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  • A Reply to Tzvetan Todorov’s “Living Alone Together”
  • Frances Ferguson (bio)

In “Living Alone Together,” Tzvetan Todorov presents a powerful description of the notion of “sociality” and uses it as a vantage point from which to criticize the limitations of the influential Kojèvian account of Hegel and his political philosophy of recognition. The essence of his view, as I understand it, is that Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Hegel announce the importance of the gaze (regard) of others in enabling persons to be persons. On Todorov’s account, all these figures—to greater and lesser degrees—revolutionize the classical understanding of sociality in their suggestion that it is already implicit in a full-blown account of what personhood is. While classical writers (or pre-eighteenth century writers, broadly considered) identify the acknowledgment of others as an elective virtue, a sign of individual largesse, Todorov sees that model as giving rise to a (false) dichotomy between selfish and altruistic motives that has repeatedly dogged moral philosophy. Thus, he sees Aristotle and Cicero to be describing a phenomenon that is similar to, but importantly distinct from, the modern view when the former writes in the Eudamean Ethics that “the good implies a relationship to the other” and the latter writes that “Nature has given us friendship . . . to permit virtue—which in a man alone could not be perfected—to be associated to another and thus to tend toward perfection” (1). The implicit position that Todorov ascribes to the ancients is one in which the acknowledgment of others may help to establish that one is a good man but in which it is by no means essential to establishing that one is a man. By contrast, he sees Rousseau, Smith, and Hegel as effecting a moral revolution in appreciating the constitutive importance of an individual human’s need of acknowledgment from others. Yet, even though they all participate in what can roughly be called the same general position, in arguing for the importance of recognition, Hegel (at least in Kojève’s inevitably and blamelessly slanted characterization of him) offers a descriptive model that presents recognition as at least a partially self-vitiating activity. The competition for the recognition of others comes to look as though it offered few positive advantages, because winning recognition involves defeating one’s competitor and [End Page 25] depriving the recognition that one has just won of its value. Against that account, Todorov would redirect our attention to arrangements like that of the mother-child dyad. There, the parties are related less by opposition than by affection, and competition seems an incidental and relatively insignificant matter.

This account comes so close to agreeing with one that I would present in propria persona that I want less to quarrel with it—to carp over phrasing and to wax indignant that he said x but should have said y—than to comment on some of the implications of his argument and approach. One way of restating his basic position is to say that he notes with approval an essentially nominalist approach and its extensions into moral and political discourse. On such an account, nominalism does not simply concern itself with the negative argument that it is difficult to ground naming in historical genetic claims. Rather, it involves a correlative claim—that naming is not a process of pointing to individual entities but rather one of continually understanding individual elements in terms of their classes, the adjacent elements that may relate to them either through a consciousness of similarity (as in Todorov’s characterization of Smith’s position) or through difference (as in Todorov’s characterization of Kojève’s oppositional Hegel).

What is clear, however, is that such nominalism does not—and indeed could not—begin with the notion of an isolated individual. The various names that attach to individuals quickly come to be conceived as names of states rather than proper names; they are names inflected by relationships with other persons—what we frequently refer to as roles. Yet, by contrast with the notion of theatrical roles which can be put on and taken off, such states represent fully real actions. Their most obvious and pervasive manifestation occurs...

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pp. 25-34
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