July 19, 2024

The Sociological Deficit Of Contemporary Critical Theory – Axel Honneth’s Theory Of Recognition, Part 4 (Piet Strydom)

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

It is at this juncture, where this particular kind of structure formation occurs, that the second aspect of the cognitive approach of importance for the recovery of the social domain enters. It is the cognitive concept of culture which is implied in the tradition running from Kant and Hegel, via Marx and left-Hegelian American pragmatists and German critical theorists, right up to Habermas.

What Honneth refers to as a general ‘frame of reference’ or ‘intersubjective interpretative framework’ and, indeed, his central idea of ‘mechanisms of mutual recognition’, are theoretically best conceived in terms of this cognitive concept of culture. This particulate or compositional concept is the outcome of the differentiation of the intellectual, moral and aesthetic orientations and cultural spheres at the dawn of the modern period due to an increase in reflexivity and the emergence of second-order rules which Kant marked with his three critiques and Weber confirmed sociologically with his observance of the establishment of autonomous domains each with its own inherent logic and standard of validity.

Henceforth, these reflexive rules came to represent the cognitive order of modernity in the form of an internally differentiated, generally shared classificatory framework which brings order into social life through its generative and regulative impact on intellectual, moral and ethical orientations and corresponding actions and social arrangements. In fact, what Honneth discusses as the ‘differentiation of the recognition framework’ of modern times is but a part of this still more general framework, as is borne out by the fact that he concentrates on the moral domain through a focus on law and on the ethical domain through love at the micro-level and solidarity at the macro-level.

The recognition models of love, law and solidarity, then, are particular dimensions of the consensual in the sense of the taken-for-granted cognitive order of modernity. Without realizing it, Honneth describes precisely this cognitive order when he insists that these recognition patterns, rather than institutional arrangements or – we may say – normative expectations, are ‘only general behavioural patterns’ and as such formal ‘structural elements’ (1992: 279) of all particular human forms of life. This cognitive sense must be what he has in mind when he invokes the emergence of second-order or reflexive rules by acknowledging the basic orienting role of synthetic rules referred to above.

Now, it is the general intersubjective interpretative framework or rather cognitive order20 with its different structural elements that represents the mechanisms of mutual recognition which, as Honneth says, are ‘always contested and therefore the object of a struggle for recognition’. It can figure as the object of conflict since it is common to all, on the one hand, yet gets systematically actualized in competing ways by culturally and institutionally different actors, groups and collective agents.21

This implies that the mechanisms of mutual recognition which Honneth has in mind must involve more than just the contested cognitive order as such. This is the case since the contestation or struggle over the cognitive order can be carried out in the medium of conflict only through competing cognitive frameworks which are themselves distinct actualizations of the overarching cognitive order.

Such competing cognitive frameworks are embodied, presented and defended in the course of the conflict by the different participating groups or collective agents who seek to actualize and realize the potential of the cognitive order each in its own way. In his appropriation of Mead, Honneth anticipated such actor-specific cognitive frames by speaking of the ‘practical self-image’ of a subject or social actor, and later in the outline of his theory of group- or movement- based social conflict he adverted to it in an under-theorized manner by referring to the ‘collective identity’ and ‘collective semantic’ of a social movement. The collective agents targeted by or opposing a social movement who must also be taken into account in order to grasp a sequence of social conflict are, of course, similarly endowed with distinct cognitive frames.

The conflictual dynamics of ‘disrespect and resistance’ driving this process may be motivated by moral feelings, as Honneth emphasizes, but both the resistance offered by a social movement and the offending disrespect showed by some other collective agent or agents must of necessity be couched in cognitive frames characteristic of the relevant participants. In addition to the cognitive order, then, the respective cognitive frames of each of the participants in a social conflict can be regarded as the mechanisms of mutual recognition Honneth has in mind.

Mediation Through a Process of Structure Formation

To conceive the interrelation or mediation of the various mechanisms of mutual recognition as a process of social conflict is obviously sociologically crucial. It brings the participating actors into view and allows, as Honneth stresses, a focus on the experience of the actors instead of being carried away by some abstract process which transpires above the heads and behind the backs of the participants. To present the process as a matter of social conflict, however, harbours the danger of remaining at the descriptive level.

Social conflict indeed provides the medium in which the different mechanisms or cognitive frames are related to one another, but as a process of mediation leading beyond sheer struggle toward an end of the conflict in mutual recognition and social integration, something more constructive must be involved. It is for this reason that Honneth speaks of a ‘developmental process’ which, regarded from the inside, can be conceived as a ‘moral cultivation process’ or ‘moral learning process’.

The kind of development and learning implied here obviously go further than experience and, therefore, Honneth sees both as carrying the general logic of expansion of recognition relations. He is content, however, merely to describe what such logic entails rather than thinking it through more theoretically, as would be sociologically required. Given the attainment of a new, general socio-cultural level, for instance the modern configuration of recognition patterns of love, law and solidarity, the potentials contained in them are released and their actualization pursued through different kinds of struggle and social movement seeking to universalize and materialize the law and to incorporate individualizing and equalizing normative structures into the ethos of the community.

From a cognitive sociological perspective, however, this positive dimension of the process of mediation can be explicitly conceived beyond such description as a process of structure formation. Approaching mediation in these terms has implications for the conceptualization not only of the outcome of the process, on which Honneth tends to focus, but also of the actual interrelation of mechanisms which during a temporal window generates those outcomes.

Both the outcomes Honneth mentions, namely the normatively relevant broadening of the law and of the practical self-images of the agents, entail reconstituted and newly articulated cognitive frames at different levels. Such achievements are possible, however, only if the respective cognitive frames of the agents – say, a social movement and its opponent – have gone through a process in which they were interrelated first in a conflictual and competitive phase which then gave way to a phase of mutual learning, convergence and overlap or even fusion in certain respects.

Only along such a trajectory which involves the broadening of the cognitive frames of each and making them orient in a new way toward the cognitive order could the agents arrive at the better understanding of the other and of themselves which is presupposed by mutual recognition. It is sociologically of the essence that this dynamic process and the sequential moments of structure formation be followed and analyzed through their unfolding in time. This is precisely what isimplied by Honneth’s emphasis on the importance of ‘the analysis of social mediation’.

For such an analysis, needless to say, one requires a theory of the cognitive frame construction devices, the structural (intellectual, moral and ethical) elements of cognitive frames, actor cognitive frames, modes of interrelation of different actor frames and, finally, both the emergence of transformed actor frames and of new macro cognitive structures within the cognitive order shared by the erstwhile opponents.It is not possible to resolve the problem of the sociological deficit in question without a theoretical component of this kind which enables one to deal with the process of mediation. Unless the critical theorist is able to do so, also the phenomena of development and learning will remain beyond reach.

A closely related problem that was noted earlier in the analysis is Honneth’s presentation of recognition as an intersubjective phenomenon without going into the question of the role of his three recognition models in mediation. It once more emerges here. He conceives recognition in the elementary form of an intersubjective relation between two agents, but if it is a matter of ‘social mediation’, then one cannot stop at mediation confined to the double contingency relation between ego and alter since there is a third dimension, the third point of view, involved.

While it enables evaluation and judgement and is therefore normatively significant, it should not directly be reduced to a norm or something normative, since it is strictly speaking of a cognitive nature. Two agents are able to relate to one another only through reference to the cognitive order and the employment of the classificatory categories it provides. Sociologically, therefore, mediation is not a dyadic but rather a triadic relation.

It brings the macro-level cognitive order – indeed in ethicized form – into play in the course of the interrelation between the meso-level cognitive frames of the collective agents as well as the micro-level cognitive frames of their individual members. Failing this more complex theoretical approach, neither the consequent transformation of the different micro, meso and macro cognitive structures can be sociologically grasped nor the learning they undergo and the development this generates. These observations bring us finally to the question of the process itself.

In the earlier analysis, we saw that Honneth describes social mediation as a ‘developmental process’ as well as a ‘moral cultivation’ or ‘moral learning process’ without attempting to specify how these two dimensions of the conflictual process relate to one another. For the purposes of recovering the social domain and overcoming the sociological deficit of critical theory, however, the relation between societal development and moral learning calls for theoretical clarity. Honneth effectively makes the distinction himself by offering an example of the properties of each kind of process: on the one hand, societal development in which social movements are at best only marginal leads to the establishment of a new socio-cultural level containing the modern differentiated recognition model.

On the other, social movements’ pursuit of the realization of the potentials of the model’s structural elements gives rise to processes of moral learning. Despite this assumption, he nevertheless obliterates the distinction by speaking globally of stages of a moral learning process which step-by-step broadens recognition relations. As against this reductive tendency, it should be stressed that the broadening of recognition relations does not involve only the filling out of potentials intentionally and actively targeted, but over time shifts occur in the cognitive structural elements which have the effect of broadening the meaning of possible recognition.

While such shifts allow further moral learning processes by enhancing the available potentials and stimulating their still fuller realization, they are irreducible to moral learning processes. It is sociologically crucial not to confuse or collapse these different dimensions which are captured by the important distinction between evolution and learning.

The problem Honneth encounters in conceptualizing the process, in particular the relation of the evolutionary and learning dimensions, has its roots in his inadequate distinction between the normative, which he prioritizes, and the cognitive, which he understands in a far too narrow purposive -rational and explicit epistemic manner. Most immediately, however, it goes back to his reaction to Habermas’ misunderstanding of systems theory. Habermas mistook systems theory as having as its object substantive action systems devoid of the kind of normative regulation pervading the communicatively reproduced lifeworld. Honneth’s immediate reaction to the dualistic conceptual pair of lifeworld and system was to reject systems theory out of hand – a position he explicitly retains right up to his recent interviews.

Rather than seeing through it, his rejection of systems theory indicates that he in effect shares Habermas’ misunderstanding of the concept of system. What has to be appreciated, however, is that the systems concept is a cognitive one which is vital for sociology and, by extension, for critical theory. This can be illuminated by reference to the modern cognitive order. The concept of system captures the phenomenon of the emergence of second-order, reflexive or synthetic rules in a variety of domains which then come to represent the prevailing cognitive order of the time.

As regards modernity, in the sixteenth century Bodin registered the emergence of the concept of state and its standard of sovereignty and Adam Smith followed in the eighteenth with the concept of the economic system with its standard of efficiency. During the next number of years, Kant (1968, canonically formulated in his three critiques dealing with pure reason, practical reason and judgement respectively the second-order cultural rules which had emerged in the by then autonomous intellectual, moral and aesthetic domains.

Together, all these reflexive rules, from sovereignty and efficiency to truth, rightness and appropriateness, form the taken-for-granted and therefore generally shared cognitive order of modernity. This cognitive dimension is of vital importance sociologically since it allows the investigation of the constitution of society and the temporal attainment of social integration and order by critically analyzing the diversity of competing and conflicting, but also learning and cooperative, attempts to actualize and realize the potentials staked out by the range of structural components of the cognitive order. Honneth’s three recognition patterns form part of this very cognitive order as but elements of its normative and aesthetic areas.


Focusing on Honneth’s project to eliminate the sociological deficit of critical theory, this article was devoted to an investigation of his proposed recovery of the social domain essential to the attainment of his goal. In accordance with his conception of the social as social integration achieved through permanent conflict and struggle for recognition, he gives priority to bringing back in the intermediate area neglected or even excluded by his predecessors – Horkheimer and Adorno the competences of social actors and the normal social and cultural activities in which they engage while observing moral norms; Habermas the constitutive process of competition, contestation and conflict.

What had to be investigated and critically assessed was the series of key concepts Honneth introduced to recover this intermediate domain, including mechanisms of mutual recognition, social mediation and the process of moral learning and societal development. While Honneth’s conception of the social and the concepts proposed to capture it broadly point in the right direction, they were found not to redeem his – cautiously advanced – claim of having overcome the sociological deficit in question. In fact, the impression of a continuing deficit persists. Not only are these concepts not sociologically substantiated, but Honneth’s proposals are theoretically wanting.

This becomes particularly noticeable from the perspective of perhaps the most important intellectual development of our time – the cognitive revolution and the development of the cognitive sciences of which the cognitive turn in sociology forms an integral part. There indeed are indications, however sparse, of cognitive influence in Honneth, for instance in his conceptualization of the structural elements or principles of the modern recognition order. Yet it remains too weak to draw him out into developing the social domain theoretically with the help of cognitive sociology.

Neither is it made clear what precisely the mechanisms of mutual recognition are, nor are the relations of interrelation and transformation of these mechanisms analytically laid out, nor finally is the nature of the process satisfactorily accounted for. Whereas a cognitive sociological approach can assist in both recovering the social and eliminating the sociological deficit of critical theory, the impression of a confounding of the normative and cognitive dimensions in Honneth’s project lingers on.

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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