‘The Experience of Injustice: A Theory of Recognition’ by Emmanuel Renault reviewed by Rory Jeffs

The Experience of Injustice: A Theory of Recognition

Tr. Richard A. Lynch, Columbia University Press, New York, 2019. 304 pp., $75 hb
ISBN 9780231177061

Reviewed by Rory Jeffs

About the reviewer

Rory Jeffs is a teaching fellow at University College, University of Tasmania. …


As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, the legacy of the New Left in postwar twentieth century social-political movements continues to keep alight the torch of progress in maintaining a consciousness around social justice issues, especially as they apply to vulnerable groups and minorities. At the same time, as these struggles and campaigns for social justice have proliferated, the torch of progress has suffered shortfalls in the broader direction of history with the advent of economic globalisation and its neoliberal hegemony, paralleled by rises in religious fundamentalism an intolerance and resurgent right-wing populism in the ‘age of Trump’. Nevertheless, part of this vigilant spirit of social justice that continues to keep watch echoes Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dictum: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ The effort to conceptualise or define justice has always been a heavy philosophical business since Socrates posed the question on the streets of Athens over two thousand years ago. But as Emmanuel Renault reminds his readers, it is experience of injustice itself that needs to be in focus and the starting point of departure for any critical theory of society. As Renault argues in The Experience of Injustice, by taking our eyes off the experiential dimension of injustice, political philosophy or theory risks wandering into abstractions and possibly falling short of any genuine or effective critique of contemporary society and its politics.

The Experience of Injustice was originally published in French in 2004 and has only recently been translated. It speaks much to its time of publication in terms of French critical theory’s revaluation of recognition theory and normative social critique in the wake of the work of Axel Honneth in the 1990s, as well as anti-globalisation movements. The book attempts in three-parts to both pose a critique of the ‘paradigm of recognition’ that could be said to be pre-Honnethian, but also expand that paradigm into a post-Honnethian framework and widen the scope of social critique. In the first task, it presents quite a cutting critique of the model of politics dominant in the political philosophy of John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. For Renault, the Rawlsian theory of prioritarianism that aims at eliminating the worst forms of suffering, and the Habermasian communicative ethics that aim at rendering discursive claims for justice, assume too much of an equal playing field when it comes to the hearing out demands for justice and accessibility and efficacy of public standards of justification such as consensus to effect change in society (45).

There are, however, demands that have existed and will continue to exist for Renault that cannot be translated or successfully converted into the kind of recognitive-based models of justice mapped by Rawls and Habermas. Such demands generate from a wide array of phenomena, where feelings of injustice are expressed yet prove to be difficult to articulate or communicate within the philosophical traditional or dialogic terms of political philosophy. While Renault does not specifically provide any clear example of a feeling of injustice that would be theoretically impossible to meet justification criteria belonging to such a tradition, his more pressing point concerns this manner of perspective or focus within political philosophy that often remains entrapped in ‘normative language games that stand in the way of demands aimed against the injustice of situation.’ (46).

It is no wonder then that Renault views Honneth’s model of recognition as a breakthrough for normative political philosophy that could arguably transcend the limits faced by the models advocated by Habermas and Rawls. Following Honneth’s reconstruction of recognition theory, Renault claims the ‘value of the paradigm of recognition’ lies in its capacity to render account of experiences of injustice in four dimensions: the affective, the alienating, the dynamic and the discord that occurs between recognitive expectations and the discourse or ‘social grammar of recognition’ (46). Interestingly, in the new preface to the English translation, Renault admits to seeing deficits emerging in Honneth’s philosophy over the last couple of decades: from his move away from the Adorno-inspired ‘methodological negativism’ (immanent critique) and the social psychology of Mead for Durkheim’s functionalist sociology and more neutral or formal political stances (internal critique) (xiii-xxi). Nevertheless, against the often-ascribed subjectivism with which critics target Honneth’s account of misrecognition, Renault reinforces the critical advantage Honneth’s original theory had in underlining the experiential nature of misrecognition as a ‘moral feeling’ that reveals ‘emotional raw materials’ by way of a ‘phenomenology of everyday experience’ (50, xv). Renault argues that this theoretical model serves a practical ‘frame of injustice’ which reveals an inherent link between ‘disappointed expectations’ (the affective element) and consciousness or knowledge of a situation’s injustice (the cognitive element). Hence, any instance where a group or individual has a ‘disappointed expectation’ can only inform a public claim of misrecognition if it can be reflected on, communicated, and understood discursively as a ‘normative expectation’ (51-52). Hence, the dialectical twist on recognition theory Renault is proposing here is that ‘the experience of injustice must be interpreted as an experience of consciousness […] as a dialectical process that allows one to achieve a higher knowledge.’ (53-54)

This central tenet of a dialectical movement to recognition obviously leans back on Hegel’s famous account of recognition. In chapter three (‘Institutions of Injustice’), Renault chooses to illustrate such a dialectic in the context of modern institutions. If we can accept the premise that the modern rationalisation of the social world results from the social-historical construction of institutions through a process of inter-subjective struggles concerning moral-normative claims, Renault argues, institutions can then ‘be understood […] as the object of most fundamental normative expectations. The theory of recognition thus has the objective of describing these expectations’ (101). However, Renault fully concedes that the role of institutions in any society can be dangerously ambivalent. Rather than critique institutions as structurally ‘expressive’ of recognitive relations (e.g. Marxist or Foucauldian approaches), Renault looks to John Dewey’s account of recognition that distinguishes between habit and impulse in order to remodel how intersubjectivity functions through the mediation of institutions (103-04). By arguing that this dialectic springs from a relation of expectations and effects, from one side, we can see then that institutions have a normative capacity to secure positive recognition-relations for citizens. Yet, the other side of this role is that institutions can be obstacles which fail to satisfy normative expectations and effectively deny people recognition through processes of devaluation, ‘invisibilization’ and the ‘tearing-apart’ of social identification (107-11).

A key part of Renault’s argument would appear to depend on the intersubjective basis of institutions’ legitimacy and how changes to institutions form out of struggles for recognition rather than systematic changes to modes of production, power-relations or functionalist systems. But if we accept the Hegelian premise, this does open some possibilities for thinking of how we can diversify and organise a range of claims against experienced injustices. Renault argues these possibilities out via two areas. The first is with identity politics and second, in cases of psychic suffering; hence, why Renault dedicates Part Two (‘The Politics of Identity and the Identity in Politics’) to explaining his view of identity and then providing a qualified defence of identity politics. Back in 2004, let alone today, identity politics remains a hotly-debated topic, criticised from both the left and right – whether for its divisive nature, political correctness, assumptions about identity or its sidelining of economic injustices and class issues. Yet, Renault finds that at a fundamental level, struggles for identity are not mutually exclusive from social or class struggles for the redistribution of economic goods. Even if there are points of divergence (e.g. minimum wage claims and recognition of diverse languages/religious practices), there are also examples of their convergence (e.g. the struggles of Ecuadorian indigenous peoples, Dalits in India) (160-62). The problem Renault sees with the standard criticisms of identity politics is their imposition of a theoretical framework that is outside dynamics of the ‘expression of the demand’ itself involved in the particular social movement, and thence, neglecting the primacy of the experience (170). Against assuming identity politics can only end up fragmenting social movements or foreseeing the need for a new paradigm of intersectionality, Renault maintains the underlying dynamics of identity struggles present instead a crucial source for the development of any broader normative critique of society.

The extension of this argument means that identity may be able to mediate the gap between psychic and social forms of suffering. As discussed in the last part of the book (‘Social Suffering’), Renault challenges the approaches within sociology and psychology (especially in the French context) that have maintained a demarcation between social and psychic suffering. He says for example, that an individual’s psychic suffering can manifest as a social ‘non-pathological’ form of suffering from effects of specific social processes such as precariousness and social disaffiliation (e.g. homelessness), where social supports of recognition have been deprived. From this link, Renault attempts then to challenge the dichotomy of ‘conflict or alienation?’ that would compare psychosocial descriptions with meta-psychological descriptions from Schopenhauer to Freud that source such suffering in ontological conflict rather than specific social causes (191, 208-210). If a case can be made for the social genesis of psychic suffering, Renault asserts the centrality of the ‘positive relation to self’ to recognition theory is not just then about identity, but also the vulnerability of that positive relation to self as dependent upon conditions of socialisation and social support. Psychic(social) forms of suffering can then be seen along a ‘continuum’, present in instances ranging a low-paid or precarious work (or work of degrading conditions), to the long-term unemployed and disaffiliated (215-216). However, this would appear to raise once again the question of how we epistemologically distinguish pathological expressions or intolerant expressions from normative (non-pathological) expressions of misrecognition and avoid the issue of subjectivism. Furthermore, as Renault himself admits, even if a social source to psychic suffering can be identified through inter-disciplinary research that may locate an objective link, this is moot if the sufferers themselves cannot consciously express normative dimension (223).

Renault concludes from his wide-ranging analysis that a constitutive concept of recognition that attends closely to the experiences of injustice whenever they arise would be committed to an ‘expansive concept of justice’ that recasts its extension and domain to cover different forms of social justice, to cover a ‘global picture’ (222, xxiv). The interesting implication Renault draws from this standpoint is that philosophy as a form of social critique must learn to ‘take sides’ if it serious about the value of recognition or justice. This means philosophy should bear witness to the expressions of injustice, but also act as ‘spokespersons’, especially regarding struggles of ‘les sans [the deprived]’ (e.g. undocumented immigrants, unemployed and landless) (182-87).

Whilst Renault underlines an important function for critical theory in current forms of social critique, it still appears to beg questions about its own praxis as a model of political action in unifying the Marxist sides of theoretical and practical critique. For this reason, the common cases of scepticism shown towards recognition theory appears to still be an obstacle for it to claim purchase in collectivising any social movement or praxis, or showing that a more expansive model identity alone can form an effective global solidarity. Often, such scepticism is marked in terms of whether recognition theory can affect serious structural change on a macro-scale in the global economy, and that only a systematic overthrow of capitalism itself will effectively end such injustices – to the point, that it has become charged as a counter-revolutionary ideology. However, the framework Renault utilises in The Experience of Injustice problematises these theoretical borders raised by critics as more porous than we might first think. The book obliges its reader (and in particular, the sceptic) then to take seriously resilient aspects of recognition theory that are often reflected in the expressive-pragmatic and spontaneous nature of social movements that would urge any caution to simply prematurely declare recognition an exhausted paradigm in itself – even if questions over its future praxis or immanent potential for global social transformation are still open for debate.

15 July 2020

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