"In Search of Recognition" by Peter E. Gordon (NYRB)



Recognition: A Chapter in the History of European Ideas

by Axel Honneth, translated from the German by Joseph Ganahl

Cambridge University Press, 178 pp., $79.99; $24.99 (paper)


All of us need recognition. We need it from those we love but also from the state if we are to enjoy our rights as citizens, and from society at large if we are to secure esteem for our achievements. In the absence of recognition we languish, unloved and unseen, without legal protection and without the basic sense that we matter as human beings. Think, for instance, of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which invisibility becomes a metaphor for recognition denied. “I am invisible,” the narrator writes, “simply because people refuse to see me.” He feels like a bodiless head at a circus sideshow, as if he were encased in “mirrors of hard, distorting glass.” Others who approach him “see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.” Because he is denied recognition, he is robbed of the necessary conditions for a fulfilling life. “I am not only invisible,” he says, “but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death.”

Philosophers, psychologists, and theorists of social interaction have long understood that recognition is crucial to human flourishing. The idea that we can only be fully human if we are recognized by others is a central theme of the tradition of political thought that runs from Aristotle to Arendt, in which the political sphere is conceived not as an empty stage for individual pursuits but as a common realm in which we first appear to one another and find our completion as human beings. Freud gave this thought a further twist with his theory of infantile socialization, according to which our status as moral agents is due to an early complex of transactions over love and desire that must find a proper resolution if we are to emerge into maturity.

But the same recognition that we need from others we also require for ourselves: if we refuse to recognize our own desires, they distort us from the inside and we succumb to illness. Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist and theorist of anticolonial liberation, united these insights in his claim that our sense of “human worth and reality” does not exist prior to our social interaction but is the consequence of social recognition. Asymmetries of power, such as that between colonizer and colonized, will distort this recognition or render it inoperative, resulting in structural injustice and personal distress. A truly just society would demand what Fanon called “a world of reciprocal recognition.”

In recent years, no one has pursued the idea of recognition with greater energy and acumen than Axel Honneth, a German-born philosopher from the so-called Frankfurt School tradition of social theory. Despite its name, the Frankfurt School was never a school with a single doctrine but a diverse group of mid-twentieth-century thinkers, including Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Friedrich Pollock, and Herbert Marcuse, who worked as affiliates of the Frankfurt-based Institute for Social Research, founded in the early 1920s. Though broadly Marxist in inspiration, the institute’s members had little patience for the mindless cant of the organized Communist movement or for the authoritarian bureaucracies of the Soviet bloc, which were socialist in name only. A loose and interdisciplinary collective of philosophers, psychologists, political scientists, and cultural critics, the institute was united only in its skeptical verdict on the capitalist world as a ruinous domain in which commodification and convention prevailed over genuine freedom.

This grim assessment of modern society meant that its members directed their energies more to criticism than to the construction of any utopian program. Rationalists at heart, they saw that reason itself had been bent into an instrument of domination. It was Horkheimer who first characterized the institute’s task as the development of a “critical theory,” a phrase that has survived despite the gradual transformation and diversification of its mission over the past century. After World War II, when several of the first generation of critical theorists returned from their American exile, they were deeply involved in the reconstruction of democratic culture in the German Federal Republic. They also helped to inspire a younger generation of critical theorists, including the philosopher and public intellectual Jürgen Habermas, now well past his ninetieth birthday, who is acknowledged as the leading figure of that generation.

Honneth’s prominent place in this tradition is uncontested. Although he was not technically a student of Habermas’s, he completed his dissertation while on a fellowship at the Max Planck Institute in Starnberg, which Habermas directed, and he went on to serve as an assistant in Frankfurt, where he conducted seminars with Habermas. After a series of appointments in Konstanz and Berlin, he returned to Frankfurt in 1996 to assume Habermas’s chair in social philosophy, and in 2001 he took over as director of the Institute for Social Research. Honneth stepped down from the position in 2018 and now divides his time between Frankfurt and Columbia University.

Many have claimed that critical theory has been transformed to such a degree that one can no longer say that its adherents have a common mission. It may be that what originally inspired it and maintained its integrity was not Marxism but the fear of fascism, since the threat of its rise in the 1930s and the prospect of its resurgence in the 1950s held together the institute’s divergent tendencies. What survives today is more a philosophical style than a substantive program. Those who see themselves as allies of critical theory remain rationalist in disposition, and they see philosophy not as conceptual analysis but as a social practice that is oriented toward an ideal of universal emancipation.

This stripped-down definition allows for various streams of thought and divergent opinions as to what critical theory should be.

 The institute’s original building from the 1920s was destroyed in the war, but today it is still housed in the austere postwar structure across the street from the old campus of the Goethe-University Frankfurt. The memory of the institute’s first generation still haunts the surrounding neighborhood, known as the WestEnd. The brightly painted faces of Adorno and Horkheimer glare down at passersby from a university wall, and in the institute’s kitchen, a photograph shows Adorno in an unusually cheerful mood. Across the hall is his old piano, well maintained and still in tune. But the continuities should not be exaggerated.

The question of how critical theory has changed over the past century has provoked much debate. It is a commonplace view that the first-generation critical theorists fell into a cul-de-sac of absolute despair. The promise of enlightenment—that reason should make us free—no longer seemed tenable, especially after the horrors of Auschwitz were revealed. But this skeptical verdict on human rationality seemed to rob critical theory of the resources it needed to justify its own philosophical efforts. Habermas, despite his great admiration for Adorno, described this dilemma as a “performative contradiction.” In his own work he sought to place critical theory on what he considered a new and more secure foundation, and to rescue it from its apparent defeatism by turning to a kind of rationality that inheres in communication itself.

It is sometimes said that with Habermas, critical theory took a “linguistic turn.” Beginning in the early 1980s with the publication of his pathbreaking two-volume study, The Theory of Communicative Action, he sought to show that the simple fact of our communication with others already bears within itself the promise of an uncoerced consensus. We often stray from this ideal insofar as we use language strategically to secure assent from others by manipulation rather than argument. But in seeking to make ourselves understood, we cannot help but presuppose the ideal of a mutual agreement that would rest upon nothing besides reasons that we give to one another in good faith. Although he has been much criticized for unworldly rationalism, Habermas was acutely aware of the inequalities in power that distort and even disable a consensus forged through reason alone. All the same, he has never permitted his realism to vitiate his pragmatic faith that communication implies “the unforced force of the better argument.”

Still, the emphasis on language is only part of the story. More importantly, critical theory after Habermas took what has been called an “intersubjective turn.” The emphasis on language alerts us to the fundamental insight that human beings are not isolated monads but subjects who flourish only when we are drawn into broader networks of socialization where our individuality can be realized and acknowledged. As Christopher Zurn has argued in Axel Honneth: A Critical Theory of the Social (2015), Honneth, like Habermas, is chiefly a philosopher of intersubjectivity. But Honneth’s attention is directed less to language as the medium of communication than to the phenomenon of recognition itself. How is it that recognition happens at all, and what do we mean when we say that one person has recognized another? In what ways does recognition form the very scaffolding of our personal and social world? How does our understanding of justice and freedom presuppose that the demand for recognition has been satisfied, and what does it mean for our social world if we find that the bonds of recognition have been violated or denied?

Such questions have preoccupied Honneth throughout his career, from The Struggle for Recognition (first published in German in 1992) to Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life (2011), along with a range of specific interventions such as Reification (2012) and The Idea of Socialism (2017) and the spirited exchange with the political philosopher Nancy Fraser in their coauthored book Redistribution or Recognition? (2003). Despite noteworthy shifts in perspective and emphasis, he has shown remarkable consistency in his central insight that recognition should serve as the singular foundation for critical theory.

Why does recognition matter? Perhaps the easiest way to grasp its importance is to consider infant development. Object-relations theorists such as Donald Winnicott and Jessica Benjamin have shed light on how our earliest experience of love equips us with the capacity for affective identification with others even while we also learn to exercise our independence. The infant may begin life in a condition of symbiosis and dependency, but it must gradually slacken the bonds of love so that it can negotiate the challenge of achieving the proper balance between attachment and self-possession in a shared social world. A child who does not learn this balancing act may become a dysfunctional adult who is either pathologically dependent on others or incapable of loving at all. But the crucial discovery of object-relations theory is that without this early trial of differentiation, we could not become mature, socially competent individuals. I first become a self only by emerging out of the undifferentiated oneness of my infancy. But the challenge of “reality-acceptance,” as Winnicott called it, is never complete. While in loving relationships the original desire to merge with another person survives, I am always confronted with the fact that both objects and people in the surrounding world have an independent reality beyond my needs.

Intersubjectivity, then, is the birthplace of subjectivity. To develop this insight, Honneth borrows extensively from Hegel, whose understanding of human history as a dialectical narrative of freedom exercised an enormous influence on later social theorists, including the young Marx. Honneth places special emphasis on writings by Hegel from his years as an unsalaried lecturer at the University of Jena, where he wrote his System of Ethical Life (1802), an early and relatively underappreciated work in which recognition has central importance. Those who are not specialists in Hegel typically cite the fascinating if frustratingly brief “master and slave” chapter from his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), in which the contest for domination appears as an important episode in the unfolding drama of human freedom. But it is chiefly in the earlier study that Hegel developed the insight that true selfhood emerges from the matrix of recognition. The individual can only become an individual if recognized as such. Eventually Hegel came to see that freedom itself is a state of reciprocal recognition that involves “being with oneself in another.”

Honneth has made this insight into the cornerstone of his own philosophy. Our social life in the broadest sense can be understood as a “recognition order,” in which we first come to experience ourselves against an intuitive background of shared purpose and solidarity that is directed toward a common idea of the good. Every society has developed its own distinctive recognition order that leaves its mark on each of its three major spheres—family, law, and the public realm. Honneth believes that critical theory should begin with an analysis of that recognition order and the norms that support it.

For political philosophy, this insight has two important implications. First, it means that when we look at the social world we should not conceive of its problems as ones we might remedy by developing moral standards that could be imposed on it from the outside. The “ought” cannot be something external to the “is.” Instead we need to look for the normative resources that are already available to us in the world as we find it. In other words, we have to identify the “ought” within the “is.” This is a broadly Hegelian theme that was also of cardinal importance for Marx, who in an 1843 letter to a colleague wrote, “We develop new principles to the world out of its own principles.” One might say that it is this idea that most distinguishes the Hegelian strand in political philosophy from its competitors, including the more Kantian variety (such as that of John Rawls) that has tried to develop general principles of justice in relative abstraction from the concrete facts of our social existence.

For Honneth and for thinkers in the Frankfurt tradition of critical theory, it follows that political philosophy should not turn its back on the discoveries of the empirical social sciences such as sociology and psychology, since those fields may provide us with clues about the principles that already obtain in our moral life. In this respect if not in others, Honneth has remained faithful to the original interdisciplinary agenda of the Frankfurt School founders.

A second, more intriguing implication is that arguments in political philosophy should proceed in a negative fashion. No recognition order is perfect, of course, and improving the bonds of recognition is a moral imperative. But calls for greater justice typically take the form of complaints about injustice. In Disrespect (2000), Honneth explains that “what we might conceive of as a striving for social recognition initially appears in a negative form, namely as the experience of humiliation or disrespect.” We gain a deepened understanding of recognition when it is withheld, and we can best appreciate the central place of recognition in our social world if we turn our attention to cases where it has been applied only selectively or has failed altogether. Although this may strike us as a peculiar way for a philosopher to go about developing a model of social justice, the appeal to the negative is a defining feature of political philosophy in the post-Hegelian style. If we are to be effective in our efforts to criticize and improve the society we inhabit, our standards for criticism must have some traction on society, and this traction comes from seeing not how society has succeeded but how it has violated its own standards.

The theory of recognition is clearly relevant to how we think about historical cases such as the civil rights movement in the United States or the campaign for the extension of legal rights to gays and lesbians as well as other marginalized groups. But what is perhaps most striking in Honneth’s argument is the way in which it interweaves the more conventional and institutional concerns of political philosophy (in our legal and constitutional arrangements, for instance) with an awareness of the informal, affective dimension of human experience.

Nancy Fraser has argued that the focus on recognition has the unfortunate effect of turning critical theory toward “culturalist” themes, while ignoring problems of economics and redistribution. Honneth’s response is that even the call for redistribution must appeal to an underlying recognition of social suffering. Though he acknowledges the demand for economic redistribution, he worries that the emphasis on modifying institutions may lead us to neglect what he calls “the everyday, still unthematized, but no less pressing embryonic form of social misery.” If critical theory is to remain a comprehensive theory of social freedom, it must attend to formal structures of power, but it should not overlook the “everyday dimension of moral feelings of injustice” that animate our calls for structural change.

Consider the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” in which minimalist description becomes a moral demand. For this campaign, legal redress is absolutely necessary, but that is only one facet of the broader effort to ensure that African Americans are recognized as agents fully deserving of respect and the conditions necessary for justice and fulfillment in their lives. Such cases illustrate how, even in the struggle for formal rights in law or in campaigns for economic equality, we are guided by informal intuitions about what we believe is due to all members of our society. Honneth is convinced that calls for social betterment cannot be construed only in an institutional and economic sense. In The Idea of Socialism he argues that socialism must be freed from “the shackles of nineteenth-century thought,” in which it was conceived as the animating cause of an existing economic class that could rely on a narrative of historical progress. It must adopt a strategy of “historical experimentalism” that remains open to the ever-changing array of diverse voices and needs.

Honneth’s most recent book, Recognition, is based on the Seeley Lectures that he delivered in 2017 at the Centre for Political Thought at Cambridge University. It is not so much an original statement or an advance in his philosophical arguments as an accessible introduction to the themes that have preoccupied him throughout his career. Here Honneth adopts a more modest approach as a historian of ideas, exploring how recognition was conceived in three distinct intellectual traditions—French, British, and German.

The comparative approach is instructive, not least because we come to see that national cultures seem to have construed social interaction in notably different ways. In the French case, Rousseau expresses the fear that we risk losing a sense of our authentic selfhood when we live only “in the opinion of others” and succumb to the passion of “amour propre.” A similar anxiety can be found much later in the philosophy of Sartre, who feared that one’s encounter with the other can only end in self-loss and would not yield a more expansive sense of one’s humanity. From these two examples Honneth draws the broad generalization of a cultural bias in French social thought that inhibited the development of a more positive assessment of intersubjectivity.

In the British tradition, Honneth begins with David Hume and his notion of “sympathy,” then turns to the rather more sophisticated moral theory of Adam Smith, before concluding with a discussion of John Stuart Mill. All three shared a favorable understanding of the importance of recognition in social interaction even if they didn’t employ that term. Smith, for example, developed a theory of the “impartial spectator” as our higher conscience, the internal representative of what Honneth calls the “generalized other.” Later, in the nineteenth century, Mill came to see that the social bond that holds a community together is (in Honneth’s phrase) “woven from the fabric of mutual recognition,” but he conceived of this bond chiefly in negative terms: if we are inclined to respect the will of the community, this is due to what he called “the fear of displeasure from our fellow creatures.” Dreading the possibility of public censure or expulsion, the individual adheres to collective norms and also gains a more expansive sense of its own purposes. For Honneth, the British strand in this story is distinctive in that it sees recognition as primarily a psychological fact about why we adhere to the norms we do.

Honneth is a charitable reader who sees merit in all three strands of historical discussion, and he succeeds in braiding them together into a stronger, more general theory. All the same, it’s clear that he regards the German contribution as the most persuasive, since only in the German tradition did the idea of recognition assume a central place as an explanation for how we become both rational and free. Kant furnished the guiding thought that persons deserve respect because they represent (in Honneth’s words) “living examples of the effort required to follow the moral demands of reason.” This intuition inspired Fichte to claim that respect means a reciprocal acknowledgment of our capacity for freedom: “One cannot treat the other as a free being, if both do not mutually treat each other as free.”

But it was left to Hegel to argue that “being with oneself in another” is not only an event that occurs between selves but must also assume an enduring form in the full range of social institutions that comprise our life together. Law, for instance, is not a mere system of constraints that should be minimized so that we enjoy a maximum of liberty for pursuing our own ends. It is a structure that also transforms who we are and assists us in realizing this broadened conception of our own nature. Borrowing from the Hegel scholar Frederick Neuhouser, Honneth sees this institutional requirement as necessary for “social freedom.” With this idea he marks his allegiance to a long tradition in political philosophy that harks back to Aristotle’s view of human beings as political animals who flourish only when institutional conditions permit them to realize who they are. We are truly free only when our social world is not an external obstruction but our own “second nature,” an external manifestation of our higher aims. Needless to say, this idea of social freedom has little in common with the dominant tradition of Anglo-American liberal political thought that places a premium on individual liberty. In defending the idea of social freedom, Honneth has helped us to appreciate the limits of liberalism.

A skeptic might ask why such a project would have any value beyond the circuits of academic debate. The answer is that Honneth is not only a philosopher for philosophy’s sake. He has given formal shape to a deep intuition that permeates our everyday experience, even if it often remains unthematized. The intuition is a simple one but is too easily missed, especially in a world that prizes the self-made individual and sees our social reality only as an external constraint. We need recognition from others as a condition for being ourselves. We need it not only in the innermost spheres of love and friendship but also in the outermost reaches of public life, where it assumes an institutional form. Recognition, we might say, is a dynamic force that quickens our institutions and prevents them from hardening into an unresponsive mass. The right to vote, for example, is not only a matter of law; it is an expression of recognition for others as agents who deserve a say in determining the course of their lives.

Too often, of course, recognition does not flow as it should: instead we find ourselves victims of a kind of “misrecognition” that does not assist us in realizing who we are but delivers us over to distortions that do damage to our sense of identity and self-worth.

When a violation goes unacknowledged or the cry of suffering goes unheard, when a claim for asylum is rejected or citizenship is denied, or when poverty is treated as something natural and deserved, we can say that the stream of recognition has been brought to a stop. Our social life can truly flourish only where recognition obtains. Without it we are rendered invisible.

Peter E. Gordon

Peter E. Gordon is the Amabel B. James Professor of History and a Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard. His most recent book is Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization. (June 2022)


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