For Hegel, consciousness craves recognition. I want to be recognized by others for who I am. This is a tricky concept, since to figure out recognition we have to know what is the I, the self, that is being recognized.
The self is not:
- Just the thing that we refer to when we say ‘I’. For Hegel, this is an empty universal. The ‘I’ can refer to any ‘I’, and therefore does not have any particular content.
- Nor can we add predicates to the ‘I’, because predicates, as language, is also universal. When I say that I am an impulsive person, though I am predicating, adding specificity, to this I that I am referring to, I nevertheless cannot escape universality. “Impulsivity” is also general.
The self is:
- Confused. A medley of emotions and sensations and thoughts. It is always in movement, constantly splitting within itself and changing.
- Being-for-another. The self is never a self by isolation, but exists for other people, in relation to them, and ultimately, understands itself through their recognition of oneself. One wants recognition partly to know who I am, to be sure that I exist.
- Both the particular and the universal. The particular is your individual inclinations, personalities, dispositions, interests, the concrete actions you take; the universal is your duty, the laws you follow, the language that you use.
Action is the perfect example of the splitting of the self. I act because I have a duty, whether human or divine, to be a good citizen, a good son, or a good person. But I also act because I am a particular person pursuing my particular interests. Each action is an intermix of the two, and can be explained by both of them. Therefore we are necessarily hypocritical from the other’s perspective, whether we are acting because of duty or because of our personal gain. (Example: Helping a old lady cross the street. I am doing it because I have the duty to help others, but I am also doing it because it will make me feel good, or make me look good in front of others.)
From here, there is a way for us, self-consciousness, to gain recognition. That is, through confession. Confession is in talking to an other in taking off one’s mask of hypocrisy. To try to articulate, as best as I can, my own motivations. In this, we relinquish our particular position to ourselves and stands in the position of the universal from which we view ourselves as we try to understand ourselves in order to let others understand us. From here, is the possibility of recognition. The recognition can happen either by the other recognizing me—two self-consciousnesses recognizing each other as the ultimate Hegelian happy ending—or by myself recognizing myself in the process, and advance through here.
Confession is a saving possibility from the solipsistic world that self-consciousness finds itself in. It lies, ultimately, in thinking and writing and speaking about oneself towards an other (imagined or real) in service of the Delphic “Know Thyself”. The know thyself is already a recognition, for it posits two sides in the self, the knower and the known. (The same is in Emerson’s self-reliance: one has to split into two, each relying on each other.)
In fact, it may be a better thing to confess in fiction. Žižek said something very true when he claimed that in fiction, in cinema (being the art form that he loves best), we are able to access parts of the self that is normally inhabited by the Symbolic (as language/customs/unconscious-inhibitions, as the Heideggerian “One”/”They”, as the Lacanian “Big Other”).
So, go and do some writing. Now.