The Struggle for Recognition
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The Struggle for Recognition

The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts

Axel Honneth

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eBook - ePub

The Struggle for Recognition

The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts

Axel Honneth

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In this book Axel Honneth re-examines arguments put forward by Hegel and claims that the 'struggle for recognition' should be at the centre of social conflicts.

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Part I

An Alternative Tradition Modem Social Theory:
Hegel’s Original Idea

In his political philosophy, Hegel set out to remove the character of a mere ‘ought’ from the Kantian idea of individual autonomy by developing a theory that represented it as a historically effective element of social reality, and he consistently understood the solution to the problem thus posed to involve the attempt to mediate between the modem doctrine of freedom and the ancient conception of politics, between morality and ethical life [Sittlichkeit]1 But it is only in the years that he spent in Jena as a young philosophy lecturer that he worked out the theoretical means for accomplishing this task, an approach whose inner principle pointed beyond the institutional horizon of his day and stood in a critical relationship to the established form of political rule. At the time, Hegel was convinced that a stmggle among subjects for the mutual recognition of their identity generated inner-societal pressure toward the practical, political establishment of institutions that would guarantee freedom. It is individuals’ claim to the intersubjective recognition of their identity that is built into social life from the very beginning as a moral tension, transcends the level of social progress institutionalized thus far, and so gradually leads – via the negative path of recurring stages of conflict — to a state of communicatively lived freedom. The young Hegel could develop this conception, which has never really been made fruitful, only because he was able to modify the model of ‘social stmggle’ introduced in the social philosophies of Machiavelli and Hobbes in such a way that conflict among humans could be traced back, not to a motive of self-preservation, but to moral impulses. Only because he had already interpreted stmggle specifically as a disturbance and violation of social relations of recognition could he then locate within it the central medium of the human spirit’s [Geist] process of ethical development.
Within Hegel’s oeuvre, of course, the programme thus outlined never made it beyond the level of mere sketches and proposals. Already in the Phenomenology of Spirit, the completion of which brought to a close Hegel’s period in Jena, the conceptual model of a ‘struggle for recognition’ had lost its central position within Hegel’s theory.
Nonetheless, in the writings that have survived from the period before the final system had been worked out,2 this model is so clearly recognizable in its theoretical principles that the premises for an independent social theory can be reconstructed from them.


The Struggle for Self-preservation: On the Foundation of Modern Social Philosophy

Modern social philosophy entered the history of thought at the moment in which social life had come to be characterized as fundamentally a condition of struggle for self-preservation. Machiavelli's political writings paved the way for this conception, according to which individual subjects and political communities alike oppose one another in a state of constant competition over interests. In the work of Thomas Hobbes, this competition ultimately became the chief foundation for a contractualist justification of the sovereignty of the state. This new model for representing the ‘struggle for self-preservation’ could only emerge after central components of the political doctrine found in antiquity, accepted until well into the Middle Ages, lost their enormous power to convince.1 From the Classical politics of Aristotle to the medieval Christian doctrine of natural law, human beings were conceived of fundamentally as entities capable of life in community, as a zoon politikon, as beings who had to rely on the social framework of a political community for the realization of their inner nature. Only in the ethical community of the polis or civitas – whose intersubjectively shared virtues sharply distinguished them from the merely functional nexus formed by economic activities – could the social character of human nature genuinely develop. Starting from this teleological conception of human beings, the traditional doctrine of politics set itself the theoretical task of defining the ethical order of virtuous conduct within which individuals’ practical, indeed pedagogical, development could take the most appropriate course. Thus, political science was always an inquiry into the appropriate institutions and laws as well as a doctrine of the good and just life.
But the accelerated transformation of social structures that began in the late Middle Ages and reached its high point in the Renaissance not only brought these two elements of Classical politics into doubt. It robbed them, in principle, of all intellectual vitality. For, as a result of the introduction of new commercial methods, the development of publishing and manufacturing, and finally the newly acquired independence of principalities and trading cities, the sphere of political and economic activity had so outgrown the protective framework of traditional morals that it could no longer sensibly be studied solely as a normative order of virtuous conduct. It comes as no surprise, then, that the theoretical transformation of Classical political philosophy into modem social theory was prepared precisely where those changes in the social structure had already occurred with such clarity. In his political treatises, written as a frustrated diplomat of his native city of Florence, Niccolo Machiavelli departed radically and unceremoniously from traditional philosophical anthropology by introducing a conception of humans as egocentric beings with regard only for their own benefit.2 In his various reflections on the question of how a political community could prudently maintain and expand its power, Machiavelli set in place a socio-ontological foundation that amounts to the assumption of a permanent state of hostile competition between subjects. Since human beings, driven by endless ambition to continue inventing new strategies for success-oriented action, are mutually aware of the egocentricity of their interests, they ceaselessly face each other in a stance of fearful mistrust.3 Machiavelli takes it to be self-evident that this unconstrained web of strategic interactions constitutes the raw state of nature, and it is to this perpetual struggle for self-preservation that the central categories of Machiavelli's comparative historical analyses are tailored. This can be seen from the fact that these categories represent nothing other than the structural presuppositions for the successful exercise of power. Even in the places where he still makes use of the basic metaphysical concepts of Roman historiography and speaks, for example, of 'virtu' and 'fortuna', he means only to refer to marginal historical conditions, which, from the perspective of political actors, prove to be practically unharnessable resources for their strategic, power-oriented calculations.4 For Machiavelli, the ultimate point of reference throughout all his historical investigations remains the question of how a given mler can adroitly influence this uninterrupted conflict among human beings to his own advantage. It was in his writings, then – including his account of societal development – that the idea of the realm of social action consisting in a permanent struggle among subjects for the preservation of their physical identity first established itself, although it still lacked any theoretical justification.
The mere 120 years that separate Thomas Hobbes from Machiavelli were enough to give this same fundamental ontological conviction the mature form of a scientifically founded hypothesis. Compared to Machiavelli, Hobbes not only has the advantage of the historical and political experience of the development of the modem state apparatus and a further expansion of trade. He could also already find support for his theoretical endeavours in the model of the natural sciences, which meanwhile had attained general credence as a result of Galileo's successful research methodology and Descartes's epistemology.5 Within the framework of the ambitious project of investigating the laws of civil life’ in order to provide a scientific basis for all future politics, the same presuppositions about human nature that Machiavelli had taken over in a methodologically uncritical manner from his everyday observations assume the form of scientific assertions about the singular nature of human beings. For Hobbes – who thinks of human beings, mechanistically, as something like self-propelled automatons – what is distinctive about humans is their exceptional ability to concern themselves with their future welfare.6 As soon as one human being encounters another, however, this anticipatory behaviour generates a form of preventive power-escalation that is bom in suspicion. Since both subjects must remain mutually alien and inscrutable in their intentions, each is forced into a prospective expansion of its potential for power, in order to be able to defend itself in the future against possible attacks from the other.
On the basis of this anti-Aristotelian core of his philosophical anthropology, Hobbes then develops, in the second part of his project, the fictitious state among humans that he sought to characterize with the easily misunderstood title ‘nature'. As GĂŒnther Buck has been able to show convincingly,7 the doctrine of the state of nature is not intended to present the social point of departure for human socialization in methodological abstraction from all of history. Rather, it is meant to provide a representation of the general state among humans that would, in theory, hold if every political institution regulating social life were now hypothetically removed. Since a stance of preventive power-escalation is supposed to be constitutive for the individual nature of humans, the social relations resulting from such a subtraction would possess the character of a war of all against all. In the third part of his project, Hobbes ultimately uses this theoretically constituted situation to lay a philosophical foundation for his own construction of the sovereignty of the state. The obviously negative consequences of a perpetual situation of struggle among human beings, of permanent fear, and of mutual distrust are supposed to prove that the contractually regulated submission of all subjects to a sovereign ruling power is the only reasonable outcome of an instrumentally rational weighing of interests.8 In Hobbes's theory, the crucial justification for the social contract lies simply in the fact that it alone can put an end to the war of all against all, a war that subjects wage for their own individual self-preservation.
For Hobbes, as for Machiavelli, this socio-ontological premise – which they share despite all differences of scholarly intent and execution – has the same consequences for the fundamental concept of state action. Since both make subjects’ struggle for self-preservation the final point of reference of their theoretical analyses, they must, concomitantly, also consider the ultimate purpose of political practice to be the attempt, over and over again, to bring a halt to this ever-threatening conflict. In the case of Machiavelli, this outcome becomes visible in the radicalness, relative to the political and philosophical tradition, with which he releases the sovereign's exercise of power from all normative bonds and duties.9 In the case of Thomas Hobbes's theory of the state, the same outcome manifests itself in the fact that he ultimately sacrificed the liberal content of the social contract for the sake of the authoritarian form of its realization.10
And it was precisely this tendency of modem social philosophy to reduce the activity of the state to the instrumentally rational establishment of power that the young Hegel opposed in his political philosophy. The exceptional, even unique place of his Jena writings, however, stems from the fact that he appropriated this Hobbesian conceptual model of interpersonal struggle in order to realize his critical intentions.


Crime and Ethical Life: Hegel’s Inter subjectivist Innovation

By the time Hegel took up the model of social struggle that Machiavelli and Hobbes had each independently implemented, the theoretical context was entirely changed. In his 1802 essay on ‘The Scientific Way of Treating Natural Law’, in which he outlined a plan for his future works on practical and political philosophy, the hundred years of intellectual development that separate him from Hobbes are already expressed in a shift to a completely different set of questions. Under the influence of Holderlin’s philosophy of unification [Vereinigungs-philosophie], he had come to question the individualistic presuppositions of Kant’s moral theory, a theory which had determined the horizon of his thinking until well into his years in Frankfurt.1 At the same time, his reading of Plato and Aristotle had familiarized him with a current within political philosophy that ascribed a much greater role to the intersubjectivity of public life than did comparable approaches of his time.2 And finally, as a result of his study of British political economy, he had also already come to the sobering insight that any future organization of society would inevitably have to rely on a sphere of market-mediated production and distribution, in which subjects could only be included in society on the basis of the negative freedom guaranteed by formal rights.3
By the start of the century, these newly acquired impressions and orientations had gradually matured within Hegel’s thought into the conviction that, for the foundation of a philosophical science of society, it would first be necessary to break the grip that atomistic misconceptions had on the whole tradition of modern natural law. This raised, in a fundamental way, a number of theoretical problems for which the long essay on natural law suggests a first approach to a solution.
Despite all the differences between the two conceptions of modern natural law that he distinguishes in his text, Hegel sees them as marked by the same fundamental error. Both the ‘empirical’ and ‘formal’ treatments of natural law categorically presuppose the ‘being of the individual’ to be ‘the primary and the supreme thing’.4 In this context, Hegel labels all those approaches to natural law ‘empirical’ that start out from a fictitious or anthropological characterization of human nature and then, on the basis of this and with the help of further assumptions, propose a rational organization of collective life within society. The atomistic premises of theories of this type are reflected in the fact that they always conceive of the purportedly ‘natural’ form of human behaviour exclusively as the isolated acts of solitary individuals, to which forms of community-formation must then be added as a further thought, as if externally.5 The approaches within the natural law tradition that Hegel terms ‘formal’ proceed in principle no differently since, instead of starting from a characterization of human nature, they start from a transcendental concept of practical reason. In such theories, represented above all by Kant and Fichte, the atomistic premises are evident in the fact that ethical acts cannot be thought of except as resulting from the exercise of reason, purified of all of the empirical inclinations and needs of human nature. Here, too, human nature is understood as an aggregate of egocentric (or, as Hegel puts it, ‘unethical’) drives, which subjects must first learn to suppress before they can attain ethical attitudes, that is, attitudes conducive to community.6 Thus, both approaches remain trapped within the basic concepts of an atomism that presupposes, as something like a natural basis for human socialization, the existence of subjects who are isolated from each other. A condition of ethical unification among people can, however, no longer be seen as developing organically out of this fact of nature, but has to be added externally, as ‘something other and alien’.7 The consequence of this, according to Hegel, is that within modern natural law, a ‘community of human beings’ can only be conceptualized on the abstract model of a ‘unified many’,8 that is, as a cluster of single subjects, and thus not on the model of an ethical unity.
But what concerned Hegel in his political philosophy was the possibility of theoretically explicating just such an ethical totality. As far back as the period in which, together with Schelling and Holderlin, he drew up the programmatic text that has gone down in intellectual history as ‘The Earliest Systematic Programme of German Idealism’,9 one can find in Hegel’s thought the idea that a reconciled society could be properly understood only as an ethically integrated community of free citizens. In the meantime, of course, this intuition of his youth had outgrown the aesthetic framework within which it had originated and, as a result of his confrontation with the Classical doctrine of the state, had found in the polis a political and institutional model. In the essay on natural law, whenever Hegel speaks, in a normative sense, of the ethical totality of a society, he has in mind the relations within the city-states of antiquity. What he admires about them is the romantically transfigured circumstance that, in publicly practised customs, members of the community could also witness the intersubjective expression of their own particularity. And down to the details of the account of the Estates, his text reproduces the theory in which Plato and Aristotle had presented the institutional constitution of those city-states.
Already at this point, however, Hegel distils from the concrete ideal that he enthusiastically believed he had found in the idea of the polis the general features of an ideal community. Indeed, he does this so clearly that one gains at least a rough sense of the conception of ethical totality that he employs in the text. First, the singularity of such a society could be seen, by analogy with an organism, in the ‘lively unity’ of ‘universal and individual freedom’.10 What this means is that public life would have to be regarded not as the result of the mutual restriction of private spheres of liberty, but rather the other way around, namely, as the opportunity for the fulfilment of every single individual’s freedom. Second, Hegel views the mores and customs that come to be employed communicatively within a social community as the social medium through which the integration of universal and individual freedom is to occur. He chose the concept ‘Sitte’ [‘mores’ or ‘customs’] quite intentionally, in order to be able to make clear that neither laws prescribed by the state nor the moral convictions of isolated subjects but only attitudes that are actually acted out intersubjectively can provide a sound basis for the exercise of that extended freedom.11 For this reason, the public ‘system of legislation’ is always intended to express only the ‘living customs’ actually ‘present in the nation’, as the text has it.12 Third and lastly, Hegel takes a decisive step beyond Plato and Aristotle by including, within the institutional organization of absolute ethical life, a sphere that he provisionally labels ‘the system of property and law’. This is linked to the intent to show that individuals’ market-mediated activities and interests – which later come to be gathered under the title ‘civil society’-comprise a ‘negative’ though still constitutive ‘zone’ of the ‘ethical’ [sittlich] whole.13 A further example in the text of Hegel’s attempt to render his societal ideal realistic can be found in his departure from the Classical doctrine of the state, through the initial introduction of the unfree Estate as a class of producing and trading citizens.
Insofar as the foregoing discussion adequately describes the framework within which Hegel attempted, in Jena, to reappropriate the societal ideal of his youth, it also outlined the main problem that will confront him from now on. If indeed it turned out that modern social philosophy is not in a position to account for such a higher-level form of social community owing to the fact that it remains trapped within atomistic premises, then the first implication of this for political theory is that a new and different system of basic concepts must be developed. Hegel thus faces the question of what these categorial tools must be like, if they are to make it possible to explain philosophically the development of an organization of society whose ethical cohesion would lie in a form of solidarity based on the recognition of the individual freedom of all citizens. During the Jena years, Hegel’s work in political philosophy was directed towards finding a solution to the systematic problems that this question generates. The various proposals that he developed within the context of the emerging system of the logic of the human spirit have their common roots in this enterprise, and they all refer back t...

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