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The Struggle for Recognition–Updated

Generation Why Blog by Aik Kramer

The struggle for Recognition

As social struggles of the last few decades have made clear, justice demands more than the fair distribution of material goods. For even if conflicts over interests were justly adjudicated, a society would remain normatively deficient to the extent that its members are systematically denied the recognition they deserve. As Charles Taylor has recently emphasized, ‘Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need.’ As one scarcely needs to add, it is also a need that has all too often gone unmet. Regularly, members of marginalized and subaltern groups have been systematically denied recognition for the worth of their culture or way of life, the dignity of their status as persons, and the inviolability of their physical integrity.

[This is a synopsis of the translator’s introduction.]

Axel Honneth’s theory

In The struggle for recognition (1995) philosopher and social-psychologist Axel Honneth (1949) sketches an approach to this dual task of explanation and justification that is highly original and firmly rooted in the history of modern social theory. Rather than following the atomistic tradition of social philosophy going back to Hobbes and Machiavelli, however, Honneth situates his project within the tradition that emphasizes not the struggle for self-preservation but rather the struggle for the establishment of relations of mutual recognition, as a precondition for self-realization? Like Hegel, George Herbert Mead, and, more recently, communitarians and many feminists, Honneth stresses the importance of social relationships to the development and maintenance of a person’s identity. On the basis of this nexus between social patterns of recognition and individual prerequisites for self-realisation – and with constant reference to emperical findings of the social sciences – he develops both a developmental framework for interpreting social struggles and a normative account of the claims being raised in these struggles.

Practical relation-to-self

With regard to the former, explanatory task, his approach can be understood as a continuation of the Frankfurt School’s attempt to locate the motivating insight for emanicipatory critique and struggle within the domain of ordinary human experience, rather than in the revolutionary theory of intellectuals. (…) With regard to the normative task, the roots of his approach are to be found in the model of the struggle for recognition developed by Hegel during his early years in Jena (before the completion of the Phenomenology of Spirit in 1807). Honneth takes from Hegel the idea that full human flourishing is dependent on the existence of well-established, ‘ethical’ relations – in particular, relations of love, law, and ‘ethical life’ [Sittlichkeit] – which can only be established through a conflict-ridden developmental process, specifically, through a struggle for recognition. In order to avoid the speculative, metaphysical character of Hegel’s project, however, Honneth turns to Mead’s naturalistic pragmatism and to emperical work in psychology, sociology and history in order to identify the intersubjective conditions for individual self-realisation.

Self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem

Honneth’s approach can be summarized, in a preliminary way, as follows. The possibility for sensing, interpreting, and realizing one’s needs and desires as a fully autonomous and individuated person – in short, the very possibility of identity-formation – depends crucially on the development of self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem. These three modes of relating practically to oneself can only be acquired and maintained intersubjectively, through being granted recognition by others whom one also recognizes. As a result, the conditions for self-realisation turn out to be dependent on the establishment of relationships of mutual recognition. These relationships go beyond (a) close relations of love and friendship to include (b) legally institutionalized relations of universal respect for the autonomy and dignity of persons, and (c) networks of solidarity and shared values within which the particular worth of individual members of a community can be acknowledged. These relationships are not historically given but must be established and expanded through social struggles, which cannot be understood exclusively as conflicts over interests. The ‘grammar’ of such struggles is ‘moral’ in the sense that the feelings of outrage and indignation driving them are generated by the rejections of claims to recognition and thus imply normative judgements about the legitimacy of social arrangements. Thus the normative ideal of a just society is empirically confirmed by historical struggles for recognition.

Central to Honneth’s ‘social theory with normative content’ is his account of self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem, along with the modes of recognition by which they are sustained.

They represent three distinct species of ‘practical relation-to-self’. These are neither purely beliefs about oneself nor emotional states, but involve a dynamic process in which individuals come to experience themselves as having a certain status, be it as a focus or concern, a responsible agent, or a valued contributor to shared projects. Following Hegel en Mead, Honneth emphasizes that coming to relate to oneself in these ways necessarily involves experiencing recognition from others. One’s relationship to oneself, then, is not a matter of a solitary ego appraising itself, but an intersubjective process, in which one’s attitude towards oneself emerges in one’s encounter with an other’s attitude towards oneself.

With regard to each of these ‘practical relations-to-self’, three central issues emerge: the precise of each for the development of one’s identity, the pattern of recognition on which it depends, and its historical development.

Love and basic self-confidence

With regard to the concept of love, Honneth is primarily concerned with the way in which parent-child relationships – as well as adult relationships of love and friendship – facilitate the development and maintenance of the basic relation-to-self that Honneth terms ‘basic self-confidence’ [Selbstvertrauen: ‘trust in oneself’]. If all goes well in their relationships to others, infants gradually acquire a fundamental faith in their environment and, concomitantly, a sense of trust in their own bodies as reliable sources of signals as to their needs.

Although Honneth is generally at pains to emphasize the historically contingent nature of human subjectivity, he argues that this notion of bodily integrity, together with the need for love and concern it entails, captures something important that cuts across differences of cultural and historical contexts. This is not to say that practices of child-rearing or love have gone unchanged but only that the capacity to trust one’s own sense of what one needs or wants is a precondition for self-realization in any human community.

Rights and self-respect

As Honneth understands it, self-respect has less to do with whether or not one has a good opinion of oneself than with one’s sense of possessing of the universal dignity of persons. To have self-respect, then, is to have a sense of oneself as a person, that is, as a ‘morally responsible’ agent or, more precisely, as someone capable of participating in the sort of public deliberation that Habermas terms ‘discursive will-formation’. This relation-to-self is also mediated by patterns of interaction, those organized in terms of legal rights. (…) This is not to say that a person without rights cannot have self-respect, only that the fullest form of self-respecting autonomous agency could only be realized when one is recognized as possessing the capacities of ‘legal persons’, that is, of morally responsible agents.

Solidarity and self-esteem

Whereas self-respect is a matter of viewing oneself as entitled to the same status and treatment as every other person, self-esteem involves a sense of what it is that makes one special, unique, and (in Hegel’s terms) ‘particular’. This enabling sense of oneself as a unique and irreplaceable individual cannot, however, be based merely on a set of trivial or negative characteristics. What distinguishes one from others must be something valuable.’ Accordingly, to have the sense that one has nothing of value to offer is to lack any basis for developing a sense of one’s own identity. In this way, individuality and self-esteem are linked.

Like the evaluation of the way in which [work] is done, the esteem accorded to certain tasks hinges on a range of particular cultural factors. If, for example, homemaking is considered an insignificant contribution to the common good, then homemakers will lack the evaluative resources in terms of which they can acquire a sense of personal accomplishment.

‘Solidarity’ is the term Honneth uses for the cultural climate in which the acquisition of self-esteem has become broadly possible. Although ‘being in solidarity with someone’ is sometimes equated with feelings of sympathy, Honneth’s view is that one can properly speak of ‘solidarity’ only in cases where some shared concern, interest, or value is in play. What he is concerned with here is not so much the collective defence of interests or the political integration of individuals, but rather the presence of an open, pluralistic, evaluative framework within which social esteem is ascribed. He claims that a good society, a society in which individuals have a real opportunity for full self-realization, would be a society in which the common values would match the concerns of individuals in such a way that no member of the society would be denied the opportunity to earn esteem for his or her contribution to the common good.

Disrespect and the moral grammar of social conflicts

These intersubjective conditions for identity-formation provide the basis for Honneth’s ‘formal conception of ethical life’, understood as a normative ideal of a society in which patterns of recognition would allow individuals to acquire the self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem necessary for the full development of their identities. This ideal is not merely a theoretical construct; it is implicit in the structure of recognition itself. As Hegel showed, recognition is worthless if it does not come from someone whom one views as deserving recognition. From this perspective, since the requirement of reciprocity is always already built into the demand for recognition, social struggles for the expansion of patterns of recognition are best understood as attempts to realize the normative potential implicit in social interaction.

Because key forms of exclusion, insult, and degradation can be seen as violating self-confidence, self-respect, or self-esteem, the negative emotional reactions generated by these experiences of disrespect provide a pretheoretical basis for social critique. Once it becomes clear that these experiences reflect not just the idiosyncratic misfortune of individuals but experiences shared by many others, the potential emerges for collective action aimed at actually expanding social patterns of recognition. Here, the symbolic resources of social movements play a crucial role in showing this disrespect to be typical of an entire group of people, thereby helping to establish the cultural conditions for resistence and revolt.

By reconstructing and revising an alternative to the dominant tradition of modern social philosophy founded by Hobbes and Machiavelli, Honneth is able to undermine the apparent self-evidence of its underlying assumptions – in particular, assumptions about both the self-interested (what Honneth calls ‘utilitarian’) motives for social conflict and the atomistic character of the state of nature. He thereby opens up the theoretical space for conceiving struggles for recognition as attempts on the part of social actors to establish patterns of reciprocal recognition on which the very possibility of redeeming their claims to identity depends. On Honneth’s understanding, that possibility is at the heart of social justice in the fullest sense.


The struggle for recognition (1996) Axel Honneth

Translator’s introduction, Joel Anderson


Aik Kramer

Aik Kramer (LLM) works as a professional mediator, researcher and consultant. He specializes in public policy mediation. He has worked for the Dutch Ministry of Internal Affairs, The National ombudsman and various municipalities. In 2007 he founded, a platform for young mediators. MORE >

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