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The Originality Paradox (Week 41 of Wisdom)

After learning about Mimetic Theory, we encounter an older idea about the origin of conflict – Hegel’s First Man. I will not summarize either concept here at length, but I will briefly explain what Hegel meant by the First Man.

Before the advent of civilization, primordial man, uncultured and untamed, had a basic need, which gave him dominion over his fellow man, and it was his lack of fear of death. Before economic and social hierarchies defined people’s position in the dominance hierarchy, civilization was divided into masters and slaves, but the masters did not earn their position by virtue of their enterprise or cleverness, but by sheer bravery.

In the primordial battle, where two men fought to the death, the one who proved himself to be more free, more fearless, and therefore, more human, would become master, while the person who was a refuge to his instincts of self-preservation would become slave. The essential battle that took place, was one of recognition. The brave master, by showing his willingness to sacrifice his own life, signaled that he was free – and if his opponent did not get killed, he would provide the master with the recognition that he desperately craved.  Hegel defined human freedom by the propensity to do what one was not biologically programmed to do.

Recognition is the basis of human motivation. And mimesis is a secondary aspect of human motivation, according to Hegel. Girard would disagree. In either case, these ideas should give us a reason to reflect. If it is true that we are deeply motivated by recognition – regardless of whether or not recognition is a mimetic desire, or an original, innate desire – then we are chained, not by personal biases or idiosyncrasies, but by our universal need to be acknowledged by the other, as a free human being.

Herein lies the paradox of recognition. The desire to be perceived as free is a form of imprisonment.

The need to stand out, and to be recognized for standing out, can be explained by two ways, if one of Girard or Hegel is correct. On the one hand, the desire to stand out, is anti-mimetic mimesis – those obsessed with the latest fashion want to signal uniqueness by copying the trends set by others. Yes, another paradox. On the other hand, the desire to be unique is a cry for recognition, to be acknowledged as someone who is sovereign and free. But even the desire to be seen as unique is equivalent to the desire to be seen as free, because you want to prove, that by being different from the masses, you are someone who is capable of making their own free, decisions.

In A Beautiful Mind, there is a pen ceremony in which John Nash and a professor have a conversation as they watch. The professor asks, “what do you see John?” Nash replies, “recognition” the professor then states “try seeing accomplishment” wherein Nash questions, “is there a difference?”

The dialogue shows us that Nash does not differentiate between recognition and accomplishment. If you do not accomplish anything, then why would you gain recognition?

This says something fundamental about human beings. Without other people, man cannot accomplish anything. It is only through recognition that an accomplishment can be celebrated. And it is only through an accomplishment that recognition can exist.

For Hegel, a person cannot become self-conscious without being recognized by other human beings. Man was, from the start a social being. His sense of self-worth and identity is intricately connected with the value that other people assign to him. While animals are social, their behavior is from instinct and based on the mutual satisfaction of natural needs. A monkey desires a banana, not the desire that belongs to another monkey. Kojeve explains that only a man can desire “an object perfectly useless from the biological point of view (a medal, an enemy’s flag).

The obvious question to ask: Is such a fundamental yearning for recognition harmful or beneficial to human beings. The answer to which is complicated. The desire for recognition has, at the same time, created everything that we value in civilization, while resulting in countless deaths and endless destruction. On an individual level, the desire for recognition has created meaning in her life, while at the same time, has driven her towards self-destructive and often futile goals.

But recall that Hegel says that the basis of our personal freedom is our yearning for recognition, which allows us to transcend our animalistic state. What is required is to transcend our human state, and to go beyond recognition  – to be able to construct meaningful goals, not in the name of a flag, a piece of paper, or an award ceremony, but our free choice of which models are worth emulating, and what price is worth paying. In the end, we are not free to choose whether or not we want to emulate a model. True originality is not an option.

But we can choose which standards of behavior are most attractive, rational, and meaningful. And we can choose what we are willing to sacrifice in the service of these ideals.   

4 replies on “The Originality Paradox (Week 41 of Wisdom)”

“Herein lies the paradox of recognition. The desire to be perceived as free is a form of imprisonment.”

It’s not a paradox, and it’s not imprisonment either.

The way the logic works is that the *very existence* of self-consciousness *is recognition*, self-consciousness of self-consciousness. This cannot be achieved by consciousness of my own consciousness, for this does not properly make the freedom and desire inherent to self-consciousness present in the observation of self-consciousness. A consciousness only becomes self-consciousness when opposed by a consciousness through which 1) consciousness is aware of itself by being aware the other is aware of it, 2) aware that the other is aware of the first being aware of it, and 3) both aware that the other is aware of it being aware of the other aware of it. Since consciousness is desire, and what satisfies desire is negation, and since no object of consciousness can survive negation by consciousness or another except for self-negating consciousness which survives through this self-negating, it is the case that the only enduring satisfaction of desire is recognition as the state of absolute self-negation *as recognition.* Why? Because Self-consciousness of self-consciousness is the actual existence of self-consciousness, and this necessarily involves two individual self-consciousnesses in relation to each other. This is not their bondage to each other, but the very ground of all else they can achieve. It is a relation much like your body to your will: it is not a fetter, but the very realization of your will in the natural world. Your need for a body is not an imposition, it is the very way you interact with the world in the first place, and without it you are not capable of doing anything at all.

Self-consciousness needs recognition because that is what it already is. If it did not need it it would not be self-consciousness, it would be mere consciousness and less than Spirit (animal at best). Then it would be unfree because it is alienated from its world and is faced with an infinite and endless sequence of others which never present consciousness to itself. It would be incapable of overcoming desire (natural or psychological), it would not rise to self-determination and knowing what itself and freedom essentially are.

I think I understand your point. You are saying that self-consciousness, by definition, requires others to be conscious of it. If this does not happen, it would not be self-consciousness.

But why? Is it not sufficient for you to be conscious of your own being for you to be considered self-conscious?

In other words, I don’t see the tautology that you are trying to draw here. You are implying that self-consciousness is impossible without sociability. Now, I do not disagree that an unsocialized human being is more like an animal and perhaps less self-conscious than a socialized human being, but to conclude that an unsocialized human being is completely devoid of self-consciousness is not obvious to me.

It seems to me, that there would at least need to exist a minimum level of self-consciousness for a human being to be able to interact with other human beings, and this self-consciousness must be the product of biology, it must exist prior to any socialization not a result of it.

Imagine a woman is stranded on an island at a young age, she has not socialized with anyone yet. Somehow, she survives by eating plants and following her instinct. At the age of 6, she stares into still water and sees a reflection of herself. Would this not be enough to make her self-conscious?

A being has to be capable of self-consciousness for it to become self-conscious, but it can fail to become such. Someone like Donald Trump, a narcissist, is normally not self-conscious in that they don’t recognize most people as self-conscious either.

No, the girl would not be self-conscious. The reason is that the essence of a human being does not appear as an object in that scenario, i.e. freedom as existent does not appear for itself and does not satisfy us. Hegel actually addresses this in his critique of the I=I as not being true self-consciousness, it does not have the content necessary for it. To understand what it is to be self-conscious and to be spirit as free we have a need to experience the consequence of this freedom as a free being that faces us not as a hypothetical of our own imaginations about ourselves. Experiencing this other as one that has its own independent goals, desires, internal life, and which cannot be forced to relate to us in any way is essential for us to understand that this mutual free relation, the self-in-other, is part of our essence. This existent freedom of the other is also the ultimate satisfaction of desire as desire of desire, the desire to be desired by an equal, a satisfaction of desire that originates in the self-negation of the other (absolute negativity as freedom) where they accomplish what you desire on their own will. Further, this free relation and our need for it reveals to us our essentially social nature in the fact that this is the ultimate satisfaction which is inexhaustible, i.e. that the love of friendship is the highest value.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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