- Timo JüttenTimo JüttenSchool of Philosophy and Art History, University of Essex
Recognition can be understood as a positive acknowledgment or affirmation of a person’s existence, identity, rights, or achievement. It is sometimes said to be a necessary condition for self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem. Although the concept has origins in Hobbes, Rousseau, Fichte, and Hegel, it has come to renewed prominence since the early 1990s, when philosophers such as Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth developed theories of recognition. These showed that the need for social recognition underlies many social and political movements from struggles for civil and labor rights to modern multiculturalism.
In social and political philosophy, Honneth has argued that three forms of social recognition—affective care, equal respect, and social esteem—are preconditions of individual autonomy and that the principles governing these three forms of recognition should be the core of a conception of social justice. According to the theory of recognition, modern capitalist society can be evaluated as a recognition order that institutionalizes the distribution of respect and social esteem according to people’s individual achievements in their contributions to socially shared goals. Methodologically, Honneth uses an approach of normative reconstruction. Rather than constructing principles of justice on the basis of hypothetical agreement, he reconstructs the normative principles that are immanent in our social practices and institutions and sometimes contain a “normative surplus” that points beyond the status quo. This approach has been very productive in elucidating the importance of social recognition in the sphere of work, but critics have suggested that it limits the scope of radical social criticism. Honneth has proposed the concept of ideological recognition, where there is a chasm between the evaluative promise entailed by a form of recognition and its material fulfilment, in order to address this problem. More generally, critics have questioned whether recognition must be understood as positive rather than ambivalent, because this limits the scope of misrecognition and means that phenomena such as interpellation or objectification cannot easily be analyzed as forms of misrecognition.
- Political Philosophy
The Concept of Recognition in Political Philosophy
Recognition can be understood as a positive acknowledgment or affirmation of a person’s existence, identity, rights, or achievement. It is sometimes said to be a necessary condition for self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem. The concept of recognition appeared in the toolbox of normative political philosophy in the early 1990s. Although it has its roots in Hegel and, indirectly, in Rousseau and Hobbes, it is only since then that recognition, considered as an analytic and normative concept, has appeared in discussions about social justice. The immediate reason for the appearance was the publication of two important texts by Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth.
Taylor’s study, “The Politics of Recognition” (1992), is a contribution to the debate about multiculturalism. It is concerned with the question of whether and how to recognize people’s distinct cultural identities in the context of a liberal political discourse that is primarily concerned with equal rights and distributive justice. Can there be claims for special consideration or treatment based on an individual’s or a group’s culture that are not best understood as based on individual rights or entitlements of social justice, but on a recognition of the demands that the culture places on them? The debates about Muslim women wearing head scarves, Sikh men being exempted from wearing motorcycle helmets, or children of various religions being exempted from being taught physical education or sex education in school relate to this question. So do the debates about language rights and religious education in school. Should the state recognize the value of different cultures and support cultural reproduction? Most of the specific debates about multiculturalism have been absorbed into mainstream debates about the scope and reach of individual rights, but the lasting achievement of Taylor’s intervention is the insight that people’s cultural and religious identities matter in ways that elude the calculus of distributive justice, and that some policies aimed at inclusion will need to address people’s need to be recognized as members of valued cultural groups.
In The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts (Honneth, 1996), Honneth articulates a formal conception of ethical life through a phenomenology of historical struggles for recognition and against disrespect and humiliation.1 This phenomenology is informed by the social–theoretical conviction that “the reproduction of social life is governed by the imperative of mutual recognition” (Honneth, 1996, p. 92). The negative experience of disrespect and humiliation motivates struggles for recognition in which social groups stake their claims for the recognition of previously unrecognized or undervalued aspects of their members’ personalities, rights, or contributions to social reproduction. Honneth’s phenomenological analysis leads to a complex typology of recognition, which can be organized according to the dimension of personhood to which a particular mode of recognition is addressed, to the forms of recognition that are adequate to the particular dimension of personhood, and to the social spheres in which the particular forms of recognition have been historically institutionalized (Honneth, 1996, p. 129; cf. Honneth, 2003, pp. 138–144). Subjects must be recognized in their singularity as possessors of needs and emotions, as autonomous agents with moral responsibility, and as possessors of particular traits and abilities that enable them to contribute to social cooperation (Ikäheimo, 2002). The forms of recognition adequate to these dimensions of personhood are love (or friendship), respect, and social esteem. Modern capitalist societies have institutionalized these forms of recognition in the bourgeois family, in the various legal and political institutions guaranteeing equality before the law, and in the industrially organized division of labor. Mutual recognition in the three dimensions of personhood is a condition of possibility for individual autonomy, and, therefore, for self-realization, because the development of a positive self-relationship, including the development of self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem, depends on this recognition (Honneth, 1996, pp. 173–174). Taken together, these requirements specify Honneth’s formal conception of the good life, because mutual recognition “provide[s] the intersubjective protection that safeguards the conditions for external and internal freedom, upon which the process of articulating and realizing individual life-goals without coercion depends” (Honneth, 1996, p. 174). It enables individuals to develop and maintain intact social identities.2
Although both Taylor and Honneth responded to substantial issues in politics and society that made the introduction of recognition into the vocabulary of normative political philosophy productive and suggested new avenues for research, Honneth has a much broader interest in the role that social identities play in moral struggles and social conflicts. Therefore, his approach has become the starting point for most discussions of recognition in social and political philosophy. The individual sections of this entry consider the following:
The basic concepts and distinctions of the recognition–theoretical approach
How the concept of recognition has been discussed in the history of political thought
The difference between social and political philosophy and the role that social theory plays in normative theorizing
The recognitive preconditions of individual autonomy as an example of how this approach can make a substantial contribution to the understanding of basic concepts in political philosophy
The analysis of modern capitalist society as a “recognition order” and the relationship between recognition and redistribution
The method of normative reconstruction and the limited scope of radical social criticism
Finally, some conceptual difficulties and problems of recognition, including the precise nature of recognition and misrecognition, the problem of ideological recognition, and the question of whether the positive theory of recognition is able to do justice to the essential “ambivalence” of many forms of recognition will be discussed.
Basic Concepts and Distinctions
Conceptually, recognition is a form of acknowledgment. To recognize someone means to recognize them as something specific, for example, as a person; as an equal; as a Christian, Jew, or Muslim; as a fellow American or German; a fellow worker or mother, and so on. In general, recognition is affirmative or positive in nature, although this is not necessarily the case, because individuals can be misrecognized, and there is also “ideological recognition” (Honneth, 2012c). Perhaps it is best to think of recognition as “ambivalent” (Lepold, 2019, 2021). Psychologically, recognition is often seen as necessary. Taylor (1992, p. 26) calls it “a vital human need.” Honneth (2003, p. 174) calls the need for mutual recognition “an anthropological constant” while acknowledging that the specific forms of recognition that individuals need or seek vary across time and between places (Honneth, 2003, p. 181). In particular, recognition is necessary psychologically for the development and maintenance of an individual’s identity and their sense of self. Socially, recognition can work through social roles, such as mother, colleague, or comrade, as well as through more informal roles such as lover or friend. Finally, politically, recognition works through the formal recognition of equal respect and concern, the recognition of individual rights, and membership of a political community.
Recognition is often characterized as an interpersonal relationship in the first instance. An individual may recognize someone as their friend or as a valuable colleague. However, as the example of political recognition indicates, this is not necessarily the case. There is also institutional recognition, and this is particularly true of the forms of recognition that matter most to political philosophers. For example, recognition as a citizen with equal rights is usually conferred on an individual by institutions of the state. Informal institutions can also confer recognition. For example, members of an extended family or a group of friends or fellow soccer fans can recognize each other. Of course, in these cases one might say that institutional recognition really is a form of collective recognition that we, for example, as citizens, confer on each other. But this can seem forced, especially when institutional structures are complex or opaque. If it is said that in a capitalist economy an individual’s salary is recognition for their performance, it is not clear whether this necessarily implies collective recognition, based on a shared understanding of what constitutes performance and how it should be rewarded. Of course, one may ask how effective institutional recognition is if it does not imply at least some degree of collective recognition.
Recognition is also often characterized as mutual recognition, which suggests that recognition relationships should be symmetrical. Although this makes sense in some cases (e.g., recognition between friends), other recognitive relationships may be mutual without being symmetrical (e.g., between mother and child), and yet others may not look very mutual at all (e.g., being recognized as an equal citizen by the state). Finally, there is the question of whether forms of imposed recognition, such as the processes Althusser (1971) calls interpellation, or sexual objectification, considered as the imposition of a social meaning on women that defines them as for sexual use (Jütten, 2016), should be counted as forms of recognition at all.
A Very Brief History of Recognition
While the term recognition is usually associated with the German idealist tradition, especially with Fichte and Hegel, the psychological need that it describes and the social and political struggles to attain it have been discussed in the history of social and political thought at least since Hobbes. In fact, the theories of Hobbes, Rousseau, and Hegel can all be understood as attempts to find solutions for the problems posed by “unregulated” struggles for recognition, although most political philosophers have devoted more attention to Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651/1991), the social contract, and the institutions of modern ethical life than to the psychological and social conditions that make them necessary.3 A shift in the focus of attention offers rich insights into the need for recognition.
In Leviathan, Hobbes identifies three “principal causes of quarrel” that make the state of nature a state of war of all against all: competition, diffidence and glory (Hobbes, 1651/1991, p. 88). While many commentators focus on competition for scarce resources as the principal source of conflict (e.g., Gauthier, 1969), recent scholarship has shown that the real principal cause is the quest for glory (Abizadeh, 2011; Slomp, 1998, 2007). For Hobbes, glory is a passion for superior power over others and the honor that comes with such power. Therefore, “men are continually in competition for honour [sic] and dignity…and consequently amongst men there ariseth on that ground, envy and hatred” (Hobbes, 1651/1991, p. 119). Competition in the state of nature is not concerned so much with scarce material goods but with glory, which is a positional good, and, therefore, necessarily scarce. Moreover, people are “not universally vainglorious, but frequently prickly” (Abizadeh, 2011, p. 308). They experience disagreement and, particularly, normative disagreement as an attack on their honor and dignity, because they identify with their opinions and experience disagreement with their opinions as contempt for their identity. Therefore, glory-seeking can be defensive or offensive. Defensive glory-seeking is about keeping up with others in a competitive arms race for honor and dignity, while offensive glory-seeking is about outdoing others and enjoying superiority. It is illustrated by Hobbes’ famous metaphor of life as a race in the Elements of Law (1640/2008), where he writes that “this race we must suppose to have no other goal, nor no other garland, but being foremost” (Hobbes, 1640/2008, p. 59). Although vainglory may not be universal, the existence of even some glory-seekers is a danger to the Commonwealth. However, Hobbes thinks that they can be reformed through education, and, in the Commonwealth, the desire for glory can be channeled into less destructive paths through the institutions of private property and common values (Slomp, 2007, pp. 193, 195; cf. Abizadeh, 2011, p. 312; Slomp, 1998, pp. 562–563). On this interpretation, Hobbes makes two important points about recognition. One, people seek positive recognition from others partly in order to protect their identity in the face of disagreement. Two, it is an important purpose of social and political institutions to channel destructive struggles for recognition into more productive paths.
In the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Amongst Men, Rousseau (1755/1997a) chooses the opposing starting point to Hobbes. Rather than the state of nature, life in society arouses the need for recognition. While people in the state of nature live “inside” of themselves, pursue a solitary existence in harmony with themselves and nature, and do not compare themselves to others, people in modern society live “outside” of themselves, see themselves through the eyes of others, and seek the recognition of others as a condition and confirmation of their own self-worth. Rousseau describes how this quest for recognition manifests itself in an (imagined) early society, where people meet regularly to socialize, sing, and dance: “Everyone began to look at everyone else and to wish to be looked at himself, and public esteem acquired a value. The one who sang or danced best; the handsomest, the strongest, the most skillful, or the most eloquent came to be the most highly regarded, and this was the first step at once toward inequality and vice…” (Rousseau, 1755/1997a, p. 166).
Life in society brings a new form of self-relation into being, a form of self-love, amour propre, which is concerned with honor, merit, and how one is regarded (Neuhouser, 2008, p. 30). Rousseau argues that in civil society, competition for recognition changes in quality. Amour propre becomes inflamed once luxury, mutual dependence, private property, and social differentiation come into being (Neuhouser, 2008, p. 120), and this leads to the evils of enslavement, conflict, vice, misery, and alienation (cf. Neuhouser, 2008, pp. 70–89). However, according to Rousseau, the drive for recognition is ambivalent, because it also motivates people to develop their talents and do their best: “this universal desire for reputation, honors and preferment which consumes us all, stimulates talents and strengths and sets them off against one another…it excites and multiplies the passions and, in making all men competitors, rivals, or rather enemies…” (Rousseau, 1755/1997a, p. 184). So understood, Rousseau makes an important contribution to the discourse on recognition. Although the struggle for recognition can be destructive, it also serves a positive purpose. Societies must cultivate the development of amour propre without allowing it to become inflamed.
Finally, Hegel’s philosophy provides a number of important insights for the theory of recognition. First, in his earliest writings, Hegel argues for an intersubjectivist conception of human identity, distinguishes various media of recognition (love, law, solidarity), and assigns a historically productive role to moral struggles for intersubjective recognition (Honneth, 1996, p. 63). Second, in the Phenomenology of Spirit (Hegel, 1807/1991), Hegel’s famous discussion of the master–slave dialectic highlights an epistemic function for recognition. Here, mutual recognition is required for self-consciousness.4 Finally, in the Philosophy of Right (1821), he outlines a conception of ethical life, which is structured according to three spheres of social recognition (family, civil society, and the state), and to forms of intersubjective freedom that stand outside of these spheres: moral and legal freedom. According to Hegel, the institutions of modern ethical life enable individuals to gain social recognition for different aspects of their personality, as needy beings, as equal participants in the market economy, and as members of a political community. For example, with regard to civil society, Hegel writes: “The ethical disposition within this system is therefore that of rectitude and the honour [sic] of one’s estate, so that each individual, by a process of self-determination, makes himself a member of one of the moments of civil society through his activity, diligence, and skill, and supports himself in this capacity; and only through this mediation with the universal does he simultaneously provide for himself and gain recognition in his own eyes and in the eyes of others” (Hegel, 1821/1991, p. 1991, para. 207).
Individual self-interest is rewarded to the extent that its pursuit makes a social contribution and is constrained by the ethical requirements of one’s estate. Hegel’s contribution to the theory of recognition is his insight that recognition has different dimensions, and that spheres of recognition need to be institutionalized to ensure that individuals can gain the recognition that they need. Hegel also saw that, if properly institutionalized, the different forms for recognition enable individuals to channel different struggles for recognition into different spheres. Honneth adopts this scheme of spheres of recognition in his own work (cf. also Honneth, 2010b).
From Social to Political Philosophy
Honneth’s The Struggle for Recognition (1996) does not present the theory of recognition as a contribution to normative political philosophy. As a text in the tradition of Frankfurt School critical theory, it belongs to the discipline of social philosophy. Honneth explains the distinction between social and political philosophy, as he sees it, in the programmatic essay, “Pathologies of the Social” (Honneth, 2007). Political philosophy is concerned with normative questions and the justification of social political institutions, that is, with questions of justice and right. In contrast, social philosophy “is primarily concerned with determining and discussing processes of social development that can be viewed as misdevelopments (Fehlentwicklungen), disorders, or ‘social pathologies’” (Honneth, 2007, p. 4), that is, with processes that undermine the good life or the ethical life of a society.5 Social pathologies, which are best understood as processes that erode or undermine the social conditions of individual self-realization, give rise to phenomena such as alienation, bifurcation, reification, and nihilism. Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche are all philosophers who were concerned with the diagnosis of such social pathologies, and this distinguishes their work from that of Hobbes and Locke, and from the tradition of normative political philosophy.6 The same is true for the founding fathers of modern sociology, Durkheim, Weber, and Simmel, who also belong to the tradition of social philosophy. Social philosophy also differs from political philosophy in that it is merely negative: “At no point does social philosophy…appear as a positive theory. It is instead a critique of social circumstances felt to be alienated or meaningless, reified or even demented” (Honneth, 2007, p. 34). However, the most important difference between social and political philosophy is that social philosophy is concerned with questions concerning the good life, and, therefore, with ethical questions, rather than with moral ones, which concern what is right or just. Although this embroils social philosophy in all the debates about reasonable pluralism and liberal neutrality, Honneth thinks that at least a “formal” conception of ethical life, or a “weak, formal anthropology” (Honneth, 2007, p. 42) is necessary in order to diagnose social pathologies.
Honneth’s theory of recognition offers such a formal conception of ethical life and, therefore, the normative basis for a critical theory of society that can diagnose social pathologies. However, in later writings, Honneth argues that the theory of recognition can also serve as a basis for a theory of social justice and, therefore, contribute to political philosophy as well as to social philosophy: “Because we live in a social order in which individuals owe the possibility of an intact identity to affective care, equality and social esteem, it seems…appropriate, in the name of individual autonomy, to make the three corresponding recognition principles the normative core of a conception of social justice” (Honneth, 2003, pp. 181–182). This conceptualization of the requirements of recognition as a basis for normative political philosophy marks a significant change for the theory of recognition, which offers an alternative foundation for some of the core concepts and principles of justice in modern societies.
The Recognitive Preconditions of Autonomy
The recognition–theoretical account of autonomy (Anderson & Honneth, 2005) exemplifies the insights that the theory of recognition offers to liberal political philosophy. Although political philosophers have recognized the importance of material and institutional support for autonomy, they underestimate the importance of intersubjective relationships. On the recognition–theoretical view, social recognition, both interpersonal and institutional, is necessary for the development and maintenance of autonomy, because recognitive relationships with others make possible positive relationships to ourselves which we need to act autonomously. “The central idea is that the agentic competencies that comprise autonomy require that one be able to sustain certain attitudes toward oneself (in particular, self-trust, self-respect, and self-esteem) and that these affectively laden self-conceptions…are dependent, in turn, on the sustaining attitudes of others” (Anderson & Honneth, 2005, pp. 130–131). Therefore, legally institutionalized respect for autonomy, relationships of love and friendship, and networks of solidarity and shared values in which one’s worth can be acknowledged, are all forms of social recognition that develop and maintain autonomy (Anderson & Honneth, 2005, p. 131). Conversely, paradigmatic violations of such relationships (subordination, marginalization, exclusion, trauma, humiliation, degradation) undermine it (Anderson & Honneth, 2005, pp. 132–137).
Anderson and Honneth (2005, p. 138) argue that rights-based approaches in political philosophy can be unsuited to protecting the recognitive preconditions of autonomy, because they focus on self-respect to the exclusion of self-trust and self-esteem, which cannot be effectively protected by individual rights. More importantly, they suggest that appreciation of the recognitive nature of autonomy requires a rethinking of Rawls’ original position and his conception of justice. In particular, they argue that relevant information about human persons in the original position must include psychological knowledge about vulnerability and the need for recognition, that there must be a better understanding of the conditions for acquiring self-respect and self-esteem, and, finally, that the importance of recognition may require Rawlsians to rethink the nature of justice as basically distributive and think about what a recognitional basic structure would require (Anderson & Honneth, 2005, pp. 142–144; see also the section titled “The Method of Normative Reconstruction”).
How significant is this criticism? Could Rawlsians agree that individuals in the original position need more information about recognition needs? And does not Rawls acknowledge part of these considerations in the original position without undermining the “political” character of justice as fairness? In any case, other approaches in political philosophy, such as the capability approach, also rely on facts about human nature without sacrificing universalism. However, the real challenge concerns the nature of justice itself. Would individuals in the original position choose different principles of justice, if they considered their need for social recognition? And would the overall shape of Rawls’ theory of justice change, if the importance of social recognition, which Rawls seems to recognize in his discussion of self-respect in the Theory of Justice (1999, pp. 386–391), was incorporated into the deliberations in the original position (Anderson & Honneth, 2005, pp. 141–142)? Consider the importance of work in people’s lives. Rawls’ discussion of the Aristotelian principle and the self-respect that flows from work makes clear that he is aware of the importance of meaningful work for people’s well-being (Rawls, 1999, pp. 373–380; cf. Moriarty, 2009). However, this discussion takes place in the context of his defense of a comprehensive liberalism, and the proceduralist justification of the basic structure of society does not consider the social organization of labor at all.
In contrast, from a recognition–theoretical perspective, work is central to the evaluation of a society’s social and political institutions, because “[t]he majority of the population continues to attach their own social identity primarily to their role in the organized labor process” (Honneth, 2010a, p. 223; cf. Jütten, 2017). Work matters not only because it provides workers with an income but also because it provides them with an identity that is related to their contribution to society. This also makes people at work particularly vulnerable to degradation, humiliation, and other forms of misrecognition, which undermines their autonomy and dignity. In Freedom’s Right (Honneth, 2014, pp. 223–253), the sphere of employment is one of the principal social spheres in which social freedom is realized (or not realized!) through the mutual recognition of workers as complementing each other in the pursuit of shared goals. From this perspective, a society’s inability to structure its institutions in accordance with the recognition needs of its citizens, considered as productive members of society, is a major institutional failure that undermines the legitimacy of that society. To be clear, the importance of good jobs and meaningful work is widely acknowledged in liberal political philosophy (e.g., Muirhead, 2004; Schwartz, 1982; Veltman, 2016). What the recognition–theoretical perspective criticizes is that this importance is not reflected in the procedures through which the basic structure of society is justified or evaluated.
The analysis of work is one of the most productive research areas of the theory of recognition, and several directions for future research can be identified. First, much recent research on work in political philosophy has been carried out by defenders of republican theories of freedom. How does recognition relate to republicanism? Does it offer republicans additional resources for the conceptualization of domination in the workplace? Second, what is the relationship between the social contribution that people make through work and other characteristics of work (e.g., autonomy, control, meaningfulness)? Finally, what challenges does technological change pose to recognition through work? Will there be less work that provides recognition for workers? Although Honneth’s theory of recognition does not yet have answers to these questions, it offers conceptual tools for the evaluation of modern capitalist society.
The Capitalist Recognition Order
Modern capitalist society can be understood as a recognition order, because it institutionalizes the distribution of respect and social esteem. It expresses the social valuations that people in this society see as legitimate. It is the normative horizon against which specific struggles for recognition take place (Honneth, 2003, pp. 148–149). This analysis offers conceptual tools for the moral evaluation of market societies that depart from established debates about distributive justice in liberal political philosophy. It suggests that misrecognition underlies many of the injustices that individuals experience in the market economy (Schaub & Odigbo, 2019). It also complements critical theories of capitalism in the Marxist tradition that analyze structures of oppression but lack the conceptual tools to articulate how and why the oppressed experience their oppression as moral injury.
The capitalist recognition order breaks up the premodern “alloy of legal respect and social esteem” (Honneth, 2003, p. 140), universalizes legal respect recognition to all members of society, and links social esteem to productive contribution. It recognizes “individual achievement within the structure of the industrially organized division of labor” (Honneth, 2003, p. 140). Individuals receive social esteem on the basis of their contribution to social production. Therefore, esteem has been “meritocratized” (Honneth, 2003, p. 141). What matters is ability, effort, or success, rather than social status conferred on the basis of birth, caste, or class, characteristics that individuals cannot deserve or be responsible for. However, the capitalist recognition order is nevertheless “hierarchically organized in an unambiguously ideological way from the start” (Honneth, 2003, p. 141). What counts as achievement is always already skewed in favor of the independent, male, middle-class bourgeois, and this ideological bias has survived until today. A narrow model of individual achievement, “investment in intellectual preparation for a specific activity” (Honneth, 2003, p. 147), which is paradigmatically realized in entrepreneurship and the professions, still dominates the capitalist recognition order. Other contributions to socially shared goals are undervalued, including manual and repetitive labor performed by dependent working-class laborers and much care and housework primarily performed by women.
The purpose of analyzing capitalism as a recognition order is not to justify it or the ideology underpinning it, but to explain why people recognize modern capitalist society as legitimate. However, this analysis also shows that there are immanent resources in the capitalist recognition order that justify criticism of it. Capitalism is not “norm-free.”7 It is governed by normative principles, principles of social recognition, even though the specific recognition principles and their application are frequently contested (Honneth, 2003, p. 142).
This conceptualization makes possible insightful analyses of recognition struggles at work. For example, the two-dimensional economy of recognition in the workplace reveals how shifts in the structure of social recognition reflect changing attitudes toward the social bases of recognition. Thus, the institutionalization of social rights first theorised by Marshall (1950) can be given a recognition–theoretical interpretation, according to which struggles about what social solidarity requires are transformed into struggles about social rights, so that unemployment benefits and decent working conditions are no longer seen as expressions of esteem for the social contribution of workers but of respect for their equal rights (Honneth, 2003, p. 149). Such shifting of boundaries between recognition spheres is a form of moral progress because it decouples social rights from the need for justification in terms of individual achievement (Honneth, 2003, p. 188). The legal guarantee of social welfare entitlements establishes the social minimum as something that one is due as everyone’s equal, rather than as a social inferior.8
However, while it is plausible that workers’ struggles, including struggles for better pay and improved working conditions, can be struggles for esteem recognition as well as for material security or advancement, the recognition-theoretical perspective has been criticized for suggesting that pay and improved working conditions are, in fact, expressions of social esteem. Commenting on labor markets, Honneth writes, “efficiency considerations…are inextricably fused with cultural views of the social world” (Honneth, 2003, p. 156), which determine the social value of a particular job or profession. Critics, such as Nancy Fraser (2003a, 2003b), have accused Honneth of an objectionable “monism,” that is, the view that struggles for redistribution can be reduced to struggles for recognition. For example, if an industrial worker loses their job because of an industrial merger (Fraser, 2003a, p. 35), this cannot be explained meaningfully by a reevaluation of their achievement or contribution to socially shared goals, but by political–economic considerations and factors that operate at the systemic level of a globalized world economy that is ultimately governed by profitability considerations (Fraser, 2003b, p. 215). The recognition–theoretical analysis of capitalism does not capture this systemic dimension and is therefore essentially incomplete. To complete it, Fraser suggests an explanatory dualism in which individuals can suffer misrecognition and maldistribution (or both), and the latter cannot be reduced to the former (Fraser, 2003a, pp. 34–37).9
In response, defenders of the recognition–theoretical view have a number of options. While a strong reading of Honneth’s argument, according to which recognition norms do determine market outcomes is implausible, they could suggest a weak reading, according to which recognitional norms are one of several causal determinants of market outcomes, although in that case it is unclear whether the argument has much explanatory value (Zurn, 2015, pp. 140–145). A third alternative is to conceive of market outcomes as objects of an antinomy (Jütten, 2021). On this reading, which concerns people’s attitudes to market outcomes, people affirm both the thesis that market outcomes express moral judgments, for example about the value of a worker’s social contribution, and its antithesis, that market outcomes do not express such moral judgments and live in a state of cognitive dissonance. The structure of antinomial beliefs is familiar from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Peter Strawson’s discussion in “Freedom and Resentment” (Strawson, 2008), where seemingly contradictory beliefs on freedom and determinism are at issue. The upshot of Strawson’s argument is that theoretical knowledge about determinism simply cannot affect people’s “reactive attitudes” in response to events that affect us, such as resentment. Considering whether it would not be rational to change the world and suspend reactive attitudes if people were to become convinced of the truth of determinism, Strawson writes (2008, p. 20): “it is useless to ask whether it would not be rational for us to do what it is not in our nature to (be able to) do.” People cannot get away from the reactive attitudes, because they are fundamental aspects of our interpersonal relationships. They cannot help themselves but respond to others as responsible agents and hold them to their moral duties and obligations, even if they are also convinced of natural determinism.
Perhaps the same applies to the market economy. Whatever economic theories tell us, people cannot help themselves but believe that market outcomes express moral judgments about the value of our social contribution. They form reactive attitudes, such as resentment and humiliation, when they feel that they are undervalued and experience this as undermining their social status, even if they also understand that wages are determined by supply and demand. If this is right, then perhaps the market economy is unable to give people what their nature as beings with a vital need for recognition requires of it. This analysis points to a possibility that Honneth does not seem to envisage, but it is a plausible conclusion that can be drawn from his analysis of relationships of recognition in the market economy. If it is correct, it suggests that a capitalist market economy may not be compatible with people’s recognition needs, and that struggles for recognition in the market economy are ultimately unresolvable. It also suggests that Honneth’s preferred economic arrangement, market socialism (Honneth, 2015, p. 208, 2016), may not be the solution either, unless market institutions are supplemented with robust nonmarket institutions that ensure that everyone’s full contribution to society can be recognized.
The Method of Normative Reconstruction
The method that Honneth uses in his normative political philosophy can be characterized as normative reconstruction (Honneth, 2012a, 2014). Rather than presupposing the existence of autonomous agents and enquiring into the conditions under which their individual freedom can be maximized, Honneth reconstructs the preconditions of this autonomy in intersubjective relationships of recognition and enquires into the justice of these relationships. The reconstruction of existing recognition norms takes the place of the construction of principles of social justice. Of course, Honneth does not assume that existing recognition norms are always just. The idea of a normative surplus contained in recognition norms implies that moral progress remains possible and required if the potential of recognition norms is to be fully realized. However, existing norms are the starting point of normative reconstruction, and, in this sense, it is more “trustful” than procedural approaches in existing social and political relationships (Honneth, 2012a, p. 47).10 According to Honneth, normative reconstruction has at least three advantages over its proceduralist alternatives.
The norms articulated through normative reconstruction are better placed to inform political praxis than abstractly derived principles of justice.
Normative reconstruction reveals that justice cannot be reduced to distributive justice, because recognition relationships are not best conceptualized as things to be distributed, and because the value of distributable goods to individuals cannot be established without reference to these relationships, considered as preconditions of autonomy (Honneth, 2012a, p. 42). For example, if justice requires relationships of solidarity between citizens, then it is not clear what would need to be distributed between citizens (and how) in order to ensure that they can enjoy relationships of solidarity.
Normative reconstruction reveals the importance of familial and societal relationships of recognition in addition to legal ones, which are the focus of proceduralist approaches to justice. Therefore, it does justice to relationships of recognition that are not mediated by state institutions but exist in informal or formal familial or social institutions.
It is possible, then to characterize normative reconstruction as a form of normative theorizing that proceeds through social analysis, or “philosophy as social research,” as Honneth puts it in a discussion of David Miller’s Principles of Social Justice (Honneth, 2012b), with which it shares a number of important features.
The possibility of moral progress is built into the method of normative reconstruction through the idea that principles of recognition possess a “surplus of validity” (Honneth, 2003, p. 186). The moral content of principles of recognition can transcend their current employment, and people can appeal to this surplus in struggles for recognition. In particular, the quality and scope of recognition can increase through individualization and inclusion. Individualization means that individuals gain social recognition for more aspects of their personalities. Inclusion means that more individuals are fully recognized in society (Honneth, 2003, pp. 184–186). To give just one example, in the sphere of modern law, the scope of equality has broadened significantly over the past few decades, and therefore people’s ability to demand respect for their autonomy and life choices has increased. It is less clear where the spheres of love and social esteem are concerned. Honneth suggests that the overcoming of stereotypes and the extension of the category of esteemed activity beyond the traditional conception of “gainful employment” may be examples of moral progress in these spheres (Honneth, 2003, p. 188).
Taken together, Honneth’s critical theory of recognition offers two normative criteria for the evaluation of social institutions and practices. On the one hand, his formal conception of ethical life specifies the intersubjective preconditions of individual autonomy and self-realization that must be protected in any modern democratic state. On the other hand, his conception of moral progress through increasing individualization and inclusion enables him to reconstruct the rationality of historical struggles for recognition, and to diagnose social potentials for further individualization and inclusion. This will afford more individuals the opportunity to live flourishing ethical lives as well as remove the structural impediments that prevent them from happening.
The normative reconstruction approach to social justice may be acceptable to liberal political philosophers such as Miller, who, to varying degrees, appeal to some existing social norms in order to articulate principles of justice, but it is a departure from the original, more radical approach to social analysis in Frankfurt School critical theory pursued by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who considered the modern world to be radically evil and would have rejected any reliance on existing social norms as conformist (Adorno, 1951/2005; cf. Bernstein, 2001; Freyenhagen, 2013). However, even critics who are less radical in their rejection of modern capitalist society than Adorno and Horkheimer have reasons to be concerned about Honneth’s conception of normative reconstruction. This is particular apparent in Freedom’s Right (Honneth, 2014), in which Honneth reconstructs the normative foundations of modern capitalist society on the basis of the concept of social freedom, the idea that individuals “complete each other” because they rely on each other in order to realize their freedom. Although this extension of recognition theory is innovative in many ways, it radically restricts the scope for social criticism, because it entails that social freedom is the inescapable and unsurmountable normative aim of modern subjects. In other words, any progressive development in modern society must be comprehensible as a fuller realization of social freedom, rather than as an alternative to it (Schaub, 2015).
Although the scope of radical social criticism is limited in the normative reconstruction approach to social justice, this approach reconstructs immanent possibilities of social criticism that are accessible to individuals in a given society. On this understanding, individuals can use their legal rights to protect themselves against oppressive relationships of recognition in modern capitalist society. The respect dimension of recognition, which recognizes individuals as rights bearers and moral agents (Honneth, 1996, p. 110; cf. Honneth, 2014, pp. 75–77) has a certain preeminence among the dimensions of recognition, because individuals can insist on the enforcement of their legal rights. Recognition as an individual with rights enables a person to step back or withdraw, either temporarily or permanently, from many informal and noncoercive relationships of recognition and insist on a sphere of noninterference in their lives, a sphere in which they can act autonomously and where their privacy is respected. For example, they can insist on their bodily integrity, their freedom of speech, the protection of their home and possessions, and their personal rights in the workplace. In this sense, legal recognition, as a form of negative freedom, upholds the liberal character of the modern recognition order.
However, this legal freedom is limited in at least two ways. First, legal freedom is not a “sphere or a space of individual self-realization. It might allow us to suspend, question, or end our own projects and attachments, but it does not give us the opportunity to realize our aims” (Honneth, 2014, p. 85). Self-realization requires that we reconnect with the lifeworld that is characterized by relationships of mutual recognition. In fact, overreliance on legal freedom for conflict resolution can lead to specific social pathologies, including, most prominently, a tendency to reduce one’s interactions with others to strategic ones where this cannot lead to the desired outcomes for either party (Honneth, 2014, pp. 90–92).11 Second, because legal rights only enable the individual to step away from oppressive relationships of recognition, they do not make possible resistance to oppression in ways which radical critics, such as Adorno and Horkheimer, conceived of it. To the extent that exercises of legal or moral freedom must remain anchored in relationships of “institutionally sustained” recognition (cf. O’Connor, 2015), they do not offer individuals a full retreat from all relationships of recognition, but only from specific relationships, such as that between spouses (in the case of divorce) or colleagues (in the case of a conflict at work).
Misrecognition, Ideological Recognition, and Ambivalence
Apart from the limited scope for radical social criticism, the theory of recognition has been criticized for its narrow conceptions of misrecognition and ideological recognition, and its failure to recognize the essential “ambivalence” of recognition. This final section reviews these criticisms.
In Honneth’s theory of recognition, the concept of misrecognition is much narrower than one may think, because Honneth conceptualizes recognition as a positive form of acknowledgment, affirmation, or approval, and, therefore, misrecognition refers primarily to the nonrecognition of an existing characteristic or quality of a person or to the inadequate or insufficient recognition of a valuable characteristic or quality. Both of these forms of misrecognition lead to the experience of disrespect on the part of the misrecognized person (Lepold, 2019, p. 249). Honneth distinguishes between different forms of disrespect, depending on the form of recognition that is withheld or insufficiently granted. For example, the blatant denial of rights leads to the experience of degradation, while the public allusion to a person’s failings leads to the experience of humiliation (Honneth, 1996, p. 132; cf. Honneth, 1992, 1994). Given the importance of recognition for individual self-realization, all forms of disrespect are harmful to an individual’s sense of self and their ability to develop a positive relationship to the self. However, the severity of the harm differs, depending on the specific form of disrespect. An individual can experience misrecognition in relation to their character as a needy being, an equal citizen or a member of society who makes a contribution to socially shared goals, and misrecognition can undermine their self-confidence and self-trust as well as their self-respect or self-esteem.
This “positive theory of recognition” (McBride, 2013; McQueen, 2015) implies that misrecognition cannot be intentional in the sense that the person who misrecognizes another cannot intend to misrecognize them, even though the misrecognizer may know that the misrecognized does not agree with their valuation of them. For example, the “husband in the 1960s who believes he takes good care of his wife by not allowing her to work” (Lepold, 2019, p. 249) must intend his actions toward his wife to express affirmation or approval of her role as a homemaker, rather than as a put-down, even though he may know that his wife disagrees with his views of gender roles. In this context, struggles for recognition occur when an individual’s or group’s opportunities for freedom and self-realization are impaired because of misrecognition, they experience disrespect as a result of this misrecognition, and this motivates them to struggle against misrecognition and gives them the normative knowledge about their legitimate expectations for recognition (Lepold, 2019, p. 250). As Kristina Lepold has pointed out, Honneth is committed to the view not only that whenever misrecognition happens struggles for recognition will occur, but also that at the level of society as a whole, recognition is a freedom-enhancing practice that over time leads to improvements in the relationships of recognition, and both of these claims can be contested (Lepold, 2019, pp. 254–256).
The problem with this conception of recognition is that it leaves out of the picture many social practices, which intentionally disrespect individuals or groups in order to establish or maintain social hierarchies, including classist, sexist, and racist ones, or economic orders that require the systematic misrecognition of some groups’ productive contributions. These social practices often work through the ascription of character or personality traits or social identities to people that define their place in social hierarchies or economic orders and that can certainly be described as forms of misrecognition, broadly conceived. Obvious examples of such misrecognition that have been discussed in the context of recognition theory concern sex and gender, including the imposition of sex and gender roles (Butler, 1997; cf. Butler, 1990), various forms of normative femininity (Allen, 2008), and practices of sexual objectification that impose a social meaning on women that defines them as for sexual use (Jütten, 2016). However, similar social practices establish and maintain classist and racist hierarchies in education, the workplace, and society as a whole. Of course, defenders of the positive theory of recognition can reply that these social practices are best understood as other forms of imposition of identity or interpellation (see Althusser, 1971) rather than as forms of recognition or misrecognition. But it is not clear why that should be so. Do they do not have enough in common with other forms of recognition to be seen as species of a common genus? This is particularly relevant for social practices that can be characterized as ambivalent (Lepold, 2021), because they are not straightforwardly negative as opposed to positive. For example, some forms of normative femininity and even sexual objectification can be embraced by women.
Honneth tries to accommodate some of these concerns through the introduction of the concept of “ideological recognition” (Honneth, 2012c). Within the framework of a positive theory of recognition, ideological recognition captures “[p]rocesses of reciprocal recognition, [which] encourage subjects to adopt a particular self-conception that motivates them to voluntarily take on tasks or duties that serve society” (Honneth, 2012c, p. 75). It is a mechanism for reinforcing conformity. The difficulty with this account is that ideological recognition must be positive, credible, and contrastive. It must affirm something valuable about the person on which it confers recognition, this affirmation must be credible in the eyes of that person, and it must be a new or distinct value or achievement of that person (Honneth, 2012c, pp. 86–88). Clearly, this limits possible instances of ideological recognition and rules out many cases that defenders of a broader theory of misrecognition may wish to capture, such as cases of “normalising [sic] recognition” (Honneth, 2012c, p. 87) or subjectivization in Butler’s (1997) sense, where recognition serves to make people into the individuals they are. However, it may capture cases of normative femininity or sexual objectification, as long as they can be seen as positive, credible, and contrastive. What makes these cases ideological is the “chasm” between the evaluative promise of recognition and the (lack of) material fulfilment, that is, the fact that ideological recognition is not accompanied by the material prerequisites or rewards that individuals have legitimate reasons to expect, given the recognition they receive (Honneth, 2012c, p. 93). Honneth’s own example of new forms of entrepreneurialism that recognize individuals as active possessors and managers of their human capital is an apt one for his theory (Honneth, 2012c, pp. 91–92). However, as Rosie Worsdale (2018) has pointed out, Honneth still needs to explain how individuals can be said to suffer from ideological recognition (which is a form of misrecognition) while also benefitting from the “psychic premium of heightened self-respect” (Honneth, 2012c, p. 90). She suggests an innovative account of invisible suffering in order to address this problem (Worsdale, 2018, pp. 622–626).
Ultimately, it is questionable whether Honneth’s account of ideological recognition will satisfy critics who argue for a theory of recognition that is more responsive to ambivalence, conflict, imposition, subjectivization, and other forms of power and oppression that coexist with the positive affirmation of recognition (e.g., Bertram & Celikates, 2015; Butler, 1997; Deines, 2007; Lepold, 2019, 2021; Markell, 2003), and the question of how best to conceptualize misrecognition remains a much disputed research question in the literature on recognition.
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2. Honneth’s defense of these claims, and, in particular, the first dimension of recognition, relies on arguments from psychoanalysis as well as social and developmental psychology. Honneth draws on the work of Donald Winnicott, and critics have suggested that this focus on object relations theory explains Honneth’s preference for mutualistic over conflictual accounts of child development. Discussion of these complex arguments is beyond the scope of this article. For an excellent analysis, see Petherbridge (2013), Ch. 9. For a feminist critique, see Young (2007) and McNay (2015).
3. The claim that the theory of recognition can be traced ack to Hobbes in made in Hont (2015). Honneth (2020, pp. 11–12) rejects this idea and offers a different history of ideas, which focuses on the theories of moral sentiments of the Scottish enlightenment (Hume, Smith) alongside the French (Rousseau, Sartre) and German (Kant, Fichte, Hegel) traditions. Given Hobbes’ importance in the history of political thought, it seemed apt to include his reflections on glory here, especially because they draw attention to the conflictual nature of recognition, which is underdeveloped in Honneth’s approach.
4. This complex argument is not relevant for recognition in normative political philosophy, so I will not discuss it further here. The classic discussion is Kojève (1969). For a discussion by a current representative of recognition theory, see Honneth (2008).
6. Rousseau, of course, also wrote Of the Social Contract (Rousseau, 1755/1997b), which can be seen as an attempt to specify political processes that would offer a solution to the problems diagnosed in the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men. As we will see, this division of labour between social and political philosophy also exists in the theory of recognition, which has social–philosophical and justificatory dimensions.
8. On the other hand, the demonization of the unemployed as skivers and the attempts to curtail their social rights are examples of the erosion of respect based on a prior erosion of social esteem. The “social stigma” (Honneth, 2010a, p. 224) of unemployment cuts across respect and esteem recognition. When the unemployed are seen as useless and replaceable and therefore not worthy of social esteem, they no longer enjoy the equal respect that is due to them as citizens (Honneth & Stahl, 2013, p. 283).
9. Fraser’s criticism of Honneth’s monism is embedded in a broader criticism about the psychologization of social criticism. In brief, she argues that Honneth, Taylor, and many others pursue a politics of difference and focus excessively on the cultural and symbolic dimensions of injustice to the cost of its redistributive dimensions. She also suggests that this has consequences for the identification of injustice, and for the framing of social and political wrongs as moral psychological harms (Fraser, 2003b).
10. However, normative reconstruction is less trustful than proceduralist approaches in that it is sceptical about the ability of “fictitious procedures” to inform us about principles of justice, or the prospects of some “historically existing discursive method” (Habermas, 1987) that could ground them (Honneth, 2012a, p. 48).
11. Honneth (2014, pp. 90–92) discusses the divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer to make this point. The parents become so focused on their legal dispute that their ultimate aims, including the well-being of the child, disappear from view.