As social struggles of the last few decades have made clear, justice demands more than the fair distribution of material goods. For even if conflicts over interests were justly adjudicated, a society would remain normatively deficient to the extent to which its members are systematically denied the recognition they deserve. As Charles Taylor has recently emphasized, ‘Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need.'(1) As one scarcely needs to add, it is also a need that has all-too-often gone unmet. Regularly, members of marginalized and sub-altern groups have been systematically denied recognition for the worth of their culture or way of life, the dignity of their status as persons, and the inviolability of their physical integrity. Their voices are now being heard, and their struggles for recognition have come to dominate the political landscape. Consequently, if social theory is to provide an adequate account of contemporary fields of social conflict, it will have both to situate the motivation for these emancipatory struggles within the social world and to provide an account of what justifies them.
In the present volume, Axel Honneth outlines an approach to this dual task of explanation and justification that is both highly original and firmly rooted in the history of modern social theory. Rather than following the atomistic tradition of social philosophy going back to Hobbes and Machiavelli, however, Honneth situates his project within the tradition that emphasizes not the struggle for self-preservation but rather the struggle for the establishment of relations of mutual recognition, as a precondition for self-realization.(2) Like Hegel, George Herbert Mead, and, more recently, communitarians and many feminists, Honneth stresses the importance of social relationships to the development and maintenance of a person’s identity. On the basis of this nexus between social patterns of recognition and individual prerequisites for self-realization – and with constant reference to empirical findings of the social sciences – Honneth develops both a framework for interpreting social struggles and a normative account of the claims being raised in these struggles.
With regard to the first, explanatory task, his approach can be understood as a continuation of the Frankfurt School’s attempt to locate the motivating insight for emancipatory critique and struggle within the domain of ordinary human experience, rather than in the revolutionary theory of intellectuals.(3) As Honneth argued in Critique of Power, however, the Frankfurt School suffered from an exclusive focus on the domain of material production as the locus of transformative critique. In the present volume, he now proposes an alternative account, situating the critical perception of injustice more generally within individuals’ negative experiences of having broadly ‘moral’ expectations violated.
With regard to the normative task of critical theory, the roots of Honneth’s approach are to be found in the model of the struggle for recognition developed by Hegel during his early years in Jena (before the completion of the Phenomenology of Spirit in 1807). Honneth takes from Hegel the idea that full human flourishing is dependent on the existence of well-established, ‘ethical’ relations – in particular, love, law, and ‘ethical life’ [Sittlichkeit] – which can only be established through a conflict-ridden developmental process, specifically, through a struggle for recognition. In order to get beyond the speculative, metaphysical character of Hegel’s project, however, Honneth turns to Mead’s naturalistic pragmatism and to empirical work in psychology, sociology, and history in order to identify the intersubjective conditions for individual self-realization. In the course of analyzing these conditions, Honneth develops his ‘formal conception of ethical life’, understood as a critical normative standard that is intended to avoid both the overly ‘thick’ character of neo-Aristotelian ethics and the overly ‘thin’ character of neo-Kantian moral theory.
Honneth’s approach can be summarized, in a preliminary way, as follows. The possibility for sensing, interpreting, and realizing one’s needs and desires as a fully autonomous and individuated person – in short, the very possibility of identity-formation – depends crucially on the development of self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem. These three modes of relating practically to oneself can only be acquired and maintained intersubjectively, through being granted recognition by someone whom one also recognizes. As a result, the conditions for self-realization turn out to be dependent on the establishment of relationships of mutual recognition. These relationships go beyond (a) close relations of love and friendship to include (b) legally institutionalized relations of universal respect for the autonomy and dignity of persons and (c) networks of solidarity and shared values within which the particular worth of members of a community can be acknowledged. These relationships are not ahistorically given but must be established and expanded through social struggles. These struggles cannot be understood exclusively as conflicts over interests, since the ‘grammar’ of such struggles is ‘moral’ in the sense that the feelings of outrage and indignation generated by the rejection of claims to recognition imply normative judgments about the legitimacy of social arrangements. In this way, the normative ideal of a just society is empirically confirmed by historical struggles for recognition.
Central to Honneth’s ‘social theory with normative content’ is his account of self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem, along with the modes of recognition by which they are sustained, and this will be the focus here. With regard to each of these ‘practical relations-to-self’, three issues need to be addressed: the precise importance of each for the development of one’s identity, the pattern of recognition on which it depends, and its historical development. Beyond this, the present introduction will provide a brief discussion of both Honneth’s interpretation of social struggles as motivated by the experience of being denied these conditions for identity-formation – what he refers to as ‘disrespect’ [‘Mißachtung’] – and some of the distinctive features of Honneth’s readings of Hegel and Mead, found in Chapters 2-4.
It is perhaps useful, at the outset, to spell out what self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem have in common. For Honneth, they represent three distinct species of ‘practical relation-to-self’. These are neither purely beliefs about oneself nor emotional states, but involve a dynamic process in which individuals come to experience themselves as having a certain status, be it as an object of concern, a responsible agent, or a valued contributor to shared projects. Following Hegel and Mead, Honneth emphasizes that coming to relate to oneself in these ways necessarily involves experiencing recognition from others. One’s relationship to oneself, then, is not a matter of a solitary ego appraising itself, but an intersubjective process, in which one’s attitude toward oneself emerges in one’s encounter with an other’s attitude toward oneself.(4)
Love and Self-Confidence
With regard to the concept of love, Honneth is primarily concerned with the way in which parent-child relationships – as well as adult relationships of love and friendship – facilitate the development and maintenance of the basic relation-to-self that Honneth terms ‘self-confidence’ [Selbstvertrauen: ‘trust in oneself’]. If all goes well in their first relationships to others, infants gradually acquire a fundamental faith in their environment and, concomitantly, a sense of trust in their own bodies as reliable sources of signals for their own needs. On Honneth’s account, self-confidence has less to do with a high estimation of one’s abilities than with the fundamental capacity to express needs and desires without fear of being abandoned as a result. As such, self-confidence operates at such a deep level that it is usually only when extreme experiences of physical violation such as rape or torture shatter one’s ability to access one’s needs (as one’s own) and to express them without anxiety that it becomes clear how much depends on this relation-to-self.(5)
To explain the link between self-confidence and intersubjective relations of love and concern, Honneth draws on the object-relations theoretic account of early childhood experience, particularly as developed in the work of Donald Winnicott. Against the Freudian emphasis on instinctual drives, object-relations theory has argued that the development of children cannot be abstracted from the interactive relationships in which the process of maturation takes place. Initially, the child is dependent upon the responsiveness of primary care-givers (following Winnicott, Jessica Benjamin, and others, Honneth uses the term ‘mother’ to designate a role that can be fulfilled by persons other than the biological mother) and their ability to empathically intuit the needs of the inarticulate infant. Due to the newborn’s utter helplessness, an insufficient level of adaptation of the ‘mother’ to the infant’s needs early in life would represent a serious problem for the infant, since the child can neither cope with or make sense of failures of this ‘environment’ to intuit and satisfy his or her needs. Of course, the failure or ‘de-adaptation’ of care-givers is an unavoidable element of the individuation process, by which infants learn to cope with gradual increases in the environment’s insensitivity, that is, to recognize and assert their needs as their own instead of experiencing the absence of immediate gratification as threatening.
Following Winnicott, Honneth argues that this formative process must again be understood as intersubjective. Because ‘good-enough’ infant care demands a high degree of emotional and intuitive involvement, the individuation process has to be understood as a complex, agonistic process in which both parent and child extricate themselves from a state of ‘symbiosis’. Despite the fact that the ‘mother’ is a fully individuated adult, it is only together that children and care-givers can negotiate the delicate and shifting balance between ego-dissolution and ego-demarcation. And it is this balance that provides the enduring, intersubjectively reproduced basis both for relationships of love and friendship with peers as well as for a positive, embodied sense of what Erik Erikson calls ‘basic trust’.(6)
Interestingly, although Honneth is generally at pains to emphasize the historically contingent nature of human subjectivity(7), he argues that this notion of bodily integrity, together with the need for love and concern it entails, captures something whose importance cuts across differences of cultural and historical contexts. This is not to say that practices of child-rearing or love have gone unchanged, only that the capacity to trust one’s own sense of what one needs or wants is a precondition for self-realization in any human community.
This is part of what separates love from the two other patterns of recognition Honneth considers essential to self-realization, for unlike the form of recognition that supports self-confidence, the ways in which both respect and esteem are accorded have undergone a significant historical transformation. Indeed, the very distinction between the two is an historical product, something that may help to explain why ‘respect’ and ‘esteem’ are still used interchangeably in some contexts (as in: ‘I respect her enormously’). In pre-modern contexts – roughly, until the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century – one’s standing in society and one’s status as a moral and political agent were fused, typically, in the concept of ‘honour’. Rights and duties were always rights and duties of one’s station or ‘estate’, never of one’s status as a free legislator in either the local kingdom or the ‘kingdom of ends’ (Kant). With the advent of the modern period, however, the fundamental principles underlying the realm of law and rights came into conflict with the idea of according legal status on the basis of class privilege. In this way, the notion of one’s ‘status as a person’ was historically differentiated from the notion of ‘social standing’, giving rise to psychologically and analytically distinct modes of recognition, as well as to the corresponding notions of ‘self-respect’ [Selbstachtung] and ‘self-esteem’ [Selbstschätzung].(8)
Rights and Self-Respect
On Honneth’s account, self-respect has less to do with whether or not one has a good opinion of oneself than with one’s sense of possessing of the universal dignity of persons. There is a strong Kantian element here: what we owe to every person is the recognition of and respect for his or her status as an agent capable of acting on the basis of reasons, as the autonomous author of the political and moral laws to which he or she is subject.(9) To have self-respect, then, is to have a sense of oneself as a person, that is, as a morally responsible agent or, more precisely, as someone capable of participating in the sort of public deliberation that Habermas terms ‘discursive will-formation’.
Again, however, this relation-to-self is mediated by patterns of interaction, in particular, those organized in terms of legal rights. To show why being accorded rights is crucial to self-respect, Honneth makes use of Joel Feinberg’s argument to the effect that ‘…what is called “human dignity” may simply be the recognizable capacity to assert claims.'(10) The object of respect (including self-respect) is an agent’s capacity to raise and defend claims discursively or, more generally, an agent’s responsibility or ‘accountability’ [Zurechnungsfähigkeit].(11) But this capacity can only become a basis for ‘self-respect’ if it can be exercised. Indeed, it is unclear what it means to say that one has a capacity that one cannot exercise. Hence, the importance of rights for self-respect lies in the fact that rights ensure the real opportunity to exercise the universal capacity constitutive of personhood. This is not to say that a person without rights cannot have self-respect, only that the fullest form of self-respecting autonomous agency could only be realized when one is recognized as possessing the capacities of ‘legal persons’ and morally responsible agents.
The specific content of these universal capacities, however, is something that shifts over time, along with shifts in the conception of the procedure by which political and moral issues are to be resolved: ‘The more demanding this procedure is seen to be, the more extensive the features will have to be that, taken together, constitute a subject’s moral accountability.'(12) To understand this claim, it is important to keep in mind the distinction Honneth makes between two historical processes: (a) an increase in the number of people who are treated as full-fledged citizens and (b) an increase in the actual content of what it means to be a full-fledged citizen (in particular, the development of political and welfare rights, in addition to basic liberties). In the first case, the historical development involves realizing the universality clearly implied in the notion of modern law, with its basis in post-conventional morality. In the second case, the historical development involves a shift in the conception of law itself, in that the standard is raised regarding what skills and opportunities persons must be equipped with if a deliberative procedure is to count as legitimate. One of the interesting implications of this is that, since participation in public deliberation presupposes certain capacities, neo-Kantian moral and political theory cannot be as purely proceduralist as is often suggested, for it must rely tacitly on a minimally substantive conception of the justice in order to be able to determine whether participants in practical discourse have acquired (among other things) the practical relations-to-self necessary for engaging fully in collective or personal self-determination.(13)
With regard to these historical processes, Honneth emphasizes that the social struggles for either type of expansion are constrained, however, by the notions of universality and self-legislation, which make it normatively illegitimate (though perhaps factually accurate) to view rights as the embodiment of class interests. And it is precisely this universalistic core of modern law that is overlooked by attempts since Hegel to appropriate the model of the struggle for recognition. As Honneth argues in Chapter Seven, despite their insights into the non-Hobbesian character of many social struggles, Marx, Sorel, and Sartre all failed to appreciate that the appeal to rights has built into it the idea that every subject of the law must also be its author.
Solidarity and Self-Esteem
Whereas self-respect is a matter of viewing oneself as entitled to the same status and treatment as every other person, self-esteem involves a sense of what it is that makes one special, unique, and (in Hegel’s terms) ‘particular’. This enabling sense of oneself as a unique and irreplaceable individual cannot, however, be based merely on a set of trivial or negative characteristics. What distinguishes one from others must be something valuable.(14) Accordingly, to lack self-esteem is to have the sense that one has nothing of value to offer. In this way, individuality and self-esteem are linked. And it comes then as no surprise that members of denigrated groups have enormous difficulties being perceived in anything but stereotypical ways.
Hegel’s work on issues of individuality and particularity is truly ground-breaking, but he unfortunately tends to understand the relevant mode of recognition in terms of an overextended conception of romantic love. Because of this, Honneth focuses instead on Mead’s discussion of personal identity. Mead’s claim is that distinguishing oneself from others as an individual is a matter of what ‘we do better than others’.(15) The immediate difficulty with this, of course, is that not everyone can stand out above others. Mead tries to democratize this ‘sense of superiority’ by focusing on the division of labour in modern industrial societies, that is, by allowing individuals to find their functional roles in which to excel, not at the expense of others but precisely to the benefit of the whole.
In Honneth’s view, however, Mead overlooks the fact that not every job can actually serve as a basis for one’s ‘sense of superiority’ or self-esteem. Like the evaluation of the way in which the work is done, the esteem accorded to certain tasks hinges on a range of particular cultural factors. If, for example, homemaking is considered an insignificant contribution to the common good, then homemakers will lack the evaluative resources in terms of which they can acquire a sense of personal accomplishment. In this sense, the social conditions for esteem are determined by the prevailing sense of what is to count as a worthwhile contribution to society. By situating esteem not in the division of labour but the horizon of values of a particular culture(16), Honneth opens up the possibility of conceiving of the conditions for self-esteem as a field of contestation and cultural struggle for the recognition of previously denigrated contributors to the common good.
‘Solidarity’ is the term Honneth uses for the cultural climate in which the acquisition of self-esteem has become broadly possible. Although ‘being in solidarity with someone’ is sometimes equated with feelings of sympathy, Honneth’s view is that one can properly speak of ‘solidarity’ only in cases where some shared concern, interest, or value is in play. What he is concerned with here is not so much the collective defense of interests or the political integration of individuals, but rather the presence of an open, pluralistic, evaluative framework within which social esteem is ascribed. He claims that a good society, a society in which individuals have a real opportunity for full self-realization, would be a society in which the common values would match the concerns of individuals in such a way that no member of the society would be denied the opportunity to earn esteem for his or her contribution to the common good: ‘To the extent to which every member of a society is in a position to esteem himself or herself, one can speak of a state of societal solidarity.'(17) Unlike the sphere of rights, however, solidarity carries with it a moment of particularity: which particular values are endorsed by a community is a contingent matter, the result of social and cultural struggles that lack the universality that is distinctive of legal relations.
Honneth’s position here is usefully compared to the culturally oriented struggles of subaltern groups that have influenced recent debates over multiculturalism, feminism, and gay and lesbian identity. Like the politics of difference, Honneth views struggles for recognition in which the dimension of esteem is central as attempts to end social patterns of denigration in order to make possible new forms of distinctive identity. But again, for Honneth, esteem is accorded on the basis of an individual’s contribution to a shared project; thus, the elimination of demeaning cultural images of, say, racial minorities does not provide esteem directly but rather establishes the conditions under which members of those groups can then make their own contributions to the community. To esteem a person simply for being a member of a group would be to slip back into pre-modern notions of estate-based honour discussed earlier, rather than acknowledging the ‘individualized’ character of modern esteem. At the same time, of course, Honneth insists that the point of reference for esteeming each individual is the evaluative framework accepted by the entire community and not just one sub-culture. Here, it remains somewhat unclear what exactly determines the boundaries of the community in Honneth’s account – what if one is esteemed only by other Jews or other Blacks? – but the central point is that, in pluralistic and mobile societies, it is difficult to maintain self-esteem in the face of systematic denigration from outside one’s subculture.
Disrespect and the Moral Grammar of Historical Struggles
These intersubjective conditions for identity-formation provide the basis for Honneth’s ‘formal conception of ethical life’, understood as a normative ideal of a society in which patterns of recognition would allow individuals to acquire the self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem necessary for the full development of their identities. This ideal is not, however, a merely theoretical construct, but is implicit in the structure of recognition itself. For, as Hegel is able to show, recognition is worthless if it does not come from someone whom one views as deserving recognition. From this perspective, since the requirement of reciprocity is always already built into the demand for recognition, social struggles for the expansion of patterns of recognition are best understood as attempts to realize the normative potential implicit in social interaction.
Although the teleological language of ‘potential’ and an hypothetically anticipated ‘final state’ of this development may raise eyebrows, Honneth is careful to avoid suggesting a philosophy of history in the traditional sense of a necessary progression along a knowable, pre-ordained path. He insists that history is made less at the level of structural evolution than at the level of individual experiences of suffering and disrespect. His point is that one misses the ‘moral grammar’ of these conflicts if one fails to see that the claims to recognition raised in them can only be met through greater inclusion, the logical extension of which is something like the state of society envisioned by the formal theory of ethical life. In this way, Honneth argues, normative theory and the internal logic of social struggles mutually illuminate each other.
The idea of social conflict having a ‘moral’ dimension is not, of course, entirely new. It is a central focus of much recent work in social history inspired by the ground-breaking work of E.P. Thompson, and Honneth looks to that tradition – particularly in the work of Barrington Moore – for empirical support for his position.(18) Where Honneth departs from this tradition, however, is in arguing that ‘moral’ motives for revolt and resistance – that is, those based on a tacit understanding of what one deserves – do not emerge only in the defense of traditional ways of life (as Thompson and Moore suggest) but also in situations where those ways of life have gradually become intolerable.
Because key forms of exclusion, insult, and degradation can be seen as violating a person’s self-confidence, self-respect, or self-esteem, the negative emotional reactions generated by these experiences of disrespect provide the pretheoretical basis for social critique. Once it becomes clear that these experiences reflect not just the idiosyncratic misfortune of individuals but experiences that are shared by many others, the potential emerges for collective action aimed at actually expanding social patterns of recognition. Here, the symbolic resources of social movements play a crucial role in showing this disrespect to be typical of an entire group of people.
Hegel and Mead
As Honneth demonstrates, many of the ideas outlined above – in particular, the tripartite distinction among three relations of recognition as social prerequisites for identity-formation – were first suggested in the work of Hegel and Mead, and much of Honneth’s interest in these thinkers is in reconstructing a systematic social theory from their often fragmentary proposals. Beyond this, however, Honneth’s discussions also represent significant contributions to the secondary literature on these authors.
Honneth’s discussion of Hegel focuses on the elusive and little-discussed early texts from the years in Jena. His reading of these texts not only uncovers the resources for reconstructing a ‘recognition-theoretic’ social theory but also identifies important tensions between the texts, tensions that help to explain why Hegel was never able to develop such a social theory himself. In the earliest Jena writings (discussed in Chapter Two) and particularly in the System of Ethical Life, Hegel postulates a transition from ‘natural ethical life’ to ‘absolute ethical life’ in which the differentiation of society goes hand-in-hand with the development of human autonomy and individuality. Here, under the influence of Classical theories of the polis, Hegel develops strong notions of both the normative potential of communicative relations and the primacy of the social. But he is unable to provide a sufficiently precise account of either the distinctions between forms of recognition or the stages of individual development. Honneth then argues, in Chapter Three, that this more detailed account is precisely what Hegel’s later Realphilosophie provides. Unfortunately, however, this gain in analytical and psychological clarity also obscures some of the crucial insights found in the earlier writings, due to Hegel’s increasing reliance on a ‘philosophy of consciousness’, that is, the metaphysical framework characteristic of subject-centred philosophy from Descartes to Husserl. By focusing on the struggle for recognition at the level of the formation of individual consciousness, Hegel makes social shifts in patterns of recognition mere stages in the overarching process of Spirit’s formation through individual self-consciousness.(19) In Honneth’s view, the more interesting earlier notion, according to which individual and societal development mutually constitute each other, never returns in Hegel’s oeuvre, and it is for this reason that Honneth does not discuss what is certainly the best-known of Hegel’s discussions of the struggle for recognition, namely, the master-slave dialectic of the Phenomenology of Spirit. In effect, then, Honneth concludes that the earlier and later Jena writings negate each other, without Hegel ever being able to effect their Aufhebung [sublation].
In this connection, Mead represents a significant advance. For Honneth’s purposes, what makes Mead interesting is that he provides an account the tripartite interrelation between individual identity-formation and social patterns of interaction that is built on a non-speculative, postmetaphysical basis. In his discussion of Mead’s intersubjectivist conception of the self, Honneth is in substantial agreement with the work of Hans Joas, Ernst Tugendhat, and Habermas. Honneth develops his own criticism of Mead’s narrow reliance on the division of labour as a basis for post-traditional solidarity (discussed above) as well as a careful reconstruction of the important distinction in Mead between two kinds of ‘respect’ (corresponding to Honneth’s notions of ‘respect’ and ‘esteem’). But what is most distinctive about Honneth’s reading of Mead is his interpretation of the ‘I’ as a driving force of historical transformation. Something of the sort is needed to account for the expansion of identity-claims over time, for the development of new claims to recognition. Honneth sees Mead’s notion of the ‘I’ as offering a way of explaining how innovation is possible in this domain. On his reading, then, the ‘I’ is not merely the placeholder for the irretrievable subject of an individual’s thought and action but also the pre-conscious source of innovation by which new claims to identity come to be asserted.(20) On the basis of this, Honneth can then argue that historical transformations of social relations (in this case, individualization) are driven by the experiences and struggles of individuals and groups rather than functionalist dynamics.(21)
Aside from suggesting new lines of scholarly research, Honneth’s discussions of Hegel and Mead serve three further purposes. First, they provide the raw materials from which Honneth constructs his own position, including the notion of struggles for recognition driving the development of social structures, the tripartite distinction among patterns of recognition and types of practical relation-to-self, and the ideal of full human flourishing as dependent on the existence of reciprocal relations of recognition. Second, these interpretations serve to forestall easy dismissals of, say, Hegelian or Meadian ideas on the basis of misassociations or distortions built into prevailing views on these thinkers. Finally, the discussions of Hegel and Mead – along with those of Marx, Sorel, and Sartre – serve to situate Honneth’s own position within an often-overlooked tradition of social theory. By reconstructing and revising an alternative to the dominant tradition of modern social philosophy founded by Hobbes and Machiavelli, Honneth is able to undermine the apparent self-evidence of its underlying assumptions – in particular, assumptions about the self-interested (what Honneth calls ‘utilitarian’) motives for social conflict or the atomistic character of the state of nature. He thereby opens up the theoretical space within which the struggle for recognition can be conceived as an attempt on the part of social actors to establish the patterns of reciprocal recognition on which the very possibility of redeeming their claims to identity depends – a struggle to establish, in short, social justice in the fullest sense.