Axel Honneth’s The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts represents at once an intriguing and revealing turn in the post-Habermasian tradition of the Frankfurt School, an important and original development in critical social theory more generally understood, and an ambitious and stimulating, if still inadequate, effort at grounding these theoretical ideas empirically.footnote1

The Struggle for Recognition is revealing because it shows the extraordinary contemporary influence of Hegelian and communitarian thinking on the most influential neo-Kantian trends in critical social philosophy. It is important and original because Honneth not only connects these movements to one another but offers, following in the footsteps of the later Habermas but going well beyond him, a way to synthesize them conceptually. It is ambitious and stimulating because Honneth not only has a clear grasp of the need for empirical grounding and a wide knowledge of contemporary social science but a sensitivity that extends beyond economic institutions to psychology, law, social movements and culture.

Because many readers will be unfamiliar with Honneth’s specifically philosophical vocabulary, it seems important to frame his effort in a more general way before discussing his argument in detail. Honneth should be seen as responding to the intellectual crisis that has beset radical and progressive politics since the decline of New Left theory and activism in the early 1970s. In that earlier period, theorists struggled to revise and reframe traditional Marxism in a manner that dealt with the ‘subjective’ and only indirectly class-related issues that marked student and youth rebellions, racial protests and uprisings, anti-war movements, and the emergence of gender and environmental politics. It seems clear, in retrospect at least, that by linking social activism so closely to what they viewed as new infrastructural strains in society, these neo-Marxist approaches to late capitalism, post-industrialism, and the new class fundamentally overestimated the rebellious and progressive nature of social protest and vastly underestimated not only the political elasticity but also the moral significance of contemporary democracy, no matter how ‘bourgeois.’footnote2

These scientific and political defects were exposed with devastating effect when the progressive social movements in which much radical theory had been invested so dramatically declined. Since then, the intellectual vacuum in critical thought has been filled with everything from postmodernism to theories of identity and difference. The problem with such approaches is that they leave out history, or, to be more precise, they leave out the historical possibility of, and the moral necessity for, a fundamentally different and better future for human life. For, even while contemporary critical theories of society must reject Marx’s ouvrierisme, they must retain his abiding sense that the future can and should be fundamentally better than the present and the past. This possibility must be asserted, moreover, in something other than a merely hortatory way. Its moral status should be philosophically justified and its empirical status should be coherently explained. What is refreshing and significant about Honneth is that, even while he completely eschews the structuralism of Marxist theory and the revolutionism of New Left thought, he once again takes up these great tasks of the critical tradition. In so doing, his work establishes a bridge between the neo-Marxist theorizing of the 1960s and early 1970s and the politically engaged theories of contemporary activists, which too often seem as if they are captured by the ideologies of contemporary movements rather than seeking objectively to explain them.

Honneth engages in both a philosophical and a sociological polemic. Philosophically, he writes against the chasm that has been erected between moral and ethical thought. Emphasizing ‘justice’, the Kantian tradition has produced theories of abstract fairness that focus on procedural guarantees like due process, individual rights in the democratic state, the expansion of universalistic rationality, and morality in the ‘weak’ sense of negative liberty. Rawls’s early development of the trans-historical notion of ‘justice as fairness’ and Habermas’s early development of the normative ideal of transparent communication on the basis of ‘universal pragmatics’ are the most elaborate and influential contemporary examples of such a neo-Kantian approach. In reaction to such theorizing, which has been called ‘externalist,’ there has emerged over the last decade an increasingly strong ‘internalist’ approach that, drawing upon Aristotle and Hegel to argue against Kant, calls for reinstating the importance of ‘ethical’ as against purely ‘moral’ criteria. In defining the ethical, contemporary thinkers like Charles Taylor, Bernard Williams, and Michael Walzer follow Hegel and Aristotle by placing emphasis on the ‘good’ rather than only the ‘just’ life and rooting it in communal rather than abstract organization, concrete rather than universal normative criteria, and substantive rather than procedural values which highlight difference and uniqueness over generality and similarity.

Honneth joins an important new development in philosophy by wanting to close the gap between these two socially engaged and critical schools of thought. What particularly distinguishes his own effort, and reaffirms its clear linkage with earlier work in the Frankfurt School tradition, is his welcome insistence that this philosophical bridge must be extended to make a deep connection between philosophical criticism and the most sophisticated contemporary empirical thinking about contemporary societies.

Honneth is trained in social science as well as in philosophy, and he links his critique of abstract, neo-Kantian justice theories to an empirical attack on social scientific approaches that theorize oppression and emancipation primarily in distributive terms that focus on economic equality and inequality alone. Arguing that ‘social theory’s fixation on the dimension of interests has. . .thoroughly obscured our view of the societal significance of moral feelings’, Honneth incisively suggests that ‘the collective interest behind a conflict does not have to be seen as something ultimate or original but may rather have been constituted within a horizon of moral experience that admits of normative claims’ (p. 166). Following the critical path established by Parsons’s sociological theory, Honneth traces the origins of this unfortunate line of mechanistic and reductionist social scientific thinking back to Hobbes.footnote3 From there, he traces the baleful effects of this orientation forward to the quasiutilitarianism of Marx’s systematic writings (as compared to his historical writings, which Honneth lauds); to the Chicago School’s purely‘ecological’—spatial and economic—treatment of ethnic conflict; to explanations of group mobility that focus exclusively on the availability of instrumental means like symbolic capitalfootnote4 and to social movement models that emphasize ‘resource mobilization’ alone. While Honneth’s synthetic philosophical ambition is clear and, as we will see, his alternative forcefully spelled out, he does not make any explicit synthetic statement about the alternative sociological theory his ideas imply. Still,the empirical traditions he draws upon push in the same direction if in different ways. They include psychoanalytic object-relations theory; models of status and legal position that emphasize citizenship as compared to naked state power; and approaches that incorporate the cultural and communicative dimensions of cooperation, conflict, and social movements. In the latter regard, he draws particular attention to the importance of E.P. Thompson’s work, describing it as having provided the impetus for a reorientation of historical studies by which ‘the utilitarian presuppositions of the earlier tradition could be replaced by normative premises’. Framing the lessons of Thompson’s work philosophically, Honneth writes that ‘what counts as an unbearable level of economic provision is to be measured in terms of the moral expectations that people consensually bring to the organization of the community’ (ibid.).