Chapter Three. The Mature Theory of Recognition of Axel Honneth and Its Critical Significance
III. 1. The Recognitive Turn of The Struggle for Recognition
As we were saying, in The Struggle for Recognition Honneth aims to provide a critical theory of recognition by following and deepening the insight already present in The Critique of Power, according to which the subject learns to relate to itself by internalizing the normative perspective through which other subjects perceive it and interact with it. He is not interested in the mere process of social integration of human subjects, for which individual action is always an expression of a plexus of social actions since the subject internalizes the socially shared horizon of social, cultural, and political categories. Rather, he wants to inquire about that social relation that allows the subject to pursue a free and full-fledged process of identification and individualization within the social context. By identifying in “recognition” such a relational category, his mature critical program is dedicated to presenting “recognition” as a legitimate critical category of human societies and the agentive category of the “struggle for recognition”
as an alternative communicative form by which the reproduction and the moral progress of human societies historically and empirically occur. The structure of the book is thus organized so to that:
an intersubjectivist conception of the person emerges, in which the possibility of an undistorted relation to oneself proves to be dependent on three forms of recognition: love, right and esteem.
[…] As the results of this investigation show, there are – corresponding to three forms of recognition – three forms of experiences of disrespect, each of which can generate motives that contribute, in turn to the emergence of social conflicts. As a consequence of this second step of the investigation, the idea of a critical theory of recognition begins to take shape, according to which processes of societal change are to be explained with reference to the normative claims that are structurally inherent in relations of mutual recognition.112
112 Honneth, 1995, pp. 1-2. See the German edition, 1992, p. 8. “Auf diese Weise entsteht ein intersubjektivitätstheoretisches Personenkonzept, innerhalb dessen sich die Möglichkeit einer ungestörten Selbstbeziehung als abhängig von drei Formen der Anerkennung (Liebe, Recht, Wertschätzung) erweist. […]
[Diese] drei Formen der Anerkennung entsprechen, wie das Ergebnis einer derartigen Überprüfung zeigt, drei Typen der Mißachtung, deren Erfahrung jeweils als Handlungsmotiv in die Entstehung sozialer Konflikte einfließen kann. Als eine Konsequenz dieses zweiten Untersuchungsschrittes zeichnet sich damit die Idee einer kritischen Gesellschaftstheorie ab, in der Prozesse der gesellschaftlichen Wandels mit Bezugnahme auf die
Therefore, the possibility to provide a critical theory of recognition relies upon three theoretical steps:
(i) The identification of the mechanism for which recognition is the essential relation for the subject’s successful self-realization. Honneth identifies the mechanism for which recognition is constitutive of the subject’s self-realization in the fact that it allows the subject to develop an undistorted practical self-relation and self-conception, as a necessary precondition to pursuing one’s personal identity freely.
(ii) The differentiation of three forms of recognition and the corresponding distinction among three forms of personal disrespect. These latter are to be conceived in terms of the negative normative grammar that lies under the occurrence of social struggles, which aim at the transformation of human societies’ moral framework in order to set the social conditions for the subjects’ undamaged self-relation.
iv) The outlining of a universal and formal criterion by which social philosophers can critically approach all human societies according to an immanent and transcending method, which refers to the expressed or hidden morality of oppressed social groups for helping in furthering the moral progress of human societies.
III. 1. 1.The Mechanism and the Three Forms of Recognition: Honneth Reviewing Hegel To begin with the first step, Honneth attempts to identify the mechanism which lies under recognitive relations as being constitutive for the subject’s self-realization. His core argument is that recognition is the reciprocal relation by which subjects mutually acknowledge affirmatively and positively as practical subjectivities or persons, allowing each other to develop that positive or undistorted (ungestört) relationship with themselves that represents the personal condition to achieve freely their self-realization.
In The Struggle for Recognition, the primary reference for Honneth to analyze the mechanism of recognition is Hegel, who was the first to develop in his juvenile writings both a relational account of the human subject and a moral conception of the social struggle. Indeed, at the beginning of the 19th century, it “had gradually matured within Hegel’s thought the conviction that, for the foundation of a philosophical science of society, it would first be
normativen Ansprüche erklärt werden sollen, die in der Beziehung der wechselseitigen Anerkennung strukturell angelegt sind.”
necessary to break the grip that atomistic misconceptions had on the whole tradition of modern natural law.”113 Indeed, both the empirical and the formal approaches of modern natural law
“remain trapped within the basic concepts of an atomism that presupposes, as something like a natural basis for human socialization, the existence of subjects who are isolated from each other.”114 By reconstructing Hegel’s thought from the Natural Law (1802) to the main writings of his Jena Period, the System of Ethical Life and the Realphilosophie,115 Honneth retraces the conceptual progress that brought Hegel to overcome such an atomistic and egoistic understanding of the human being’s natural behaviour. Indeed, these theories were giving serious problems both in offering an explanation of the stability of human societies, due to the necessity for those theories to conceive the institution of ethical relations as a secondary and external addition to the natural predisposition of the human being for egoism, and consequently, in providing a framework wherein sociality and the human being’s positive self-realization did not exclude each other. The main challenge Hegel had to deal with was to find a category within which the ontological and conceptual primacy of social life could be explained over atomistic individualization, while making thinkable and feasible a holistic conception of sociality and individuality, according to which “a process can arise involving both a growth of community ties and, at the same time, an increase in individual freedom.”116
Hegel found in Fichte’s notion of recognition the right category to accomplish such an aim. Indeed, Fichte, in the essay The Foundations of Natural Law (1796), carved out at the
113 Honneth, 1995, p. 11.
114 Honneth, 1995, p. 12. Here, Honneth refers to and explains the distinction Hegel draws between the “empirical”
and the “formal” approaches to the natural law in Natural Law: The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law. With the former category Hegel means the modern anthropologies that conceive of the nature of the human being as an ensemble of isolated and atomistic behaviours: “they always conceive of the purportedly ‘natural’ form of human behavior exclusively as the isolated acts of solitary individuals, to which forms of community-formation must then be added as a further thought, as if externally” (Honneth, 1995, p. 12). With the second category, he refers to the Kantian and Fichtean transcendental conceptions of human rationality, which, as opposed to human empirical behaviour and its individualistic and egoistic inclinations, stands for the only source of ethical behaviour. “Here, too, human nature is understood as an aggregate of egocentric (or, as Hegel puts it, ‘unethical’) drives, which subjects must first learn to suppress before they can attain ethical attitudes, that is, attitudes conducive to community” (Honneth, 1995, p.
115 In The Struggle for Recognition, Honneth focuses only on Hegel’s Jena writings, for he considers his juvenile philosophy as the only phase where Hegel manifestly posits the concept of recognition at the basis of a conception of the human subject, before programmatically considering the process of Spirit as the main subject of his philosophical analysis. Honneth then changes his opinion concerning Hegel’s mature thought, for in Suffering from Indeterminacy (2000) he interprets Hegel’s Philosophy of Right as still relying upon the category of recognition and its three modern forms, and, moreover, as a useful depiction of the normative structure of modern societies.
116 Honneth, 1995, p. 16.
basis of the social institution of juridical freedom a relation of reciprocal recognition among subjects, namely a “reciprocal effect” between subjects wherein both exhort the other to act freely. For Hegel, Fichte’s intuition suggested, first, that the very freedom of each subject is dependent on recognition, namely, on the reciprocal affirmation, and consequent mutual self-limitation, among subjects of the capacity to be free. Secondly, that the institutions of social life, as the system of juridical right, are not to be understood as the results stemming from the egoistic rational calculus of individuals regarding the perilous of a war against all, nor from the suppression of the human being’s empirical egoism, as the formal accounts of natural laws argued for. Instead, the institution of ethical relations, both as regards their genesis and societal maintenance, is to be related to the intrinsic social conditions of human freedom, for the latter is no more a natural condition nor a rational imperative intrinsic to the subject in its loneliness.
In fact, freedom is now conceived as a status that the subject consciously acquires relationally, by being recognized from the other subject as free and by recognizing in the freedom of the other the completion of its own freedom. The institutionalized forms of the ethical relations that are the constitutive basis for free practical subjectivity cease to represent limitations externally given to the subject and legitimized for a mere rationalistic calculus. Quite the contrary, they are the stabilizing expressions of the intersubjective basis of human freedom.
What Honneth finds interesting is how Hegel attempts to broaden the Fichtean insight on recognition. Indeed, he confers to Fichte’s conception of the relation of recognition an intrinsic processuality, both according to an extensive and intensive logic, occurring through conflict. In the System of Ethical Life (1802) and the Realphilosophie (1805-1806), although with different strategies,Hegel first places recognition at the basis of different dimensions of practical subjectivity, thus distinguishing different social spheres constituting human freedom.117Accordingly, he conceives intersubjective recognition in terms of a process of
117 Honneth underlines how Hegel, in the System of Ethical Life and the Realphilosophie, attempts to broaden and dynamize the Fichtean insight on recognition with two different conceptual backgrounds, which, although pursuing the same aim, significantly change the theoretical setting for a paradigm of recognition. Indeed, in the System of Ethical Life, Honneth underlines how Hegel frames the Fichtean notion of recognition into an ontology of Aristotelian derivation by considering the human being, likewise the rest of nature, as an entity that teleologically tends to the full expression of its natural potentialities. For what concerns the human being, the potentiality to actualize is its natural sociality, i.e., the forms of intersubjective recognition wherein the individual is naturally embedded, and by which it attains a confirmation of its subjective identity. From the level of a ‘natural ethical life’, the course of human society is understood as a process towards an ‘absolute ethical life’, where to the naturally given ethical relation of recognition among subjects is given a self-conscious and stabilized status, which allows the subject to reach a more deep self-individualization through the transformation of given cultural costumes (see Honneth, 1995, pp. 18-28). Nevertheless, Honneth regards the Realphilosophie as the fundamental writing where Hegel traces the structure for an intersubjective theory of practical human subjectivity. Herein, he
stages or levels of recognition through which the individual subject ontogenetically undertakes an even more differentiated self-individualization, with a corresponding growth of forms of common consciousness and socialization. Especially in the Realphilosophie, Hegel clearly outlines a theory of subjectivity based on three different forms of recognition. In addition to distinguishing between three different dimensions of practical subjectivity and three forms of recognition, he identifies the morally constitutive meaning of recognition in the fact that the human subject, in order to achieve a full conscious knowledge of the types of practical capacities that it has, and thus to consciously self-comprehend as a person, depends on the affirmative answer of the other subject.118
Accordingly, in the section Subjektiver Geist, Hegel identifies “love” as the primary form of recognition, for it is the physical and spiritual relation wherein subjects find a
does not only undertake a clearer distinction of different forms of recognition, related to the ‘object’ or subjective dimension to recognize. Additionally, he gives an explanation of the intrinsic mechanism of recognition, then providing an ethical account of social struggle in sharp opposition to the one of Hobbes. Indeed, in the Realphilosophie “the place occupied by Aristotelian natural teleology, which still had a complete hold on the System of Ethical Life, gradually comes to be taken by a philosophical theory of consciousness,” (Honneth, 1995, p. 27) thus, discarding the developmental process of recognition from the teleology intrinsic to natural life.
The constitution of ethical relation of recognition is now reconsidered independently from the teleological logic of nature, as related to the own process of “spirit” or “consciousness.” Such a theoretical shift, according to Honneth, allows Hegel to directly relate from a conceptual point of view the necessity of recognition and its different forms to the need of the individual to develop the different dimensions of its practical subjectivity, rather than to the teleology of nature. Thus, both the distinction among various forms of recognition via a theory of subjectivity and the intrinsic mechanism for which recognition is fundamental for the freedom of the human subject emerge more forcefully. Indeed, recognition is now conceived as necessary for the subject for it allows the latter to “know itself in the other.” Suddenly, the moral grammatic of the struggle for recognition is clarified: “The turn to philosophy of consciousness now allows him unambiguously to locate the motives for initiating a conflict in the interior of the human spirit, which is supposed to be constructed in such a way that for its complete realization it presupposes knowledge of its recognition by others, which can only be acquired through conflict” (Honneth, 1995, p. 28). According to Honneth, Hegel weakens though the theoretical advantages of a philosophy of consciousness with the strong metaphysical presuppositions of his category of Spirit, therefore maintaining the recognitive process of the subject still dependent upon something, in this case, the constitution of a universal consciousness, the “spirit of people,” as ontologically and conceptually primary to the individual subject. Indeed, although the recognitive processuality of human societies is now referred directly to the constitution of the human subject, rather than to the teleological ontology of nature, the human subject is metaphysically conceived as a manifestation of a universal and ethical consciousness, which intrinsically defines the development of practical subjectivity through recognition as the process by which subjects come to conceive “themselves as a totality.”
118 See Hegel, Realphilosophie (1805-1806). The work is structured in three parts, “Spirit According to its Concept,” “Actual Spirit,” and “Constitution.” Firstly, Hegel analyses the cognitive and practical process through which the subject reaches a consciousness of its being a free will (Freier Wille), namely, a natural being whose sensuous impulses (Begierde, as distinguished from Trieb) can be cognitively mediated and practically satisfied constructively through work. The human being, thus, starts to self-conceive as a voluntary and practical subjectivity that objectifies its will in the object of labour. Progressively, Hegel analyses the process by which the subject, from the self-confirmation it obtains through objects (Dinge), reaches a full self-comprehension as a voluntary and practical subjectivity only through the encounter with another subject, namely, through the movement of recognition.
confirmation of their immediate subjective dimension, that of being a natural individual with needs.
Hegel conceives of love as a relationship of mutual recognition, in which natural individuality is first confirmed. Here, this definition admittedly acquires, even more clearly than before, the particular sense (based on the theory of subjectivity) according to which the volitional subject is able to experience itself for the first time as a needy, desiring subject only after having had the experience of being loved.119
Indeed, love, as the physical and spiritual relation occurring through the sexes, appears as the first relation of mutual confirmation wherein subjects, as particular and sensuous individuals, “know themselves in the other.” Namely, the subject consciously learns to self-conceive and experience itself as a natural subject once “it can become intersubjectively shared knowledge on the part of both”and once it experiences and knows the other correspondingly, for “if I do not recognize my partner to interaction as a certain type of person […] I thereby deny him precisely the characteristics and capacities with regard to which I want to feel myself affirmed by him.”120
From Honneth’s explanation of the Hegelian first sphere of recognition, it is already clear that he finds out what he was searching for from The Critique of Power. Namely, he finds out an intersubjective theory of subjectivity (or “ego-formation”) that does not merely conceive of the relationship with others as secondary, and necessary only to materially self-reproduce or exist, as in Horkheimer and Adorno’s materialistic understanding. Instead, the Hegelian understanding of recognition as “knowing-oneself-in-the-other” allows Honneth to provide a conception of recognition as primary for subjectivity, and moreover, as working on the
119 Honneth, 1995, p. 37.
120 Honneth, 1995, pp. 37-38. Hegel, in the Realphilosophie, conceives of the reciprocity of recognition as a fundamental condition for the real development of the subject’s identity. “Die Bewegung des Schlusses ist dadurch gesetzt, dass jedes an sich ist, was das Andere ist. Das Eine, das Allgemeine, ist die Einzelheit, das wissende Selbst; ebenso ist das Einzelne das Allgemeine, denn es ist das [Sich-] Aufsichbeziehen. Aber es hat für sie zu werden oder diese Dieselbigkeit ein Wissen derselben” (Hegel, 1969, p. 200). Hegel deems that the real autonomy of the individual springs from the acknowledged interdependence of both upon each other. Indeed, the subject’s true self-experience as bodily subjectivity depends either on the confirmation conferred by the other and on its own acknowledgment of the other’s bodily subjectivity. The expression of their particular personality is truly possible once the two subjects reach a conscious knowledge of their resemblance and unity, from which the particularity of both can develop as an expression of themselves and the other as well. For this reason, Siep (Siep, 1979) interprets the Hegelian conception of recognition as a movement (Bewegung) in terms of a syllogism wherein from the premises of singularity (to be an individual subject), and universality (to be an individual subject as the other) follows the conclusion of particularity (to be a particular subject with the other). For an analysis of the issue of reciprocity in recognition, both in Hegel and in the current debate, see also Ikäheimo, 2002, 2013, 2014; Ikäheimo & Laitinen, 2007.
intrapersonal dimension of subjectivity, for the subject can consciously experience the spheres of its practical activity only through the positive confirmation of other subjects.
Proceeding with the intersubjective stages or levels for the development of the subject’s personal identity, Hegel identifies the institution of right as the second form of recognition, while considering the struggle as the cognitive and moral mediation for the subject to attain recognition. The creation of the family-context through sexual relations and procreation leads, according to Hegel, to the institution of more complex intersubjective relations due to the simultaneous coexistence of different family units, which, resembling the Hobbesian “state of nature,” attempt economically to take possession of a piece of land. Like Hobbes, Honneth stresses, Hegel makes the rise of a collective form of life coincide with the formation of “social relations of competition,”121 for all subjects simultaneously and arbitrarily attempt to take possession of a piece of land leading to conditions of inequality or exclusion among family units. Nevertheless, Honneth points out how, for Hegel, first, the immediate relations of competition among subjects directly imply from a socio-ontological point of view the existence of an implicit acknowledgment among subjects as bearers of equal claims. Secondly, Hegel substitutes the conceptual category of “a war against all” and the idea of an egoistic rational calculus lying under the collective decision to institute a juridical community, with a moral theory of both social struggle and legal institutions. Indeed, “in the text, this takes the form of an account in which conflicts over the unilateral seizure of possessions are interpreted not as
‘struggles for self-assertion’ but as ‘struggles for recognition’.”122 The subject excluded from the act of possession, which belongs equally to all subjects, undergoes an experience of mis-acknowledgment from the social context as regards its being a subject with requests that are equal to all other subjects. For, the subject undertakes an act of aggression towards the other, which is intra-personally motivated by the need to be considered and confirmed by others as being a person with the same legitimate demands, rather than for the mere reason of physical survival or satisfaction of material needs.123 As in the case of love, in the sphere of civil society the subject constitutively needs to know itself as being affirmed by the other in order to gain a self-conscious experience of itself. In the love case, the subjective dimension to be confirmed
121 Honneth, 1995, p. 41.
122 Honneth, 1995, p. 43.
123 “The reason why the socially ignored individuals attempt, in response, to damage the others’ possessions is not because they want to satisfy their passions, but rather in order to make the others take notice of them” (Honneth, 1995, p. 44).