Recognizing Value by Valuing Recognition

Recognition isn't devoid of value.

Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves and sufficient to themselves. Praise is extraneous. The object of praise remains what it was—no better and no worse. This applies, I think, even to “beautiful” things in ordinary life—physical objects, artworks.
Does anything genuinely beautiful need supplementing? No more than justice does—or truth, or kindness, or humility. Are any of those improved by being praised? Or damaged by contempt? Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires it

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

I don’t think anyone would deny that praise by itself doesn’t make the object of praise any better than what it was. The object remains the same. Which is to say that recognition doesn’t make something beautiful – a beautiful thing is beautiful in itself. And it doesn’t make it any better either – the beautiful thing is sufficient to itself.

‘..but there is one thing which can attract minds, which, though by nature excelling, yet are not led by perfection to the furthest bounds of virtue; and that thing is the love of fame and reputation for deserving well of one’s country’,

The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius

And it’s the same for recognition, whether earned or unearned. Other people’s words don’t affect who I am, their praise doesn’t improve me, their criticism doesn’t tarnish me.

People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations To Come will be the same annoying people they know now. And just as mortal. What does it matter to you if they say x about you, or think y?

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

Just as it is for fame, which is simply recognition from people you don’t know.

Recognition Matters

So much for recognition being unnecessary or overrated.

But not totally so. Recognition is a sign of value. Forgo recognition entirely and you risk delusion.

Take writing for instance. I might claim that I write very well, and that recognition is immaterial. People’s praise doesn’t improve my work, their criticism doesn’t diminish it. And that is true – the work remains the same, no matter what someone says about it. But this doesn’t go far enough.

Denying the value of recognition is an easy way for me to shield my fragile self image, and reassure myself of my worth. Telling myself that I know my work is good and that it doesn’t matter that no one else can see it helps to cope with the real chance that my work perhaps sucks.

What happens if you take it to an extreme? It’s the warped self-belief that there is value in what I do, no matter that no one else can recognize it. That only I have the ‘taste’ to appreciate it, the ‘intellect’ to comprehend it. You end up as Ghalib described, for years making the mistake of cleaning the mirror when the dirt is in fact on your face. In other words, blaming everything and everyone else for what are in fact my own shortcomings. And sheer probability dictates that the problem is likely to be with me than with everyone else (exceptions like John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces notwithstanding)

The real test of something is after all that people derive value from it. A tree might tell itself that its fruit is good, but does that mean anything? How does it know? The test of goodness could be if people like to eat it. The test of an author could be if people like to read him, of a business that users like the product.

It’s more messy than that though – recognition doesn’t guarantee value. A lot of things that sell well aren’t valuable – gimmicky books and videos for instance. Or the entire class of things is deemed ‘bad’ even though it sells well – too well in fact, like booze, cigarettes.

A lot of shitty stuff – cringy videos, pretentious books – seem to sell well. Are they good? And if they are, then is the role of a creator, whether author or business or artist or any other, simply to supply what is demanded, what sells, even if he knows it’s mediocre? The question is whether people ‘liking’ something is sufficient to make that thing ‘good’.

If the first extreme was that recognition is meaningless and value is independent of it, this is the other extreme. That recognition itself determines value; recognition is everything. The quintessential free market at work – whatever the market wants is what is valuable. The customer is always right. If people don’t recognize the value, then there is none, whatever you might tell yourself.

Recognition isn’t a perfect sign of value. Someone could be famous or something could sell well but still be full of shit. And absence of recognition isn’t a sign of no value either. Relatively obscure artists, products sometimes turn out to be superior to much better known ones.

That recognition does have some meaning indicates that ignoring recognition can be misleading. An emerald that’s convinced it is beautiful whereas everyone recognizes it isn’t. Yet recognition itself implies nothing about value. The entire world praising an emerald doesn’t make it beautiful. Simply depending upon recognition is erroneous.

It doesn’t seem to me that you can resolve this impasse with an either/or. That you want some combination of both recognition and value. Recognition without any real intrinsic value is merely bullshit, the kind that seems to get more and more pervasive everyday. But what about value without recognition? That seems to work in theory – since recognition doesn’t add any value to anything, like praise to an emerald’s beauty. But it’s hard to know you have value if no one else seems able to recognize it, notwithstanding how confident you might think yourself to be.

The Point of Things

There’s another question about value with recognition. What’s the point? By ‘point’ I mean – how does it benefit anyone in any way?

What is the point of beauty that’s never recognized? An emerald might well be beautiful, but if no one appreciates it (I’ll assume that recognition leads to praise, that people won’t withhold appreciation from an ulterior motive), what’s the point of its beauty? Like a tree that bears what it considers to be wonderful fruit – if no one partakes of it, is it any use? Or writing brilliant books and essays (brilliant in the biased eyes of the author, that is) if no one derives any benefit from them?

It’s doubtful whether beauty, or goodness, or any value at all, are even possible without recognition. Beauty seems to imply some judgment. Whether it’s objective or subjective is another question, but there’s someone judging based on these objective or subjective criteria. There is no concept of value if there’s no one for it to be valuable to.

It’s similar to asking – If a tree were to fall on an island where there were no human beings would there be any sound?” You can always quibble with definitions. If you define sound as a vibration through a medium, then there doesn’t need to be any human around. But I think that’s not really true. Sound is the vibration through the medium that’s received and perceived by someone – it needs someone to be there.

And so it is with other things. Can an emerald be beautiful if there’s no one who can consider it so? That’s the first question, whether it’s possible. If you could ever get past that, you’d come to the second question – whether it’s of any use without someone around to appreciate it.

I’m not too happy about acknowledging the value of recognition. For one, that recognition isn’t entirely in your hands – people might not like a great product (A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, I think fits here). And more logically, recognition doesn’t change objective reality – Marcus Aurelius’ emerald doesn’t improve with praise or degrade with opprobrium. Accepting that it matters is accepting that non-objective things count, perhaps as much as the objective ones.

Its akin to the endless war between product and marketing – that it’s not enough to make great things, hard enough as it is to do that. You have to do stuff to make people like them too.

So writing something you think is good, something you like, isn’t enough, unless you’re sure you really don’t care if it’s not useful. But if you do care about utility, then you probably want it to be useful to at least someone. That means thinking about what someone else would want instead of entirely doing what you want. And caring about something not completely under your control.

Perhaps there are ways you can get around that – one way is to limit your intended audience. It becomes easier if, rather than being liked by everyone, you’re content with being useful to a particular segment. And if you pick that segment to be people like you, you don’t have to change things much.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, even though the emerald remains what it was whether or not someone recognizes it, the recognition counts for something.