puts it: “Through their confession and forgiveness, the wicked consciousness and the judging consciousness are reconciled. Their reconciliation, moreover, marks the emergence of full-fledged reciprocal recognition and absolute spirit” (72). And this possibility of ongoing recognition requires something like Lutheran sacraments, rituals through which individuals are treated as judges and wrongdoers, confessors and forgivers.

For Farneth, reading Hegel on the interplay between reconciliation and conflict has practical implications for democratic practices. While Hegel “was not a democrat . . . and supported a Prussian state with a limited monarchy and a large bureaucratic class” (120), Farneth contends that Hegel’s thought contributes to galvanizing an agonistic form of democracy. Democratic authority, following Hegel, cannot emerge from someplace outside of “disagreement, conflict, and the contest for power” (116). At the same time, democratic authority cannot be reduced to these conditions; it must encompass the “negative” while developing practices that aim for reconciliation, shared norms, cooperation, and so forth. Democratic life involves the extension of reciprocal recognition, a commitment to opposing the domination of others, and “the acceptance of human fallibility, the perpetuity of difference and contestation, and an implicit challenge to the notion of sovereign agency” (118). It involves a society in which both leaders and everyday people are accountable to norms that are revisable and contestable. A Hegelian-inspired democracy does not fetishize the revolutionary vanguard ruler nor does it celebrate leaderless populism; it underscores how elected leaders must be held accountable for their actions and decisions by organizations and constituencies. Finally, democratic life must involve practices of forgiveness and confession, a recognition that we are the subjects and objects of evil and injustice.

Farneth’s Hegel is hopeful that conflicts and disagreements can be worked through and modified. In her brilliantly written text, there is a tacit distinction between mutable conflict and static antagonism. Hegel teaches us that modern subjects are not bound to tragic conflicts because we do not have to uncritically accept the positions, roles, and predicaments we have been thrown into. Or more precisely, Hegel’s notion of self-consciousness indicates that subjects are responsible for (and take themselves as committed or uncommitted to) various modern practices and arrangements. We need to think more about the contrast between conflict and antagonism, a thought experiment that involves a series of questions and queries. What would modernity be without war, nation-state sovereignty, settler projects, coloniality and its afterlife, and the violent pursuit of property (sanctioned by law)? These are not just wrongs that need to be redressed and reconciled but inveterate conditions for liberal democracy. Isn’t there a relatively stable antagonism that exists between nation-state sovereignty and indigenous practices and relationships to the earth? In addition, as a host of black studies and queer theory scholars have argued, don’t conflict and antagonism, freedom and domination, and recognizability and abjection, go together? Even as the sphere of recognition historically expands to include formerly excluded groups, this expansion does not remove the general line between the livable and unlivable, between those deemed worthy of life and those associated with death. In other words, spheres of recognition can exist through and because of (not despite) patterns of violence and domination disproportionately directed toward certain populations. Disagreements and conflicts can be ostensibly resolved or managed because the less manageable conflicts have been projected outward and elsewhere. (In Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right, he discusses, without much reservation, how the antagonisms and surpluses of production get directed outward toward Europe’s colonies.) Ultimately what I am posing is the following: Is the new Hegel tethered to liberal democratic capitalism and if so, does he help us think through the traumatic kernel, the monstrous underside of this formation? Does Hegel’s faith in the elasticity of norms and commitments downplay the ways in which change and novelty happen within constitutive constraints and relatively stable arrangements of power, violence, and anguish?

These questions and concerns might be taking Farneth in directions that the book is not intended to go. Her main aim in this project is to show that Hegel offers rich insights to think about the interaction between reconciliation and conflict in a social world riddled with disagreements that have become static and congealed, and a world where these conflicts are often responded to with simplistic appeals to unity and forgiveness. In such a predicament, Farneth’s reinterpretation of Hegel is a welcome and challenging read.

  • Molly Farneth

    Molly Farneth


    Response to Winters

    Professor Winters and I have been talking about Hegel and Adorno for many years now, his reminders to tarry with the negative tempering my Hegelian enthusiasms. I have long been grateful for these conversations, and no less so today. In his response to my book, Winters asks if perhaps my enthusiasms are not tempered enough, if even an agonistic Hegel remains “tethered to liberal democratic capitalism” and to a set of arrangements that are not incidentally but integrally connected to violence and domination.

    I’ve argued that the Phenomenology of Spirit offers insights into the conceptualization and analysis of the norms and power relations implicit in our relationships, practices, and institutions. I’ve also argued that Hegel’s book suggests that there are social practices available to us that are likely to foster relationships, practices, and institutions that are less dominating and alienating than many of those we currently have. That Hegel sometimes fails to apply these insights to his own social and political context is undeniable. In the Philosophy of Right, for instance, Hegel puts his faith in bureaucracy and monarchy, acts as an apologist for colonialism, and endorses the patriarchal family (in part, he writes, because women are like plants). But I don’t think that Hegel’s failures entirely undercut his insights elsewhere. With respect to his sexism, for instance, it is possible to read Hegel against himself. As I argue in my reading of Hegel’s discussion of Antigone in the Phenomenology, he shows how treating any particular set of gender norms and roles as natural or fixed leads to tragic and mournful consequences. Dissatisfaction with our social norms, including those related to gender, ought to lead us to scrutinize, critique, and change them. The same is true for social structures and institutions.

    Some readers, Winters included, have found the last chapter of Hegel’s Social Ethics to be “hopeful,” with the implication that this is not a virtuous hope but a vicious and unwarranted presumption. In that last chapter, I consider how a Hegelian account of reciprocal recognition might inform democratic politics, and I write things like this: “Democratic authority emerges where relationships and practices of reciprocal recognition are strong and widespread. The norms of a community are authoritative for its members insofar as concrete, democratically structured relationships and social practices are in place” (130). I offer a handful of examples in which authority and accountability are being generated and practiced, including the work of relational organizers and restorative justice practitioners. Winters concludes that “Farneth’s Hegel is hopeful that conflicts and disagreements can be worked through and modified.” To be clear, I hope that conflicts can be worked through in ways that neither dominate nor alienate, but by no means do I presume that this will be the case.

    The dominant offices and institutions in our liberal “democratic” capitalist state are neither just nor democratic. The people in power, the laws they write and enforce, and the institutions they lead are more often working against democracy in the sense I define than for it. I do not believe that these current arrangements of power will long hold. None of us yet knows what will replace them. At present, concrete, democratically structured practices and relationships are few and far between. With no one sufficiently organized to oppose the authoritarians and oligarchs, they seize ever more power for themselves. If we are not resigned to the prospect of a future of full-fledged authoritarianism and oligarchy, what kinds of relationships, practices, institutions, and social movements do we need to build? What alternatives might be more just and democratic? And what examples, few and humble though they may be, might people look to for generating non-dominating authority and mutual accountability?

    The relationships, practices, and institutions that characterize much of our social and political life are dominating and alienating. We cannot be at home in such a world. But it is from this world that we build the next, even as we scrutinize, critique, and transform what we carry forward with us—Hegel included.



Power or Persuasion:

Social Ethics and the Possibility of Repair

As I write, special prosecutor Robert Mueller has not completed and submitted the results of his investigation into whether then-candidate Donald Trump colluded with Russian government operatives to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. Yet almost from the start of the investigation, President Trump and his legal team have been building a public case against the special prosecutor in order to discredit the work of his team and whatever findings they may deliver. Along with his attacks on the FBI, Trump has actively sought to create a context for the investigation in which his most fervent supporters can reject the final report’s conclusions. That situation points to how the relationships and practices of trust in which “facts” and the authority upon which naming facts rely have broken down.

Norms of trust and cooperation are the “social ethics” upon which the institutions of democratic governance rest, and are at the heart of the coming crisis the Mueller report represents. “Social ethics” is Hegel’s term for the complex interplay among social relationships, practices, and institutions that constitute a political society. As “democracy” has become at once hegemonic over other forms of government and more loosely defined outside a narrow framework of legal institutions, the appreciation for the role social conditions and practices play in undergirding those institutions that is visible in the earliest critics of modern democracy has been pushed to the background. Molly Farneth’s Hegel’s Social Ethics is a welcomed arrival, because it offers guidance on how to think through exactly the kinds of challenges that confront us now and promise to confront us going forward. These are situations broadly defined by the breakdown of common norms, such as the disagreement over climate science, and the drawing of intensely partisan lines which have made the cooperation and agreement required for democracy (understood in the most basic sense, as the people’s capacity to do things together) increasingly fraught. As Farneth notes, “Without relationships and practices of the right kind, communities and societies can only be held together by violence, manipulation, and deceit” (4). Her work promises to save us from those outcomes.

Farneth’s goal is to mine Hegel’s insights into social practices to identify grounds for normative critique, repair, and reconciliation from among existing social practices. Pushing through layers of abstractness that cover Hegel’s writing, Farneth gets at his most important belief, which is that the accounts humans give of what they believe they should do and what they are actually doing presents the basis for repairing the conflicts and relationships that inevitably separate them (10). By showing readers they are already engaged in this reparative process, Hegel reminds them they have the authority and ability to change existing social and political conditions. That reminder feels more timely than ever during an era characterized by impasse that has its sources in a complex government bureaucracy and is reflected in mired political processes across liberal democratic regimes. It is also felt in responses to citizen-led efforts that produced moving spectacles of human action, but produced little positive change in daily life. Events like the Egyptian Revolution, Occupy Wall Street and, more recently in the United States, the 2016 Women’s March, may have even deepened pessimism about the value of direct action and participation.

Hegel’s Social Ethics arrives amidst these challenging on-the-ground conditions. Ambitiously, Farneth extends Hegel beyond the narrow confines of closed communities like Rousseau’s Geneva, where agreement might be easier given a narrower, shared culture. She places his work instead in societies that have grown more religiously and culturally diverse. Ascertaining the General Will in such diverse societies involves more than conflict between Faith and Enlightenment commitments to science and reason, it involves conflict among individuals who disagree over what constitutes the norms and beliefs that should inform what people ought to be doing across multiple faiths in addition to the conflict with Reason.

It is with this purpose that Farneth turns to Hegel’s writing on recognition and the possibilities for reconciliation. Her discussion of practices of confession and forgiveness, for instance, are meant to demonstrate how they can be adopted widely, even by those who are not rooted in the Christian liturgical traditions from which they originate. Her discussion leaves unsaid how non-Christians might access the same practices in the same ways, however. This example illustrates the consequence of Farneth’s decision to separate Hegel’s social ethics from an analysis of power.

Farneth’s introduction situates Hegel and his intellectual work in a specific historical moment: Napoleon’s army defeated the Prussian Army outside the city of Jena, just as Hegel was completing his manuscript for the Phenomenology of Spirit. It is ironic then that history largely disappears from the remainder of Farneth’s text. Yet, the very history Farneth argues shaped Hegel’s thinking also has consequences for the social ethics that interest Farneth. Hegel’s Philosophy of History has a strong progressive narrative, which, when read alongside the social ethics cast them in a much different role.

As Michel Foucault points out, neither Faith or Enlightenment ideals were neutral. They were equally instruments of domination in the projects of modern state formation and imperialism as they were enlarged freedoms. It is this complicated, ambivalent historical legacy that I worry renders Farneth’s effort to make some of these practices of recognition and reconciliation less universal than she would like. Put differently, I think the civic republican framework which she borrows from Philip Petit leads her to view questions of difference from the center because it begins with the idea of a community to which “we” already belong or identify with. As scholars writing from the perspective of racial minorities, indigenous, and queer communities have argued, recognition and reconciliation have often been offered in terms set by the dominant group, where subjects must be judged “respectable” in order to be worthy of legal recognition.

These scholars identify a blind spot across theories of recognition that imagine recognition and reconciliation to be free of power, rather than the discourse at the center of these practices to be, as Foucault argued, themselves instruments of power. When Farneth writes that she reads Hegel as a thinker committed to “mediation without closure” (10), she renders reciprocal recognition less tethered to interpretations that stress the subject’s prior knowledge of absolute spirit. While this means reconciliation is both temporary and revisable in Farneth’s account (9), it is also reached in a power vacuum. This is clear from Farneth’s description of the crisis of authority that interests her. After the fall of authority, she writes, “we are left with power and persuasion” (116). Farneth sidesteps the first in order to think through the second.

Yet to think of the afterlife of agreements that bear the imprint of asymmetric power relations is to recall the powerful emotions, such as anger, humiliation, and ressentiment, that their memory can (still) elicit. These emotions might feed desires for more insurgent and less cooperative forms of engagement than Farneth admits. In other words, there may not be a reserve of trust that can be renewed or repaired. Reflecting upon slavery and the American racial state, Fred Moten expresses exactly this sentiment when he claims, “I also know that what it is that is supposed to be repaired is irreparable. It can’t be repaired. The only thing we can do is tear this shit down completely and build something new.”1 Moten’s rejection and refusal are based upon a record of state recognition that has not yielded the claimed progress, but at best only incremental improvements in the conditions of everyday life for Black Americans.

Additionally, her focus on persuasion and discourse assumes a level of self-knowledge and intelligibility about the self and her motives that post-structural critiques of language, which examine the structures that support discourse or the variance between signifier and signified, cast doubt upon. That is, Farneth believes we can find the words to explain ourselves, our actions, and motivations to others and this makes possible the rituals of confession and forgiveness that she sees as pathways to reconciliation. But the rioting (for lack of a better word) that followed the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore at the hands of the police, might have been just as much about not being heard by and not mattering to those in power, as it was not being able to find the words for expressing anguish, frustration, and fears. I wonder what place these kinds of disruptive acts of citizenship have in Farneth’s account, in part because they reflect a history of residential and economic segregation that isolated Gray and the members of his community, cutting them off from participating in the “constitutive conditions” that generate mutual intelligibility.

Of course, I am overdetermining the cleavages and their significance for mutual understanding. My point is not to rule out reconciliation and recognition, but to argue that the history of oppression may leave some subjects more wary of the practices that Farneth endorses than her account admits. Putting power back into the analysis creates rougher ground for the work social ethics can and must do to repair trust and cooperation among citizens. We urgently need and are helped by Farneth’s book and need more work like it.

  1. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minorcompositions, 2013), 152.

  • Molly Farneth

    Molly Farneth


    Response to Aslam

    In the final paragraphs of my book, I describe a group of Jewish protestors who blocked a New York City street and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for Eric Garner. When they did that, they were drawing on the long history in which Jews have recited that prayer upon the death of close kin. The protestors’ recitation of the prayer in this unconventional context echoed the traditional recitation in responding to and expressing grief; but by saying the prayer for Eric Garner, who was neither Jewish nor the protestors’ kin, they also made a claim about who is grievable, who has obligations to whom, and whose lives ought to matter to us all.

    The recitation of the prayer, then, was a complicated performative act. It was expressive of beliefs, commitments, attitudes, and emotions; it was also potentially persuasive. If reciting the prayer in this way on this occasion moved participants and witnesses, through the example set or the attitudes expressed, we can imagine those people and the broader network of relationships in which they were situated being transformed. A Trump rally, likewise, expresses beliefs, commitments, attitudes, and emotions, and attempts to persuade, move, and transform participants. Expression and persuasion, in each of these cases, are not only matters of giving reasons and expressing beliefs. Each case involves the expression of passions such as grief and anger, and persuasion through affect and example. Each also involves the exercise of power and the enactment of power relations.

    Power is the capacity to bring about effects. Expression and persuasion—even of the discursive and reason-giving kind—involve the exercise of power. Likewise, when someone blocks traffic with her body, when she moves others with her expression of grief or anger, or when she sets an example of moral courage, that person exercises power. Attention to persuasion need not come at the expense of attention to power.

    Because power is unevenly distributed, and because the ends toward which power is exercised are so often unjust, we need ways of assessing the power relations in our communities and the practices of those who would exercise power. The final chapter of my book is intended to show how Hegel’s concept of reciprocal recognition, with its dual emphasis on authority and accountability, is inseparable from this kind of power analysis. I do not believe, nor does Hegel’s Social Ethics claim, that recognition or reconciliation is achieved in a power vacuum. Attention to power—what it is, who has it, whether it is dominating or non-dominating—is essential to Hegel’s concept of recognition.

    Reciprocal recognition, in Hegel’s work and in my account of Hegelian social ethics, involves two people or groups, each of which recognizes their authority and accountability and that of the other. The relationship is symmetrical in the sense that the authority that one claims for themselves, they also recognize in the other person, and the accountability that one demands of the other, they also recognize for themselves. Relationships of reciprocal recognition aren’t merely a matter of people’s attitudes toward one another; they depend on the actual distribution of power between them and on the practices that people engage in together that generate, claim, and use that power. While I agree with Professor Aslam that discourses about recognition often mask dominating power relations, I would argue that if a person or group offers “recognition” to another person or group while claiming the exclusive and unimpeachable right to set the terms for that recognition, then the relationship remains one of domination and not of recognition at all—at least not in the sense that Hegel defines it.

    I also agree with Aslam that most of our communities and institutions are far from achieving and sustaining this kind of reciprocal recognition. Most are deformed by white supremacy, patriarchy, and other forms of domination; others reserve power for bureaucrats who appear answerable only to other bureaucrats, at best. My question is not whether the power relations that characterize these communities and institutions are adequate or not. Clearly, they are not. My question is, what is to be done, given the inadequacy?

    Hegel’s emphasis on social practices—and particularly rituals—as a means of creating and sustaining relationships of reciprocal recognition is a counterweight to an overemphasis on the role of reason-giving in correcting deformed power relations and confronting conflicts. Confession and forgiveness, on Hegel’s account, are not reducible to discursive acts that attempt to persuade through reason-giving. They’re sacraments, rituals, speech acts, and performatives that express particular beliefs, commitments, emotions, and passions; (attempt to) persuade others to share those beliefs, commitments, emotions, and passions; and create and enact new obligations, entitlements, and other social statuses. Like the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish for Eric Garner—and like the ritualized elements of the Trump rally—they exercise power, contesting existing power relations and aiming to enact new ones. Whether they succeed in their expressions and enactments is not a matter of power or persuasion, but always both.



A Latent Conservatism?

The Challenge of Marxian Revolution to Hegelian Social Ethics

Molly Farneth’s Hegel’s Social Ethics deftly traces the contours of what Farneth terms a “post-Kantian” reading of Hegel, and of what such a reading implies for Hegel’s usefulness in navigating the possibility of democratic disagreement and reconciliation. Does fruitful ethical discourse require a bedrock of shared foundational ethical commitments amongst those who participate in the discussion? If it does, then a dilemma may arise. The first horn of this dilemma is that such fruitful discourse might be impossible in practice, given the fact of great diversity among the ethical commitments held by members of society, and of the dizzying array of conflicts among those commitments. The second horn, is that such discourse might in fact be possible, but only by achieving deep theoretical unanimity through a purging of difference—a purge that itself could not be justified through any practice of inclusive democratic deliberation, for its proponents cannot coherently make themselves accountable to those who are to be excluded.

This second horn is the one Farneth has in mind when she warns that while the dialectic of master and slave serves as a “paradigm case of domination” in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, “Hegel shows how the specter of domination hovers over every shape of consciousness or shape of spirit that does not achieve relationships of reciprocal recognition” (Farneth, 4). This “specter of domination” figures largely throughout Hegel’s Social Ethics as a warning of the steep price to be paid where disagreement and discussion occur in the absence of recognition and reconciliation.

A chief aim of Farneth’s book is to demonstrate how Hegel can be read as offering a way out of what she criticizes as this false choice between deep pessimism for the possibility of inclusive, democratic discourse, on the one hand, and the embrace of a sheer unaccountable exercise of power aimed at producing ethical unanimity through exclusion of difference, on the other. It is her reading of Hegel as “post-Kantian” that provides an interpretive foundation for this aim. On Farneth’s view, absolute spirit does not entail “closure”—the “end of difference, conflict, or contestation”—for it does not involve “the subject’s a priori knowledge of the absolute” (11). Rather, “Absolute spirit is that collection of norms and practices through which a community creates and re-creates itself. It constitutes the standard of knowledge and the ground of authority” (76). For Farneth, then, absolute spirit is realized in our conscious commitments to practices of mutual accountability to one another, and in our willingness to regard our ethical commitments not as fixed and given, but rather as mutable, open to contestation, and produced by that very practice of shared deliberation occurring in and through the dynamic flow of history. To engage in ethical discourse as members of a community and in ways that are intelligible to one another, we need not arrive at some settled body of final conclusions; indeed, the more we treat our ethical commitments as “given” and settled, the further we are from the reconciliation and recognition typified by absolute spirit, for we are more likely to regard others as opponents, rather than as co-participants in a shared project of human self-making.

This “post-Kantian” reading of Hegel elegantly evades the dilemma that deep and seemingly intractable ethical disagreements pose for the possibility of mutual recognition. Yet, another question lingers, one about the ethical exercise of power, and of the practical means by which we as human beings might bring about the reconciliation Farneth advocates. This is so, even if we understand reconciliation not as the absence of ethical disagreement but rather as a willingness to be open and collaborative in our shared ethical discourse in which disagreement persists. Having articulated the implications of Hegel’s theory for how individual human beings ought to engage one another as fellow knowers and as co-authors of values, in Chapter Five, “Religion, Philosophy, and the Absolute,” Farneth asks, “What can we learn from Hegel’s social ethics that might inform democratic thought and practice in a religiously diverse society” (100)? It is this question, and themes related to it, to which I will now turn, with special attention to Farneth’s discussions of the history of women’s liberation in the United States, and of revolutionary politics, one of several forms assumed by the present-day struggle for justice.

Farneth writes that “commitments and norms regarding women’s social, legal, and political standing changed, gradually, through processes of dialectical reasoning” (104). The kinds of actions Farneth identifies as having brought about progress in women’s liberation are all forms of thought and assertion: “assessing,” “writing articles,” “making declarations,” “judging commitments,” and similar. One notable feature of this account is that it tends to downplay the role of the exercise of political power in bringing about change. Farneth describes marches and demonstrations in their function as “public theater,” while activists often believe that a central aim of such exercises is to demonstrate and/or enact the power that masses of people have to directly transform society to better suit their interests, and regardless of what those opposed have to say about it. (To take another case of political activism—the antiwar movement aimed at bringing about an end to the Vietnam war—much of the success of that movement seems to have been a result of having built a movement strong enough to alter the relations of power such that ruling elites began to worry about the continued “governability” of the United States.)

Later in the same chapter, Farneth writes that “Traditions change as the people who participate in them go about the everyday business of life. […] In some cases, these experiences and encounters reveal inadequacies and inconsistencies among people’s previously held commitments” (108). This observation provides an indication of how one might elaborate upon the dialectic between lived experience and theorization of that experience. Perhaps it is an encounter with striking workers who make it no longer possible for armaments to leave a particular shipyard, that influences the shape of dialectical reasoning to develop in one way rather than another. Or put another way: in what ways do human beings, as part of a community, render themselves not only fellow subjects engaged in shared deliberation, but also objective forces that themselves constitute and co-create the encounters and experiences that must be theorized and reckoned with? Can exercises of power be assimilated into democratic deliberation in this way? In what way may practical, extra-rhetorical, extra-theoretical interventions, ones not readily reducible to forms of thought or assertion, permissibly be leveraged to influence the shape of spirit?

Farneth concludes by usefully applying the lessons drawn from her articulation of a Hegelian social ethics, to an assessment of various forms assumed by the present-day struggle for justice. She specifically discusses “liberal elitism” which, she writes, retains Hegel’s “faith in the rational state and the bureaucratic class,” as well as the early 2000s “Occupy Movement,” which she—I think quite rightly—argues was weakened by “its rejection of leadership,” which “made it difficult to know on what basis participants could hold one another or members of society accountable” (122). I will close by discussing Farneth’s critique of Slavoj Zizek, and the connection between this and the broader question of what role power can or should play in a Hegelian social ethics.

In Hegel’s Social Ethics, where Farneth discusses the exercise of power as such, her primary target is often unaccountable power—power as sheer domination. The estrangement characterized by the pre-reconciliation relationship between lord and bondsman inheres in its “asymmetrical distribution of power and accountability” (4). I read Farneth as committed to the view that power is justly exercised only when it is accountable to those in relation to whom it is wielded.

Farneth observes that Zizek argues for a vanguardist revolutionary movement that is itself unaccountable and chosen on an arbitrary, unjustified basis. Such a movement would clearly be found quite wanting as a party to the kind of democratic deliberation based on mutual recognition and accountability that Farneth carefully and convincingly argues for. However, I think the choice of Zizek as a representative foil here makes the critique of revolutionary politics less compelling than it might otherwise be. A better foil might perhaps be Karl Marx himself, who argues that the transition to socialism “cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property.”1 Why despotic? It is because the kinds of changes necessary to bring about human emancipation are in principle unjustifiable on the basis of bourgeois property relations. This is different from Zizek’s approach, because Marx’s point is not that such alterations are unjustifiable altogether or unjustifiable as such. They are justifiable on the basis of the interests of the vast mass of society, which is poised, politically, epistemically, and historically, to represent the interests of all humanity.

Marx’s case for revolution is in large part premised on the claim that in order for mutual recognition to be made possible, the world must first be transformed so that there is no capitalism and thus, with the social role of “capitalist” as little live and salient in that future society as “czar” is in ours, no capitalists. It would seem, then, that Marx’s proposed form of majoritarian democratic authority is ruled out by the Hegelian social ethics that Farneth puts forward. For it defines itself, essentially, in part by its utter rejection of any accountability to capitalists, and a deep rejection of, a hostility and a lack of openness to, capitalist ethics and norms. Farneth’s critique of revolutionary politics can be put even more sharply then, in relation to Marx’s particular approach to accountability and its limits. (Insofar as Marx’s approach is nuanced, principled, and democratic in a way that Zizek’s is not, and yet Farneth offers a critique that, if true, would rule out even that stronger view as unacceptably authoritarian and closed to reconciliation.)

But if this is so, then one is lured back to one familiar charge against Hegel that Farneth seems concerned to dispel—namely, that there is a latent conservatism built into even more critical and progressive interpretations of his philosophical project. This, I take it, is centrally at stake in the question of whether or not Hegel is to be read as a “philosopher of ‘mediation without closure’” (11), as Farneth advocates. How do we navigate seemingly irreconcilable ethical commitments, where the existing arrangement of power benefits those who have the least to gain from participating in the forms of democratic deliberation that Farneth describes? It would seem terribly simple, then, for the oppressed to be made hostage to the good consciences of their oppressors.

Frederick Douglass wrote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.”2 History seems to have proven him quite right about this. Farneth presents the grassroots democracy of community organizers and of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, as models of mutual recognition, which is very helpful for illuminating the picture of human cooperation and solidarity that she has in mind as an aim. But given the ethical constraints Farneth seems to place on the just exercise of power, and given the presence and, indeed, the dominance, of forces opposed to democratic social transformation, by what practical means do we make actual the clearly desirable forms of mutual recognition and accountability so compellingly outlined in Hegel’s Social Ethics?


  1. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Manifesto, trans. Samuel Moore, 1888,

  2. Frederick Douglass, “West India Emancipation,” in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor (Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2000), 367.

  • Molly Farneth

    Molly Farneth


    Response to Vanessa Wills

    Marx famously argued that he was turning Hegel on his head, taking what was best in Hegel’s dialectical method while shifting the realm of its application from thought to practice. My reading of Hegel diminishes the distance that Marx found between his own position and Hegel’s. I understand Hegel to be already profoundly interested in social and historical circumstances, including concrete social relations and institutional structures, recognizing that these are both produced by and productive of human beings’ various ways of thinking, acting, and being. Throughout Hegel’s Social Ethics, I aim to show how Hegel attends to the social practices and structures of communities.

    I’ve learned a great deal from Professor Wills’s work on Marx’s ethics, and I’m grateful here for her Marxist challenges and provocations to my Hegelian ethics and the way she highlights the distance that remains between them.

    Wills argues that there is a “latent conservatism built into even more critical and progressive interpretations” of Hegel. Because of Hegel’s insistence on relationships and practices of reciprocal recognition, his social ethics rules out the revolutionary praxis that Marx believes is necessary to achieve social and economic justice. As Wills notes, Marx argues that the transition to socialism “cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property.” From within capitalism and from the perspective of those who benefit from that system, Marx suggests, the seizure of private property and the redistribution of wealth can only appear arbitrary and unjustifiable. Wills’s point is that the economic structure and its associated rules, norms, and institutions set the terms for what appears arbitrary and non-arbitrary, dominating and non-dominating. And if that is the case, Wills asks, wouldn’t Hegel view attempts to dismantle that structure as arbitrary exercises of power, ruled out by his ideal of reciprocal recognition?

    There’s a passage in the Phenomenology of Spirit, which I don’t address in my book but is relevant to Wills’s concern, about the basis of private property rights. Hegel poses the question: “ought it to be a law in and for itself that there should be property?” (429). In other words, he asks, is private property, in and of itself, a good? One way to try to answer the question would be to see whether there’s something contradictory or formally irrational about the notion of private property. But, Hegel insists, those accounts are liable to fail. There’s nothing formally irrational about the institution of property, but neither can formal rationality alone recommend it over the alternatives. Entitlement to the commitment that there should be a system of private property (or, for that matter, the commitment that there shouldn’t be such a system) isn’t based on anything that is fixed, given, or timeless. It is based on a concept of property that has emerged over time, a set of actual institutional arrangements, and an assessment of their fittingness for the people using that concept and living under those institutional arrangements. When we answer the question about property, we already have in place all of these other socially and historically dependent features of how the concept works with other concepts in our discourse (rights, ownership, etc.) as well as how the concept is actualized in practices and institutions (e.g. deeds, realty services, trespassing laws and enforcement mechanisms).

    But if it’s true that formal rationality cannot recommend a regime of property ownership over other ways of organizing an economy and distributing resources, then how should the question (“ought it to be a law in and for itself that there should be property?”) be answered? Hegel doesn’t address the question explicitly in the Phenomenology of Spirit, but the onward movement of the Phenomenology provides its own kind of answer. As Hegel turns ever more toward the social, the structural, and the relational in his attempts to specify what might make this or that law or norm binding for a community, we begin to see that it is the quality of the social, structural, and relational that determines the answer to that question.

    Hegel’s point is that it is impossible to determine in any formal way, shorn of social and historical context, whether a form of life is worth sustaining. In fact, it is often only from within a form of life, with its complex and often contingent and contradictory components, that people assess whether the basic features of that form of life can do justice to the people they are or want to be. It may be the case that, as Wills glosses Marx, the transition to socialism is unjustifiable on the basis of bourgeois property relations, while remaining, for a Hegelian, justifiable on the basis of the concrete failures of those property relations to produce relationships and communities in which people experience themselves as free, unalienated, and at home.

    The institution of private property reveals its inadequacies in practice. When a group of people are alienated from it, and dominated by it and those empowered by it, then those people have good and non-arbitrary reasons to claim that that regime ought to be transformed. This isn’t because there’s something necessary about the transition to socialism based on the nature of human beings, the arc of history, or the nature of reason. It is because, in practice, people found themselves alienated from and dominated by their institutions and social structures. Whether or not those who benefit from the institution of private property recognize this feature of their form of life is another question, and one that brings us to the political practices and power analyses that I have tried to address in response to other essays in this forum.

    To say that changes to the existing social order will depend, at least in part, on practices of reasoning, in which reasons for dissatisfaction with the status quo are in the mix, is not to say that such changes are the result of reason-exchange or rational discourse – or that the reasons for dissatisfaction are ones that everyone can or does accept. This is not a public reason view of politics. Political struggles involve discourse and debate, but much more besides: relational organizing, ritual, mass mobilization, storytelling, memorialization and lamentation, celebration, bodies in the streets. Meanwhile, the ethical constraints that I find in Hegel’s ideal of reciprocal recognition involve attention to the just exercise of power, in both means and ends, in all of these ways that we claim, enact, and critique power. As I’ve argued in the book and throughout this forum, at issue is whether, and how, the more just future that we aim to bring about is aligned with that ideal, or whether it will be domination by another name.



What Is the Hegelian Social Ethical Response to the Bad-Faith Troll?

Insofar as great scholarship is marked by its ability to elicit questions from its readers that would otherwise be unforeseeable, the highest praise I can offer Molly Farneth’s Hegel’s Social Ethics is that it has left me with a question I could not have possibly anticipated without it, yet which now haunts me: what is the Hegelian social ethical response to the bad-faith troll?

Many scholars in the philosophy of religion and social ethics will be drawn to Farneth’s text for its argument about reciprocal recognition. For those who have not yet migrated to Terry Pinkard’s superior 2018 translation of the Phenomenology of Spirit, this is indeed what English speakers for decades have known as “mutual recognition” (gegenseitiges Anerkennen). While Farneth offers neither optimism nor simple hope in this work, she argues that the possibility of reconciling social conflict through reciprocal recognition is both more achievable and politically needed than many readers of Hegel have previously claimed. She defends this position in two structural phases in her text.

The first phase (chs. 2–5) is a fastidious interpretive analysis of the Phenomenology itself, with special attention to the development of spirit from Greek ethical life (Sittlichkeit) in Hegel’s reading of Antigone through to absolute spirit, and more specifically what obstacles prevent consciousness from achieving reciprocal recognition along the way. While Farneth is not an unwavering Hegel apologist, she repeatedly defends Hegel against what she characterizes as facile readings of the social and political conditions he outlines for reciprocal recognition. Chief among Farneth’s interpretive-argumentative strategies is her attention to Hegel’s frequent though tacit alternation between (a) a focus on how members of a particular shape of spirit see themselves (i.e., spirit for itself) and (b) a focus on the conflicts that those members have not yet encountered (i.e., spirit for us). For example, in her second chapter Farneth rebuts several contemporary feminist and continental philosophical critiques of Hegel’s reading of Antigone—notable among them Judith Butler’s—by contending that they have failed to discern Hegel’s descriptive assessment of the structure of Greek Sittlichkeit and norms as socially constructed. Similarly, for readers of Hegel prone to become fixated on the famous “Lordship and Bondage” section of the Phenomenology—a popular trend in scholarship that Farneth attributes to the massive popularity of Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel—Farneth importantly reminds them that “the lordship and bondage section is not Hegel’s final word on social relations” (58). Said otherwise, Farneth persuasively argues that many misreadings of Hegel emerge because Hegel is so good at describing each of spirit’s shapes that we forget that he will later critique those shapes and move forward. The practical consequence of this hermeneutical misstep, she repeatedly stresses, is that we misunderstand when and how reconciliation of competing social and political norms is possible.

The second phase (chs. 6 and 7) applies the early chapters’ interpretive insights to contemporary social conflict, with special attention to political polarization, competing normative ethical commitments, and ultimately how we are to reconcile them. A believer in Hegel’s enduring social ethical relevance, Farneth contends here that “Hegel can help us see how people make commitments and contest them in the midst of deep and abiding disagreement; he can also help us see how people can cope with and, at time, resolve such disagreements” (103). Toward this end, Farneth draws heavily from the paradigmatic conflict between Hegel’s wicked consciousness and judging consciousness. Here, the wicked consciousness takes substantive action within the world, yet the judging consciousness condemns them for being driven by subjective intent and desire. However, the wicked and judging consciousness are ultimately able to reconcile their conflict through the sacramental practices of confession and forgiveness. It is not that Hegel can help us eliminate social conflict entirely, or even that he can help us reliably achieve reciprocal recognition in our disagreement; these tasks remain perpetually arduous and agonistic. Rather, Farneth insists, Hegel helps us identify the ritual practices that are necessary to begin working toward social reconciliation. Not only does a better reading of Hegelian reciprocal recognition instruct us in dyadic settings, but it helps us in clarifying that grassroots democratic politics and organizing are far preferable to liberal elitism, revolutionary politics, and leaderless collectivism.

Anyone who reads Farneth’s text as suggesting that there is either a formula or a predictable schedule for reciprocal recognition has misread her. However, at the end of Hegel’s Social Ethics, one is nonetheless left with a sober yet hopeful vision of the prospects for social reconciliation. I say “hopeful” because it argues that reciprocal recognition is possible at all. That is, it rejects “end of history” readings of Hegelian reconciliation, and believes that “culture war-style impasses can be confronted through dialectical reasoning” (113).

Which is what brings me to the bad-faith troll.

Farneth’s text is about conflict. It is about conflict in the Phenomenology, and it is about conflict in social and political relations today. I also take Farneth seriously in her prefatory remark that “this is a book for people who care about Hegel and people who don’t” (ix). As I understand her, Farneth views her text as making a material and practical contribution to social ethical relations, and not merely a contribution to secondary literature on Hegel. However, I have serious concerns with the way that Farneth frames ethically-pressing social conflict itself, so much so that I worry her argument may inadvertently harm those who are most vulnerable to materially consequential political strife.

As she begins applying her interpretation of the Phenomenology to contemporary social conflict, Farneth forwards a surprising diagnosis. “The dynamics of the culture wars are easy enough to follow,” she writes. “They involve two positions, each of which thinks it argues from incontrovertible principles. Because partisans disagree on these principles, however, each rejects the claims and commitments of the other” (103). As when reading Hegel, one must be careful not to misattribute to Farneth a model of conflict she will later jettison. In this setting, Farneth draws upon the earlier conflict in the Phenomenology between Faith and Enlightenment as the paradigm, where Faith cannot adequately justify its beliefs to Enlightenment, but Enlightenment fails to appreciate the strength of Faith’s religious practices to create and sustain social norms. Farneth offers several critiques for why this culture-war model of conflict is insufficient: it treats religious experience and/or reason a fixed foundation for moral reasoning (103); it makes overcoming conflicts difficult if not impossible (104); it is a failure of recognition in that it refuses the authority and accountability of the other (126).

These failures of culture-war conflict and the feuding of Faith and Enlightenment are why Farneth instead anchors her central argument around the rituals of confession and forgiveness in Hegel’s wicked and judging consciousnesses. Looming in the backdrop of Hegel’s Social Ethics is more pessimistic vision of Hegelian recognition from the likes of Marx, Kojève, and Fanon, who suspect that recognition is never possible without some form of domination. Indeed, with Faith and Enlightenment, this is all we can hope for. But “once we follow Hegel’s idea of recognition through to its culmination in the confession and forgiveness of the wicked and judging consciousnesses, we see that it does not involve the oppression, domination, or objectification of the other,” Farneth argues. “To recognize another person as a subject involves knowing and treating her as authoritative and fit to be held accountable. Built into the idea of reciprocal recognition is the acceptance of human fallibility, the perpetuity of difference and contestation, and an implicit challenge to the notion of sovereign agency” (118). What the wicked and judging consciousness have that Faith and Enlightenment do not is this prospect of accepting the possibility that one is wrong, that the other party deserves to be taken seriously in their normative commitments, and that others respond best when they are trusted with careful dialectical reasoning. Farneth points to both the black civil rights and women’s rights movements in the United States as exemplars of this agonistic labor, noting how through their democratically-oriented efforts, social “commitments and norms . . . changed, gradually, through processes of dialectical reasoning” (104; see also 123–25).

Despite my considerable effort to read Hegel’s Social Ethics otherwise, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Farneth’s argument is premised on the idea that social and political conflict emerges from two or more agents who are coming in good faith. Framed slightly differently, Farneth rejects “end of history” readings of Hegel that contend reciprocal recognition cannot avoid issues of power and domination, and then proceeds to outline conditions for the possibility of reciprocal recognition that presume oppressive political actors will eventually be willing to confess, seek forgiveness, and be persuaded by dialectical reasoning. While this presumption of good faith is implicitly evident in much of Farneth’s argument, she also makes it rather explicit when she writes, “Reciprocal recognition entails the acknowledgment that the self and other are the kinds of beings entitled to make judgments of this sort and that one had better take the judgment of the other in good faith” (79). The most generous reading I can give of this premise is that it drastically limits the scope of Farneth’s project regarding reciprocal recognition to well-intending and prosocially motivated conflicts, where I agree with her that confession and forgiveness are potentially effective rituals for reconciliation. However, narrowing the focus in this way would essentially reaffirm the classical thesis that bad-faith conflicts are fated for an enduring struggle for recognition, because it concedes that bad-faith engagement is already a nonstarter for reciprocal recognition.

To be more human and personal about my objection: I want nothing more than for Farneth’s social ethics to be right. I could not be more sincere about this. I come to Hegel’s Social Ethics not only as a philosopher of religion but also a chaplain and pastoral theologian invested heavily in empathy as a resource for healing social ills. I also believe that Farneth’s reading of what constitutes Hegelian reciprocal recognition may be correct. Reciprocal recognition may truly require good faith, confession, forgiveness, humbly reminding oneself of one’s finitude and fallibility, and “accountability [that] involves forward-looking moral responsibility under conditions of risk and vulnerability” (118). I also believe that cynicism regarding social and structural oppression is often its own form of privilege, where those who are affected least by political violence (e.g., me, a cishet white dude) can be insulated from the consequences of their fatalism. Farneth’s agonistic vision offers a potential antidote, and one that encourages grassroots democratic organizing to boot.

Yet, within our contemporary social and political context marked by the rising tides of authoritarianism and white supremacy—forces that were also present during the US Civil Rights movement—this invitation to risk and vulnerability potentially neglects a far more pressing ethical concern: Much of the time, the “risk” and “vulnerability” we take by trusting in the good faith of investing in the prospect of reciprocal recognition with certain political actors is not just our own. That is, by presuming that all of our political opponents are coming in good faith, we make it easier for bad-faith actors to erode the dignity and protections of persons already in tremendously precarious situations.

When I presume that an alt-right white supremacist troll is acting in good faith, and subsequently concede that “no commitment leads one to be barred from the conversation,” then my decision to grant him a platform allows him to amplify a message that materially threatens the existence of black and brown persons (106). This is not simply because he “thinks [he] argues from incontrovertible principles . . . [but] rejects the claims and commitments of the other,” but rather because the bad-faith troll understands that feigning good faith and then gaslighting his opponents through specious dog whistling is what helps elect authoritarian politicians, who in turn decimate civil liberties and make it easier for him to foment xenophobia and racist scapegoating (103).

Even in examining the Civil Rights movement and the work of Septima Clark, Ella Baker, and the Highlander Folk School, Farneth reads their efforts of nonviolent resistance and democratic organizing as exemplars of labor toward reciprocal recognition. She concludes, “This is not liberal elitism, neo-Leninism, or populism; it is grassroots democracy characterized by conflict and reconciliation” (125). Yet, again, Farneth does not tend to the fact that nonviolent resistance became a popular—though not universal—strategy among civil rights leaders was precisely because their political oppressors refused to come to them in good faith, and the power disequilibrium was and remains so vast that white supremacist forces in the United States have successfully achieved a monopoly over violence itself. One need look no further than the repeated and relentless assassinations of civil rights leaders to glimpse this. In each of those moments—which are merely the tip of the iceberg of white supremacist violence—there was no prospect for reciprocal recognition because there was no good faith to reconcile with; there is no good-faith version of white supremacy or neo-Nazism. That is, the strategies of Septima Clark and Ella Baker were not confession and forgiveness, but a strategic and justified struggle for recognition, one which forced their oppressors to become so brazen and politically visible in their violences that social norms shifted ever so slightly in their lifetimes. Though it may seem like a sober characterization, even describing these conflicts as “agonistic” is, perhaps, revisionistic.

There is, of course, no point in contesting Hegel’s Social Ethics through a parade of horribles. It is obvious from her text that Farneth stands firmly against these malicious political forces, and is laboring tirelessly to develop a coherent understanding of the rituals of reconciliation that will help us resist them.

The question, rather, is whether or not aspiring to Hegelian reciprocal recognition is a viable social ethical framework in a political world where much if not most of the suffering emerges precisely from those acting in bad faith.

To Farneth I would ask, what is the Hegelian social ethical response to the bad-faith troll? And, is that response enough?

  • Molly Farneth

    Molly Farneth


    Response to Capretto

    I am grateful for Peter Capretto’s challenging questions—“What is the Hegelian social ethical response to the bad faith troll? And, is that response enough?”—and the opportunity that those questions offer to clarify related points about different forms of conflict, the structure of domination, and the relationship between means and ends in relational organizing.

    As I argue in Hegel’s Social Ethics, Hegel thinks that conflicts can take many different forms. Some are tragic dilemmas, in which two or more goods are at stake and you can’t pursue one without violating another. Some are culture wars, in which partisans on each side argue from first principles, refuse the principles of the other, and enter into a seemingly interminable stalemate. And some are attempts at domination, in which one person or group is able to exercise power over another person or group with absolute impunity. In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, each of these forms of conflict is characteristic of a particular kind of community, a result of the social structures that characterize that community. In our own milieu, however, we see many of these kinds of conflicts among us—and sometimes elements of each of them in ways that are intertwined.

    As Capretto rightly notes, white supremacists’ attempts to dominate and eliminate people of color, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and others, cannot be analyzed as a culture war-style conflict. This is not a situation in which you have two structurally analogous “sides” to a conflict, each of which refuses to recognize the authority and accountability of the other. The aim of the white supremacists is to secure the relationship that Hegel analyzes as the lord-bondsman or master-slave relation. It is domination, pure and simple.

    Capretto’s question about the bad faith troll is born of his sense that it is domination, rather than culture war, that best characterizes contemporary social and political life, at least in the United States, and that it would be futile at best and damaging at worst for people experiencing grave harms to seek relationships of reciprocal recognition with those who dominate and harm them. Capretto suspects that my account of Hegelian social ethics calls on those who are dominated to extend a hand, in good faith, to those who dominate them. That is not my intention. My discussion of civil rights organizers Septima Clark and Ella Baker is not meant to suggest that Clark and Baker reached out to white supremacists in the spirit of reciprocal recognition. I agree with Capretto that that would be revisionist history. Rather, my point is that Clark and Baker envisioned a movement that emerged from relational organizing, building beloved community and accountable power within their own ranks. They recognized the need to get the social practices and relational and organizational structures right, not least in the social movements and citizens’ organizations that they were creating.

    There are those among us who argue and act in bad faith. This has always been true. It is true now, certainly, and I expect that it will continue to be true in any community of human beings. I have no hard-and-fast rule for how to respond to the bad faith actor. He wouldn’t be the first person I’d try to build a relationship of reciprocal recognition with. But we might try to build practices and structures of accountability in which a person who says one thing but does another or who attempts to deceive and to dominate is held responsible for their prevarications and misuse of power. The focus, in other words, needn’t be on the cultivation of individual relationships (being nicer, or listening better, or trusting more) but on the creation of social structures in which power is shared and accountable. Civil rights organizers like Clark and Baker weren’t trying to play nice with Bull Connor. But they were working to build institutions, foster practices, and forge networks of relationships that might be capable of some broader social, ethical, and political transformation—a transformation in which domination by bad faith actors could be met and countered by non-dominating authority generated by ordinary folks working in concert. And they did, even if their successes were partial and ever at risk.

    The Hegelian social ethical response to the bad faith actor, then, is to build relationships of reciprocal recognition among people of good faith—not because the bad faith actor is likely to come around, but because this is the way to generate authority, to hold each other to account, and to crack open the possibility, however slight, of a more just world.



Rituals and Practice in Hegel’s Social Ethics

Molly Farneth’s Hegel’s Social Ethics offers a lucid, thought-provoking, and instructive interpretation of Phenomenology of Spirit that translates its core ideas into the language of contemporary scholarly discussions about public discourse and the formation of relationships of respect and mutual accountability in democratic societies marked by diversity, conflict, power imbalances, and polarization.

Farneth shows that Hegel’s epistemology and ethics are inseparable (10). In regard to epistemology, Hegel insists that standards for authoritative knowledge are deeply contextual—they emerge out of “the social practices of people who share a form of life” (81). Within these social practices, according to Hegel, “there ought to be rituals and other shared activities in which people recognize each other’s authority and accountability,” leading to “relationships of reciprocal recognition” and thus avoiding “domination and alienation” (81). That is the ethical dimension.

Farneth is among those who favor a non-metaphysical understanding of Hegel’s notion of spirit, defining it as a “collection of norms and norm-generating practices” in a community (6). Normative judgments are both relational (or intersubjective) and situated, and are arrived at in community and through practices of being (in the view of Robert Brandom) “responsible for one’s commitments,” and “responsible to someone or something” (8). These practices are “social practices,” which she defines as “practices of reciprocal recognition,” wherein all involved “recognize one another’s authority and hold one another accountable” (12). This is how domination can be overcome and solidarity forged (2).

Thus, Farneth’s approach embeds the epistemological act of giving authoritative reasons for what one believes and does in the relationships and practices through which communities “instantiate norms and adjudicate conflicts over them” (10). Since these practices usually entail “dynamics of power, exclusion, and domination” (10), understanding and analyzing them is the work of ethics. Her thesis is that “at the heart of Hegel’s social ethics is the idea of reciprocal recognition” (54).

The book explores how, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, “consciousness’s search for the standard of knowledge” is linked to “an account of the relationships and practices that communities ought to create” (11). The various chapters in the later parts of Hegel’s Phenomenology are shown to demonstrate three things: first, that norms are communal and “shaped by actions,” and not fixed or given (34); second, that making judgments cannot be done as an internal act sheltered from the particularity and contingency of the world, but instead requires an intersubjective context wherein subjects take responsibility for their commitments and hold them “open to contestation from other self-conscious subjects” (46); and third, that relationships of domination, assimilation, or violence do not produce genuine recognition (79), and thus rituals of confession and forgiveness can be a path to reciprocal recognition. Farneth argues that Hegel’s way of analyzing the conflicts that arise in the various “shapes of spirit” that emerge in the journey of consciousness from spirit to absolute spirit is relevant for thinking about social ethics today (100). This is because that journey demonstrates how various forms of life fall short in their efforts to “give an adequate account of why their norms, laws, institutions, and practices ought to be binding on them” (5). In his assessments of the limitations of each form of life, Hegel gestures toward practices and rituals through which people might explain and take responsibility for their commitments, come to reconciliation and forgiveness amidst conflict and division, and establish relationships of shared accountability and respect.

Farneth’s book succeeds enviably in offering a fresh, philosophically rigorous, and illuminating interpretation of this difficult work, and in making a convincing case about its relevance for current scholarly debates about how best to grapple with difference, conflict, and ethical questions in a diverse society. But what is particularly promising about this approach, as the subtitle’s reference to ritual suggests, is its insistence that beliefs and practices are intertwined, and that ritual is central to philosophy. This is a particularly important point to make about the work of nineteenth-century European Protestant philosophers of religion, given the extent to which it has become second nature among scholars of religion today to define Protestantism (or Protestant thought) as belief, and to assume that all the elements of Protestant theories of religion can ultimately be reduced to a preoccupation with belief, to the exclusion (even denigration) of practice, ritual, law, kinship structures, or what have you. There are ample reasons to emphasize (and offer a critique of) the Protestant provenance and logic of theories of religion and their distorting effects and imperialistic legacies. Nevertheless, this interpretation of Protestant thought has trained scholars to overlook the social practices (and ideas about social practices) that shaped, informed, and were part of the work of these theorists of religion, and thus potentially misses opportunities for new forms of political analysis and new ways of understanding this intellectual history. Further, it makes Protestantism artificially different than other religions, as if it alone is the religion that is not about practice. Thus, Farneth’s reading of Hegel helps correct and question this pattern, and opens up the path to new insights.

Yet, it is precisely here—on the issue of ritual and social practices—where I want to push Farneth and encourage further precision and development of this aspect of the project. First, while it is laudable to focus on social practices, what these social practices are is not always clear or tangible. Farneth notes that for Hegel, “spirit” refers to the “collection of norms and norm-generating practices that characterize a community” (6) and that the “standard of knowledge emerges from the social practices of people who share a form of life” (81). She follows Brandom in defining social practices as “practices of reciprocal recognition, which include taking responsibility, granting authority, and holding oneself and others accountable” (8, 46–47) and in emphasizing that any social life should entail “ongoing practices of contestation and reconciliation” (9). So, practice seems to refer to giving and asking for reasons, in something akin to how Brandom and Jeff Stout use the term. Farneth tends to speak about “practices of dialectical reasoning” (104), in which persons are (ideally) aware of and explicit about their commitments, norms, standards of knowledge, and notions of authority (103), and offer these in conversation or debate with others.

The problem here is that this sounds more like discourse than practice, or more like a rational conversation about belief than engagement in social practices. Granted, engaging in discourse is a practice, but one might wish here for something that looks a little different, even though fulfilling that wish would indeed be difficult. Any project about public discourse (which is the topic of chapter 6) is going at least partially to undermine its own claim to be about practice, since models of public discourse (at least in the school of thought that Farneth seems to locate herself) are generally predicated on the idea that it is conversations—talking about beliefs and commitments—that will save us. It would be interesting if Farneth were to give a wider range of examples of social practices—granted, this is not an easy task.

Second, I wonder if the argument would benefit from a greater emphasis on the messiness and “irrationality” of practices, rituals, and beliefs. Is it the case that engaging in practices of conversation about commitments and norms is what causes people to change their minds or arrive at a resolution of conflict? Maybe. But I’m not sure that beliefs are at the heart of conflict. (And, presumably, neither is Farneth, since she wants to emphasize social practices from which norms, authoritative knowledge, and ideas about responsibility emerge.) Farneth’s discussion of how views about women’s right to vote gradually changed over time (104) seemed to me to place too much emphasis on argument and conversation, instead of the strategic decisions and alliances, or the unexpected changes or contingent factors that cause political situations to change. Similarly, it may be true (as Farneth suggests) that the abortion debate is polarizing and paralyzing because of the failure of both sides to recognize “the strengths of the other position” (112) or to engage in immanent critique. But it also seems true that the polarizing nature of the issue is not a matter of beliefs. Instead, it may be that by digging more deeply into the social contexts in which different forms of life are located and from which practices of expressing commitments and values and making decisions emerge would be a more promising way of analyzing the situation. And Farneth’s project seems to be interested in exactly this kind of perspective and approach. Developing the focus on social practices and lived contexts in which norms and commitments are shaped might also necessitate a view of persons and communities as less rationally consistent, stable, or transparent to themselves, though still capable of genuine change and genuine care for those outside of their group.

Finally, in regard to conflict and reconciliation in democratic communities (the topic of chapter 7), Farneth poses a set of important and moving questions about how citizens might engage in social practices that do not avoid conflict but also seek to repair divisions (116) and to strive for relationships in which “citizens treat one another as authoritative and accountable” (117). Seeing oneself and others as fallible, worthy of respect, and responsible is indeed a compelling vision for shared democratic efforts to change societies marked by division, deep inequalities, and imbalances in power. Rituals of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and transformation are meant, it seems (in Farneth’s project), to help bring about these relationships. Again, the challenge is to specify what these rituals are or look like, especially rituals or practices that draw people together from groups that otherwise do not mix (due to various forms of segregation or to deeply conflicting political, religious, or cultural styles, values, and commitments), so that one might establish reciprocal relationships across the divisions that mark culture wars in a society. Yet, doing this would seem to necessitate some shared sense of what it means to be responsible, or of what a respectful relationship looks like. Farneth notes that solidarity need not be dependent on total agreement about the good (112). Still, saying “I am responsible” (which is the “notion at the heart of democratic responsibility” [131]), might mean very different and conflicting things to different persons, each of whom is indeed being responsible to their commitments and holding others accountable as well. Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who said she was being responsible to her commitments when she refused to sign marriage licenses of same-sex couples, probably felt that she was holding herself and others accountable. Was she obligated to treat those who disagreed with her as a locus of authority? Am I obligated to treat anyone and everyone as a locus of authority? I think yes, potentially, but I don’t know what this looks like or where it leads, and thus more reflection on social practices that force us to struggle with these experiences and navigate them would be fruitful. Farneth has done an excellent job of suggesting that notions of ritual and practice can challenge us to stretch moral philosophy beyond its typical models for addressing difference.

  • Molly Farneth

    Molly Farneth


    Response to Pearson

    As anthropologists and sociologists have long noted, shared rituals help people to forge solidarity across differences. Hegel intuited this; he was interested in how rituals and other social practices create cohesion within diverse communities and combat people’s alienation from one another and from their institutions. But he was also interested in how people might train a critical eye on their rituals and the norms that those rituals express and engage. If solidarity is not necessarily a good thing (solidarity with whom? and with what norms at play?), how might we think about and enact rituals of reconciliation? Hegel’s account, I argue, requires us to attend to the complex interplay of beliefs and social practices, not in ways that “read” rituals as mere expressions of beliefs, but in ways that allow us to see how the conceptual content of beliefs and the normative content of practices are bound together in ongoing social practices in which that content is specified, enacted, challenged, and contested.

    Discursive practices of reason-exchange are social practices. As Professor Pearson notes, my account of the content and authority of concepts and propositions draws on the pragmatic semantics of Robert Brandom, and it emphasizes what people do when using, or contesting the use of, those concepts and propositions over time. When people give and ask for reasons for their commitments or actions, they are engaging in social practices—by which I mean shared, norm-governed activities. Through these social practices, the normative content of concepts, propositions, and commitments is specified, contested, shifted, and so forth.

    But while I insist that discursive practices are social practices, I don’t mean to imply that all social practices are discursive. Rituals and other social practices do many things, relatively few of which involve discourse, in the sense of giving and asking for reasons or explicitly stating beliefs. In rituals and other social practices, people also express attitudes, emotions, and passions. People change their obligations, entitlements, or other social statuses. They train their habits and dispositions.

    All of these things that rituals and social practices do are relevant when I talk about “rituals of reconciliation.” Hegel points to confession and forgiveness as examples of such rituals. They express beliefs as well as other attitudes (in the book, I argue that they express the participants’ humility and fallibility); they enact a change in status—not just representing but actually enacting and embodying the reconciliation and recognition between the formerly warring partisans; and, presumably, when enacted repeatedly over time, practices of confession and forgiveness also train broader habits of authority-granting and accountability-holding. While confession and forgiveness do involve language, their meaning and effects have little to do with the expression of beliefs or exchange of reasons.

    The performative aspect of rituals is crucial to their role in creating relationships of certain sorts (including relationships of reciprocal recognition). Like other performatives, confession and forgiveness enact something in and through their performance. When a person says, “I confess that . . . ,” they are not reporting on an action that has taken place outside of the ritualized act. If successful, the act changes the obligations and entitlements of the person undertaking it and the people to whom it is addressed. It can change their social statuses, including their relations to one another.

    Pearson asks for a wider range of examples of the rituals and social practices that generate reciprocal recognition, a task that I take up in my next book, on the politics of ritual. For now, let me say a few words about restorative justice practices, which are briefly mentioned in the book. Here I have in mind a range of practices that are intended to restore power to victims, to get offenders to recognize and take responsibility for harms done, and to repair relationships harmed by the offense. Community accountability conferences, peacemaking circles, and related practices are structured, ritualized acts in which participants express grief, anger, remorse, and other emotions and attitudes; shift their obligations, entitlements, and other social statuses with respect to one another; and cultivate dispositions toward de-escalation, humility, accountability. Some restorative justice programs have been explicit about the ritualization of certain elements of the process, such as reintegration rituals that draw on the symbols and processes of other rites of passage in order to enact a person’s return to a relationship or community from which they were estranged. As suggested above, these ritualized acts can change the obligations, entitlements, and social statuses of the people participating in them.

    Without romanticizing restorative justice practices, we might draw on Hegel’s important analysis of the structure of relations and practices of domination and of reciprocal recognition in order to think ethically and politically about them, the norms they engage, and their potential for helping people cope with conflict and harm. That work will need to be far more fine-grained and context-attentive than what I was able to do in Hegel’s Social Ethics, and it must heed Pearson’s reminder that rituals are messy and multivocal. I am very grateful for her careful reading of the book, and her encouragement to say more about ritual, social practice, and how they relate to, and exceed, discourse; I hope she’ll take this response as a deeply appreciative promissory note.


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