Theorising recognition and identity – Fellows’ seminar by Robert Vosloo

12 April 2023

“Over the last three decades, the concept of recognition has attracted sustained and widespread interest in social and political thought. Following the pioneering writings of Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth in the early 1990s, much has been written on how the notion of recognition is vital for conceptualising many of today’s conflicts and contestations over identity and difference,” said Robert Vosloo of the Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University. “Given that recognition is a crucial human need, the ‘struggle for recognition’ has also found expression – amidst experiences of non-recognition, misrecognition and uneven recognition – in protest movements against the systemic persistence of racism, sexism, homophobia, cultural chauvinism and other harmful strategies of othering.”

STIAS Fellow Robert Vosloo during his seminar on 4 April 2023

Vosloo’s project, which will result in a book titled Redeeming identity – A theology of recognition, engages with the notion of recognition as a crucial moral, political and theological category.

“The demand for recognition and identity is a growing concept globally, recognition is a key word of our time,” he said.

He began by explaining that “recognition has a plurality of meanings which often leads to confusion and conflation”.

French Philosopher Paul Ricoeur identified 23 meanings but Vosloo focused in on two broad meanings – recognition as identification and recognition as acknowledgment. He explained that recognition as identification is about identifying or not identifying and also applies to objects and other creations. In Afrikaans it is herkenning – with the idea of ‘re’ being important. He pointed to an example in the Biblical narrative – when Joseph becomes Prince of Egypt his brothers don’t initially recognise him.

“The second meaning is recognition as acknowledgement and affirmation. Carrying an evaluative aspect – you recognise by giving authority to. In Afrikaans erkenning.”

Again pointing to a Biblical example, Vosloo highlighted that in the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene identifies Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane but also affirms who he is by addressing him as ‘My Teacher’.

“The Zulu greeting Sawubona – means ‘I see you’ – encompassing both identifying and affirmation.”

Indicating some of the theorists and writers who have been influential in this area in recent years Vosloo mentioned political scientist and economist Francis Fukuyama, and philosopher and critical theorist Nancy Fraser. He focused on German philosopher Axel Honneth’s 1992 work – The struggle for recognition – The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts – which emphasised that the struggle for recognition is at the centre of social conflicts, pointing to the need for more than equality and respect of dignity through rights and self-esteem. “In his 1992 essay Multiculturalism and the politics of recognition Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor highlighted that in an increasingly multicultural world contemporary politics turn on the need for recognition.”

However, Vosloo also called attention to the need to challenge a view that does not take cognisance of unequal power relations and structural injustices, as well as to problematise the concept of recognition. “Recognition discourses often presuppose and solidify inherent social pathologies in oppressive contexts by not sufficiently taking cognisance of destructive power relationships and concrete socio-historical realities of structural inequality and injustice,” he explained.

Challenges of recognition within context

Vosloo turned to a detailed analysis of the 2021 Booker Prize-winning South African novel – The Promise by Damon Galgut to illuminate both the promise and ambivalence of recognition within a specific political and historical landscape.

The novel tells the story of a white Afrikaner family living on a smallholding outside Pretoria centring around a promise made to give ownership of the house she occupies to their black domestic worker. “It demonstrates how over generations the promise is not kept by the family,” said Vosloo.

The novel is structured around four funerals that occur at key moments in South Africa’s past from the 1980s to now, as well as detailing the religious traditions and personal crises that underpin them. In so doing it highlights both the consequences of too much recognition as well as non- and misrecognition, and the impact of power imbalances and systemic lack of respect for recognition and identity. “The novel amplifies the limits of an account of recognition that neglects systemic and structural injustices,” said Vosloo.

“Although the black domestic worker – Salomé – raised the three children and cared for the dying mother, for the most part she is invisible – physically and emotionally misrecognised and disrespected. She has no fully narrated inner life and the disenfranchisement and misrecognition does great harm”

Drawing on the work of historian and political theorist Cillian McBride, Vosloo pointed to the challenges of recognition within power relations and deeply entrenched structural and social inequality.

“Some of the characters want to make good on the promise but the apartheid apparatus makes it illegal,” he said. “But even when this changes, the promise is still not kept – showing that the heart of the problem lies deeper.”

He indicated that this deeper pathology of recognition especially within the colonial context was examined in detail by Frantz Fanon and more recently by American author bell hooks and philosopher Kelly Oliver.

Vosloo emphasised three aspects. “Firstly, the need to recognise our common humanity and our particular identity traits; secondly, situating mutual recognition within the creative tension between structure and gesture, between justice and grace; and, thirdly, highlighting the fundamental importance of ‘being recognised’ and how this may transfigure vision and action.”

He explained that the project aims to call attention to the ambivalence of recognition, pointing out how within colonial contexts accounts of recognition often presuppose rather than challenge inherent pathologies within oppressive cultures. “I argue for an embodied and historicised account of recognition. Central to this is the attempt to build, in the words of Paul Ricoeur, a bridge between the poetics of love and the prose of justice. Or differently put, to reconfigure the notion of recognition in the tension between gesture and structure, between grace and justice.”

“By the end of the novel there is a gesture to agapé in the last embrace between Salomé and Amor (the youngest daughter) – an act of recognition, naming and gratitude. There is also the idea of transformation as Amor returns to a hill where she was struck by lightning as a child and gains new perspectives, a new vision and action. There is acceptance that the past is never buried completely, but the last word is not paralysis but about openness to the future.”

In closing, Vosloo emphasised that identity cannot be reduced to identity politics. “We need to recognise the common humanity but also the particularity and irreducibility of the other. ‘The brother in the other but also the other in the brother. The sister in the stranger and the stranger in the sister.”

“Responsible thinking in our context is important. Re-cognising and reframing are important. Recognition needs to be dealt with on an institutional level,” he added. “And there is a need for enabling spaces for these conversations.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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