Doxtader, Erik. “The Faith and Struggle of Beginning (with) Words: On the Turn between Reconciliation and Recognition.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 40.1 (2007): 119-46. Print.


The article addresses the concepts of reconciliation and recognition, especially in relation to the domains of philosophy and rhetoric. The divorce of philosophy from rhetoric was said by Theodor Adorno to be akin to barbarism, and the title of the journal under review would seem to express a conciliatory interest–“Philosophy AND Rhetoric.” Looking to the violence of some political situations, it would seem that recognition must precede reconciliation. The example is adduced of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Keywords: reconciliation, recognition, apartheid, conflict resolution, identity politics, bare life, hegel, charles taylor, relationality, becoming


  • D. notes that reconciliation and recognition are both words that folks place a lot of faith in.  That faith represents the hope of “a new beginning,” a transformation, , a release from the master-slave dialectic, and a creation of friendship (119-20).  These two terms are also the “grounds and focus” over how to promote “democratic pluralism, foster democratization, and repair the wounds wrought by gross violations of human rights” (120).
  • Recognition: grasping an object with the mind and understanding that the subject is in debt or gratitude in some way for something[1. D. claims that “Both an action and judgment, recognition is an event that may grant a kind of status, attribute worth to historical experience or interest, commend a form of life, engender dignity, confess transgression, or honor an individual’s value.”].  This understanding of recognition relies on Charles Taylor’s claim that recognition is a “basic human need” that constitutes and secures an authentic identity (123).  Yet, this desire for recognition could be seen as a hindrance – an obstacle to recognition of a mutually shared life-world [2. Think of Hardt & Negri’s critique of identity politics as a representation of this view.].
  • Reconciliation:  a way to reconstitute the commons and refigure the common good.  Reconciliation often appears as a transformative power that is often viewed as a gift or a “unjustified offer of renewal made in the name of breaking (self) negating cycles of violence” (124).  Reconciliation also asks for individuals to become other – displacing self-interest toward the interest of the common [4. This common itself is a place of conflict for critics of reconciliation – fighting over “what counts as peace, how it can be created, and the ways in which it might be sustained” often fuel this sort of conflict (124)].  D. claims that these terms are conceptually distinct because of their rhetorical potential – or their ability to initiate different forms of argument and performance.  These actions typically set the two in opposition to one another.
  • Reconciliation is a dangerous proposal if recognition doesn’t happen first.  In other words, you can’t reunite if you don’t legitimate a group that has been subject to abuse and divided by violence.
  • Method:  don’t consider the terms as definitional; rather, consider the terms through a reflection of the ways that each calls forth the other (122).
  • D. claims that the conflict between reconciliation and recognition can be traced to Hegel’s grappling with the two terms in his own work[5. Hegel’s early work was concerned with reconciliation while his later work centered around reciprocal recognition.].  D. claims that Hegel’s treatment of the terms reveals a sense of potential: “Far from an accomplishment and standing in excess of (identitarian) law, reconciliation and recognition strive for the (be)coming of those relations that do not disavow the impossibility of their ‘end’” (126).
  • D locates the potential between reconciliation and recognition in the ways that each use words to create and hinder relation making.  As he notes, “The issue is not what the relationship is but what abides in the play between the words that hold the potential of their relational gestures” (127).
  • D. claims that the South African Truth & Reconciliation commission offer four different interpretations of the linkages and connections between recognition and reconciliation.  D. claims that the bind between reconciliation and recognition in this context is a question of their “constitutive violence” or mutual violence on one another (128).
  • Findings from the TRC: first, early TRC documents and hearings posited that recognition is the basis for moving toward or achieving reconciliation; second, TRC’s final report argues that reconciliation is a precondition and foundation for recognition; third, recognition has the capacity to thwart reconciliation; fourth, reconciliation can often confound recognition (130-6).
  • According to D., both recognition and reconciliation are at odds because they both invite words in situations that are really at the limit of language.  In other words, “the problem is that reconciliation and recognition call for speech in the name of fashioning relationships that have been foreclosed or rendered violent by a deprivation or lack of voice, the deterrence of expression, and the distortion of speech” (137).

Key Quotes:

In this essay, I pursue the relationships between these relation-making goods across both “fields.” Initially, I reflect briefly on the difficult meaning of these concepts and make a case for how critical accounts have tended to construct and rely on an “ambivalent distinction” between reconciliation and recognition. A reflection of the Hegelian legacy to which many of these positions owe a substantial debt, this dynamic suggests that the conceptual relationship  between reconciliation and recognition may be held in their rhetorical potential, a form of power that was constituted, deployed, and troubled by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Thus, from an early moment of testimony that was presented to the Commission and which posited a normative relationship between recognition and reconciliation, I move to the TRC’s larger attempt to explain and enact the (inter)play between these two concepts, an argument and performance that sets them into a complex constellation, a relationship in which struggles for recognition and the promotion of reconciliation are seen to betray one another’s risk, a danger that abides in their respective beginnings.

Recalling Hegel’s concern to cultivate a living connection between word and action, the potential of reconciliation and recognition manifests in language, an operativity of logos given to making and (re)turning to relations of unity and difference (1948, 218).25 If so, the question of the relationship between reconciliation and recognition is a rhetorical question, a problem that demands a consideration of the ways in which each concept mounts and sustains a struggle for those words that trouble, fashion, and enable the potential for relation-making. Put differently, the connection between these concepts may appear through inquiry about what each presupposes about speech, how they compose presuppositions about what it means to speak in and for a relation, and the costs that attend putting these assumptions into practice. What are the features of discourses that “problematize” reconciliation and recognition, that lend it conceptuality, objectivity, and practicality? How is this talk (about talk) addressed and do the rhetorical operations of recognition and reconciliation (in)cite one another? Together, these questions hint that the relationship between reconciliation and recognition is not a matter of comparing normative “states” or a problem that that can be resolved by an identitarian comparison or unilateral attribution of their respective meanings. Indeed, the issue is not what the relationship is but what abides in the play between the words that hold the potential of their relational gestures.

In reconciliation, the difference made by recognition appears to replicate unity’s pathology, a coherence and assumption of identity that refuses if not distorts the creativity held in the experience of mutual vulnerability. In recognition, the promise of reconciliation’s unity is the hope to make a difference that is always but yet somehow never at hand, a promise of renewal that may leave those most in need to wait for a time to (be)come.

What is held between these goods may yet make a difference. In the constellation formed by reconciliation and recognition, the form(ation) of human relationships is the problem of how to move between the word that constitutes by calling for the sovereign’s (self) sacrifice and the (self) constitutive word that discovers sovereignty only in the acceptance of (its own) sacrifice. It is around this puzzle that reconciliation and recognition turn. Between them, they hold the singular question of the (non)violence of the word’s potential to define and sustain a human relationship that would not otherwise come to be.

Key Sources:

Adorno, Theodor. 1973. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New York: Continuum.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1948. “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate.” In On Christianity: Early Theological Writing, trans. T. M. Knox, 182–301. New York: Harper.

———— . 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Ricoeur, Paul. 2005. The Course of Recognition. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Taylor, Charles. 1994. “The Politics of Recognition.” In Multiculturalism, ed. Amy Gutmann, 25-74. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 1998. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, Volumes 1–5. Cape Town: Juta.

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