Researched Works

Recognition as a Vital Human Need

A person’s birth certificate, a job applicant’s résumé, a performer’s award nomination, a non-profit organization’s advocacy, a state government’s membership in the United Nations (UN) are examples of a common theme – recognition. Even the use of a symbol, a letter, and a word, as well as appreciating the life of non-human species or in supporting a policy to go to war, is a form of recognition that an individual or a group of people provides. It becomes apparent then that recognition is a human activity that affects society. Similarly, society or its culture can influence such activity and its consequences.

The Political Nature of Recognition

In “Politics of Recognition” (1994), Charles Taylor explains the evolution of recognition and why it has become a political discourse. He situates the essence of recognition in a broad spectrum that cuts across individual, familial, communal, institutional, national, and global levels. He classifies these into two: the personal/intimate/private plane and the social/cultural/public realm. To expound on the nature of and the human need for recognition, he cites its underlying ideals, principles, and dogmas: e.g., identity, authenticity, multiculturalism, liberalism, collective goals, and politics of equal respect and difference, among others.

Recognition and Self-Identity

Taylor notes that recognition is closely linked to the concept of identity. On a personal aspect, each individual acquires a sense of identity through the recognition given by one’s significant others who care about his or her existence and survival. Through dialogue, a person can overtly and internally negotiate his or her identity: “My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others” (p. 34). A loved one’s nurturing recognition results in a person’s awareness of who he or she is and what he or she can or cannot do. It is this “dialogical character” that can make and sustain a person’s identity, as it enables him or her to adopt verbal and non-verbal languages of self-expression (p. 32). However, without judicious insight or reflection, Taylor cautions that such relationship can lead to over-dependence or a struggle against “the things our significant others want to see in us”; thus, such relationship with significant others should be fulfilling, not defining self-identity (p. 33).

By quoting Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s "le sentiment de l'existence” (feeling of existence) and identifying Herder’s idea of personal measure (pp. 29-30), Taylor asserts that “Our moral salvation comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves” (p. 29). He then emphasizes not only the social nature of every human being, but also the extent of the role other people and the larger society play in defining what being human means and in recognizing the worth of every individual.

External Factors of Recognition

The divide between the intimate-familial and socio-cultural dimensions of recognition becomes more pronounced as a person realizes that his or her identity can be either formed or damaged by external forces like norms or standards that one’s society or culture perceives as acceptable or not. As Taylor observes, these externally generated ideals, are not always aligned with self-generated ones (pp. 32-33). Yet, the social plane is essentially a web of interacting personal planes which – as mentioned earlier – are influenced by significant others whose individual identities have also been effected and affected by both intrinsic and extrinsic forces.

Moreover, each group or community is comprised of several identities whose respective ideals may or may not conform with the dictates of the majority. Thus, recognition is a by-product of interaction between an individual and his or her society, between one group and the greater public. The absence or lack of which, as Taylor argues, “can inflict a grievous wound, saddling its victims with a crippling self-hatred” which is the case for oppressed genders, races, and colonized populations (pp. 25-26).

Politics of Equality and Recognition

The discourse on recognition also involves the politics of equal dignity or equal respect that tends to be blind about individual uniqueness in a multicultural public sphere. Taylor posits that this kind of politics “can't accommodate what the members of distinct societies really aspire to, which is survival” (pp. 60-61). This implies politics of difference: i.e., “Everyone should be recognized for his or her unique identity” (p. 38).

Taylor asserts that in spite of differences – “...we owe equal respect to all cultures” (p. 66), especially their contributions that “complement each other” (p. 71). Demanding to be recognized then means reclaiming the right to be true to oneself, an ideal of authenticity that has been made inferior by hegemonic social ideals. This highlights the need for individuals, especially in a liberal society “with strong collective goals” to appreciate, understand, and respect human diversity like in the case of Canadian Charter (pp. 59-60).

Taylor points out that recognition should value both the potential that every human or culture has (p. 41) and what a person, a group, or a culture has achieved with said potential (p. 42). Moreover, people and cultures demand and deserve “due recognition”, for it not only helps shape identity (pp. 25-26), but it also shields an individual or a group from experiencing undue “inequality, exploitation, and injustice” (p. 64).

The Gist of Recognition

As can be gleaned from Taylor’s essay, the quality of recognition may or may not help form a strong identity either as a person or as a collective. It can also lead to either enjoyment or struggle to address deprivation of rights and privileges. What seems to be the bottom line in the “Politics of Recognition” is that recognition is a human need because it is vital to survival. It is integral to competing for power to secure rights and privileges, as well as to gain access to limited resources controlled by influential external forces.

Work Cited

Taylor, Charles. “The Politics of Recognition”. Multiculuralism Examining the Politics of Recognition. Ed. Amy Guttman. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994: 25-73. Print.


Written by Leann Zarah (leannzarah@gmail.com)

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