Chapter Five. The Ghost of Domination and Power and The Need for a Broader Anthropological Analysis
V. 1. Recognition as Domination and the Ontological Conditions of Recognition
What we have called the first level of criticism gathers all those criticisms that complain that Honneth, from a methodological and descriptive point of view, completely conflates human intersubjectivity to normative recognition, without problematically considering, firstly, all those non-ethical intersubjective interactions, such as strategic, instrumental, and competitive relationships among social subjects. Secondly, he also fails to consider how, contrary to
ingenuous expectations, these can be strictly interrelated to recognitive attitudes and, moreover, sustain relations of domination. Accordingly, recognition can be no longer assumed as an interaction among individuals that is intrinsically normative from an ontological point of view, namely, as a relational category polarly opposed to legitimate or illegitimate domination, because recognition can stand for a suitable instrument to strategically maintain oppressed social groups into relations of injustice and submission. Indeed, “relations of power can themselves take ‘recognitive’ forms that foster certain practical relation-to-self,”211 and a
“conflation of the normative with the descriptive” meaning of recognition leads to a
“simplification of social and political relationships.”212 It is empirical evidence that in any human society there have been or there still are recognitive contexts suited to enhance the capacity of some social groups to maintain other groups in conditions of physical and economical exploitation, juridical inequality, cultural inferiority, or social and political invisibility, irrelevance, and passivity. And the instrument to ensure those social situations of domination and oppression to survive and reproduce themselves without the disrupting emergence of both social feelings of personal disrespect, forms of counter-morality, and social conflicts is precisely recognition.
As emerged from Chapter Two, Honneth, in contrast to Horkheimer and Adorno, attempts to sketch through the category of recognition an explanation of the logic of social domination as distinct from the level of domination of nature. Whereas the domination of nature by humanity occurs through the reduction of living and qualitative nature to mere objectivity, to be instrumentally shaped, limitlessly harnessed, and entirely controlled, the domination occurring among subjects necessitates a further explanation, according to Honneth.
Accordingly, social domination’s fundamental core consists of the structural negation by a subject of the expectations of the other individual to normatively know itself on a socially shared level, namely, to be recognized. Therefore, Honneth forcefully provides a conception of domination as constitutively opposed to recognition. This means that domination is suitable: (i) to be described in opposition to the category of recognition; (ii) to be critically detected by the category of recognition; and (iii) to be overcome and dismantled through recognition.
It is precisely this conception of domination and recognition put forth by Honneth that authors such as Barbara Carnevali, Patchen Markell, Danielle Petherbridge, David Owen and
211 Van den Brink & Owen, 2007, p. 20.
212 McNay, 2008b, p. 128.
Bert van Den Brink, Lois McNay, and Nancy Fraser attempted to challenge, by pointing out how recognition and domination, both on a theoretical and empirical level, can be two strictly interrelated relationships. Due to the extreme variety of these critical contributions to a theory of recognition, we want to take a closer look at three arguments that we think explicative for pointing out a number of essential factors: firstly, the descriptive shortcoming of Honneth’s paradigm; secondly, the two possible strategies disclosed to a critical theory of recognition for dealing with the existence of ambiguous forms of recognition; thirdly, the difficulty of maintaining Honneth’s anthropological framework as apt to critically detecting those ambiguous forms of recognition; and lastly, the strategy that we think would be more suitable to maintain the contributions of Honneth within a paradigm of recognition while enriching its conceptual tools to critically distinguish adequate and inadequate forms of recognition.
Barbara Carnevali, in Società e riconoscimento and Miseria e grandezza del sociale,213 approaches from an anthropological point of view the naivety of a critical theory that polarly opposes domination and recognition, by recovering the anthropology and sociologist morality that, in the passage from the 18th to the 19th century, inaugurated the “theodicy of the social,”
in opposition to the Enlightenment’s understanding of the social world. Indeed, she underlines how the identification of the modern conception of the social world unilaterally with the Enlightenment’s enthusiastic depiction of the human being’s social nature is actually misleading. And conversely, she advocates that a more complex consideration of the contrasting conceptions of modernity regarding the social world is both needed for historical coherence and compelling for contemporary reflections on recognition.
In the first instance, she argues that the issue of “recognition” is strictly a product of historical modernity, since the relation existing between the human individual and the social context was “discovered” once the religious belief of an extramundane Kingdom of Ends went into crisis. The discovery of the existence of a constitutive relationship among the individual and the social context, relying on the conscious distinction between what the subject thinks of itself and the personal image that others reflect back, did not entail only enthusiastic and positive interpretations through categories such as social freedom and self-realization, but, more interestingly, also more realistic and pessimistic ones. These more “adherent to facts” or
“realistic” interpretations of the human being’s social nature aimed at inquiring on the very morality of existing forms of sociality and their effects on the relation of the social subject with
213 Carnevali, 2004, 2017.
itself. In this regard, Carnevali emphasizes how authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and Adam Smith provided a “theodicy of the social,” since, with different strategies, they unveiled the responsibility of existing forms of sociality for the degeneration of both the individual’s intra-personal relation and the social interactions among individuals, thereby advocating for better forms of social life. Unlike the Encyclopédie’s account of the social world, those authors attempted to show how modern social life is marked by the cancer of “social recognition,” because the individual, as placed into a web of relationships with other subjects, is naturally led to search for the social approval of its social fellows by striving for self-distinction. The extreme timeliness of such sociological and anthropological reflections on modernity lies in the disillusioned and realistic understanding according to which, from an anthropological point of view, the human need for social recognition can lead the subject to acquire unethical, but existing anyway, attitudes, first, towards oneself, such as narcissism, self-manipulation, and voluntary servitude. Second, towards the other social fellows, for instance, the blind standardization to existing social codes, the unconditional acceptance of any degree of social confirmation received, social competition or struggle for symbolic recognition, strategic manipulation, and domination of others through the promise of recognition. According to Rousseau and Hobbes, despite their different theoretical frameworks, it is fundamental to point out how, from an anthropological point of view, recognition cannot be ontologically conceived absolutely as a positive social attitude. On the contrary, recognition can stand for a disrupting need for the human being, as the consideration received by the social context can acquire a totalitarian and unconditional power on subjectivity, regardless of its authentical, autonomous, and concrete contents. Therefore, its increasing importance in modern societies, irrespective of other anthropological attitudes equally fundamental (such as authenticity and amour de soi), entailed the development of relationships of social competition for symbolic recognition, and the instantiation of manipulative strategies to maintain subjects into positions of inferiority by exploiting their need for recognition.
Conclusively, Carnevali considers these modern anthropological considerations still compelling for an existing paradigm of recognition such as Honneth’s, because they showed, even if with radical formula and a passed vocabulary, the “dark side” of recognition, namely, that recognition can turn into a source and a tool of social domination, competition, and self-submission.
Human beings are strongly interested in what their fellows think or feel towards them, and this interest – in the form of a worry, of an a-priori engagement in the relationships with the other […]
– stands for a decisive aspect, often the more important one, of their psychic and collective life.
[…] Recognition turns into a problem – thus in the forms of conflict and struggle – as it assumes a symbolic power, the divine power to legitimize or not the worth and the meaning of human existence.214
Consequently, it follows that a critical theory of recognition should carefully take into consideration this “dark side” of recognition while having a conceptual framework suitable to critically distinguish negative and positive relationships of recognition, or normatively weak and strong relations of social confirmation. Due to the intrinsic dependence of human subjectivity on social recognition, there are contexts of recognition that are instrumentally devoted to keeping human subjectivity into relations of domination, non-solidary competition, and unconditional research and acceptance of social confirmation.
It is a fact that Honneth theoretically overlooked this “dark side” of recognition, as his framework of The Struggle for Recognition anthropologically failed to consider, from a descriptive point of view, the human being’s forms of intersubjective interactions other than pure and original ethical recognition, such as competitive, strategic, instrumental, and dominating attitudes, wherein, moreover, recognition plays a pivotal role both for their origin and their reproduction. It follows that Honneth provides, as we have seen, an understanding of social domination as entirely suitable to be described, detected, and solved through the category of recognition. Nonetheless, social domination and recognition can be no longer conceived as opposite or polar categories, the first one as ontologically entailing only disrespectful denials of subject’s personal integrity, and the second one as ontologically entailing only the self-realization of the human subject. Consequently, for the fact that positive forms of attribution of social worth and value to social members also accompany situations of domination, the description of ethical recognition in terms of that relational mediation of confirmation suitable to allow the subject to instantiate a positive relation-to-itself can no longer stand for a critical parameter of distinction among strong or weak normative relations of recognition. Such a description is critically appropriate and sensitive for those social contexts of domination relying upon manifest cases of social disrespect that entail the disruption within the subject of the chances to develop an objectively positive image of itself. Instead, for what concerns those social contexts of domination wherein situations of physical and psychological exploitation,
214 Carnevali, 2008, p. 287. (Translation mine).
juridical exclusion or denial, cultural inequality, and marginalization are mitigated by the dominant groups’ conferral to the dominated groups of forms of symbolic value and positive confirmation, which is sufficient for subjects to think of themselves as positively integrated within the social context, such a description of ethical recognition and its constitutive mechanism for human subjectivity remains ineffective. That is, such a description of ethical recognition remains abstract for what concerns the ontological conditions that distinguish it from ambiguous, inadequate, and ideological forms of recognition, and critically ineffective for both the subjects’ pre-theoretical critical activity and critical social theory. In front of such a
“dark side” of recognition and a description of ethical recognition that is necessary but not sufficiently clarified in the ontological conditions of its ethical core, a paradigm of recognition must clarify such ontological conditions in order to maintain its critical program as feasible.
But to engage in this attempt, it is necessary to understand the theoretical reason or locus that theoretically impedes the framework of the mainstream paradigm of recognition, as mostly represented by Honneth in The Struggle for Recognition, from overcoming an abstract definition of recognition, whose condition of the subject’s positive-relation-to-self can be indeed satisfied both by adequate and inadequate relations of recognition.
To answer this core question, we want now to refer, in the first instance, to two other philosophical strategies, the first of which questions the critical usefulness for critical social theory to maintain the very idea of an integral and full-fledged relation of recognition among subjects. The second strategy, however, argues for the incapacity of the mainstream paradigm of recognition to offer a conceptual framework suitable to distinguish among adequate and inadequate relationships of recognition since its very conceptual framework misses the fundamental analysis of the conditions of human activity. Finally, we will analyze the essay with which Honneth attempts to clarify his paradigm of recognition in order to respond to the problem of ideological recognition while emphasizing his framework’s still insufficient critical cogency related to its maintenance of a unilateral anthropology.
Danielle Petherbridge, in The Critical Theory of Axel Honneth (2013), offers a reconstruction of Honneth’s critical theory of recognition, on the one hand, to explain the theoretical exigencies leading Honneth to recover the category of recognition, highlighting this latter’s critical contribution for critical theory. On the other hand, she argues how, for critical theory, the very attempt to provide a positive ideal of a full-fledged relationship of recognition
among subjects cannot but undermine the critical theorist’s capacity for critical and emancipative action.
One of the main problems with Honneth’s attempt to draw a theory of recognition from Hegel’s early work is that the terms ‘intersubjectivity’ and ‘recognition’ are mutually defining and used interchangeably without question. The unfortunate consequence of this theoretical move is that intersubjectivity is equated with recognition in toto. […] Honneth’s interpretation immediately bestows upon intersubjectivity a pre-given ethical content or determinate form as a particular type of intersubjectivity—it assumes a taken-for-granted ethical or normative foundation built into the very fact of relatedness or intersubjectivity as a kind of primordial unity. Thus, rather than forms of intersubjectivity being conceived as all those modes of interaction that precede recognition, recognition is understood by Honneth as a primary category, conceived as first nature. 215
Her main point is that Honneth’s anthropological framework not only does not take into considerations forms of intersubjectivity other than positive recognition but, as well, attempts to place recognition, from the outset, as the primary relational category among social subjects, then conceiving all forms of domination in terms of a “distortion” or a “disruption” of an undamaged relationship of recognition. Once she has retraced the theoretical movement through which Honneth progressively conflated all human interactions to intersubjectivity, and then all forms of intersubjective relationship to normative recognition, Petherbridge points out the descriptive and the normative problems of such a progressive theoretical narrowness.
Dedicating few pages to Honneth’s reduction of human interactions to intersubjectivity, she first focuses on Honneth’s reduction of human intersubjectivity to positive recognition as standing for a very descriptive simplification of human intercourses. Indeed, Honneth’s missing consideration of intersubjective relations such as competition, struggle for power, strategic and instrumental behaviour, and manipulation entails his complete merging of the normative and ethical meaning of recognition with its descriptive dimension, that is recognition’s ontological standing for a constitutive element for the reproduction of human societies, even the dominant and oppressive ones.
Honneth posits normativity in what he regards as the certainty of recognition. In this sense, intersubjective relations and identity-formation are conceptualized only within the normative terms of recognition, rather than as co-constituted by a variety of modalities of intersubjectivity and forms of interaction, including power and strategic action.216
215 Petherbridge, 2013, pp. 82-89.
216 Petherbridge, 2013, p. 121.
Moreover, according to Petherbridge, Honneth’s anthropology is not merely one-sided, but also descriptively wrong as it confers to recognition, as evident from his analysis of love relationships, a genetic primacy, without giving reason to the intrinsic “contingency and fragility of human interactions.”217 These, indeed, cannot be conceived with an internal hierarchy and, thus, qualitatively stationary, namely, as being univocally definable as strongly or weakly normative interactions. Their ethical meaning indeed can change, and ethical relationships of recognition can turn into a mixture of different intersubjective attitudes, such as manipulation and exploitation.
This descriptive change, namely, the outlining of a conception of human intersubjectivity as both various in its forms, without internal hierarchies, and ontologically fragile and contingent, has normative consequences as well for critical social theory, according to Petherbridge. In order to undertake its critical analysis of human societies, critical social theory should drop the reference to a positive description of an undamaged and full-fledged recognitive relationship among subjects, for this latter would stand in the way of a critical analysis devoted to highlighting the slippery existence, the contingent overturns and reversals of subjective interactions. Therefore, Petherbridge suggests that critical theory should proceed according to a negativistic methodology, rather than to a positive criterion, thereby dismantling existing social relationships of recognition in their imbrication with domination, competition, and strategic activity. We could say that Petherbridge opts for something like a “hermeneutics of suspicion” with regards to human social contexts, for critical social theory is called to dismantle human recognitive interactions into their contingent and fragile elements, which, from the perspective of a full-fledged and successful relationship of recognition, could be but overlooked or explained as exterior additions to an original perfect relation. “Honneth reduces power and domination merely to a pathology of recognition thereby reducing the critique of power to the terms of unsatisfactory recognition alone, and this one-dimensionalizes both a theory of power and the possibility for critique.”218
Certainly, Petherbridge’s critiques of the Honnethian paradigm of recognition sheds light, again, on the naivety of its descriptive framework of human interactions, for this latter
217 Petherbridge, 2013, p. 78. See Petherbridge, 2013, Ch. 9. Petherbridge critically underlines how Honneth conceives the baby’s relationship with the mother in terms of an original fusion and then positive interdependence, considering all the baby’s forms of aggression and violence against her or his primary caregiver as secondary and in terms of disruptions of an original status of perfect unity.
218 Petherbridge, 2013, p. 121.
does not only fail to account for the equal co-existence of recognition with other forms of interactions relying upon recognition. Moreover, it does not thematize the extreme instability of human interactions, as always on the brink, fragile in their defining status. If we can agree with Petherbridge concerning these two points and, hence, the urgency for critical theory to develop a description of subjective interactions without ethical and normative assumptions, we are more dubious regarding her conclusive normative strategy for critical social theory. Indeed, as we have seen, she argues that, given the unstable and contingent ontology of human interactions, critical social theory should avoid providing any ideal of an undamaged and successful recognitive relationship, rather proceeding from the continuous intermeshing and overlapping of recognition with other qualitative forms of human interaction. Nonetheless, the ultimate consequence of her strategy is the final abandonment of Honneth’s insight concerning the very possibility for subjects to reach freedom and self-realization in the social context. The decision to abandon any theoretical effort in defining an adequate relationship of recognition cannot but denying the attempt to base human subjectivity’s freedom and self-realization on the ethical relationships with its social fellows. As she points out herself, Honneth’s fundamental contribution was to demonstrate how the human subject cannot develop a positive relation-to-self within manifestly disrespecting and harassing social contexts. Hence, he clarifies the very social dimension of the human being’s chance to pursue a good and flourishing life, to find its self-completion only with the other human being. Therefore, to exclude from the outset any attempt in providing a formal description of ethical recognition can only appear as a renunciation of such a fundamental intuition, which, despite being still vague and blurred, we cannot abandon, not merely from a theoretical point of view, but critical too. Indeed, the very possibility for social subjects, and critical theorists too, to orient their lives and critical activity within human societies, with the effort to make human societies better ethical contexts within which to live, seems difficult in the absence of a positive ideal of recognitive relationship to pursue and employ for critique. In the absence of such a positive criterion of recognition, social subjects would be deprived of a fundamental tool for critical reflection. Indeed, critical theory would be the inquiry devoted to disentangling the elements of domination and exploitation within social relationships apart from the experience of human subjects and their search for a positive idea of ethical relationships, thereby assuming a hegemonic role in the human practice of criticism. The human subjects’ need for ethical recognition, therefore, as standing for a predominant feature of their individual and collective life, should be anyway made significant