‘The Philosophy of Recognition: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ reviewed by Bryan Smyth

Reviewed by Bryan Smyth

About the reviewer

Bryan Smyth (basmyth@memphis.edu) teaches philosophy at the University of Memphis.


Since the 1990s, the notion of ‘recognition’ has occupied a prominent place within philosophical and political discourse. Based on the idea that subjectivity is formed intersubjectively, the central claim is that a necessary condition of authentic selfhood is to have one’s identity appropriately acknowledged by others. Just what is meant by identity and what such acknowledgement of it would entail has always been a matter of lively debate. But it is widely accepted that at least in cases of systemic oppression, misrecognition by others is a complicit harm. The political implications of this could be quite radical – think, for example, of Fanon’s analysis of racism in the colonial context – and it is a perspective with which most Marxists would sympathize. Yet it is also the case that identity-based recognition theory represents a repudiation of Marxism. Emerging in the wake of the new social movements of the 1970s and 80s, this approach belongs to the ‘cultural turn’ that rejected the perceived reductionism of historical materialism, especially its commitments to the priority of economic issues and the strategic centrality of the working class. So while a Marxist may sympathize with recognition struggles of this sort, she might simultaneously maintain that they are premised on an idealist reification of identity that will ultimately thwart any radical intentions they may have.

Structuring the typical Marxist perception of recognition theory, this tension may explain why, certain exceptions notwithstanding, this theory has not had much of an impact within Marxism. But even though there are real worries about the politics of recognition, this situation may be disconcerting. After all, much of the discourse of recognition tracks issues that remain areas of relative weakness within Marxism, and it would be unfortunate if a defensive reaffirmation of the received understanding of materialism were to obstruct the possible appropriation of productive conceptual resources. This is not to say that Marxism should ever align itself with a theory built on incompatible premises. But it is to open the question as to whether the cultural dynamics of recognition have a materiality which, even if it challenges traditional Marxist assumptions, does indeed fall squarely within the purview of historical materialism. That there could be a genuinely Marxist theory of recognition is entirely plausible, and so it would behove Marxism to explore this possibility if it could mean gaining a more analytically and normatively complex account of social injustice and of the emergence of revolutionary opposition to it.

This volume offers much food for thought along these lines. Following an introductory survey by Christopher Zurn, there are fourteen essays: the first seven take a primarily historical approach, while the rest have a more contemporary focus. This review will focus on those contributions that relate most closely to the philosophical concerns of Marxism.

Historical approaches to recognition have been especially concerned with Hegel, and this is reflected here with essays by Michael Quante, Ludwig Siep, and Terry Pinkard. Quante’s discussion is the most historically detailed, but it is limited to the Phenomenology even though Hegel had more and better to say on the theme in some of his earlier Jena works. Siep likewise limits his historical reflections to the Phenomenology, but mostly tries to relate Hegelian considerations to several contemporary problems in order to question the theoretical value of recognition. Pinkard also brings a Hegelian approach to current questions, but to somewhat greater effect. Focusing on the relation between recognition and the good, he shows that the former cannot be conceived in terms of right alone, but that it has substantial implications in terms of social goods—a salutary, if entirely uncontroversial, point from a Marxist perspective. Although these contributions are not especially remarkable, this sort of scholarship is useful inasmuch as a Marxist theory of recognition would require some new reading of Hegel.

But not only Hegel. Jay Bernstein contributes an excellent essay in which he reconstructs the basic arguments from Fichte’s Foundations of Natural Right that purport to ‘materialize idealism’ by integrating recognition with the materiality of embodiment in an account of the transcendental conditions of an egalitarian social order based in freedom. This work stands alongside other recent Fichte scholarship that disposes of the misleading image of him as a nutty ‘subjective idealist’. To be sure, there are, as Bernstein points out, some major problems with Fichte. But in terms of locating the philosophical antecedents of Marx (in abstraction from questions of direct influence), there is certainly a case to be made – not that Bernstein makes it – for the importance of Fichte’s ‘transcendental anthropology’.

In an essay that may be profitably read alongside Bernstein’s, Daniel Brudney reconstructs Marx’s vision of communism circa 1844 in terms of intersubjective recognition. Specifically, Brudney portrays the young Marx’s idea of a ‘true communist society’ as one in which production and consumption are institutively rooted in ‘mutual concern’ as a distinct sort of ‘practical attitude’, and this in a way, moreover, that shows that such a society would be a ‘well-ordered’ one in the Rawlsian sense. For anyone who dismisses the 1844 Manuscripts altogether this will be completely inconsequential. But otherwise it offers a very auspicious way to shore up the normative coherence and ideal feasibility of the idea of communism.

Turning to the contemporary side of things, Nancy Fraser’s essay ‘Rethinking Recognition’, originally published in New Left Review in 2000, is reprinted here. Although now slightly dated, this piece still conveys well some of Fraser’s core ideas: the rejection of any identity-based conception of recognition, and its replacement with a status-based conception in which the harm of misrecognition is understood not in terms of distorted subjective identity, but as the denial of ‘participatory parity’ within society. Among other things, this would allow for a more objective assessment of recognition struggles (many are, after all, reactionary). More importantly, it would counter what she perceived as the unacceptable displacement by claims for recognitive justice of more fundamental economic issues of distributive injustice. Fraser does not dismiss the legitimacy of the former. Her point is just that however interwoven they may be with struggles over economic inequality, struggles for recognition transpire at a distinct cultural level in a way that necessitates an at least dual approach to social justice. (In theoretical terms, this is based on the Habermasian distinction between ‘system’ and ‘lifeworld’, understood functionally and hermeneutically respectively.)

Marxists might be tempted by this. For it can be taken as responding to the rejection of Marxism by identitarian recognition theory by reaffirming the priority of economic justice while also embracing cultural struggles for recognition. But is this coherent? The worry would be that the connection between the respective dimensions of injustice is ultimately arbitrary—no compelling reason could be given as to why they couldn’t be remedied separately, or at least why recognition couldn’t be achieved through social reforms devoid of redistributive measures. But Marxism’s conception of capitalism as a totality militates strongly against such division.

The basic issue is thus poorly posed if it is seen as concerning the relation between justicial struggles located in social spheres that differ in kind. The problem with Fraser is that in adopting the system/lifeworld distinction, she (like Habermas) effectively reiterates the old base/superstructure model in a way that precludes any coherent alternative to economism or idealism. Some theoretical distinctions need to be drawn, of course. But to hive off the economy as a distinct domain is politically problematic and possibly unfounded from a materialist perspective.

This brings us to the centre of gravity of contemporary recognition theory: the work of Axel Honneth (the volume has four contributions related to this, including one by Honneth himself). The œuvre that Honneth has developed since the publication of The Struggle for Recognition (1992), and especially since he became director of the Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt in 2001, represents a methodical ‘reactualization’ of left-Hegelian social philosophy as, following Horkheimer, an immanent critique of capitalist society with ‘emancipatory intent’. It is with Honneth’s work especially – and whether it can be given a compelling materialist interpretation – that Marxists interested in recognition need to grapple.

The core of Honneth’s theory of recognition is an account of the fundamental types of normative interaction that condition autonomous individual self-realization. The most contentious of these concerns relations within the social division of labour (construed as broadly as possible) that support ‘self-esteem’ through the valuation of work as a contribution to societal goals. Honneth develops this in his contribution to the present volume. Inspired by Hegel, the critical task here is to disclose the implicit normative infrastructure of the capitalist organization of labour – for example, principles concerning fair wages and meaningful work – and to articulate this as a resource for ideological struggles over the interpretation of social goals and the terms of distributive justice. Key here is the claim that those normative principles have a ‘validity surplus’, in that they retain transformative leverage over institutions that fail to embody them fully. The upshot is thus that instead of reducing recognitive to economic justice, or else dualizing them, economic injustice is seen as supervening on social disesteem such that its redress – in addition to whatever else it may entail – is best understood as a recognitive ideal.

This may seem wildly naïve. But the underlying motivation is solid: rejecting the system/lifeworld distinction, and thus conceiving the economy in terms of social rather than system integration. For otherwise economic structures are placed beyond the range of critique and intentional transformation. Indeed, seemingly anonymous and ‘norm-free’ economic imperatives couldn’t be conceived to function at all, and to affect people’s lives as they do, unless they were in fact embedded in a normative totality. Honneth’s theory thus takes the form of an action-theoretic monism grounded in the dynamics of social interaction, for this is where culture and economics intersect concretely.

Three other essays make contributions favourable to this theory. Hans-Christoph Schmidt am Busch undertakes a critical examination of the conception of social esteem, and ultimately finds that indeed a theory of recognition along those lines can obviate the need for a separate functionalist account of the capitalist economy, such that a rigorous analysis and critique of capitalism could be made on the basis of such a theory alone. Emmanuel Renault and Jean-Philippe Deranty – who have each made important Marxist-inspired contributions to the field – are also positively inclined to Honneth’s general approach. But understanding it as attempting a ‘redemptive critique’ of Marxism, they appreciate critically that on its own this theory is insufficient and must be extensively supplemented with a more comprehensive social theory. Renault thus aims to deflect Marxist criticisms of Honneth that are based on the incorrect assumption that his theory of recognition is itself intended to be such a theory, and hence to leave space for a possible rapprochement. To this end, Deranty presents some stimulating suggestions as to how the need for a credible political-economic framework might be satisfied. With reference to institutionalism and regulation theory, which emphasize the cultural and normative embeddedness of economic phenomena, Deranty shows that viable resources are available with which to explain the complex coordination of the economy in terms of social integration. The crucial thought lies in the observation that Marxists are as guilty as anyone in perpetuating the myth that economics is some sort of hard science, rather than a hermeneutical one. For once we disabuse ourselves of that error, the prospects for developing a more complete theory of recognition on a materialist basis become significantly brighter.

There is much in this volume which could be taken up productively by Marxist philosophers toward a more sophisticated framework for theorizing the dynamics of contemporary class struggle. But one must beware of the Hegelian character of recognition theory, especially in the case of Honneth, the force and justification of whose work stems from the radical immanence of its standpoint. Marxism shares this refusal of nostalgic and utopian ideals, which is necessary for the unity of theory and practice. Yet it also runs the risk of leaving us, if not mired in the status quo, then at least unable to transcend its implicit normative horizons. It may seem highly unlikely that sufficient ‘validity surplus’ obtains in the normative infrastructure of contemporary capitalism to underwrite revolutionary social change. But if recognitive principles could be reconceived dynamically from the standpoint of, say, communism as ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’, then a dialectical bond between recognition and revolution might be found after all.

2 November 2012

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