Andy Blunden December 2003

Honneth’s “Struggle for Recognition”

Reviewing Axel Honneth: The Struggle for Recognition. The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. 1995. Polity Press.

Axel Honneth has produced a useful and convincing account of the “struggle for recognition.” Honneth comes from a study of Habermas rather than Kojčve, but gives his account of interaction a much firmer empirical basis (drawing on the social psychologist Herbert Mead and the child psychotherapist Donald Winnicott rather than Piaget, as well as Jean-Paul Sartre, Georges Sorel and others) and in my opinion a superior philosophical base in the young Hegel rather than Kant. The somewhat vague concept of recognition is unpacked into three distinct kinds of recognition, which support three distinct stages in the development of individuals, each with quite different social and political implications. In each case, instances of the failure of recognition constitute a kind of insult or threat stimulating a struggle to overcome the attack which in turn brings about a development in the corresponding form of life.

“The Struggle for Recognition” comes in three parts. Part I is an examination of the development of the young Hegel, prior to the writing of the Phenomenology, in which Honneth argues that Hegel abandoned his original idea of building a social theory on the basis of an intersubjectivist account of the “struggle for recognition” in favour of a philosophy of spirit, and advocates a return to the young Hegel and a carrying through of the methodology abandoned by Hegel.

In Part II Honneth seeks to systematically renew the “struggle for recognition” with “empirical backing” from the social psychology of the pragmatist George Herbert Mead, the child psychoanalyst David Winnicott and others. Here the three phases of the struggle for recognition left uncompleted by Hegel, are given a foundation in the psychology of social and personal development through “love, rights and solidarity”.

In Part III, Honneth moves to explore the use of ideas of recognition in social theory and how this concept has been and could be used to shed light on how norms of behaviour are changed through moral struggle. Social and historical struggles are then seen as a combination of “utilitarian” struggles for group-interests and “moral” struggles for recognition which generate new needs and norms.

The three phases of the struggle for recognition are: (i) the demand for love, confirming the reliability of one’s basic senses and needs and creating the basis for self-confidence, (ii) the demand for rights, through which one learns to recognise others as independent human beings with rights like oneself, creating the basis for self-respect, and (iii) the demand for recognition as a unique person, the basis for self-esteem and a complex and tolerant social life.


Part I (Ch 1-3). Hegel’s Original Idea. Honneth’s Claim

Part II Chap. 4. Honneth’s Social-Psychological Theory

Part II Ch 5 & 6. Love, Rights and Solidarity

Part III (Ch 7-9). Conclusion


The basic idea of looking for an understanding of modernity in the quality of interpersonal relationships is good, and Hegel’s ideas are surely a fruitful place to turn for such a project, and the aim of finding support for this project in the work of the social sciences is valid. However, this is about as far as I can go in accepting what Honneth has produced.

Firstly, his failure to even consider the significance of the dominant relationship of modernity, the commodity relationship, shows a blindness which is inexcusable. The project to uncover a “moral grammar” in contradistinction to a “utilitarian/class struggle” reading of history, has perhaps caused him to overlook what he may deem to be a purely “economic” relationship, relying on what would be a species counterposition of economics and ethics.

Consequently, the two relations-to-self which are fostered by the commodity relation, self-respect and self-esteem, are for Honneth two distinct stages in moral development associated with rights and solidarity. But on the contrary, the commodity relation in which one relates to the other as an independent agent and measures their worth on the same yardstick as one’s own, important as it is in the construction of modernity, is the root cause of the decline in solidarity.

Honneth is able to fall into, in my view, such fundamental misjudgments because he approaches Hegel as a theorist of intersubjectivity, when in fact Hegel is the theorist of mediation par excellence. Honneth is able to obscure Hegel’s idea of the emergence of spirit as mediation by confining himself to Hegel’s earliest works and the master-slave dialectic of the Phenomenology and systematically marginalising the concept of mediation in these works.

Honneth’s failure to grasp even the meaning of the word solidarity, let alone his attempt to locate the source of solidarity in the market, only highlights the need to further probe the possible source of solidarity in modernity.


—— Selected text from The Struggle for Recognition ——