The Sociological Deficit Of Contemporary Critical Theory – Axel Honneth’s Theory Of Recognition, Part 2 (Piet Strydom)

The following is the second installment of a four-part series. The first can be found here.

Honneth’s Theoretical Solution to the Deficit

Parameters of the Reconstruction

For the task of reconstructing Honneth’s project of eliminating the sociological deficit of critical theory and eventually arriving at a critical assessment of it, there is no better perspective than the retrospective one he himself offered recently. Sociologically, what needs to be focused on in a concentrated and steadfast way is ‘the true core of the social’. By contrast with Horkheimer and Adorno who in Marxist functionalist manner excluded or even completely snuffed out the spectrum of normal, ordinary everyday social action and the varying socially and culturally significant results, on the one hand, and Habermas who split it into a normatively barren goal-oriented action system and a power-free sphere of communicative action, on the other, the social concerns the achievement of societal integration or social order in the sense of a normative recognition order through an incessant process of contestation and struggle.

The core of the social thus requires ‘the analysis of social mediation’. What such an analysis would have to deal with is suggested by his view, quoted earlier, 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’

This is a very compact statement of the central dimension of social reality which embraces a host of analytical aspects. If people engage in a process of struggle for recognition in which the mechanisms through which they are able to recognize each other mutually and thus become socially integrated are themselves contested in that they are the very object over which the participants struggle and conflict and, perhaps, in the end come to some mutual understanding and agreement about, then a number of sociologically crucial components present themselves.

In a preliminary way, the following major components can be distinguished:

  • Members of society forming different culturally integrated social groups; the interpretative, reflexive and critical competences of the actors; the particular mechanisms of the actors and groups which allow them to recognize one another;
  • Mechanisms in the form of moral or normative principles which are the object of contestation and with reference to which the actors and groups are able to interrelated their particular competing and conflicting mechanisms of recognition;
  • The institutional and structural framework and conditions within and under which such interrelation is possible and the facilitating means of mediation under modern conditions;
  • The process of the interrelation of mechanisms of mutual recognition which itself forms part of the larger process of the development of society;
  • Finally, the mode and degree of social integration achieved at the point of the temporary practical closure of the process.

Now, it is evident that the correction of the sociological deficit of critical theory demands that these various components be related to one another in a systematic way and that they are given sufficient substance for the purposes of meaningful sociological analyses. The question, then, is whether Honneth achieves this level of sociological theorization and substantiation to be able to rightfully claim that he has succeeded in plugging the hole in critical theory.

Considering the range and complexity of these analytical components, it is obvious that it is unrealistic to expect one person who, moreover, has been compelled to spend most of his time defending the concept of recognition and critical theory, to be able single-handedly to eliminate the sociological deficit in its full sense. It is undoubtedly a complex collaborative or distributed task which requires a number of contributors, if not a whole generation, to accomplish.

From this point of view, there are various areas that Honneth does not cover or attend to and in relation to which he is in a position to more or less assume the relevant contribution of others. One such area is, for instance, the institutional and situational context in which publicly relevant struggles of recognition – say, the expansion of rights or the inclusion of an excluded category of people – take place which Habermas and several of his followers have articulated and substantiated under the title of the public sphere.

After all, Honneth does share the communication paradigm with Habermas, while only seeking to compensate for its one-sidedness and the negative consequences following from that. It would be preposterous, therefore, to hold the lack of coverage of such an area against Honneth’s claim to have overcome the sociological deficit of critical theory, for it is an instance of trivial non-observance. But it is no longer a trivial matter when he fails to pursue the theoretical development and substantive articulation of the sociologically significant implications of his very own core concept and related methodological specifications.

It is on such a key theoretically significant area that I propose to focus in the following reconstruction of Honneth’s proposed correction of the sociological deficit. As indicated, the specific area I have in mind is delineated by such concepts as ‘struggle for recognition’, ‘mechanisms of mutual recognition’, the ‘interrelation’ of such mechanisms, ‘social integration’ through such interrelation, the ‘analysis of mediation’, the ‘process’ of mediation, and so forth.

What adds an extra layer of interest to the approach I am taking here is that it concerns exactly the same dimension that is, if not completely missing, then at least understated in Habermas. The theoretical implication of this is that by lifting out and developing this dimension a theoretical step beyond not only Honneth but at the same time also beyond Habermas becomes possible – which means to say, the entry of yet a different theoretical version of critical theory.

Recovery of the social

Honneth’s project of recovering the social dimension in order to overcome the sociological deficit of critical theory in terms of the concept of recognition has its starting point in a submerged theme in Habermas’ work and received encouragement in the late 1980s and 90s from the wave of interest in identity and identity politics stimulated, among other developments, by the multicultural consequences of globalization.

The trajectory he followed in the recovery process took off from his own early concern with the experiences of injustice suffered by subordinate classes and suppressed groups. It then took the arduous theoretical route via Hegel’s anti-Machiavellian and anti -Hobbesian concept of ‘the struggle for recognition’, Mead’s naturalist reconstitution and social-psychological correction of Hegel’s theory, and Marx, Sorel and Sartre’s varied yet partially Hegelian-inspired conceptions of the historical development of society as a conflictual process of recognition struggles.

Central to the theory of the social Honneth developed by these various means, is obviously the core matter of the interrelation or mediation of different mechanisms of mutual recognition, including the learning processes undergone by those involved and their consequences. Finally, Honneth arrived at his own recognition-theoretical position. Sociologically, on the one hand, he sketched his social group- or movement-based theory of struggles of recognition motivated by ‘moral feelings’ – not necessarily to the exclusion of motivation by interests – which take on the ‘pacemaker role’ in the development and moral progress of society.

And philosophically, on the other, he spelled out his ‘formal concept of concrete ethical life’ or concrete ethical universal in the sense of intact recognition at the primary (family), institutional (legal) and societal (solidarity) levels, which is implied by modern or ‘post-traditional recognition relations’ and serves as the normative standard for their evaluation and critique.

Specifications and refinement of the project to correct the sociological deficit then followed. While Honneth on several occasions since the late 1970s lauded Habermas for his rediscovery of the social, he used his inaugural address of 1993 as an opportunity to distinguish his own new theoretical version of critical theory from Habermas’. In reaction to commentators and critics, Honneth over time also reworked his initially imprecise concept of recognition or recognition expectations as the anchor point immanent in social reality and as the motivational reference point of struggles of recognition and the moral development of society. To assess Honneth’s project, a more penetrating analysis of these different steps in its unfolding is required.

Mechanisms of mutual recognition

Considering that Mead provided Hegel’s concept of struggle for recognition with psychological and naturalistic underpinnings, the best place to start with a reconstruction of Honneth’s understanding of mechanisms of mutual recognition, their mediation and the process of development such interrelation makes possible, is his analysis of Mead. From there one could then proceeds to his extrapolation, via the Marxist tradition, of his own group – or movement-based theory of the morally rich conflictual developmental process of society.

The analysis of Mead starts with the formation of the self, in which case Honneth operates with a basic distinction which is characteristic of his work right up to his recent Tanner Lectures (2008). Accordingly, the first is the cognitive or epistemic self which originates in the form of self-consciousness as a reaction to the perception of the existence of a second subject, while the second is the moral or normative self which arises through the internalization of the normative behavioral expectations of others encountered in the course of the process of socialization.

Mead’s ‘me’ is the evaluatively combined cognitive and normative self-image of the subject which represents the internalized, individuated counterpart of the conventional norms in relation to which the self formed and which regulates the self. Particularly important to Honneth is the fact that the complex of conventional norms is a frame of reference for the formation of the self which through the process of socialization, due to the experience of increasingly more complex social situations in the course of time, becomes progressively abstracted and generalized.

From play where the child identifies with concrete others, via games where the participant has to take account of the behavioral expectations of all those involved, to the internalization of ‘the generalized other’, according to Mead, in the sense of the normative expectations of the community or society as a whole – through these phases runs a process of internalization, abstraction and generalization which can be regarded as a process of moral development or the formation of moral consciousness.(154) Since Honneth pays special attention to Mead’s psychological reference point and to his naturalistic account of the formation of the self and its moral development in terms of specifiable mechanisms, the analysis cannot rest with the formation of a self which is exhausted by a ‘me’, by a conventional moral consciousness.

The formation of the ‘me’ indeed indicates the direction of moral development but, rather than being a process that reaches its end in identification with some existing community or society, it has a dynamic which is permanently fuelled by an unknowable and uncontrolled, spontaneous, creative, psychic force which Mead called the ‘I’. By moving against the constraint of conventional norms, this ‘I’ renders the ‘me’ doubtful and sets off a conflict between the two, the basic form of all conflict, which drives the moral development not only of the individual but also of society.

To be able to expand its rights and freedom of self-realization and thus attain a new enlarged configuration of conventional norms, however, the ‘I’ not only needs to idealize and anticipate a counterfactual set of recognition relations or future society, but must also appeal to others and get them to accept the proposed moral ideal. The conflict between the ‘I’ and ‘me’ then becomes transposed to the level of a conflict between a historical force – say, a social movement – and certain rigid conventional norms of society which could lead to the expansion of legal recognition and the inclusion of some category of the excluded who would then enjoy a greater degree of freedom for self-realization.

This view of Mead’s regarding the development of society is what provides Honneth with a contact point for reinterpreting the tradition from Marx via Sorel to Sartre and, on that basis, to introduce his own group- or social movement-based theory of the moral development of society. Before considering this theory, however, I want to investigate a little more closely what Honneth calls ‘mechanisms of mutual recognition’. In the analysis of Mead, Honneth does use the term ‘mechanism’ on several occasions, but only to designate those factors at issue in Mead’s naturalistic rendering of Hegel in terms of which explanations can be offered of particular processes. He identifies four such mechanisms.

The first is the ‘psychic mechanism’ of the ‘experience of a reacting interaction partner’, which accounts for the emergence of self-consciousness. The second is the ‘mechanism’ of ‘internalization’ which explains the subject’s acquisition in the course of the process of socialization of the normative expectations of his or her social environment. In opposition to ‘mere internalization’ leading to the acquisition of a conventional moral consciousness, Honneth stresses in the third place the mechanism of ‘the raising of demands which are not reconcilable with the socially acknowledged norms of the social environment’ .

Finally, there is the ‘developmental mechanism underlying the whole process of human socialization’ by means of which the subject is enabled to orient itself according to ‘a rule derived from the synthesis of the perspectives of all the participants’, which, as defining of the frame of reference, is itself subject to further abstraction and generalization. Now, it is remarkable that among these mechanisms is none that could be considered as a mechanism of mutual recognition which is contested and is the object of conflict.

In fact, Honneth does not specify anything at all in these terms. Certain things he does mention could possibly assume such a status and could play such a role, but he neither considers nor presents them as such. In fact, he does not make any attempt at all to theorize them in a way that would render them amenable to such a status and role. The first is the ‘practical self-image’ of a subject or social actor which could conceivably come into conflict with another practical self-image, but through a struggle for recognition eventually could come to peacefully overlap with that of the erstwhile opponent or enemy.

A second is the ‘frame of reference’ consisting of synthetic rules which is common to all yet gets interpreted in competing ways by different actors and, in this sense, could figure as the object of the conflict between them. However, neither here in his recognition-theoretical main work nor elsewhere in his writings does Honneth develop his position in a way that makes clear what precisely the mechanisms of mutual recognition amount to.

General Patterns of Recognition

The common normative frame of reference mentioned above is of special importance in this respect since this is where Honneth’s characteristic contribution belongs. The reference here is to his ‘formal concept of concrete ethical life’ or ‘formal concept of the good life’, which defines his theory of recognition, provides the philosophical justification for the normative criteria required by critical theory to engage in critique and, finally, is central to the claim to having dealt with the problem of the sociological deficit of critical theory.

The philosophical or, more precisely, moral-ethical theory Honneth introduces to underpin this concept is located between the universalistic emphasis of Kant on Moralität, also represented by Rawls and Habermas, and the particularistic emphasis of Aristotle and Hegel on Sittlichkeit, also represented by communitarian neo-Aristotelians and neo-Hegelians like McIntyre and Taylor respectively.

Articulated in terms of the theory of recognition, the resulting abstract and formal yet material concept is filled out with reference to the young Hegel and Mead by the three ‘recognition models’ of ‘love’, ‘legal relations’ and ‘solidarity’ – later called ‘need’, ‘autonomy’ and ‘achievement’. They represent the basic presuppositions or necessary conditions of individual self- realization or, more substantively, the general structures of the good life in the form of intersubjective protective devices.

Rather than institutional arrangements, however, Honneth describes them as ‘only general behavioural patterns’ and as such bare ‘structural elements’ of all particular human forms of life. He also points out that two of these principles of recognition, law and solidarity or ‘value community’, harbour the potential for development to a higher normative level. Historical evidence shows that the expansion of legal rights allowing greater individual freedom of self-realization is possible, as is the inclusion of larger numbers of people under collective goal-attainment allowing them to feel ethically and socially valued.

Considered from the point of view of mechanisms of mutual recognition, however, it is noticeable that Honneth does not attempt to specify the nature of these general behavioural patterns much beyond stark philosophical statements. How should these models be conceived if they are to contribute to the elimination of the sociological deficit of critical theory? Closely related to this is that Honneth consistently presents recognition as an intersubjective phenomenon, but does not go into the question of the role of these models in mediation.

Recognition is described as an intersubjective relation between an individual and an interaction partner or an agreeing and encouraging second person. How should these models be approached if the core demand in overcoming the sociological deficit is ‘the analysis of social mediation’? Can the mediation at issue be confined to the relation between ego and alter? Is there, sociologically, not more to mediation than such a double contingency relation? Further, if some of these models are amenable to development, how is such change to be conceived? What precisely is it that undergoes development and thus changes?

Honneth indeed speaks of structural elements, but how are they to be conceived in a manner that makes theoretical sense from a sociological point of view? As it stands, does his account not confound the normative and the cognitive? To questions such as these no answers are to be found in Honneth’s main work nor, to my knowledge, in later elaborations of the central ideas of this work. The closest he comes to touching on such problems is in his group- or social movement-based theory of social conflict where he refers a few times to ‘collective semantics’ to which I return in due course.

In his inaugural address of 1993, Honneth does spell out his recognition theory as against Habermas’ communication theory in a way that begins to reduce the vagueness of his position. For him, moreover, this step is an essential ingredient in eliminating the sociological deficit of critical theory. It is a sharpening of criticisms which were already flagged in his earlier writings according to which Habermas’ universalistically inclined position was unsuited to grasping the specificity of the social dimension.

Honneth formulates his criticism from a point of view shared with Habermas, namely that critical theory is a reconstructive theory which must have an immanent anchor point in social life for its context-transcendent critical perspective, but he differs from Habermas in his conception of what needs to be reconstructed. Having introduced the communication paradigm, Habermas emphasized the centrality of linguistic rules in a way that refocused critical theory on whatever restrictions are imposed on the application of those rules, thus leading to distorted communication.

Since emancipation consequently becomes dependent on the process of communicative rationalization, and since this is a high-level process which transpires above the heads and behind the backs of social actors, according to Honneth, critical theory in its new guise is rendered incapable not only of linking up with the experience of the members of society, but by the same token also of diagnosing social pathologies. Honneth’s response is not, as might be expected, to abandon the communication paradigm, but rather to give it a different interpretation. Instead of linguistic rules, ‘moral experience’ is emphasized, and instead of impediments in the way of the use of such rules in communication, instances of ‘disrespect’ in the sense of the ‘violation of identity claims’ acquired in the process of socialization now call for attention.

The place of language at the centre of the stage is taken by recognition. For Habermas, reconstruction makes explicit the rational potential of linguistic rules which, in terms of universal pragmatics, points toward principles such as a common external objective world, second an interpersonally well-ordered shared social world, third an abstract and flexible practical ego-identity free from psychopathological manifestations, and finally communicative processes allowing the unhampered use of linguistic rules.

For Honneth, by contrast, the rational potential of recognition relations becomes normatively palpable in the form of moral ideals such as love, respect and esteem together making up his formal model of the good life, which is underpinned by the constant maintenance of the memory or basic awareness of the intrinsic value of others as human beings. Honneth’s criticism of Habermas thus indeed makes clear what he thinks critical theory needs to focus on through reconstruction, yet we are back to where we were before.

How should the moral ideals reconstructed from moral experience and the memory structuring moral experience be conceived in a sociologically relevant manner? If Habermas fails to provide an idea that would address the sociological deficit of critical theory, as Honneth holds, then the very same objection applies with equal force to his position. No substantive theoretical specification is forthcoming.

The only proposal Honneth makes regarding the possible theorization of mechanisms of mutual recognition is to be found in his group- or social movement-based theory of social conflict and societal development. To be sure, it is at best only an implicit proposal for he makes an effort neither to link it to mechanisms nor to acknowledge its theoretical potential. It consists in conceiving of relations in terms of semantics which articulate an intersubjective interpretative framework.

So, for instance, the formation of a ‘collective identity’, a ‘social movement’ and ‘collective resistance’ all depend on a ‘collective semantic’ which allows personal experiences of violation and disillusionment to be expressed in a common language and thus to connect individual moral feelings to the impersonal goals of a social movement. From Mead Honneth derives the view that such a semantic presupposes moral ideas or doctrines which infuse people’s image of society with a surplus of normative significance and thus not only open the prospect of expanded recognition relations, but also impart an interpretative perspective which exposes the cause of individual and collective suffering. For positive change to take place, in addition, such semantically articulated ideas and interpretative perspectives must gain influence and wide acceptance in society.

It is evident that here semantics are ascribed the function of establishing and maintaining, or mediating, relations of different kinds, levels and scope. The question that arises, however, is whether the concept of a ‘semantic bridge’ is able to carry the theoretical weight implied by mechanisms of mutual recognition and mediation. Is it sociologically plausible to conceive whatever is responsible for the relations among individuals, social movements, existing society, causal factors and a potential future society in semantic terms?

Does the appeal to semantics not drag Honneth back to language which he seeks to leave behind in favour of recognition? Does his emphasis on semantics conceived in terms of moral ideas and doctrines not narrow the perspective in a way that vitiates his own requirement for the basic anthropologically rooted need for recognition and the emotional and motivational structure to be accommodated? For instance, in what way or in what form does a semantic take root in the mind and get embodied by a person or collective actor?

Do semantics, in other words, not represent too narrow and flimsy a basis to seek to account for mechanisms of mutual recognition and the mediating role they are demanded to fulfill? Perhaps the emphasis should rather be shifted from semantics, without excluding it, to theorizing the more encompassing intersubjective frameworks in order to get at the nature of the mechanisms in question and the mediating role they play .

The Process of Mediation

Earlier we have seen that Honneth regards social integration as an achievement that is attained through mechanism of mutual integration. Since social integration is not achieved once and for all, but is rather an ongoing task and fragile achievement, it means that the relation of the mechanisms takes the form of a process. The interrelation or mediation of the mechanisms of mutual recognition is an incessant process which takes time to pass from a lack of integration to a socially integrated situation, and because such a situation is either imperfect or again breaks down, the process always continues.

Far from the process of interrelation or mediation being confined to social interaction or communication, as Habermas for the most part suggests, Honneth insists with Hegel, Mead, Marx, Sorel and Sartre that it in a significant sense takes place in the medium of conflict or, more specifically, struggle for recognition. Drawing on Mead’s psychological and naturalistic position, Honneth regards this process as a necessary and unavoidable one for the human species which is most fundamentally rooted in the anthropologically based, psychological conflict between the spontaneous, creative, psychic force represented by the ‘I’ and the socially conditioned conventional ‘me’.

It takes on societal significance, however, when it becomes writ large due to the convergence of a relatively large number of unconventional demands so as to form a historical force in the guise of a social movement responsible for introducing an audience-oriented and appealing moral-ethical or normative innovation which critically problematizes or points beyond the generally accepted framework of conventional norms. In terms of his concept of recognition, Honneth locates what he calls ‘the moral logic of social conflicts’ lying at the heart of his group – or movement-based theory of the development of society in the conflictual dynamics of ‘disrespect and resistance’.

He does not deny the relative right of the Hobbesian-utilitarian focus on interests, but he prioritizes the largely neglected Hegelian-normative emphasis on the role of the moral experience of disrespect or the violation of identity claims both in the genesis of social conflict and social movements and in the continuous form of the process. To grasp Honneth’s conception of the process and to be able to assess it, however, it is necessary to consider the different descriptions he offers of it. First of all, it represents a process of the development of society, but it is secondly also a learning process, and as such it is finally a matter of progress.

For Honneth, following Hegel and especially Mead, the process of mediation is in the first instance a ‘developmental process’. The conflictual dynamics of disrespect and resistance driving this process are motivated by moral feelings and turn on the identity of a group or social movement. Rather than just serving the needs directly at stake, however, the collective action or conflict could have a role in the transformation of recognition patterns. Historical evidence bears out the fact that in many a case the disillusionment of moral expectations results in the shattering of existing recognition relations.

In so far as the event assumes such a moral significance, a shift takes place from a mere episode to the overarching process of the development of society. The transformation forms part of the general logic of expansion of recognition relations, which means that we witness not just a developmental process, but rather one possessing the more specific quality of a ‘moral cultivation’ or ‘moral learning process’. Unless they become exposed as being reactionary, emotional moral feelings and conflict in such a case contribute, in Meadian terms, to both a generalization of the normative frame of reference and of a normative broadening of the practical self -images of those involved.

Accordingly, Honneth regards the development of society in so far as it is a moral learning process as capable of two distinct achievements which are illuminated by a consideration of the specifically modern configuration of recognition patterns of love, law and solidarity. Having been fused at the outset, these three patterns first of all had to be differentiated from one another and be established as new recognition levels and, secondly, the potentials contained in them had to be released and their actualization pursued in a concerted manner.

In Honneth’s view, social conflict can make a direct contribution only to the latter achievement, but at best only an indirect one to the former. In the case of modernity, for instance, once the new general socio-cultural level had been achieved, different kinds of social conflict and social movement were able to focus on the universalization and materialization of law and on the incorporation of individualizing and equalizing normative structures into the value community.

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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