Recognition of the self and other is the most important humanist struggle of our age. How do we recognize others? How do we recognize ourselves? What categories and concepts do we use to inform this recognition?



The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is an oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci (c 1508).

Recognition is essentially human but it is a hard won feeling. Recognition is not an automatic outcome of one person making some decision about who and what the other is. This type of recognition is important, that I might see a human as different from a chair is typically how recognition is discussed, particularly in robotics. Nancy Fraser has talked about ‘recognition politics’ that is the political discourses of identity and difference ‘I want to be recognized for my essential difference or identity’. These issues are important but I believe miss the most important aspect of recognition. True recognition is built on love.

I propose a dialogical model of recognition based on the fundamentals of human bonding. The person we first recognize is our caregiver (often the mother but not always the case) it is in the eyes of the mother that we find our first reflection. In this reflection we build up a model of ourselves and the other. If no one has sufficiently recognized the child in a loving way,  the child will grow into an adult who can not recognize themselves, they may continually search in their adult relationships for a substitute to recognize them. They may live a life in longing and looking for the one who will provide this loving recognition. They may live life conforming to the whim of others, or feel disconnected from others (unable to really connect with another human being in an intimate way). Recognition is fundamental to become fully human.

Let us use the example of gender to illustrate these points. When ‘man’ looks at the world around him, he sees his reflection in it, he has an image of God (a man), a philosopher (man) an artist (man) and a scientist (man), all the creators are men. If the cultural world is a mirror of humanity, in this man sees his glory. This is not the case for women. Women are prevented from recognizing themselves in a cultural mirror. This is why Mary is such an important figure in theology and arguably for women. In fact, Mary reveals something profound about recognition. It is Mary’s love that created Jesus, she loved him so much that he grew into the first Human Subject, a man who was able to come into his own authority and his own right. But Jesus sacrificed himself for humanity – this vision of sacrifice is actually connected to Mary. Jesus really sacrificed himself for Mary (humanity was the substitute). Children who do not receive enough love from their caregivers when they are children begin to parent their parents, they begin to care for their parents. Children who have not sufficiently received love, some believe, do not come into their authority as adults. I have no doubt that Mary loved Jesus (which is why he was able to come into his authority) but the story of Jesus and Mary tell us about the human condition in general and the importance of the primary relationship.

 To be fully recognized means to be loved exactly as you are and to be loved in all your vulnerability and weakness. A person that cannot love another in their suffering cannot fully recognize the self or the other. In the absence of this, a distortion of the other occurs. True love is only possible when one has experienced unconditional love and recognition.

 I end by referring to the painting of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne by Leonardo da Vinci. I think what is beautiful and profound about this image is that da Vinci might have had a point that each child needs two mothers, one birth and one other to become whole.


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