July 19, 2024

The Sociological Deficit Of Contemporary Critical Theory – Axel Honneth’s Theory Of Recognition, Part 3 (Piet Strydom)

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

At this juncture several questions arise. The first one concerns social structure formation. Considering the conflictual process as one that involves a shift from historical events to the overarching process of the development of society, and considering further that such a transformation forms part of the general logic of expansion of recognition relations, the question is what kind of social structures capable of bridging the gap and making recognition relations possible are formed here.

To this could be added the further question as to how such structure formation takes place. This latter question would obviously demand that a theoretical account at least of social learning processes be furnished which Honneth neglects to do. In fact, as will become apparent below, the problem is more complicated than just moral learning processes. As regards the structures at issue here, they are undoubtedly the very mechanisms of mutual recognition which Honneth has in mind.

What are they, and how are they formed in the process of contestation and conflict? A sociologically meaningful answer to this question is vital to the mitigation of the sociological deficit of critical theory since, far from being just a matter of conflict, the social dimension concerns the production or emergence of properties or features capable of stabilizing, at least practically and temporarily, a degree of social integration.

The second question hinted at concerns the structure of the process as invoked by its directional indices. Honneth claims that the interpretative framework his is developing – the one designed to recover the social and thus overcome the sociological deficit of critical theory – is aimed at reconstructing the path along which social conflicts unleashed the normative potentials of the modern legal and evaluative forms, and to do so in manner that establishes the historical events as stages in a conflictual learning process leading to an enlargement of recognition relations.

From this perspective, the development of society as a moral learning process finally appears as ‘progress’, as a progressive process. Whether it actually amounts to progress, since regression is of course also possible, is judged in terms of the normative standard of the hypothetically anticipated or counterfactual situation of ‘the realization of undistorted forms of recognition’. I accept the requirement for critical theory to operate with a normatively relevant counterfactual reference, but the question is whether the debate about the normative justification of critique also here in Honneth does not suffer from a tendency to confound the cognitive and the normative.

If modern societies provide a differentiated recognition order upon which normative problems only then follow, are there not two distinct reference points here which cannot both be described as normative? A serious related problem is the entirely opaque state in which Honneth’s account leaves the relation between societal development and moral learning. If there is a distinction between the establishment of a new socio-cultural level and the realization of the potentials of its structural elements, is it possible then simply to speak globally of stages of a moral learning process which step-by-step broadens recognition relations?

Does this not entail a confusion of different dimensions? Is a distinction between evolution and learning not implied which renders such a global conception of moral learning problematic? Here the problems of social structure, structure formation and mediation repeat themselves on different levels.

A Cognitive Sociological Proposal

Therefore, a series of questions were posed at crucial junctures where problems seemed to arise in his account. At this stage, it is necessary to take up and develop these questions in their own right with the aim of assessing to what extent, if at all, his recovery of the social fulfills the requirements of his project to eliminate the sociological deficit of critical theory. As indicated at the outset, I approach the critical assessment as well as the corrective and alternative proposals from the point of view of the relevance and significance that the cognitive revolution and the consequent development of the cognitive sciences have for sociology.

The thrust of my argument, in other words, is that the cognitive turn in sociology can provide most, if not all, of the necessary means to recover the social dimension and to overcome the sociological deficit in question in a manner that seems to elude Honneth.

In order to present the assessment in an orderly and intelligible manner, let us recall Honneth’s core statement from which the analysis in the previous section started. The central task, according to Honneth, is to focus on the social dimension and to engage in the analysis of mediation by determining how the participants are integrated into society through mechanisms of mutual recognition which are the object of a struggle for recognition and therefore always contested.

The major analytical areas of concern, therefore, are the mechanisms involved and the process of mediation, in which case both the mediation and the process itself are in question – that is, precisely the areas in which we previously saw problems arising.

As regards mechanisms of mutual recognition, a central concept in the project of the recovery of the social, we have seen that Honneth is theoretically quite vague. Rather than presented in theoretical and analytical terms, he either does not reflect on the mechanisms in their own right when concerned with them or he discusses them only indirectly in other contexts. The result is an impression of incoherence.

When profiling his own position as against that of Habermas, on the one hand, the suggestion is that the nature of these mechanisms should not be sought in language, but instead in moral experience, something which brings emotion and motivation into the picture. On the other hand, when in the context of his group- and movement-based theory of social conflict and societal development he is confronted with the problem of the relation between a social movement and its individual members as well as between it and the society on which it seeks to have an impact, he is compelled to be more to the point.

Although not linked explicitly to mechanisms, he calls on semantics, a particular dimension of language, to provide an answer – the key expression here being ‘semantic bridge’. Semantics provide the mechanisms of mutual recognition which are interrelated or mediated through conflict. If not a contradiction, there is certainly something odd about this move.

According to Honneth’s account, a ‘collective semantic’ serves as a bridge which allows not only the integration of individuals into a social movement, but also the integration of a movement into society in a way that transforms the latter. Semantics are undoubtedly of great importance in that it makes available the symbolic means, whether in terms of language or images, for the communicability of a movement’s message. In this respect, Honneth’s argument is entirely plausible despite being not quite in synchronization with his own stipulations, yet the question is whether this kind of bridging is sufficient.

How do semantics link up with the emotional- motivational structure, on the one hand, and the shared socio-cultural patterns of society, on the other? Surely, both this structure and these patterns are much richer than mere semantics? When the various bridges are successfully crossed so that change occurs, what undergoes change – only words and meanings? Honneth further tightens this conceptual approach by confining semantics more particularly to moral ideas and doctrines.

This normative emphasis is of course of the greatest importance to critical theory, but the problem – to begin with – is that this strategy captures only the normative dimension, that is, the dimension of conscience on the micro level and morality, law and politics on the macro and meso levels. But what then about intelligence and, especially, the emotive structure as well as their respective counterparts on higher levels? Part of the problem is Honneth’s dependence on Mead’s naturalistic moment and another is his interpretation of Mead’s interactionist moment.

On the one hand, he evaluates Mead’s naturalist rendering of Hegel too positively, since the Darwinist basis from which American pragmatism at the time proceeded is by no means adequate in the light of twentieth-century scientific advances. In this respect, Honneth’s appeal to the necessity of an anthropological reference remains inadequate as long as it remains uninformed by contemporary scientific developments. By no means unrelated to the former, Honneth on the other hand tends to interpret Mead’s interactionism in normativistic terms. Both partialities can be overcome by observance of the implications of the cognitive revolution and the cognitive turn in sociology

The introduction of the cognitive approach could improve matters since, as a multidimensional approach,it makes possible an integral view of the various levels. To appreciate the significance of this approach, however, Honneth will have to disabuse himself of the narrow conception of the cognitive as being equivalent to explicit knowledge and purposive rationality which drives him into maintaining throughout his work as a whole, from early to contemporary, the well-intentioned yet less than helpful distinction between the cognitive and the normative.Far from being exhausted by knowledge, the cognitive refers in the first instance to mechanisms, competences, structures and processes which make the generation, organization and diffusion of knowledge possible.

To this should be added, moreover, that such mechanisms, competences, structures and processes as well as the resulting knowledge are by no means of a purely intellectual kind. A starting point for broadening Honneth’s approach could be his reference to ‘intersubjective interpretative frameworks’. While such frameworks are indeed articulated by semantics and therefore have a pronounced symbolic countenance which misleads many in taking them only as such,11 they are of a much more encompassing nature which has been and still is the object of investigation of the cognitive sciences.

They consist of sets of dynamic cognitive forms or structures of different levels and scope – from being in the head and body, via collective agents and entities like social movements, organizations and institutions, to a variety of cultural manifestations big and small. Depending on discipline and stage of development of the cognitive sciences, they have been theorized in different ways under different titles, including categories, prototype, schema or script, frame, cultural schema, connectionist network and cognitive models.

It is important to take note of the successive shift in the cognitive sciences between the late 1950s and the 1980s from the cognitivist through the connectionist to what Varela et al. propose to call the ‘enactive’ paradigm, respectively based on the model of the computer, the brain and the actor in its environment, since the consequences are continuing tensions and misunderstandings both within these disciplines and in views of them.Particularly disorienting is the continued influence of the oldest, scientifically outpaced, orthodox cognitivist trend.

Beyond the concept of frame and framing which stem from the cognitivist phase, sociology – particularly the sociology of social movements – has been significantly impacted also by connectionism through its idea of distributed generative activity and concept of network, while the so-called ‘practice turn’ in the social sciences which takes the action environment, including things and objects, into account displays certain hallmarks of the enactivist phase.

Although Honneth’s work can directly be linked to social movement studies and the practice turn, it does not seem to have been touched in any way by the cognitive turn in these important areas of contemporary social science. There can be little doubt about the fact, however, that it would benefit immensely from being enriched by cognitive sociology and, more broadly, cognitive social science.

Two aspects of the cognitive approach which are of importance for the recovery of the social domain in a way that would contribute to the elimination of the sociological deficit of critical theory in keeping with the current relation between the natural and social sciences are relevant in the present context. The first is that the cognitive approach disposes over the necessary means to bridge the gap between nature and culture.

While a large number and perhaps even the majority of cognitive scientists tend toward a strong naturalistic position which has undesirable reductionist consequences for the social and cultural disciplines, this is by no means a compelling position. The ‘weak’ or ‘soft naturalism’ Habermas has come to defend, for instance, is fully in accord with the position of perhaps the first most complete cognitive sociologist, Erving Goffman. Habermas sees an ontological continuity between nature and the socio-cultural world, but emphasizes an epistemological break which secures the independence of the socio-cultural world without denying the conditioning impact of nature.

In the most specific sociologically relevant sense, human cognitive competences developed over millions of years of species evolution generate the socio-cultural world which acquires is own contextualizing organization and logic. Comparably, Goffman took the view that ‘although natural events occur without intelligent intervention, intelligent doings cannot be accomplished effectively without entrance into the natural order’, which implies that ‘any segment of a socially guided doing can be partly analyzed within a natural schema’.

At the same time, however, he stressed that the characteristic sociological concern is not with naturalistic explanations nor, on the other hand, with sociologistic, functionalist or culturalist accounts of social order in terms of norms or symbols, but rather with the ‘interaction order’ which constitutes and orders the social world and allows the framing of norms and normatively regulated action and relations in social situations. Besides the generative activity, whether communication or struggle, through which the competences of social agents take effect, the social dimension crucially involves reflexive or second-order rules which in turn come to play a generative and regulative role in the further exercise of those competences.

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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