Honneth in London

Posted on March 30, 2007

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Axel Honneth spoke in London last week as part of the Forum for European Philosophy series of ‘Conversations’. He was talking to Peter Dews, and the conversation spanned from his confessions of undermotivated scholarship in the 1960s to a brief discussion of his latest work on reification. The talk – which was both interesting and informal – took place at the London School of Economics on 22nd March 2007. Here is my transcript of the event (which includes some of my own notes and should not be taken as a verbatim reconstruction of what was said).

Peter began by asking Axel about the origins of his interest in philosophy. Axel was candid enough to admit that he had not always been the most diligent of students, and his interest in philosophy was not something that had always been with him. In fact, his interest in philosophy began with the kinds of existential questions raised in novels and dramas during the 1950s, like Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.

Honneth was at the University of Bonn at the end of the 1960s. At this time, he was obliged to read the traditional works of philosophy. He described the climate at the time as “conventional”, and populated by the remnants of scholars from the Nazi period whose survival can be attributed to the lack of opposition they presented.

Honneth studied at the Hegel Archives in the late 1960s. The Archives attracted a range of radical thinkers, and the atmosphere was somewhat politicized. It was at this time that Honneth’s involvement in the student movement began, and he joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which he found too Trotskyist. In 1972 he went to Berlin, leaving the SDP. He decided to join an anti-authoritarian movement which included Oskar Negt and other students of Habermas who were unconvinved by revolutionary politics. Honneth did not share the Marxist belief that the proletariat would be the agency of revolutionary change.

At this point, Peter noted that Honneth’s early work is nonetheless Marxist in orientation, albeit non-revolutionary. Honneth reiterated his doubts over the epistemological foundations of Marxism, which led him to sympathise with Popper’s critical rationalism. These two concerns – in Marxism and Critical Theory on the one hand, and the need for a robust epistemology on the other – would be found in synthesis in Habermas’s Knowledge and Human Interests (and particularly in “On the Logic of the Social Sciences”).

The political climate at the time meant there was something of an ideological divide between the radically Marxist elements in Berlin and the more theoretical approach of the Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt. Honneth’s interest in the group led to him being derogotarily refered to as a ‘Habermasian”, though he had yet to meet Habermas himself.

After attending an Althusser reading group in Berlin, Honneth wrote a critical piece entitled “History and Interaction: On the Structuralist Interpretation of Historical Materialism” (which can now be found in Althusser: A Critical Reader). On the basis of this piece, Habermas invited Honneth to become his research assistant. Honneth wrote a thesis on Habermas, Foucault and Adorno (which would later become Critique of Power) in the attempt to reconcile strands of contemporary French and German thought.

Peter Dews noted that it has become common to view French and German thought as having undergone something of a divergence during the 20th Century, with French thought taking its lead from Nietzsche and Heidegger, while German thought retained something of a committment to a rational tradition. Adherents of these positions have often criticised each other for being politically dangerous and authoritarian respectively.

Honneth said that he was never convinced by the 1980s opposition between the Habermas of The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity and various Paris groups which attempted to hold on to a certain idea of rationality while remaining skeptical about universal rationality. He described this as an unhelpful, misleading concentration which has, happily, been abandoned.

In Honneth’s view, the rational potentiality and normative force of interaction can be found throughout the French and German traditions and, in fact, each points to frictions or tensions within the other.

Peter then asked about the genesis of Honneth’s own theory of recognition. Honneth made it clear that he thought Habermas’s attention to the realm of communicative reason (rather than production or instrumental reason) hd been the right one, and was substantiated by the phenomenology of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. The problem, as he saw it, was that the linguistic structure of communication does not provide an adequate pespective on actual social interaction. Honneth developed this thought by researching sociological theories of class interaction, and the psychological elements of social interaction like resepect/disrespect, conflict, shame and recognition. These phenomena, Honneth contends, are not really touched by the Habermasian model.

The emphasis, therefore, for Honneth, is one sense away from the abstract and towards the mundane. Although his project began as supplemental to the Habermas’s theory of norm-justification, it has taken on an Hegelian life of its own with the reconstruction of Hegel’s theory of recognition. For Hegel, forms of life are historical, and hence historical forms of reason structure the interactions of subjects. In contrast to Habermas’s simplistic, abstract conception of interaction, the theory of recognition offers the possibility of understanding social interaction as it is experienced. Honneth sees himself as radicalising Hegel’s project of ‘ethical life’ (Sittlichkeit). Habermas, on the other hand, has become increasingly focused on a post-Kantian, dialogical theory of rationality.

In response to this discussion of historical forms of subjectivity, Peter Dews noted that much of Honneth’s work exhibits a strong interest in anthropological constants, which would seem to be ahistorical.

Honneth responded by saying that forms of recognition are multi-dimensional, and characterised by different social relationships: significant modern historical forms including love (emotion), legal respect and social esteem. The modern lifeworld comes with these kinds of demands. But how are we, as humans, introduced to these forms of recognition at all? In his latest work, Honneth remarked, he follows Cavell’s notion of ‘acknowledgement’ in exploring an elementary form of recognition that underlies the possibility of normative distinctions brought about through historical process. However, this ‘elemental’ or ‘genetic’ [and presumably anthropological since it precedes historical forms - RF] aspect of recognition cannot, in itself, provide any normative content.

Bearing this in mind, we might well be justified in questioning the strength of this foundation for critique. As Peter asked, should we shift the forms of critique away from normative justification and towards the diagnosis of social ‘pathologies’? To put it another way, how do we get normativity from the identification of reification?

Honneth’s response was that in order to justify our own normative claims we have to provide a kind of teleological account of history. This involves a committment to the idea that modern forms of Sittlichkeit are in some sense superior to those that have come before. A consistent self-understanding of our moral practices presupposes historical moral progress, as it were.

Peter acknowledged that this came across in the book on reification, but argued that this would attribute modernity a normative status when critical theorists have normally identifed modernity with instrumental forms of rationality.

Honneth responded by suggesting that a lot depends on the teleological status of history. We have to presuppose this progress in order to make sense of our own times. We do this by, for example, reassessing the moral legitimacy of capital punishment. It does not follow that we need be absolutist about such a view; it simply reflects a progression in a particular form of ethical life. Our self-interpretation of our moral practices requires this kind of language and these kinds of categories. He went on to say that demands for recognition raise moral appeals that surpass our ability to satisfy them. Critical theory is able to articulate these, and defend existing demands for recognition.

Honneth identified two different types of social ‘misdevelopment': forms of injustice (which constitute a violation of normative principles) and social pathologies (deficiencies of conditions of ‘the good life’). Speaking of the latter, he maintained that we can explain social pathologies only in terms of our forms of self-relationship, not through a critique of capitalism. Instrumental rationality still involves recognizing an individual as a human qua tool, and is therefore based upon a primordial or originary form of recognition. Self-reification is therefore the main focus of Honneth’s current work, which attempts to develop a more detailed theory of self-recognition.

This might be contrasted with Lacan, who thought that misrecognition was unavoidable and potentially productive. Honneth said that he thought Lacan lent misrecognition an inappropriate weight. Lacan takes recognition to mean some sort of ‘full’ recognition, and yet this is strange since it suggests that the capacity to be fully cognitively aware of the other. Honneth’s notion of recognition works at a deeper level – we recognise another in a certain aspect or situation, never fully [this is most reminiscent of Sartre - RF]. Lacan therefore confuses recognition’s dual meanings. Recognition has both a normative, regulative status but also refers to the epistemological circumstance of fully cognizing something.

Honneth went on to make an interesting comparison of Hegel and Aristotle. For Hegel, as for Aristotle, ethics was more a matter of dispositions than cognition. Although Hegel’s sense of morality is kind of Aristotelian, he presupposes that established forms of moral practice make up Sittlichkeit while Aristotle’s virtues are not institutionalised in an equivalent way.

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