‘The I in We: Studies in the Theory of Recognition’ reviewed by Owen Hulatt

The I in We: Studies in the Theory of Recognition

Translated by Joseph Ganahl, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2012. 240pp., £17.99 pb
ISBN 9780745652337

Reviewed by Owen Hulatt

About the reviewer

Owen Hulatt is a Teaching Fellow in Philosophy at the University of York. He is the editor of the …


Axel Honneth can fairly be described as the figurehead of the currently influential movement to reposition social philosophy in general, and Critical Theory in particular, in line with what is known as the philosophy of recognition. Initially drawing on Hegel’s early work in the ‘Jena’ notes and Realphilosophie , in tandem with the object-relations theory of psychologist Winnicott and the philosophy of Mead, Honneth has argued that self-knowledge (and, by extension, personal autonomy) is constituted by relations of reciprocal recognition (Anerkennung). In order to conceive of myself as having a given status, the claim goes, I require a recognition partner who is able to visibly recognize my having this status. This entails a self-limitation on the part of my recognition partner (for example, my being recognized as a person with legal status entails your refraining from infringing on my rights).

Honneth further analyses this basic recognitive relation into three broad types – love, rights, and solidarity – which represent the kinds of self-understanding and action embedded in the family, law and state, respectively. In each case, my acquiring self-knowledge, and capacity for rational action, is predicated on my engagement with, and conformity to, pre-established spheres of recognitive behaviour.

This theory is critical in that these recognitive spheres bear intrinsic normative commitments, to which their participants (or those excluded from participating) can appeal. Honneth understands the spheres of recognition to have an intrinsic telos, this telos being the progressive universalization of access to the various forms of recognition, and the expansion of the structure of these forms of recognition. This is achieved through the struggle of those who find themselves outside of the extant recognitive structures, this struggle ultimately (ceteris paribus) effecting the expansion and universalization of the recognitive principles being contested, such that the demands and needs of the excluded can now be accommodated.

The I in We – originally published in German in 2010 as Das Ich Im Wir – is a collection of essays which ostensibly further refines this recognitive approach. In practice, it is somewhat more diffuse than the title implies: two chapters (6 and 7) are fairly sober appraisals of recent work on sociology and proceduralism, with a further chapter (13) wholly comprised of a fairly local dispute with Joel Whitebrook over some meta-psychological issues. Outside of this more obviously heterogeneous material, the book – in keeping with Honneth’s interdisciplinary approach – works through a number of issues in Hegel scholarship, proceduralism, psychoanalysis, sociology, and social analysis, this ‘working through’ being embedded in Honneth’s recognitive philosophy to a varying degree.

From a Marxist perspective, the central area of interest (and concern) with Honneth’s account has been its forfeiture of any developed theories of social control, ideology or exploitation. The rather neat, Panglossian picture of recognitive relations teleologically yielding up social progress developed in The Struggle for Recognition seemed somewhat politically inert, quietist and – most strikingly – thoroughly unconcerned with material relations of production and exploitation. Since the publication of that book, Honneth has progressively refined his position in relation to these questions (as in Reification: A Recognition Theoretic Account and Recognition and Power), a process continued in the present volume with qualified success.

This process begins with Honneth’s essay ‘Recognition as Ideology: The Connection between Morality and Power’ in which Honneth engages with the Althusserian idea of méconnaissance. Méconnaissance (best translated as ‘misrecognition’) is the Althusserian conception of recognition as in fact a form of distorted self-knowledge – recognition is for Althusser effected through interpellation, in which an other’s intersubjective address summons me to fulfil a distorted self-identity (and possess a distorted self-knowledge). Althusser’s account of méconnaissance, in which all relations of recognition result in distorted self-knowledge (and are, thereby, ideological), is treated very seriously by Honneth. This is, in a sense, rather disappointing. Althusser’s hyperbolically pessimistic account fits neatly with his hyperbolic structuralism, not to mention his slavish adherence to Lacan’s psychology; seen outside of these exotic dogmas, as Honneth readily points out, the concept of universal méconnaissance struggles to seem anything other than absurd. There is the suspicion that in tackling méconnaissance, Honneth has engaged with the problem of misrecognition at its weakest point. Despite the subtlety of Althusser’s philosophy in other areas – and his combination of the theory of méconnaissance with a materialist method of distinguishing ‘good’ from ‘bad’ ideology which Honneth completely ignores – his theory of méconnaissance is in many respects a ready-made straw man. Given Honneth’s concession that recognitive structures are normatively synchronized to pre-existent structures (as in love being synchronized to the values of the parent; legal recognitive demands being synchronized to extant forms of legal structure; and esteem being synchronized to extant forms of social reward), the possibility that recognitive demands could in fact be ideological misrecognition, in appealing to and entrenching social organizations which may be recognitively rewarding but materially exploitative seems to demand a response.

Having made short shrift of Althusser’s notion of méconnaissance, Honneth nonetheless concedes that ideology (of which Althusser’s account of méconnaissance is intended to be an analysis) remains a concern for social theory. Honneth understands ideology to consist in recognitive relations which lessen future opportunities for further recognitive self-development. As this definition might suggest, ideology is for the most part only identifiable in retrospect as, he claims, it is impossible to contemporaneously determine which recognitive structures close off future developments and which do not. Honneth offers the ideological self-conception of the character Uncle Tom as an example of this problem. It is, he claims, only with hindsight that we may condemn the lot of Uncle Tom; from his perspective, his cozy relationship with his owners provides recognitive benefits (he is recognized as a good slave). It is only from our future standpoint, Honneth claims, that we can discern that Uncle Tom’s recognitive set-up was incapable of allowing for further recognitive development and, hence, the recognition he was afforded can now be termed ideological.

Honneth adds a material dimension to this recognitive re-description of ideology. Honneth thinks that contemporaneous recognitive structures can be identified as ideological if they are not accompanied by the material complement which fully rounds out the proposed form of recognition. Honneth offers the example of the recent trend to redescribe wage labour as a form of entrepreneurship, pointing out – quite reasonably – that this proffered recognition is not backed up by material provisions which could make this recognition actual. In essence, ideology becomes for Honneth either a description of a past injustice or a present failure to keep one’s promise.

In Chapters 9 and 10, Honneth sets out to consider two claims familiar from the first generation of Critical Theory (as well as its roots, in Simmel, Weber, et al) – the problem of capitalism and individualisation, and the internally contradictory nature of capitalism’s development, respectively. In each case, Honneth revisits and recasts what are firmly entrenched notions in the analysis of capitalism.

Chapter 9, ‘Organized Self-Realization: Paradoxes of Individualization’ traces the contemporary prevalence of the attempt to aestheticize one’s own life in order to redescribe one’s choices, employment and obligations as moments in a broad narrative of self-realization. Honneth demonstrates how this notion – inherited from Romanticism – has been transformed from a project of the agent into a standing obligation imposed on the agent. This obligation allows capitalist structures increasingly to dissolve fixed labour relations, and to market superfluous goods, by legitimating these developments as providing further freedom for self-realization. In a clear demonstration of the benefits of Honneth’s interdisciplinary approach, he traces the roots of the ideological inversion of the ideal of authenticity through an ‘elective affinity’ between sociological, philosophical and economic developments.

Chapter 10, ‘Paradoxes of Capitalist Modernization’ – written with Martin Hartmann – claims that the conventional structure of analyses of capitalism rests on the idea of capitalism as being involved in a flat contradiction between its rational and technological resources, and its structures (these structures being construed as undermining or cancelling capitalism’s technological and rational achievements which hold out the promise of true freedom). Honneth seeks to replace this model with the ‘paradox’, in which the individual’s attempt to realize their intentions entails a reduction in probability of their realization (176). Honneth sees this paradoxicality as obtaining in four recognitive spheres (having added ‘the normative promise of institutionalized individualism’ to the three I outlined earlier). Through an argument which is unevenly developed, we are left with the claim that the struggle for recognition in each of these spheres has, under neoliberal capitalism, increasingly taken on a self-defeating aspect, serving only to undermine its own intention, and to tighten the grip of the structures which occasioned these struggles.

This notion of paradox, as opposed to contradiction, is rather less novel than is perhaps implied (Adorno’s Minima Moralia and Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason being just two clear precursors). However, the structural upshot is significant, in that Honneth has replaced the model of linear structural progression in recognitive relations, with a model which has considerably more room for the introduction of mediating relations, and the possibility of false recognitive demands. However, as with Reification: A Recognition-Theoretic Approach and Recognition and Power, this introduction of complexity and concession of difficulty is not allowed to ramify fully into Honneth’s approach. Recognition remains the sole optic through which to view all normative quandaries (cf. Honneth’s consideration of international relations in Chapter 8), and it is recognition which is nonetheless trusted to vouchsafe unity of theory and practice. It is precisely these kinds of questions (of whether normative questions can be answered positively; whether theory and practice can or should be unified) which seem to be pressed urgently as problems not only by the work of earlier Critical Theorists, but by the issues raised by Honneth’s own dialectic. In Honneth’s work, there is a general flattening of the Critical Theory (and, by extension, the Marxist) project and its terminology into the recognitive register. This can seem bemusing given the flagrantly exploitative material relations of production, pay, and consumption which presently obtain, all of which are presently outside of the recognitive account. The I in We shows Honneth fully aware of this difficulty, and continuing his effort to modify his recognitive account to meet this issue head on. And Honneth’s argumentation is never less than impeccable. Granted his presuppositions (concerning the progressive effect of ‘genuine’ recognitive demands; the absence of determining relations between individual demands and social structures; the irrelevance of Marxist materialism), Honneth is capable of flattening a great many phenomena and philosophical concerns into the recognitive register. It is, however, just this flattening (and those propositions) which is the point of dispute. A dispute which, despite the frequent gestures towards greater structural complexity in this book and elsewhere, appears to continue to be deferred.

2 December 2012

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