The Sociological Deficit Of Contemporary Critical Theory – Axel Honneth’s Theory Of Recognition, Part 1 (Piet Strydom)

The following is the first installment of a four-part series.

From his doctoral work published in extended form in 1985 under the title of Kritik der Macht to interviews as late as 2003 and 2009, Axel Honneth repeats the claim that the tradition of Frankfurt School Critical Theory as a whole suffers from what he calls a “sociological deficit”.

According to his analysis, this theoretical lacuna is manifest in the tradition as a tendency to either ignore or exclude the very core of the social, yet it takes a different form in the first and second generations. By the core of the social Honneth understands the fact that social integration or social order in the sense of a normative recognition order is achieved through an incessant process of contestation and struggle. While the early and later critical theorists all failed to deal adequately with this dimension, they did so in complementary ways.

On the one hand, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno grossly underestimated the inherent nature and character of the social lifeworld. While they remained more or less aware of social conflict, their Marxist functionalism, reinforced by their Nietzschean-Weberian normative skepticism, made it impossible for them to ascribe a meaningful role in the process of the reproduction of society either to the interpretative achievements of the members or to moral norms. Jürgen Habermas, on the other hand, stressed precisely the communicative rationality of the social lifeworld and the role of normative structures, including moral norms, in social integration neglected by his predecessors. However, this characteristic emphasis had the effect of distracting him to such a degree that he tended to underplay, if not to loose sight of, contestation and conflict in social life.

This diagnosis of a sociological deficit in the work of the different generations of critical theorists reveals the central motivation driving Honneth’s project to revitalize Critical Theory and to renew critique which, since his habilitation thesis of 1992 titled Kampf um Anerkennung, has become internationally identifiable by the concept of‘recognition’. The avowed aim of this project of his is precisely to overcome this debilitating sociological deficit by continuing the tradition in the form of a new, more adequate theoretical version of Critical Theory. Instead of the key theoretical concept of labor or language, as in previous cases, he is convinced that recognition is the most promising theoretical means for developing this new version.

Having dealt with Honneth’s project from methodological and epistemological angles elsewhere, I am devoting this article to a parallel analysis of his attempt thus far to correct the sociological deficit of Critical Theory. I propose to do so by reconstructing and critically assessing his recognition-theoretical version of Critical Theory through focusing on the theoretical core of a series of his relevant writings. It goes without saying that, by proceeding in this way, it will be possible neither to cover the development of his theoretical position in detail nor to do full justice to all the intricacies and nuances of his argumentation.

The aim is rather to locate his proposal in comparative opposition to the faulty position he wishes to correct and, against that background, to suggest the possibility of drawing from a contemporary point of view on elements available in both in order to go beyond them toward a potentially more adequate theoretical option than the one Honneth is advocating.

The principal argument of the article is developed in three steps. The first task is to clarify what Honneth’s understands by the sociological deficit of Critical Theory and, correspondingly, what he has in mind as a theoretical solution to this problem (I). Against this background, it then becomes possible to reconstruct Honneth’s position in more detail by focusing on a selection of core statements from a series of theoretically relevant publications (II).

Finally, I develop the critical observations offered along the way in their own right in order to arrive at an assessment of Honneth’s position which simultaneously points toward a potentially more adequate and justifiable theoretical articulation of Critical Theory (III). To anticipate, I argue that there is a sociological deficit not only in first and second generation Critical Theory, but also in Honneth’s contemporary version. It centres on the lack of sociological theorization and substantiation of the mechanisms of mutual recognition and their interrelation which are responsible for social integration and development.

Such theoretical substantiation, I argue, is promised by the development of sociology in relation to one of the most important – if not the most important – intellectual developments of our time, namely the cognitive revolution. It should be pointed out, to be fair to Honneth, that he does not make excessive claims about the position he has developed so far; on the contrary, he stresses that the success of his attempt to correct the long-standing sociological deficit of critical theory will require time to be confirmed.

The Sociological Deficit of Critical Theory

Throughout his writings, early as well as late, Axel Honneth consistently makes the claim that the work of the representatives of critical theory in the Frankfurt School tradition is marred by what he calls a “sociological deficit“. Between 1985 and 1994, he undertook a number of analyses to demonstrate the tenability of this claim in respect of Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, and in subsequent years he either fell back on these analyses or reinforced them.

In Honneth’s doctoral thesis, the expression “sociological deficit” is at the very outset applied to Max Horkheimer’s theory of society which, as tradition-founding contribution to critical theory, conditioned also the theoretical positions which Adorno and Habermas subsequently developed. He traces the root cause of the problem to Horkheimer’s philosophy of history and the theoretical framework he established on that basis. In keeping with his model of the philosophy of history which was conceived strictly in terms of the domination of nature, Horkheimer prioritized the concept of labour, with the result that he foreshortened societal development into a one-dimensional process of the expansion and upgrading of labour competences alone.

This process he then related to the plastic human biological drives and their shaping by socialization in accordance with the historically specific requirements and demands of the economic organization of society. In his mature theory, following the idea of culture as superstructure, he regarded the process of socialization in terms of the concept of an institutionalized cultural apparatus – including parental childrearing techniques, educational curricula and religious rituals – as the medium for the transfer and inculcation, however indirect and incomplete, of the behavioural compulsions required by the economic imperative.

Necessitated by the dualistic categorical scheme of true knowledge of reality and irrational drives, this concept of culture was shorn of the elements of action theory which had still been present in Horkheimer’s inaugural address of 1931 and, as a consequence, it occluded every possibility of accommodating certain vital dimensions of critical theory. Being vital, these dimensions of necessity periodically intruded into Horkheimer’s work in a forced unofficial and unaccounted way.

Among them are not only reflexive and critical competences and cultural action in the sense of the cooperative interpretative generation of orienting normative frameworks, but even social struggle as the conflictual counterpart of cultural action which, as he perfectly well knew, was indispensable to the process of societal development.

At the center of the incoherence of this conceptual framework Honneth discovers the sociological deficit he ascribes to Horkheimer’s version of critical theory. The resulting “Marxist functionalism” based on the key concept of labor and its relation to the human drives found institutional embodiment in the Institute for Social Research’s interdisciplinary social scientific program. It was based on the two pillars of political economy and psychoanalysis, with a conceptually neglected and underdeveloped sociology serving at best as an auxiliary discipline.

As a consequence of this lopsided development, not only the whole spectrum of normal, ordinary everyday social action was excluded from the interdisciplinary program, but by the same token also the central sociological task of investigating social reality against the background of the experience of different social groups and the both conflictual and cooperative process of the generation of cultural orientation complexes and their social actualization.

It is due to his single-minded focus on labour and, hence, his inability to unlock and unwillingness to analyze the normal case of social action that Horkheimer was compelled to leave the concept of social conflict theoretically undeveloped and unsubstantiated. What is thus above all theoretically lacking in critical theory from the very outset, in Honneth’s view, is “the analysis of social mediation” among the different dimensions of society – a judgement that should be kept in mind since it is the idea which guides his own proposal for the overcoming of the sociological deficit and also makes possible a critical assessment and transcendence of his proposal.

Dialectic of Enlightenment

While the principal ideas of the Dialectic of Enlightenment derive from the essays Horkheimer wrote in the early 1940s in a pessimistic mood induced by his disillusionment with the failure of revolutionary forces, it is Adorno who drove the central argument under the impression of the more general historical phenomenon of the establishment of totalitarian state systems which he thought were suggested by the emergence of Fascism, Stalinism and American monopoly capitalism. Honneth sees this particular framing as having strengthened their tendency to totalize Horkheimer’s idea of the domination of nature into the idea of a collective compulsion toward societal self- assertion and self-maintenance which took on the bloated proportions of full-scale instrumental rationality.

The social theoretical implications of this position are evident from Adorno and Horkheimer’s view that the domination of nature extends right into the heart of society itself and, therefore, that internal social states of affairs and relations could be analyzed only in terms of the instrumental rationality pervading the relation of human beings to nature. The pound of flesh exacted by this particular perspective was rather demanding. It allowed Adorno and Horkheimer to regard as admissible and viable under the prevailing historical conditions only two very specific, closely related forms of social domination or organization.

The first form is of a physical nature and is characterized by the subjection of the population to unequally distributed social labour through threats of violence and the actual employment of certain forms and means of violence. The second is of a psychic nature and involves the use of a variety of means of persuasion and manipulation with the aim of influencing and shaping needs and attitudes in a way favorable to those in power. Excluded here, as in the case of Horkheimer’s earlier design of the interdisciplinary program of critical t

heory which provided the precedent followed in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, is the normal, more or less consensual form of social domination or organization which is achieved and maintained through the competitive and even conflictual yet nevertheless cooperative process of the collective generation of norms within a normative horizon which to some degree accommodates also the orientations of subordinate social groups.

Accordingly, Honneth perceives the sociological deficit of the Dialectic of Enlightenment in Adorno and Horkheimer’s inability and unwillingness to takeaccount of the reflexive and creative competences, interpretative achievements and cultural activities of the interacting social groups in society. The re-employment in the new version of critical theory of Horkheimer’s narrow theory of action reduced to the sole concept of labour compelled them to ignore “the existence of an intermediary sphere of social action“.

Theodor Adorno

To Adorno Honneth ascribes ‘the complete displacement of the social’ – the worst form of the sociological deficit in critical theory. Not only did Adorno retain the philosophy of history assumed in the Dialectic of Enlightenment in his extensive post-war contribution to the theory of society, but he also transferred the associated concept of domination to the analysis of the society of his time.

While the relation of human beings to external nature was conceived in terms of instrumental domination through the control and exploitation of nature, the very same mode of orientation and organization was duplicated in the case of the relation among human beings in the form of social control and manipulation. This conception of social domination was reinforced by the idea of the emergence of a world-wide totalitarian state system which was first inspired by the rise of Fascism and already in the pre-war period translated into the concept of state capitalism.

Although quite inappropriate, Adorno incorporated it in his theory in the transposed form of the image of “late capitalism’ as a ‘totally administered society“. It is in his analyses of late-capitalist society where Adorno focused single-mindedly on the mode and mechanisms of integration that Honneth sees overwhelming evidence of his definitive suppression of the social.

Adorno’s analysis covers the three dimensions of political-economic reproduction, administrative-cultural influence and manipulation and, finally, the psychic integration of the individual. The key formula for him in this multilevel analysis is “the end of mediation“. At the political-economic level, the totally administered society involved the destruction of the market which provided a medium for the formation of autonomous identities, such as entrepreneurs and father figures, as well as for the articulation and integration of social action. The result was the de-socialization of society.

At the administrative- cultural level, Adorno pursued his famous analyses of the “cultural industry” on the assumption that the convergence of state organs and mass media made possible the diffusion of ideological stereotypes and conformist messages. In turn, this allowed a willing if passive following to be created through manipulation and thus the securing of the necessary level of social consensus and integration. At the social-psychological level, a psychoanalytically-inspired theory of ego-weakness complemented the theory of the culture industry.

The de-socialization of society entailed a decomposition of the social infrastructure which left the conditions for appropriate ego-identity formation in tatters. The result was “the end of personality” which delivered the individual, caught up in narcissistic regression, as a helpless victim to the rhetorical and manipulative techniques of the culture industry.

Considering Adorno’s reductive conceptual scheme, his diagnosis of the desocialization of society has less to do with the actual state of social reality than with the inadequacy of his theory of society. The market does not completely exhaust the intermediate social sphere, nor do the results of the culture industry nearly approximate what is needed for the integration of society, and even less does the combined effect of the economy and the mass media simply checkmate human motivation and snuff out the surplus of energy harbored by the drives.

What got displaced and suppressed, what Adorno was unable and unwilling to acknowledge, in Honneth’s view, was the intermediate social sphere with its diverse manifestations – from the creative, reflexive and critical competences the members of society, through the group-specific and sub-cultural modes of socialization, orientation, reception, decoding, interpretation and action, to the normative expectations entertained by the members of society and their ability to agree or not with normatively relevant arrangements. By the same token, Adorno also undercut his own ability to identify and deal in a credible way with the obverse side of these normal social phenomena, namely with protest potentials, social struggle and conflict. There is some justification, then, for Honneth to speak of Adorno’s complete displacement or suppression of the social.

Jürgen Habermas

Already in his habilitation thesis and early work aimed at re-founding critical theory, Habermas gave attention to precisely the dimension which Horkheimer and Adorno ignored and displaced with such impoverishing consequences for the sociological component of critical theory. Whereas the habilitation thesis focused on the public sphere, the inaugural address of 1965 differentiated the theory of action beyond labour so that the development of society appeared in a very different light compared to his predecessors.

far from being dominant, the material reproduction of society is dependent on social interaction or communication in which societal goals and meaning are collectively constructed, while identity formation resulting in mature individuals in possession of interpretative, reflexive and critical competences is a prerequisite for resolving disturbances or blockages in the process. At this early stage, Habermas also made reference to language as the medium of understanding and thus as having a normatively relevant internal structure. It is on this basis that he was able to develop the idea of “communicative understanding and agreement as the paradigm of the social” – an idea diametrically opposed to Horkheimer and Adorno’s positions.

This conception implies that the social lifeworld, rather than being completely dominated by instrumental rationality, has its own internal structure, logic and meaning – namely “communicative rationality“. Accordingly, the primary mechanism of social integration is communicative action. In these terms, social integration is a normative phenomenon which cannot be attained and maintained otherwise than by the participation and interpretative, reflexive and critical achievements of the members and by the concomitant mediation of their orientations by moral norms.

It is in working out this communication paradigm in terms of the theory of society, particularly concerning the dynamics of societal development, the place and role of conflict, the establishment of social order and the legitimation of power, that Honneth sees Habermas as having exercised the fateful option which determined the direction his work would henceforth take. Faced with the alternatives of interpreting the relation between the process of the communicative generation of society and its material conditions either as the dynamics of different social groups conflicting and cooperating over the prevailing form of organization or as a supra-individual developmental mechanism, Habermas chose the latter.

Although ideology-critically exposing the conservative thesis of the independence and dominance of technology, he came to share his opponents’ viewpoint sufficiently to generalize his innovative distinction between labour and interaction into the distinction between system and lifeworld which effectively emasculated conflict as a relation between social groups or classes by displacing it to the macro-level relation of a contradiction between the material and symbolic dimensions of society.

Here lies the root of the sociological deficit in Habermas, in Honneth’s estimation. Whereas previously he kept contestation and conflict – albeit somewhat tenuously – in view, he now lost sight of it. Rather than simply underestimating the contested nature of normative reference points and the conflictual character of social order generally, he went so far as to portray the capitalist economic organizational form of society in a way that made it impossible to appreciate that it actually involves incessant power-drenched and even conflictual exchange. Accordingly, the sociological deficit in Habermas consists of his splitting of the social into purposive-rational actions systems, on the one hand, and a communicatively reproduced action sphere, on the other – the former devoid of all normative orientation and regulation, and the latter a purely communicative sphere free from any power.

In a later assessment, Honneth saw this deficit as manifested in Habermas’ work in the form of the concept of the process of communicative rationalization depending on linguistic rules and the conditions of their use which transpires at a level above the heads and behind the backs of the participants so that their moral experiences are completely bypassed. Habermas thus turned out to be the rightful heir of the critical theory tradition. Due to his strategic theoretical choice, he lost hold of the theoretical potential of the very communication-theoretical approach which he so innovatively introduced at the outset of his intellectual career.

Axel Honneth’s response

As regards his own position, Honneth closed the published version of his doctoral work with an indication of how he envisages overcoming in his future work the sociological deficit plaguing the critical theory tradition from Horkheimer to Habermas. It is imperative to give sociological substance to “the understanding of social order as an institutionally mediated communicative relation of culturally integrated groups which, as long as social power abilities are asymmetrically distributed, unfolds in the medium of social struggle“. Only then would it be possible to appreciate that social order and organization, which Adorno misconceived as totalitarian functional power complexes, are fragile constructions which are dependent for their existence on the moral assessment and consent of all the participants.

Very recently, Honneth confirmed that his project all along was to integrate the two perspectives which historically dominated in critical theory – both Horkheimer and Adorno’s willingness to acknowledge social conflict, notwithstanding their inability to clarify it adequately, and Habermas’ insistence on communicative action as the primary mechanism of social integration. The central insight he has been pursuing in attempting to correct the sociological deficit of critical theory, accordingly, is that “the members of society are only integrated in society through mechanisms of mutual recognition – mechanisms, however, which are always contested and therefore the object of a struggle for recognition“. As the reference to the struggle for recognition suggests, this project took on its proper form for Honneth only once he had embarked on the establishment of his recognition-theoretical position in his habilitation thesis of 1992.

Piet Strydom is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, School of Sociology and Philosophy, at University College Cork, Ireland. His research interests include areas such as critical theory, the history and philosophy of the social sciences, and cognitive social science. Among his books are Contemporary Critical Theory and Methodology (Routledge, 2011) and Discourse and Knowledge: The Making of Enlightenment Sociology (Liverpool University Press, 2001).

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