Honneth’s “Struggle for Recognition”. Andy Blunden December 2003

Part I. Hegel’s Original Idea
Honneth’s Claim

Honneth’s thesis is that the struggle for recognition plays an important role in Hegel’s 1802 System of Ethical Life, but that by the time Hegel wrote the Phenomenology in 1807, the struggle for recognition had receded to a minor role, and had disappeared almost entirely in his later works. This is true. Until Kojčve popularised the “master-slave dialectic” in his lectures published after World War Two, the “struggle for recognition” was a relatively forgotten theme.

Honneth describes several interrelated changes in Hegel’s approach in comparing the method of the System of Ethical Life and the fragments written a couple of years later. According to Honneth:

1. The System of Ethical Life is based on an Aristotlean conception of natural ethical life; i.e., rather than the conception of isolated individuals coming together to form a society, in the spirit of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Kant, Hegel returns to the ancient conception of human beings as zoon politikon in which political science is concerned with the training of citizens in the virtues required for participation in political life. This is supplanted in the later works by a philosophy of consciousness. Here Spirit thus replaces Nature, giving much greater scope for the development of cognitive and moral distinctions, but losing touch with the roots of civilisation in the natural life of human beings.

2. In the System of Ethical Life the formation of ethical life is an agonistic process, where development arises out of intersubjective conflict, but in the later works social development is directly the self-formation of spirit, through the mediation of language, tools and family property.

3. Only in the System of Ethical Life is the struggle for recognition a medium of individualisation and increasing ego-competence. The use of a philosophy of Spirit distances Hegel from the explication of a process of simultaneous emancipation and individuation and growing awareness of one another as individuals, driven by the struggle for recognition.

4. Whereas the System of Ethical Life begins with people living in communities in which individualism and private property are unknown, in a philosophy of spirit, communicative relations between subjects can no longer be conceived as something that in principle precedes individuals. Elementary relations of communicative action (strong intersubjectivism) are replaced by a confrontation of individuals with their (social) environment — the relation of each isolated person to the State. Conflict between individuals no longer represents a medium of consciousness formation, but merely a medium for integration into the community.

5. Whereas the System of Ethical Life has the character of a ‘history of society’, with the methodological change to a philosophy of Spirit, Hegel gains the possibility for conceptually distinguishing more precisely between the individual stages of consciousness formation. However, the loss is that Hegel’s political philosophy becomes simply an analysis of the education of the individual for society.

6. In the System of Ethical Life, the “struggle for recognition” makes two distinct appearances, (i) to describe the construction of relations of love and (ii) to describe the formation of legal relations between agents in civil society (rights), but when Hegel comes to the third part of the work, “Constitution”, and the exposition tails off into a series of headings, the opportunity to elaborate a phase of the struggle for recognition in which the political system is formed is not carried through. In the later works, the “Constitution” falls back to being the concluding part of “objective spirit”, and the crowning section of the whole system becomes “Absolute Spirit”. Hegel never carried through the opportunity to elaborate the formation of the state as a third phase of the struggle for recognition.

As a result, unlike burgers, citoyens are not conceived as social persons who owe their capacities and qualities to successful interaction with individuals who know themselves to be citoyens. The categories with which Hegel operates refer not to interactions among citoyens, but rather only to the relation of citoyens to the State as the embodiment of Spirit, which is, moreover, a state of an authoritarian type.

7. Whereas in the System of Ethical Life, crime is driving force for the creation of property and law, in the later works, Hegel makes no mention of progress that would affect the content or structure of legal recognition as a result of challenges to the law. Instead the universal will responds by re-establishing its power over the breakaway individual.

8. Thus Hegel’s analysis fails to live up to its own standards. He originally set out to interpret into the criminal’s deed a radical demand for legal recognition which he ultimately cannot integrate it into the framework of legal relations. He thus fails to fulfil the suggestion that the development of legal relations is itself once again subject to the normative pressure of a struggle for recognition.

9. The respect of each and every person for the biographical particularity of every other would constitute the habitual underpinnings of a society’s common mores, but Hegel can no longer entertain such a conception of ethical life, because he conceives of the ethical sphere as a self-manifestation of Spirit. The consciousness-theoretic foundations prevail over the ‘recognition-theoretic’ substance. According to Honneth, Hegel gives in to the pressure to project into the organisation of the ethical community the hierarchical schema of the whole and its parts, in terms of which he had already laid out constitution of the ethical community as Spirit’s act of reflection on its own externalisation.

10. Ethical life has become a monologically self-developing Spirit, rather than a demanding form of intersubjectivity.

11. Even though Hegel wanted to understand the constitution of both the legal person and social reality as stages of a formative process of Spirit, that did not prevent him from making, within the framework of a philosophy of consciousness, the relationships of interaction between subjects the media of these formative processes of the Spirit. Had he consistently carried the logic of this process into the constitution of ethical community, that would have opened up a form of social interaction in which each person, in his or her individual particularity, could reckon with a feeling of recognition based on what Honneth calls “solidarity”. A struggle for recognition at this level would have made the centrality of the experience of risking one’s life more plausible than it is in the context of conflicts over individual property rights.

12. As a result, the possibility of Hegel returning to the incomplete model of the ‘struggle for recognition’, is blocked. Accordingly, in the later works, one finds only traces of the earlier programme. But neither the intersubjectivist concept of human identity, nor the distinction of various media of recognition, nor the historically productive role for moral struggle acquire a systematic function within Hegel’s political philosophy.

A Response

I now want to respond to these observations, and the drift of my response is that Honneth has correctly identified the particular value of the young Hegel and what was lost in the move to his mature works, though some qualifications need to be made. However, attention needs to be given to what Honneth describes as the methodological advantage of the philosophy of consciousness as against the intersubjectivist methodology. As a result, what I propose as the basis for further development is a partial return to the mature Hegel in order to successfully merge the intersubjective vitality of the young Hegel with the centrality of mediation in the mature Hegel.

“There is nothing, nothing in heaven, or in nature or in mind or anywhere else which does not equally contain both immediacy [Unmittelbarkeit] and mediation [Vermittlung], so that these two determinations reveal themselves to be unseparated and inseparable and the opposition between them to be a nullity.” [Hegel, Science of Logic]

1. Anyone who may be familiar with Hegel’s later works and who may have thought that Hegel was a philosopher whose ideas had social and political implications, when they turn to the System of Ethical Life will quickly realise that the truth is the other way around: Hegel’s primary concerns were political, specifically how was Germany to become a modern nation. But is it entirely true that it was only after writing the System of Ethical Life that Hegel seized upon the idea of giving his ideas the shape of a philosophy of consciousness?

The opening lines of the System of Ethical Life are:

“Knowledge of the Idea of the absolute ethical order depends entirely on the establishment of perfect adequacy between intuition and concept, because the Idea itself is nothing other than the identity of the two. But if this identity is to be actually known, it must be thought as a made adequacy.”

and the first section on Absolute Ethical Life begins with the explanation:

“This absolute ethical life on the basis of relation, or natural ethical life must be so treated that (a) concept is subsumed under intuition and (b) intuition is subsumed under concept.”

So it would seem that while it remains true that it was the problems of modern social and political life which were Hegel’s motivation, from the outset he wanted to solve this problem in the terms of a philosophy of consciousness. He saw that the theoretical problems of analysis and the practical problems of social life were aspects of one and the same process. Hegel’s bold move is to view the ideals reflected in consciousness as objectively existing forms of life, rather than simply as products of subjective thought. Further, he intends from the outset to tackle the disconnection between the daily life of the people and the intellectual life of the political elite in the very terms of the deep-seated problems of Western philosophy which had so far barred the way to a comprehension and solution of the problem of the state.

Consequently, without detracting from the criticisms Honneth makes in respect to the cost of Hegel’s abandonment of the intersubjective themes of the System of Ethical Life, it seems that the aim of constructing a philosophy of consciousness in order to explicate the problems of modernity was present from the beginning. Nevertheless, the terms quoted above about concept and intuition do not undergo very much further development; the rest of the System of Ethical Life looks for all the world very much like a “history of society”. So not only was the project of explicating the construction of human life by means of intersubjective conflict left unfinished, so was the elaboration of a philosophy of consciousness.

2. As impressive and dynamic as is Hegel’s mature system, driven forward at every point by contradiction, I think Honneth is right in observing that the marginalisation of the drama of the direct struggle between two self-consciousnesses represented a significant loss. However, it is not a philosophy of self-forming Spirit which steps into the place of intersubjective conflict, but the mediation of conflict. What is so uncharacteristic about the master-slave dialectic, for example, is the metaphor of a direct, i.e., unmediated, confrontation between two self-consciousnesses.

As the young Marx remarked on the Philosophy of Right:

“This is a kind of mutual reconciliation society. It is as if a man stepped between two opponents, only to have one of them immediately step between the mediator and the other opponent. It is like the story of the man and wife who quarrelled and the doctor who wished to mediate between them, whereupon the wife soon had to step between the doctor and her husband, and then the husband between his wife and the doctor.” [Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx 1843]

The result is contradictory to say the least. Even though for Hegel “contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality” [Science of Logic], this movement takes the form of the successive reconciliation of contradiction. Moreover, it is precisely through these mediating elements, such as tools, language, property, the State, that Spirit is formed.

There can in fact never be such a thing as direct (i.e., unmediated) contact between one self-consciousness and another. But don’t we cry out against such an assertion! Good communication gives us the illusion of directly accessing each other’s self-consciousness.

Thus, as Honneth observes, intersubjective conflict is not given up in Hegel’s mature system and it does not cease to be the very engine and medium of its formative process, but in the mature system, all oppositions are forms of mediation. The creative capacity of conflict in Hegel’s work is inseparable from mediation; intersubjective conflict is inconceivable without mediation, only in the System of Ethical Life this is not yet developed.

3. Honneth claims that only in the System of Ethical Life is the struggle for recognition a medium of individualisation and increasing ego-competence. I question this. In the System of Ethical Life, the media of individualisation and personal development are already the mediating ideal elements of products of labour, language, property and so on. Recognition functions as the immediate initiating moment. Being already familiar with the description of recognition given by Kojčve, it is very easy to ascribe the whole dialectic to the “struggle for recognition”, but is this the meaning given to “recognition” by the young Hegel?

The Struggle for Recognition in Hegel’s System of Ethical Life

As Honneth points out, one of the difficulties of the System of Ethical Life is Hegel’s odd choice to locate the negative aspect of the transitions through all the levels of the logical-historical exposition in a separate, second section of the work, leaving the first section to rise from natural ethical life to civil society through a process in which the process of objectification, the internalisation of objective activity and the differentiation of labour appears to happen through a conflict-free ascending process. In later works, this negativity is located within the exposition of each transition, and at the same time the specific conception of the negativity as a “struggle for recognition” is abandoned, in all but the single instance of the formation of self-consciousness in the Master-Slave dialectic.

The one benefit of this construction is that it allows us to focus on a concentrated passage of nine pages to study the form of the “struggle for recognition” as it is presented in the System of Ethical Life.

Hegel introduces the idea of negativity in the development of society with a metaphor about the relation of sense perception and concepts, continuing his theme of a philosophy of consciousness as the means to clarify the nature of social life.

In this context “pure freedom” is found in activity for which the concept (for example, property) is unknown — spontaneous collaboration on one side and mutual indifference on the other. This work is difficult to understand and not lacking in ambiguity, but I agree with Honneth that the starting point, Nature, is a form of life in which property is unknown because people are living in a “natural” community. It seems that Hegel sees property (and therefore culture and ‘concept') arising from a cycle which begins with defending oneself against “natural” (unconscious) transgressions of one’s activity, transgressions which are not of course ‘deliberate’ in the sense that initially there is no concept, no property, and therefore the ‘transgression’ arises not from an attack on property but from a non-recognition of personality and property. In that sense then the attack comes from an outsider or stranger; the assailant maybe human, but their action is in the same category as a natural disaster or attack by a wild animal, and they are not recognised, for their part, as human beings.

A “natural” activity is not something known; it is not a concept — until it has been taken away, and you become aware of it as a loss; ideal in the sense that it exists now only in the mind, but still determinate, since it has not been generalised. “But against this negation there must be a reaction”, an attempt to restore the negated conditions of natural activity. “The negating subject makes himself a cause,...What he negated is equally to be negated in him”. [System of Ethical Life, Part 2]

Hegel then moves to referring to the negating subject as the “criminal”, and the action of the reacting subject as “revenge”. “The criminal has directly injured something he regards as external and foreign to himself”. That is, the criminal sees no property or right, no personality, in the injured party. But the injured party will exact revenge. In bringing this revenge upon itself “he has ideally injured and cancelled himself”. Initially, “consciousness of this his own destruction is a subjective and inner one, or a bad conscience. ... It also manifests itself externally as avenging justice ... until it sees the ideal reaction or reversal confronting it and threatening its reality from without as its enemy”. “It begins to be satisfied because it discerns the beginning of its own reality in its enemy. It produces an attack on itself so as to be able to defend itself”. Hegel goes on to describe how a return to mutual indifference does not suffice to establish the ‘concept’. And “peace” only means that the fear of the external enemy remains, and ultimately only annihilation of the enemy will suffice.

Difficult as the text is, I must concur with Honneth that Hegel appears to follow the emergence of subjectivity here from the view point of the “criminal,” that is, from the point of view of the subject who has unconsciously injured the other party, and followed up the initial injury with the establishment of property rights and the annihilation of the initially injured party. However, the concept of crime is to break a law, and in the instance we are looking at there is no law to be broken. What is violated is natural activity, not “law”, something taken for granted, something natural, objective, purely determinate and not ideal.

Hegel looks at three forms of the negation, viz., murder, revenge and war.

“Murder precludes the recognition of this relation [the transformation of specific determinacy into personality]”.

Revenge, reverses the form, i.e., one dead body is matched with another, being that of the perpetrator, but “the real life properly belonging to the spirit has remained; the spirit has preserved its body and the murder has destroyed only one single member or organ of the whole, and so this still living body, i.e., the family, takes on itself the work of revenge”.

“The totality of this relation is what is rational and it makes the middle term emerge. The indifference of the justice which lies in revenge, but as something material and external, enters the individuals as a like consciousness of the emerging negation, and therefore the reality of this emergence is alike too on both sides.”

The act of revenge eradicates the relation of indifference between the families: “for revenge the avenger is not a stranger ... but a member of a family ... Similarly the injurer is not a single individual; it is not as single individual but as the member of a whole that he has done injury”. ... “In this way, the middle term is directly posited at the same time, i.e., negatively as the cancelling of superiority and lack of consciousness in the one, and equality of peril for both, i.e., battle. ... Right is on the side that has been injured.”

However, if this activity of murder and revenge continues it can escalate to war, and “equality is what rules” ... “Both parties are identical”. “Either neither party can prevail and the two sides return to a state of mutual indifference, or one party is defeated and completely subjugated and enslaved.” “In this case it is a higher principle, not the trivial question of the original injury that is decisive, but the greater or lesser strength ... with the establishment of a relationship of mastery”.

I don’t think this can be squared with Honneth’s view that Hegel “interprets into the criminal’s deed a radical demand for legal recognition”; firstly, the initial “infringement” is unconscious; secondly, the outcome is just as likely to be annihilation of the criminal. All that matters when two parties go to war is their relative strength.

Hegel’s exposition of these conflicts reads like the relations between families, tribes and nations, rather than relations between individuals, but my reading is that Hegel is talking about “self-consciousness” in the broad sense, as social/historical agents, whether collective or individual.

About honour: where an injury to the particular takes on the implication of a threat to the totality, it is nothing to do with “psychology” or chivalry, but the fact that a particular injury or insult calls into question the whole personality of the injured party. In a situation where there is no “higher authority”, the smallest insult, if not restored, indeed opens the injured party to total loss of rights and life. The act of revenge therefore is a necessary measure to engender in the assailant party recognition of personhood at pain of death. It doesn’t matter at what level this insult and restitution occurs, if there is no existent means of mediation and law, life is indeed on the line.

Nevertheless, when Hegel talks of annihilation and “mastery” I believe he is talking about the ideal element rather than simply the material annihilation of a people; more likely, mutual recognition is established, but on terms dictated by one party and not the other. This is how “the middle term” emerges.

What is particularly appealing about this part of Hegel’s writing is the personal, immediate and dramatic character of the confrontation described, which is in such marked contrast to the mutual indifference of the preceding relationship and the mediated form of succeeding relationships. Those who feel that they are not recognised within a given social arrangement, who are subject to random incursions against their livelihood and can only carry out random acts of revenge or battle to restore their honour, for whom there is no court to whom appeal could be made — such people, the excluded, could identify with this.

Let us assume that the cycle of murder, revenge and war described by Hegel is indicative of the general form of the struggle for recognition. What sets the process in motion therefore is not necessarily murder, but an injury done by one party to the other through failure of recognition of the other as a human being, or a failure of a recognition of a tie to something objective, such as in the usage of land, etc., intrusion into which threatens the livelihood and life of the other. The cycle of counter-attacks which follow serve the function of forcing the assailant to “get a conscience” a recognise the rights of the other. Such a struggle for recognition cannot occur so long as people live in indifference to one another. But material contact brings into question the ties of each party to the material things subject to contact.

The point is that mediation is constructed; normally people interact within a social environment in which everything is highly mediated; development happens through conflict and failures in mediation, but it is not normally the case that one self-consciousness confronts another in a life-and-death struggle without mediation. To what extent can the “struggle for recognition” function as a “model” or archetype for all conflict and development? To what extent can social development, and the human condition generally, be understood in terms of unmediated conflict?

Well Hegel of course would have been the last person to propose such a thing. The whole development is outlined in the first part of System of Ethical Life with very little recourse to the notion of a struggle for recognition at all, and as we know, in his later works, the role of the struggle for recognition underwent further and further attenuation.

Honneth points out that in the System of Ethical Life, the struggle for recognition plays a key role in the formation of ties of community and in the formation of property rights, and in the Phenomenology is retained just as a moment in the formation of self-consciousness. Hegel, clearly, did not see the “struggle for recognition” as a concept which could be generalised as a model for the process of “negation” in the way it is placed in the System of Ethical Life.

The fact remains of course, that at a certain point in history failure of recognition emerged in far from primeval conditions, but more of this later.

4. Honneth claims that in a philosophy of spirit, communicative relations between subjects can no longer be conceived as something that in principle precedes individuals, and further that instead of shedding light on person-to-person relations, a confrontation of individuals with society and the State is thematised, and that conflict between individuals no longer represents a medium of consciousness formation, but merely a medium for integration into the community.

Hegel was subject to criticism from a number of directions after his death, some of which are not dissimilar to the points made here by Honneth.

Honneth connects the move to a philosophy of spirit with the marginalisation of the “struggle for recognition”, but let us separate the question of a philosophy of spirit versus a theory of communicative action, from the separate question of the proper place of unmediated “struggle for recognition” within a theory of communicative action.

Marx for example responded to the idea of a Spirit which “remains in the background, untouched and uninjured,” while “states, nations, and individuals ... are all the time the unconscious tools and organs of the world mind at work within them” with the dictum: “Men make their own history, but ... under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.

But in any case, as Honneth points out, the adoption of a philosophy of spirit “that did not prevent him from making, within the framework of a philosophy of consciousness, the relationships of interaction between subjects the media of these formative processes of the Spirit”.

The real point is whether a theory of communicative action can be rationally developed on the basis of intersubjective relations which lack mediation. When Honneth claims that elementary relations of communicative action are replaced by Hegel with a confrontation of individuals with their (social) environment and the State, he is decrying a conception of communicative action which is essentially and necessarily mediated.

So for example, when people talk, can we marginalise the fact that they communicate through language? when they work together, can we marginalise the means and relations of production that are mobilised in the labour process? in domestic activity, can we marginalise the place children play in the relation between husband and wife or the family property in the relation between parents and children? The questions are meant to be rhetorical. It was Hegel’s view and I share the view, that sense can be made of communicative action only by understanding the specific form of mediation engaged in the communicative action. I have made a critique elsewhere of Habermas’s theory of communicative action and everything I said there stands in relation to a theory of communicative action built around the metaphor of a struggle for recognition.

The distinctive feature of the “struggle for recognition” which disappears in the developed Hegelian system is that the life-and-death confrontation it portrays is unmediated. The metaphor of a direct, unmediated contact between two self-consciousnesses also represents a desire; not only does the “struggle for recognition” capture the viewpoint of the excluded, who are not recognised and “treated like doormats” within the existing culture, it also captures the desire of the citizen of modernity to recover real person-to-person immediacy in a world so layered in text and mass-produced images that reality — direct, human relationships — seems to have disappeared from view. The recognition formerly accorded people through familial and professional relationships is now swamped by external rewards of money and fame.

Now to Honneth’s point that without the struggle for recognition, conflict between individuals can no longer constitute a medium of consciousness formation, but merely a medium for integration into the community. This “allegation” has a ring of truth. Marx put it this way: “The important thing is that Hegel at all times makes the Idea the subject and makes the proper and actual subject ... the predicate. But the development proceeds at all times on the side of the predicate.” I think that the ring of truth in Honneth’s allegation reflects another aspect of modernity: every manifestation of human creativity is subsumed into and appears as the action of the generalised other, of capital. I think that Honneth’s observation has merit, but Hegel should be given credit for expressing the power of capital so well as a philosophy of Spirit. Hegel’s mature philosophy expresses the still-dominant truth of the rule of capital, that human creative energies, far from expressing freedom, are integrated into an alien, ruling power. As a result, the idea of capturing the dynamics of the “struggle for recognition” as an expression of consciousness formation acting within the rule of “Spirit” is attractive, even if Hegel cannot be blamed for failing to do so.

5. Honneth refers to the change from the System of Ethical Life to the later works as a methodological change from a ‘history of society’ to a philosophy of Spirit. While granting the advantage of a capacity to more precisely distinguish between the individual stages of consciousness formation, Honneth claims that the historical element lost from the ‘history of society’ falls to the individual, so that Hegel’s political philosophy becomes an analysis of the education of the individual for society.

I think that the historical character of the exposition in the System of Ethical Life is unmistakable, and outside of the Philosophy of History itself, the historical exposition nowhere else plays such a role as it does here. But Hegel does not of course claim that the System of Ethical Life is a work of history, and nor could he. This raises the question, as valid for all the later works equally as for the early works, of the relation Hegel intends between the logical and historical aspects of his exposition, as well as the ontogenetic and phylogenetic historical expositions within the Phenomenology and the Encyclopedia.

In the first place, although the historical method of presentation of the whole system is not later adopted in quite the direct way as it is in the System of Ethical Life, it pervades the whole work; it would be impossible to read Hegel’s mature work without gaining an insight into culture as historical constructs. Hegel’s work is not so much a work of history, but a logical reconstruction which allows history to do its work, and that is how a ‘history of society’ becomes a philosophy of spirit. Our work now is to logically reconstruct the “struggle for recognition” from the material given by history. But history poses the question from which logical enquiry begins only at the end of the story. Thus the logical and historical enquiries proceed in opposite directions.

In the second place, Hegel’s work can never be read like a story from beginning to end; it is always many stories one within the other, each providing the beginnings and endings for other stories within the construction. The starting point for a child, for instance, is the adult world into which they are born, which is to be the end point for their own development, or rather its negative, for the world will have changed by the time they grow up and join the world of adults. History on the other hand, always begins with fully competent and independent adults, and winds up with citizens more dependent than ever on their social environment.

I question the assertion that the mature Hegelian system is any less historical than his early work, but I think the fact remains that Honneth has identified an element which was contained within the “struggle for recognition” which is lacking in the mature system, but I think it is one which was not available to Hegel, simply because the “struggle for recognition” in the sense in which we have come to understand it, had not yet been posed by history in Hegel’s time. More of this later.

6. Honneth points out that while a struggle for recognition was used to describe the basic bonds of love and the constitution of the relations of mutual respect between property-owners, no such struggle for recognition was used in the construction of the state and the formation of political consciousness. That is to say, Hegel failed to outline the necessary formative intersubjective experiences that would allow people to know themselves as political actors. Instead Honneth argues, a person’s development as a political actor or citoyen is centred on his relation to the State, an authoritarian state. Later Honneth refers to the particular kind of self-affirmation which forms the basis for the development of such a social and political consciousness as “solidarity”.

I think this is a profound observation. The word “solidarity” — in German solidarität — did not enter the language until 1848, from the French solidarité, and in both cases they entered the language via the workers’ movement. That is, the concept arose only 17 years after Hegel’s death. In other words, certain kinds of social and political experiences and activities were indeed necessary for this concept to emerge, but the relevant kind of experiences were not known to Hegel.

For Hegel, “society” was composed of people with rights and consequently with property. The “rabble” constituted a serious social problem, but they were not part of society. The “rabble” had no voice. Hegel had not “forgotten” about them, far from it, but it never entered Hegel’s mind that the problem of the rabble would be solved by the rabble itself.

So Honneth’s observation is spot-on, but it is not just a theoretical shortcoming or error. Until the Chartist uprisings and Parisian street battles of the 1830s, there was no social basis for a concept of solidarity and no basis for building the concept into a philosophy of consciousness or political philosophy.

We will return to this extremely important issue later.

I think Honneth is mistaken to so off-handedly dismiss Hegel’s conception of the state. As a constitutional monarchy it is no more authoritarian than modern day England. Though Hegel’s hostility to popular suffrage would not stand up today, the system of collegial and participatory democracy he envisaged (for male property-owners only of course) looks good in the light of a century or two’s experience of popular suffrage. Hegel was writing at a time when The Absolute Idea rode around Europe on horseback (this was how Hegel described Napoleon when he entered Jena) and the implementation of Rousseau’s social contract in France had been very ugly. Nevertheless, on the basic point I am in agreement: “solidarity” is a fundamental mode of interpersonal experience which forms the basis for the development of social and political consciousness, and the social basis for such experiences entered the historical scene in the 1830s and 40s with the proletarian opposition to capitalist exploitation.

7. Honneth goes on to point to the absence of a kind of crime which would stimulate the development of social and political mores, and that to the contrary, what Hegel outlines is a system aimed at strengthening the capacity of every citizen to see in the action of the State an expression of their own will. This view is characterised as one of social conformism.

I think this is a fair characterisation of Hegel’s vision for a nation-state in which the class struggle did not exist.

Honneth pointed out that even though Hegel wanted to understand the constitution of both the legal person and social reality as the work of Spirit, that did not prevent him from making, within the framework of a philosophy of consciousness, the relationships of interaction between subjects the media of this work. He suggests that a continuation of this logic into the constitution of ethical community would have led to a struggle for recognition as the formative process for social and political consciousness based on “solidarity”.

With some qualifications, I think Honneth is right on this. What remains is to uncover the nature of the intersubjective experience which constitutes solidarity, and how this relation comes to be mediated, and the specific form of mediation characteristic of solidarity.

Mediation and the development of self-consciousness

In summary, from Honneth’s reading of the System of Ethical Life, we have learnt that: the struggle for recognition is the direct (unmediated) confrontation between two self-consciousnesses; it’s movement begins with a failure of recognition associated with the lack of mediation; in the course of the struggle which results, each self-consciousness mediates the development of the other.

1. What transformation took place in the struggle for recognition in the System of Ethical Life and the philosophy of Spirit of the mature Hegel?

2. How can we retain the immediacy of the struggle for recognition in a conception of communicative action which is compatible with a dialectical consideration?

3. What can Hegel tell us about the notion of “solidarity” as the formative experience which underlies the development of political consciousness?

The Master-Slave Dialectic in The Phenomenology

Despite the drama and immediacy of Hegel’s master-slave narrative, it is a story of mediation from beginning to end. The answer to the riddle as to how two self-consciousnesses may make contact is simply that in the first place, the two self-consciousnesses are not differentiated at all, and in the second place that the objectification of each self-consciousness acts as the middle term for the relation of a self-consciousness with itself.

Duplicated Self-consciousness: Thinking of this in terms of individuals or families living in a community (or equally well, communities living in proximity without any division of labour, exchange or unifying state, etc.), the “individuals” concerned work cooperatively and do not differentiate themselves from the community as a whole, there is no surplus for redistribution, no division of labour or exchange; the others in the community are others just like themselves, the world is organised in accord with the customs and beliefs of their times and all act in accord with those customs and beliefs. The self-consciousnesses are not “mediated” with each other because they are not differentiated at all; there is in a sense only one self-consciousness, objectified in a single, “natural” ethical life; and everyone sees themselves in the activity of the others, and expects others to behave as they do.

So this “embryonic” self-consciousness has a double form, one subjective and one objective, one is self and one is other; each is both the objectification and internalisation of the other. We have an undifferentiated objective/subjective self-consciousness.

Hegel sums up this “Duplicated Self-Consciousness” with the following:

“The middle term is self-consciousness which breaks itself up into extremes; ... Each is the mediating term to the other, through which each mediates and unites itself with itself; and each is to itself and to the other an immediate self-existing reality; which at the same time, exists thus only through this mediation. They recognise themselves as mutually recognising one another” [Phenomenology, § 184]

Self-consciousness in self-opposition: The process of self-consciousness which Hegel demonstrates from here involves “the break-up of the middle term into the extremes ... of which one is merely recognised, while the other only recognises”.

The purpose is to logically reconstruct modernity from the self-differentiation of “duplicated self-consciousnesses”; phylogenetically, think of neighbouring “natural” communities coming into relation with one another, ontogenetically, of a child developing a personality.

Hegel claims that each self-consciousness needs to demonstrate that “it is fettered to no determinate existence” and that “each aims at the destruction and death of the other.” Self-consciousness enjoys self-certainty on the basis of the other as either a duplicate of itself or as an object, subsumed within the objectification of itself. As soon as the other demonstrates a will of its own, the existence of a self-consciousness is mortally threatened. There exists no basis for cooperation of two mutually independent self-consciousnesses; each self-consciousness should rightly feel in danger of being treated like prey or used as a “door-mat” by the other. This mortal crisis can be solved by reduction of the other to an object, its subordination or death.

Viewed from the present, this seems to be an unreasonable overstatement. But for the newly emergent self-consciousness, it is pre-supposed that there are no laws or social customs or “civil rights” capable of coordinating the activity of the subject with another independent self-consciousness. This phase of the process of self-consciousness described by Hegel ends in the destruction of one or the other or their mutual withdrawal into indifference. That is,

“the middle term collapses into a lifeless unity which is broken up into lifeless extremes, merely existent and not opposed.”

Master-Slave: This life-and-death struggle gives rise the possibility of the subjugation of one self-consciousness by the other — the famous Master-Slave dialectic — in which the “master” appropriates the social surplus produced by the “slave.”

The dominant subject is mediated with itself through the activity of the other; “it is a consciousness existing on its own account which is mediated with itself through another self-consciousness”; that is to say, the objectification of the dominant subject is the labour-activity of the other self-consciousness.

“The bondsman being a self-consciousness in the broad sense, also takes up a negative attitude to things and cancels them; ... but he merely works on it. ... The master, however, who has interposed the bondsman between it and himself, thereby relates himself merely to the dependence of the thing, and enjoys it without qualification and reserve. The aspect of its independence he leaves to the bondsman, who labours upon it”.

The two self-consciousnesses in the master-slave dialectic are therefore mediated by the labour product of the slave, in a labour process which is the material objectification of the needs of the dominant subject. The whole dynamic of this relationship then unfolds according to mediation by a labour process in which theory and practice are separated into opposite poles.

In summary, in the first stage, self-consciousness is undifferentiated and each mediates the relation of the other to itself; in the second stage, when self-consciousness emerges in the absence of mediation the result is either destruction of one or other self-consciousness or their mutual repulsion; in the third stage, the conflict is resolved by the incorporation of the dominated subject within the labour process of the dominant subject and the appropriation of the surplus.

It is only in this third stage that recognition is completed, albeit one-sided and unequal. For the “independent” self-consciousness, its truth is the activity of the unfree consciousness. “The consciousness that toils and serves ... attains by this means the direct apprehension of that independent being as its self. ... shaping or forming the object has not only the positive significance that the bondsman becomes thereby aware of himself as factually and objectively self-existent. ... having and being a ‘mind of his own’.” The labour process is no longer immediate and natural, but mediated through a ruling class; consumption is no longer immediate and natural, but mediated through a process of distribution of the social surplus.

Thus, through the last stage in this dialectic, we have the self-consciousness of an individual really distinguished that the community as a whole, the essential basis for the development of civil society and rights.

I have traced the description of the “struggle for recognition” as it is found in the Phenomenology in order to bring out the fact that for Hegel the issue in tracing the emergence of self-consciousness is to trace the specific forms of mediation which can arise from the situation where there is no self-consciousness and no mediation, and create the pre-conditions for individualism and civil society.

The point of interest is how this particular passage of the mature Hegelian system, with its emphasis on intersubjective action, can be generalised as an explication of the formation of different components of self-consciousness. I have briefly indicated above the possible reading of the dialectic of self-consciousness in phylogenetic and ontogenetic terms. Honneth wants a third form which provides an insight into the basic forms of experience underlying political consciousness.

“Self-consciousness” is a category capable of any number of conceivable materialisations. The broadly common form is as follows: (i) Both subjects, despite their determinate positions within the division of labour, each see themselves in the other, any division of labour appearing as natural and unremarkable aspects of a single culture; (ii) the different activity of a group generates a distinct sub-culture or subordinate consciousness, alien to the dominant culture; (iii) the consciousness of the labourer of their mastery of the dominant culture, the enjoyment of which they are excluded from, generates the “struggle for recognition” as such.

Thus, while at first sight, the struggle for recognition appears to be the direct confrontation between two self-consciousnesses, it turns out that when the subjective and objective sides of each self-consciousness are brought into the picture, what is going on is a complex process of reciprocal mediation.

So how does the notion of “solidarity” fit into this picture? Solidarity is the process of subject-formation in which a person voluntarily places themself outside of the dominant culture to identify with an emergent other, and conversely, where a subject (willingly or not) in conflict with the dominant power experiences others “standing up to be counted” alongside them. What is essential to the process of solidarity is that those giving solidarity risk their lives under conditions when they could stay with the dominant power, and those receiving solidarity are already fighting.

I agree with Honneth that solidarity is a key concept, amenable to understanding in terms of the Hegelian “struggle for recognition”, which forms the formative experience for political (rather than administrative) consciousness. My qualification though is that there is an essential mode of mediation involved in the process of solidarity, namely the struggle for survival of the first subject. It is by people voluntarily joining the struggle that solidarity comes about. The individual who is fighting for their life does not know about solidarity so long as they are joined only by others who likewise have no choice but to fight. Political consciousness arises when aid comes from an ‘unexpected’ quarter.

How does this conception of ‘solidarity’ square with Honneth’s demand that the young Hegel could have used it to conceptualise the formation of the state? Perhaps a different word should be used, but it seems to me that ‘solidarity’ has nothing to do with the formation of a bourgeois state. Hegel saw the state as mediating conflicts between the various estates and industries in civil society, but I don’t know that ‘solidarity’ is the right word for this process.


The “struggle for recognition” as a conception of social development in terms of intersubjectivity has the potential for application to the understanding of social and political development. The struggle for recognition, as described by Hegel, is never a binary relationship however, it represents an approach to intersubjectivity which explores how subjects mediate the relationships between each other and themselves.

An exploration of the struggle for recognition as an approach to political consciousness formation through solidarity should be fruitful, provided use is made of the concepts of mediation we can learn from the mature Hegel.