Andy Blunden. December 2007

The Missing Mediation in
Pragmatic Interpretations of Hegel

There is good reason to seek a ‘non-metaphysical’ interpretation of Hegel’s notion of ‘Spirit’ which will allow us to appropriate Hegel’s considerable insights without committing us to an extramundane Spirit. Hegel’s idea of a Spirit animating human history is not as alien to our thinking today as one might think. Following Herder [1774] in particular, Hegel wanted to understand why and how a people had one history rather than another. What was the source of the specific culture and institutions of each people? And why those rather than any other? [Hegel 1804 and 1795] Anyone who wants to understand social change and cultural difference today has to be concerned with these same questions, and Hegel’s ideas on how the spirit of the times and the spirit of a people is constructed are very rich.

Hegel’s idea of a Gestalt, or ‘shape of consciousness’ [Hegel 1807] is the key. A Gestalt is simultaneously a certain way of thinking, a certain way of life or social system if you like, and a certain material culture.[1] Spirit is the coincidence or identity of these three things, and nothing outside of that. So ‘Spirit’ is the ‘nature of human beings en masse’ [Hegel 1821: 163] as he said. Looked at in this way, surely it is not too difficult to read Hegel in such a way that Spirit is not presupposed,[2] but is purely and simply the coincidence of thinking, social practice and material culture. Such a reading I would call a non-metaphysical conception of Spirit; i.e., a ‘pragmatic’ reading of Hegel, a reading which opens Hegel up for an appropriation of his prodigious insights, without the unwanted baggage of an extramundane, Hermetic or Pantheistic Spirit.

It is the concept of ‘recognition’ which is invariably used as the basis for a ‘narrowly pragmatic’ appropriation of Hegel’s notion of Spirit.[3]

The concept of ‘recognition’ was first used by Hegel’s predecessor, Fichte [1796], to make a pragmatic critique of Kant: individuals learn that they are free beings when they are recognised as a free being by someone who is already free, summoning them to exercise their freedom and respect the other’s property rights. The Young Hegel continued this pragmatic use of ‘recognition’, but in reverse; according to Hegel, Fichte had deduced the state from the individual, but what was required was to approach the nature of the individual from the nature of the whole community. [Hegel 1817] ‘It is in the kind that the individual animal has its notion’, said Hegel [1830: 41]. But the relation of the mentality of an individual person to that of the community of which they are a part differs from that of an individual organism to its species, because spirit is ‘self-construing’ – the environmental niche or object to which the individual or group is oriented is its own product, its own material culture. If the role of this material culture is erased from the relation between individuals, there can be no ‘self-construing’ Spirit.

Up until 1805, Hegel gradually expanded the scope of the concept of ‘recognition’, but by 1805 it had lost its original focus and meaning. ‘Recognition’ no longer referred to a confrontation between two mutually alien subjects, but for example, to an individual’s experience of seeing their product circulate in the market or an individual experiencing protection under the rule of law [Hegel 1806: 120]. So from 1807, Hegel limited the scope of recognition and gave it its paradigmatic exposition in the master-servant narrative of The Phenomenology [Hegel 1807].

It is a misreading of this rendering of ‘recognition’, sometimes combined with the expanded scope of ‘recognition’ in the earlier works, which provides the basis for what I will call a narrow pragmatic reading of Hegel, commonly referred to as ‘intersubjectivity’, as opposed to a broad pragmatic reading, which I defend here.

The aim of pragmatism is to do away with recourse to abstractions or universals deemed to have some kind of objective existence independently of the activity of human beings. The distinction between ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ pragmatism is as follows: -

Narrow pragmatism wants to explain everything solely by means of essentially unmediated interactions between individuals. This would reduce social life and history to a gigantic chain reaction, a discrete series of events without any kind of continuity binding them together other than the individuals themselves. The idea that meaning is renegotiated anew in the interaction between individuals overlooks both the fact that meaning is already vested in culturally inherited artefacts, and that as material things, relations inhering in artefacts transcend the intentions of the individual using it. This narrow pragmatism corresponds to the spirit of liberalism which was given its canonical expression by Johann Fichte [1796].

Broad pragmatism, on the other hand, understands that all interactions are mediated. Mediation between subjects depends on the prior existence of a material culture which is subject to interpretation and use in common projects or conflicts. Without this shared culture, inherited and modified by each generation, no human life is possible. It is this role of material culture which is systematically ignored by liberalism in general and narrow pragmatism in particular.

For Hegel, every relation is mediated. At the very beginning of the Science of Logic [Hegel 1816: 68] he says: ‘there is nothing, nothing in Heaven, or in Nature or in Mind or anywhere else which does not equally contain both immediacy and mediation’. This is absolutely fundamental to what Hegel has to teach us. Even the concept of ‘Being’ is mediated by all the social development that went into making possible the first philosophical reflections of Thales and Parmenides at the beginning of the history of philosophy.

This question of mediation takes us to Hegel’s social and ethical ideas and his vision of modern society. According to Hegel, modernity is a society in which there is no single mandated form of life, and yet people exercise their freedom as individuals thanks to being part of a state. This contrasts with traditional communities, such as Hegel believed existed in ancient Greece, where a single form of life was mandated and an individual was simply an individual instance of their city-state. According to Hegel, modernity presupposes the sublation of many formerly independent communities and the negation of a multiplicity of notions of the good, and ways of seeing things and ways of life into the construction of a common form of ethical life.

The problem is in understanding how such a process can occur, because mutually foreign subjects, with no common language or culture, no trading relations, no shared ethos or religion or law, cannot interact. They are each to the other a wild force of Nature; war to the death or mutual indifference are the only alternatives. Except under certain conditions to be outlined below, unmediated intersubjectivity is an impossibility.

And this is not just a question of cultural origins or pre-history. Exactly the same problem arises whenever new social movements, new natural scientific paradigms, and so on, come on to the scene. Interaction is possible only thanks to mediation. Recognition is about mutually alien subjects or communities or social movements, finding within themselves the resources to interact with one another. This is possible only by the subjects splitting in two.

In his 1803 ‘System of Ethical Life’, [1979] Hegel begins with the origins of consciousness in the separation of needs and the means of their satisfaction. Instead of what is given by Nature being immediately consumed, a gap opens up between consumption and production, and this gap is mediated by labour. Labour itself generates new needs, needs met by new products. Nature is thus supplemented by a ‘second nature’ in the form of an artificial environment; along with the separation of consumption and production comes a division of labour, the possibility of supervision of labour – the differentiation of theory and practice, and most importantly a surplus product.

A self-contained community which produces no surplus, or anything of use to anyone else, which is unable to utilise the labor of others, when confronted by an outsider can only fight to the death. No mystical Kojèvean ‘drive to domination’ is needed here. In the absence of mediation, outsiders are more dangerous than a horde of locusts.

But if a community is able to produce a surplus and is able to supervise their own labour, then they are candidates for conquest and exploitation or they can exploit others. Along with being able to defend themselves in a fight to the death and repel the attack of others, these are the pre-conditions for recognition. These capacities presuppose the self-differentiation of the subject into two, into needs and the means of their satisfaction, into subject and object. If the conquered subject can be incorporated into a system of needs and labour within the life-project of another subject, then the first step towards modernity can be taken.

In order to live in interaction with other subjects, a subject must be able to reproduce itself internally and defend itself against outside attack, either alone or together with others, and receive from other subjects a material affirmation of the validity of its way of life. Such recognition is paradigmatically granted by another subject like itself, but more generally is granted by a subject acting on behalf of a collectivity of subjects by way of inclusion into a family of equals.[4] Such inclusion constitutes recognition and normally provides a multiplicity of forms of mediation not otherwise available.

To reiterate, if there is no shared system of law, language, labour and culture to mediate interactions and no ‘third party’ to mediate, then subjects nevertheless can interact by splitting in two, with the needs of one mediating between the other’s needs and the means of their satisfaction, whilst the labour of the other mediates between the first’s needs and their satisfaction. In other words, the subjects both differentiate into subject-objects, so as to be incorporated into a single project or system of needs and labour, a circumstance, of course, in which one is subordinated into the project of the other, dominant, subjectivity. [Hegel 1807: §§178-196] But as Hegel showed in the Phenomenology, such initial subordination to another form of life proves to be the first step towards modernity.

Two writers will now be considered, to whom others [Honneth, 1996] have turned in search of a foundation in practical social psychology, for a pragmatic reading of Hegel. Firstly, George Herbert Mead. Mead was a part of the Progressive Movement in the United States, close to the American Pragmatists, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce. Mead did no experimental work. But he certainly had brilliant insights, a systematic approach and clearly understood Hegel.

According to Mead [1934], people use symbols to communicate; a ‘significant symbol’ is one which brings about the same effect in another person as it would in oneself. This use of signs is possible because their meaning is public and shared within a whole community. The individual has internalised the practices and institutions of their community and the attitude they take towards others, constitutes social practices both for the self and for the whole community or group.

The paradigmatic symbol for Mead was the gesture; the gesture originates from the initial movements towards some action, what Mead calls adopting an ‘attitude’ and the capacity of the taking of that attitude to generate an appropriate response from another individual. [Mead 1934: 35]

The way Mead dealt with the problem of the formation of self-consciousness, that is, the ability to look at oneself from outside, and take the standpoint of another, parallels Hegel’s solution of this problem. Mead split the self in two, into a ‘I’ and a ‘Me’, in which the ‘I’ is the subject, which is doing something, and observes the ‘Me’ which is the object, which has done something. [Mead 1934: 228] The ‘I’ gets to know about the ‘Me’ mediately, through others, by seeing others taking an attitude to the self and being able to place oneself in the position of the other, and thus to observe oneself, as an object, from the standpoint of the general community.

So by understanding thinking in terms of the use of publicly available, culturally produced and defined artefacts, and by understanding the constitution of self-consciousness, mediately through the splitting of the self into subject and object, Mead made a passably good pragmatic reading of Hegel’s concept of recognition. However, once Mead’s following in the school of Symbolic Interactionism petered out in the 1960s,[5] those who have used Mead’s work in more recent times transformed his theory into one of ‘intersubjectivity’, in which interactions are unmediated interactions between already constituted individual subjects, who, to use Mead’s own metaphor [Mead 1934: 120], like prisoners in neighbouring cells, contrive somehow to send messages to one another. The opening that Mead gave to this interpretation was his choice as paradigmatic artefact, the gesture. The gesture can be taken as a private product, and subsumed into the individual person. In truth, Mead’s conception of mediation, like Hegel’s, was very much of the use of a shared, public, material culture.

But the spirit of the times is stronger than any individual, especially when they’re dead. Without its own organised school of empirical critical research and practice, Mead’s original insights became the property only of specialists in the history of science. But also, as we shall see, Symbolic Interactionism was overtaken in the 1960s by another, kindred current of social psychology.

Another writer who has contributed to a pragmatic interpretation of Hegel is Donald Winnicott. Winnicott’s contribution is special because he came from the tradition of psychoanalysis, which had relied on innate drives rather than cultural-historical construction. Winnicott [1971] described how mother and infant begin tied up in a single system of activity, a single subjectivity, with no separate needs. The relation between the two individuals is mediated by the mother’s breast; the mother must learn how to offer her breast to the child in such a way that it seems to the child that the breast is its own creation. But the two must separate, the mother recovering her own life, and the child becoming a free agent. The mother’s breast, or another ‘transitional object’ such as a teddy-bear or security blanket, mediates this process of diremption. The ‘transitional object’ is an emotion-laden object, which the child holds until it is able to be by itself.

The point here is that this ‘transitional object’ mediates between what will become two self-conscious subjects. In the beginning, they have no means of mediating their relation, not because they are foreign to one another, but because they are undifferentiated. The formation of self-consciousness here also requires a mediating artefact, again it involves delayed gratification and the formation of a system of needs, this time by differentiation rather than merging.

The paradigmatic artefact for Winnicott was the mother’s breast. Again, this choice of a paradigmatic artefact for the exposition of the formation of self-consciousness leaves Winnicott open to a mistaken, ‘intersubjective’ interpretation, in which the mediating artefact, the mother’s breast, being a part of her body, can be subsumed into her personality. Just as with Mead, for Winnicott also, the formation of self-consciousness demands the use of a mediating artefact, but when taken up in recent times to ground a pragmatic interpretation of Hegel, the centrality of the mediating artefact is overlooked and the relation modelled instead on the liberal conception of ‘intersubjectivity’.

In each case, the mediating element is an artefact, but as it happens, paradigmatically a body part. In this context, although could never have grasped this, the human body is rightly considered an artefact, a material product fashioned by human labour and passed on through human history – the body itself, not just uses of the body such as gestures or breast feeding. But beyond the ‘paradigmatic’ artefact; in the case of Mead – mediation between individuals is achieved by ‘significant symbols’, and these significant symbols include writing and all forms of language as well as unconscious gestures. In the case of Winnicott’s ‘object relations theory’ – any kind of artefact can mediate as a ‘transitional object’.

In the ‘System of Ethical Life’, Hegel [1979: 102ff] specifies three types of paradigmatic activity through which the universal is constructed: (1) the use of tools or ‘means of production’, (2) the use of words – ‘the tools of Reason’, and (3) the raising of children. Thus for Hegel, the specific kind of interactions which go to the construction of human society and consciousness involve at least three kinds of mediating artefacts: tools, symbols and the next generation.

Note that Hegel does not conceive of this process as paradigmatically communication; both instrumental action and communicative action are grouped with reproductive action as activities through which Mind is constructed, and the mediating elements through which individuals transform particular activities into universal forms include the entirety of material culture.

Self-consciousness pre-supposes consciousness – the consciousness of a community and its members whose activity is directed at objects, unaware of itself as having one among many possible points of view. The development of self-consciousness presupposes both the capacity of the subject to sustain itself and to produce something of use to others, to have needs which belong to other subjects, and to be able divide within itself and, so to speak, supervise its own activity [Hegel 1807].

It is evident that despite the impenetrability of Hegel’s exposition and the antiquity of his conception, his system is richer than any of the interpretations just mentioned.

In constructing his theory of recognition, Axel Honneth [1996] has misconstrued both Mead and Winnicott in the spirit of liberalism. Honneth [2007] set out to develop Habermas’s [1998] discourse ethics into an ethics of desert, based on individuals’ need for recognition, and using a psychology of intersubjectivity. Honneth has appropriated Winnicott’s analysis of weaning and Mead’s I/Me relation via a notion of recognition appropriated from Hegel. However, because Honneth has erased the mediating element in each case, the result is simply to assimilate some good ideas to a narrow pragmatism.

Honneth renders Winnicott’s model of successful weaning as the first ‘species’ of recognition. Honneth is stretching the concept of ‘recognition’ to cover a supposed ‘love’ relation. Perhaps we could better use Winnicott’s conception of weaning as the paradigmatic process of diremption by means of which a new subject differentiates itself from another and establishes its independence. But neither appropriation can succeed without highlighting the central role of the transitional object – an emotion-laden thing which functions as a symbol of the former subjectivity, emotionally reinterpreted in the process of transition to self-determination. Because Honneth regards this process as a species of ‘recognition’, and so essentially unmediated, he skates over Winnicott’s claim in relation to the transitional objects and sees no opportunity for incorporating the idea of emotion-laden objects in his understanding of love, recognition or diremption. How can you appropriate ‘object relations theory’ without the ‘transitional object’?

Likewise with Mead. By focussing on the ‘I/Me’ relation, Honneth can pass over mediation only because the limiting case of an other’s mediation of a person’s relation to themself is easily mistaken as a dyadic relation between two unitary selves. Likewise, Mead’s paradigmatic significant symbol, the gesture, is easily subsumed into the activity of an individual, eliding its public and cultural meaning. But Mead without mediation is senseless. Nevertheless, this misreading of Mead is in line with many present-day misreadings of Mead [Engström 1987].

But Honneth does not stop there; Honneth uses this model of unmediated transactions between individuals as a paradigm for the construction and enjoyment of rights in a society governed by the rule of law. But this is utterly misconceived. The rule of law is nothing if not the mediation of relations between legal subjects. Individuals do not negotiate between the two of them the laws to which their interactions will be subject. Individuals are born or naturalised into a society whose laws are already in place. Recognition here simply means that they are recognised as a member of the given community. Honneth appropriates not Mead’s general social psychology, but specifically his theory of the self, in support of a concept of recognition as constructive of self-respect through the enjoyment of rights. But the whole point of rights is that the law is ‘blind’ not ‘personal’. Doubtless the idea that the enjoyment of rights, that is to say, inclusion within a community in which citizens enjoy rights and have consented to the norms regulating life within the community, is fundamental to the development of self-respect, but this process is not contingently but essentially mediated and is utterly incomprehensible within a universe constituted by individuals abstracted from the material culture mediating their interactions, the universe of ‘intersubjectivity’.

Having misconstrued Mead and Winnicott in terms of ‘intersubjectivity’, Honneth also misconstrues Hegel, in the spirit of Kant. His appropriation of Hegel’s idea of recognition is complex; he draws both on the over-extended conception of recognition immediately preceding the Phenomenology and the incidental references to recognition in the mature Philosophy of Right. Here Honneth hopes to construct a theory of the distribution of goods in a community by recognition of what a person deserves for their contribution to the community. This, Honneth claims, engenders self-esteem and builds social-solidarity.

Much could be said about this position which is riddled with contradictions, but it is sufficient to observe that the granting of rewards in recognition of contributions to the community is an explicitly mediated process. Not only that, if the process is to be subsumed as a species of recognition, then both the community and the individual must be constituted as subjects. Thus the model of intersubjectivity is over-reached in two ways: firstly, the relation is mediated in its very essence, and secondly one of the parties is a collective subject which begs the whole question of intersubjectivity: for Honneth, it is individual persons not corporate entities who are subjects.

This brings us to Honneth’s reading of Hegel. For Hegel, the participants in recognition relations are essentially subjects and for Hegel a subject is not an individual.[6] The point is how an individual is to become a self-conscious subject, so the presumption that recognition is ‘intersubjectivity’, that is, a relation between individuals, misconstrues everything. Reading Hegel as a tale about individuals coming together to recognise each other and negotiate relations of mutual esteem, etc., etc., is to miss everything that Hegel was about and to impute to him the kind of liberalism that his whole work was directed against.

But Hegel’s conception of subjectivity has something to offer social psychology, something which Mead was well aware of; he offers the prospect of overcoming the gulf separating our understanding of individual psyche and social structure. Hegel’s notion of formations of consciousness manifested in social formations begs for a broadly pragmatic appropriation. Honneth however simply presumes that psychology, and a purely speculative psychology at that, can capture social movements by ‘switching planes’ [Honneth 2007: 345] from individual psyche to social movements and institutions, understood as a large number of people with the same feeling of disrespect or low self-esteem [Honneth 1996: 162].

One final observation: when Hegel said that everything is mediated, he also said that everything is immediate. Social movements and institutions are only constituted by immediate interactions; ideals do not exist in some nether world. But the way universals exist in and through relations between individuals can only be understood by paying attention to how these interpersonal relations are mediated and how an individual’s knowledge of universals is mediated both by the collaboration with other individuals and the material culture that individuals use in their collaboration with each other.

The only current of social psychology which has developed this legacy of Hegel and the early American Pragmatists is the school of Lev Vygotsky, who received their Hegel via Marx in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. They also had the benefit of a visit by John Dewey in 1928 [Prawat 2001]. It is Vygotsky’s following in Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT for short), which offers the really fruitful opportunity to ground a pragmatic reading of Hegel on a real, living school of practical social psychology.

The basic insight of CHAT is that even though the human animal is just a network of stimulus-response reactions, the nervous system allows us to introduce in between a stimulus and a response, what Vygotsky called a ‘psychological tool’ [Vygotsky 1934: v3, 86]. So the single stimulus-response link now has a mediating link. Just as even the most elaborate machine still obeys the laws of physics, this modified nervous system is an artefact, it is constructed.

‘Psychological tools’ originate from collaborative use of objects in the environment. Human beings do not live in a natural environment, we live in a ‘second nature’ made up of artefacts accumulated over generations, and we are oriented to live in this constructed ecological niche. The objects in this artificial environment are given meaning through the collaborative activity of human beings, in which artefacts are used in specific ways. Formally, this is the same as Mead’s idea, but crucially, although Vygotsky more or less agreed with Mead on gestures, for Vygotsky, the gesture was not the paradigmatic artefact. For Vygotsky activity is emphatically mediated by the entirety of material culture, symbolic culture as well the means of production, and the human body. He ascribed no difference in principle for psychology between tools and signs.

Also, as a living, practical scientific current, CHAT has not simply relied on an abstract conception of internalisation, but has systematically traced the series of transformations which an artefact undergoes through its use in the form of an external material object, such as an aide memoire, through to an internal ‘psychological tool’ in the form of a modified nervous system.

From the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s the American and Soviet schools worked in isolation from one another. Whereas Mead’s psychology had been dispersed and under the pressure of the spirit of the times, ceased in fact to be a significant influence in a practical social psychology which was now dominated by theories of ‘intersubjectivity’, Vygotsky’s legacy had had the benefit of systematic testing and critique, albeit in isolation, and a whole series of figures have further developed Vygotsky’s original ideas.

Now that it is a worldwide current, modernist prejudices which had affected the Soviet school have been subject to critique from the social movements in the West, much to the benefit of social psychology. On the other hand, the conditions of its existence have largely meant that its own origins in Marx and Hegel and its commitment to social transformation have to some extent been suppressed.

This conjuncture offers great opportunities for a fruitful re-connection of Hegel with practical social psychological research.


Engeström, Yrjö, 1987, Learning by Expanding: An Activity-Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research, Helsinki: Orienta konsultit.

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1. Commonly a Gestalt is described as a unity of a social formation and its way of thinking, omitting the third element, the corresponding material culture. However, the importance of the material culture is made abundantly clear in the earlier ‘System of Ethical Life’ and there is no reason to suppose that anything had changed in Hegel’s thinking in this respect between 1804 and 1807.

2. It is only from 1805-6 that Hegel presents ‘Spirit’ as something that pre-exists history and is ‘manifested’ in history; up until 1803-4, ‘Spirit’ or ‘Idea’ is a product of human activity itself and an outcome of history, not its presupposition, and Hegel never completely abandons this stance.

3. Apart from the work of Axel Honneth considered here, Robert R. Williams is possibly the most consistent example of those who advocate this approach.

4. ‘Recognition’ or Anerkennen in German, at the time was used in international law in the sense of recognising a state’s claim to sovereignty, thus including them in the family of nation-states. In English, the term originates from 14th century Scottish law meaning the recovery of land alienated by an estate: re-co-gnate, or ‘brought (back) into the family’.

5. A Society and a Journal for Symbolic Interactionism (SI) continues to this day, but in the judgment of this writer the tendency is no longer a pole of attraction or focus of the work of its adherents, and moreover SI is exclusively of interest to sociologists and not psychologists. Yrgö Engström (1987) agreed with this assessment in his review of currents of social psychology.

6. The practice of using the word ‘subject’ in the Kantian sense which is more or less equivalent to what Hegel calls ‘person’ but presuming that Hegel shares Kant’s concept of ‘subject’ and reading Hegel accordingly, is now a widespread, especially amongst Critical Theorists. See the Philosophy of Right (Hegel 1821) for Hegel’s explanation of the difference, and the Science of Logic (Hegel 1816) for an exhaustive exposition of Hegel’s mature view of the subject.