‘Das Recht der Freiheit: Grundriβ einer demokratischen Sittlichkeit’ reviewed by Adrian Wilding

Reviewed by Adrian Wilding

About the reviewer

Adrian Wilding is currently a visiting scholar at the Institut für Philosophie, …


To the English reader unfamiliar with his philosophy it may be helpful to picture Honneth as the more Hegelian face of the contemporary Frankfurt School, in contrast to the largely Kantian allegiances of his elder colleague Jürgen Habermas. Hegel has always played a key role in Honneth’s work and with each new statement of his philosophy we often see a re-reading and application of different parts of the Hegelian corpus. If Honneth’s 1992 work The Struggle for Recognition can be viewed as an attempt to interpret, apply and update elements of Hegel’s Jena writings prior to the Phenomenology of Spirit, then his latest work Das Recht der Freiheit (The Right of Freedom) can helpfully be understood as doing the same with Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. About this Honneth himself is clear, both in terms of the structure he gives to this work – a series of triads and ‘transitions’ – and its theme: how questions of morality and justice need to be placed in social and historical contexts, and how particular social and political institutions embody to a greater or lesser degree a ‘social freedom’. Each of these themes consciously nods towards Hegel’s great early nineteenth century work of political philosophy.

An aside on Honneth’s title is immediately needful. Recht can mean both ‘right’ (with the same connotations as the English word) but also ‘law’ (again with all the various meanings of the English term) so that an alternative translation might be ‘The Law of Freedom’. The latter formulation would certainly highlight one feature of political philosophy in a Hegelian style which has vexed many readers ever since the Young Hegelians first encountered the Rechtsphilosophie, namely that the state and its laws are often presented as an enabler of – rather than a threat to – human freedom. Undoubtedly a working knowledge of Hegel’s political philosophy and the controversies it has raised is useful background to the present book. But Honneth also writes for a readership which knows something of recent Anglo-American political philosophy, for example Rawls, Nozick, Walzer, MacIntyre and Korsgaard. His aim is to draw these latter thinkers onto more Hegelian terrain, and to this end one argument running through the early part of the book is that any purely procedural theory of justice (such as that of Rawls) is inadequate because it operates in a realm abstracted from the actual institutions which give justice its substantial reality. Honneth aims to treat questions of justice not abstractly (subsequently applying the findings to particular social and political institutions) but by means of a ‘normative reconstruction’ of actual social institutions which – to a greater or lesser degree – embody justice. It is social and political institutions (which Hegel called ‘objective spirit’) that give substance and reality and context to questions of morality, justice or freedom, even if these institutions themselves never fully realise their ideals. The last caveat is an important one for Honneth, since a common objection to Hegel’s Rechtsphilosophie is that it legitimises the social institutions of the day: a tendency famously represented by Karl Popper (but shared even by Adorno) who regarded Hegel’s Philosophy of Right as an apologia. For Honneth, by contrast, Hegel always took modern political institutions to have a Freiheitsversprechen character, that is, a promise of freedom which in no way implies that they fully realise freedom at any particular moment or in any particular place.

The first section of Recht der Freiheit expound a tripartite conception of freedom – ‘negative freedom’, ‘reflexive freedom’ and ‘social freedom’. The first two will be comprehensible to an English readership familiar with Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive liberty, and map fairly neatly onto those. The third is something different, and names that freedom which is embodied in the institutions of a particular polity and is thereby recognised (the Hegelian meaning of the word is intended). At the personal level this requires that an individual’s freedom be recognised by another individual whose freedom in turn is recognised by the first. At a collective level, so Honneth argues, it implies institutions which embody this mutually recognitive freedom and so enable merely subjective desires to be objectively realised. Purely negative freedom contents itself with a world of subjective and exclusive liberty over against a social environment it sees as a potential barrier to its desires. Reflexive freedom takes a step further by putting these purely subjective and self-interested desires in question and asking about ends and the value of the things desired. But only social freedom speaks of matching an inner, subjective liberty with an outer, objective freedom socially actualised.

The section which follows can be seen as paralleling the critical treatment of negative and reflexive freedom, one section dealing with ‘legal freedom’, one with ‘moral freedom’. In Hegelian fashion, these are treated as necessary but nevertheless inadequate steps towards the more complete realm of social freedom whose treatment forms by far the largest part of the book. Parts of these sections can be dense and somewhat tough going, perhaps coincidentally where Honneth seems to be in implicit dialogue with Habermas. Fortunately they are interspersed with lively illustrations of the argument via literature and film, Here, for example, the ‘pathologies’ of legal freedom are discussed via the film Kramer v. Kramer with its tale of destructive litigiousness (164-5), Henry James’s novels are said to tell of the harm that can inadvertently be done by following the moral law (212-13), and Virginia Woolf’s idea of a ‘room of one’s own’ – where the individual claims only so much property and privacy as allow her to preserve her identity and pursue basic life choices – is used to illustrate Hegel’s minimalist view of private property (136-7).

With ‘social freedom’ we come to the third and key section of the book, the context to (and deepening of) those freedoms already mentioned. This almost 400 page final section of the work is rich and thought-provoking and though long is enlivened by empirical and historical detail. A reader of the Rechtsphilosophie will recognise here what Hegel called ‘ethical life’ or ‘the good become alive’ and Honneth’s sub-section headings note not only an ‘I’ become ‘We’ but also mirror ethical life’s distinction into family, civil society and state, here updated as ‘personal relations’, ‘market-economic action’ and ‘democratic will-formation’. Again Honneth emphasises that any reconstruction of these ‘spheres’ of social freedom does not imply their unquestioned legitimation or that their realisation of freedom is complete: the apparently superseded norms of negative and reflexive freedom in fact remain as available measures by which the quality and depth of social freedom can be judged, revised and improved.

From this long and detailed part of the book I note here just one argument from the section on ‘market-economic action’ because it conveys very well the overall tenor. Honneth develops an argument derived from Durkheim and Polanyi (and ascribed here to Hegel) about the moral preconditions of markets (so-called ‘moral economy’) which he then employs against Marx’s view of wage labour as inherently forced and unfree. Contra Marx, Honneth suggests that exploitation and enforced contracts should not be viewed as ‘structural deficits which can only be overcome beyond capitalism’ but should instead be seen as ‘deviations’ from the ‘normative promise’ latent in the market contract itself (357). Theory’s task is therefore not to oppose the marketplace but to trace how, through its own logic, the market projects gradual improvements in the quality of social freedom. This key principle of moral economy is adopted surprisingly uncritically by Honneth and forms the background to his wider project in this largest part of the book: a detailed ledger of freedoms won and lost in the spheres of exchange, consumption and the labour market over the last two centuries.

Das Recht der Freiheit is undoubtedly an important book, one which will likely vie with The Struggle for Recognition for the status of Honneth’s magnum opus. It has certainly generated much interest and comment in Germany. In this context one particular published criticism is worth mentioning. In a review for Die Zeit Ludwig Siep has suggested that Honneth’s notion of recognition is ‘strangely conflict-free’: it seems to be couched too much in terms of co-operation and complementarity while conflicts of interest in the economic or political sphere seem largely absent (Siep 2011). Siep asks if Honneth has ‘perhaps over-estimated the immanent promise in the institutions he analyses’. Hegel himself, Siep points out, spoke less of the immanent ‘moralisation’ of markets as of their inherent tendency to crises, which could only be remedied by outside intervention.

For me the most revealing passage in the book comes where Honneth suggests that not only Hegel but Marx was a founding father of social freedom construed as mutual recognition. And not only the early Marx but even the Marx of Capital ‘never strayed far’ from a Hegelian view of ‘the other as key to the fulfilment of the self’s capabilities’ (97). So far so interesting, but in the lines that follow, where it is unclear exactly how much is endorsed or merely paraphrased, Honneth describes how for Marx (his source here is the Comments on James Mill) capitalist exchange undermines mutual recognition’s foundations: the ‘alien mediator’ of ‘money’ produces recognition in contradictory, alienated and caricatured form, turns reciprocity into a ‘mere semblance’. The point is intriguing because it surely correctly grasps capital’s damaging effect on mutual recognition’s very existence; but when taken seriously it is an insight which starts to unravel some of Honneth’s own conclusions. Certainly it could have helped him explain why his ledger of social freedoms lists more losses than gains, why freedom today is – so to speak – in the red.

Problematic too are some of the examples of ‘pathologies’ of freedom. Honneth is rather quick to condemn the way Ulrike Meinhof rejected her ‘bourgeois existence’ for ‘terroristic fanaticism’ (217-8). He conspicuously fails to mention the considerable support which the Rote Armee Fraktion had from the German public at the time, a fact which suggests Meinhof’s case is more complex than a fanatical moralism vainly battling the world’s course. Did Meinhof exemplify moral freedom gone awry or rather an understandable if troubling attempt to rescue a social freedom threatened by emergency laws? The question is a topical one when such laws are resurfacing in Western states (employed typically to neutralise and discourage protest) and are creating similar – and similarly understandable – political frustration.

Finally, one is left with a nagging doubt as to whether Honneth’s take on recognition, and mutual recognition in particular, is wholly faithful to Hegel’s own version of the same. Theory today is replete with left-liberal versions of mutual recognition (despite their differences the work of Charles Taylor and Nancy Fraser shares this family resemblance). Within this framework it is sometimes as if mutual recognition is being understood merely as a sophisticated form of reciprocal respect, which limits its political scope to – at best – proposals for strengthening minority rights or redistributing a modicum of wealth. Honneth’s emphasis on freedom takes him a step further than those two thinkers but he seems to remain within the same circumscribed political horizon, aiming at most to help improve the institutions of liberal democracy. But as Richard Gunn argues in his forthcoming Five Lectures on Hegel, an attempt to make recognition consonant with liberal democracy risks diluting or distorting the original meaning of the term. It risks, that is, losing purchase on the radically interactive ideal of self-determination intended by Hegel in his Jena work and which, when grasped in its full implications, requires that the existing social world (the world of liberal-democratic institutions included) be put wholly in question, be ‘turned upside down’. In this light Honneth’s (correct) belief that mutual recognition demands an objective social freedom to match its subjective counterpart needs to be pushed to its revolutionary conclusion, most likely further than Honneth himself is willing to go.

8 August 2012


  • Siep, Ludwig 2011 Pessimistisches Resümee trennt Honneth von Hegel Die Zeit 18.8.2011

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