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

Honneth’s Social-Psychological Theory

Honneth. The Struggle for Recognition. Part II.
A Systematic Renewal: The Structure of Social Relations of Recognition

In Part II of his book, Honneth aims to draw on work of the empirical sciences to reconstruct in modern terms concepts of the ‘struggle for recognition’ originally outlined in metaphysical terms by the young Hegel.

The first step in this process is the appropriation of the ideas of George Herbert Mead, an associate of John Dewey, who worked out the application of Dewey’s ideas in social psychology. I question whether G H Mead’s work can be counted as ‘empirical science'; it would be more correct to say that he formulated in naturalistic terms, the application of Dewey’s behaviourist-pragmatic psychology to social-psychological speculation, albeit brilliantly. Dewey and Mead were quite conscious of themselves as Hegel-interpreters, integrating Hegel’s insights into the pragmatist philosophical milieu of the United States. The Progressive movement of early twentieth century America did, however, provide a proving ground for their ideas.

I agree with the idea of exploring the possibilities of grounding Hegel’s ideas in modern social and psychological research, but furthermore, I believe that the Vygotsky School in the Soviet Union provides what may be a superior basis for such a grounding. Dewey visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s and his ideas were among the conditions which led to the emergence of this school. Nevertheless, despite all the difficulties of scientific work in the Stalinist USSR, the Vygotsky school actually did carry out over a period of many decades a highly developed research program, including experimental work, and it was a Marxist rather than a pragmatic philosophical legacy which informed their thinking. In the 1980s, their work became known in the West and has been further developed in the United States and elsewhere, including its reconnection with American Pragmatism.

Let us review Honneth’s appropriation of Mead, however, and then we can explore where a Vygotskyian-Marxist critique of the appropriated behaviourist-pragmatist interpretation of Hegel might lead us.

As an aside, in introducing this project, Honneth defines the task in these terms:

1. Hegel’s model starts from the speculative thesis that the formation of the practical self presupposes mutual recognition between subjects ... but instead of viewing intersubjective relationships as empirical events within the social world, he builds them up into a formative process between singular intelligences ... what is needed, in the first place, is a reconstruction of his initial thesis in the light of empirical social psychology.

Although this paragraph is a little ambiguous, I think it is a miss-formulation of Hegel’s schema. For Hegel “intersubjective relationships” are prior to “singular intelligences”; what Hegel refers to as “intelligence” is a higher stage of subjective spirit, which rises through a process of differentiation from “soul” (the subject matter of anthropology in which an individual subject does not differentiate itself from its objectification in a community of subjects, or, ontogenetically, a child does not distinguish between its own actions and those of its environment), consciousness (the subject matter of phenomenology) and spirit in-and-for-itself (the subject matter of psychology). What Hegel calls “self-consciousness” arises through the famous “master-slave dialectic” in the second phase of subjective spirit. However, Hegel’s starting point is communities living in a way in which subjective consciousness is not differentiated from collective social behaviour, where individual subjects do not fully differentiate themselves from an objective field of social interaction with other people. That is, people are already living in communities and working together prior, whether interpreted ontologically or anthropologically, to becoming self-conscious.

This may be neither here nor there, but I think it is important to avoid presupposing what is to be derived. The question is: how does self-consciousness emerge?

Honneth appropriates Mead’s pragmatist-behaviourist answer to this question:

“I can become aware of what my gesture signifies for the other only by producing the other’s reply in myself.” [p. 73]

So that:

“In perceiving one’s own vocal gesture and reacting to myself as my counterpart does, I take on a decentred perspective, from which I can form an image of myself and thereby come to a consciousness of my identity ... individuals can only become conscious of themselves in the object-position.” [p. 74]

Thus Mead’s well-known contrast between ‘I’ and ‘me':

“Mead thus distinguishes between the ‘me’ — which, since it only reflects the other’s image of me, only preserves my momentary activity as something already past — from the ‘I’, which represents the unregimented source of all my current actions. ... In its spontaneous activity ... ‘I’ not only precedes the consciousness that one has of oneself ... but also constantly refers back to the behavioural expressions contained consciously within the ‘me’ and comments on them. In the individual’s personality, there is a relationship between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ comparable to the relationship between two partners to dialogue ... a subject can only acquire a consciousness of itself to the extent to which it learns to perceive its own action from the symbolically represented second-person perspective. ... without the experience of having an interaction partner react, one would not be in a position to influence oneself — with the help of utterances that one can perceive oneself — so as to learn to understand one’s reactions as something produced by one’s own person.” [p. 74-75]

Vygotsky and his associates were able to confirm that vocalisations are an integral component in the way in which youngsters learn to control their own behaviour, and a way comparable to the way that communities coordinate their activity by means of symbols, rituals and language. The transitory phenomenon of “egocentric speech” demonstrates that speech is not used initially as a means for one subject to communicate with another, but rather as a means for a subject to coordinate their own behaviour, at a stage of development when their ‘me’ is not yet fully differentiated from the whole field of perception and their ‘I’ has not yet emerged to view.

Honneth draws attention to the fact that the ‘me’ as the “internalisation of norms of action that result from a generalisation of the expectations of all members of society ... ‘the generalised other’,” substantiates the stage of development of subjects of recognition of themselves and their partners to interaction as legal subjects possessing the same rights, but does not yet substantiate the emergence of individuality, in which a subject recognises themselves and others as having unique and differentiated value and identity. For Mead this stage is characterised by the increasing but never-completed recognition of the ‘I’ which always lies beyond perception, but forever intervenes into and disturbs interactive activity with its impulses and demands. Honneth draws out this distinction as it emerges in child development through the move from “role-playing” games to “competitive” games:

“In the stage of role-taking play, the child communicates with himself or herself by imitating the behaviour of a concrete partner to interaction, in order then to react in a complementary manner in his or her own action. By contrast, the second stage — that of the competitive game — requires the maturing child to represent the action-expectations of all of his or her playmates, in order to be able to perceive his or her own role within the functionally organised action-context.” [p. 77]

These games perform not only a cognitive role but a crucial role in the development of moral personality, in which the young person learns to act according to societal rules and develop their personality in activity with others.

Honneth sees in the development of the ‘I’, a driving force for social change, as new demands emerge from within a subject, pressuring social norms to be adapted to satisfy its unique demands. Since the satisfaction of such demands is counterfactual, the subject must be able to “visualise” an ideal community in which its demands are satisfied and in which it is able to coordinate its activity with other subjects. Such an ideal plays an analogous role in social development as does play in the development of a child; the ideal emerges through the activity of a social subject according to counterfactual ethical precepts.

Honneth parts company with Mead on Mead’s conceptualisation of the path by which individualism may emerge in modern society. Mead looks to the functional division of labour as providing the basis for someone to become conscious of their own unique contribution to the community. However Honneth points out that the production of any functional part of social labour is still always determined by the value-system of the whole — the “common good” or “market values”, and therefore, the functional division of labour cannot be the site of counterfactual systems of values which could become an engine of social change and increasing individuation.

Honneth does see the orientation towards shared goals and values that Mead is concerned with in the focus upon the functional division of labour, however, as providing a “motivating experiential nexus” to underpin the development of solidarity — the third stage of recognition which according to Honneth:

“For Hegel ... represents a synthesis of both preceding types of recognition, since it shares with ‘law’ the cognitive point of view associated with universally equal treatment, but shares with ‘love’ the aspect of emotional attachment that arises when love has been refined, under the cognitive impress of the law, into universal solidarity among members of a community. [p. 91]

My problem with this appropriation is that it picks up Mead/Dewey’s pragmatist/behaviourist epistemology along with the naturalistic formulation of Hegel’s speculative insight. Both pragmatism and behaviourism, in their time, made significant contributions to the clarification of concepts of human action and epistemology, both characteristic of the development of the American bourgeoisie. But they both suffer from defects which the Soviet scientists were in a position to transcend. Neither current of course witnessed the flourishing of social movements which enriched social life in the post-World War Two period, until the Soviet and American currents reconnected in the 1980s.

Mead’s image of the pre-conscious subject remains that of an autonomous actor. His behaviourism is useful in shedding light on how a pre-conscious subject develops conditioned reflexes associating their own action-impulses with sense-impressions deriving from both their own vocalisations and the reactions of those around them, but combined with the lack of an experimental program to further probe the process by which self-consciousness emerges in a child, behaviourism blocks the way to a conception of the construction of a self-consciousness as such, since for behaviourism, the ‘ego’ is forever out of sight and metaphysical.

The research of the Soviet activity theorists brought out the important insight that self-consciousness is inextricably tied up with collaborative activity engaging a subject with those around it, something quite distinct from communication between a subject and its partners. Communication arises only later.

The most vital and pervasive activity in which relations to other human beings first arises for the child is the securing of the assistance of adults in their actions. To adult eyes, the child’s gestures and later, the associated vocalisations, appear to be signals, forms of communication, but in respect to the child who has not yet distinguished between themselves and other people, “communication” is a misnomer. Before the child realises that the world is populated by things, and that the things have names, the words the child utters in her efforts to grasp the thing and satisfy her wants are more like the handles with which things are grasped. In other words, at the very root of the formation of consciousness is collaboration with other people, specifically the adults in their immediate circle.

Mead’s behaviourist observation of the sensuous association of the sound of the child’s own voice along with the sensor-motor activity and the sensuous perception of significant others, reinforcing and conditioning the association of all these actions together in the child’s embryonic psyche, is undoubtedly a valid observation, experimentally confirmed by the Soviet scientists.

Likewise in the social sphere, I would contend that it is not in the communication of a person with another, whether you call that other a “partner to interaction” or “partner in communication”, but rather at first the practical collaboration with others that it at the root of the development of social self-consciousness.

When Marx remarks that “it is with man as with commodities” [note 19 to Chapter One of Capital] and goes on to allude to Hegel’s concept of recognition: “Since he comes into the world neither with a looking glass in his hand, nor as a Fichtean philosopher, to whom ‘I am I’ is sufficient, man first sees and recognises himself in other men. Peter only establishes his own identity as a man by first comparing himself with Paul as being of like kind. And thereby Paul, just as he stands in his Pauline personality, becomes to Peter the type of the genus homo,” Marx clearly has in mind the development of civil society on the basis of commodity production.


I think the first thing to acknowledge about play is that play is an historically constructed activity; play as observed by Mead and Vygotsky in the early 20th century is not like play found in pre-modern times nor like the play of children of the current generation. If we treat play as something eternal, then it does not provide “empirical backing”, but rather speculative philosophy in the unconscious guise of empirical data.

According to Vygotsky, play arises in the activity of the child initially as a means of dealing with desires that cannot be immediately satisfied. As a result of play, the child develops a capacity for imagination:

“The old adage that children’s play is imagination in action can be reversed: we can say that imagination in adolescents and schoolchildren is play without action.” [Play and its Role in the Mental Development of the Child, Vygotsky 1933]

In a very young child, according to Vygotsky, there is such an intimate fusion between word and object, and between meaning and what is seen, that a divergence between the meaning field and the visible field is impossible, and “things” have a motivating force in respect to a very young child’s actions and determine the child’s behaviour. Further, young children are “moral realists” in that they cannot distinguish between what is “possible” and what is “allowed”. Play is a transitional stage in which things lose the motivating force that they have for her as a very young child; the child sees one thing but acts differently in relation to what she sees. At first, the child cannot yet sever thought from object; she must have something to act as a pivot and a stick for example may be used as a focus for imaginative behaviour in lieu of a real horse — meaning is freed from the object with which it was directly fused before, and not only freed, but becomes the predominant determinant of action. In the earliest play, the imaginary situation is only slightly separated from reality, and a child may ‘play’ at doing exactly what they have to do, they may ‘play’ at doing things which would otherwise be difficult or unpleasant for them. Later on the gap between the real and the imagined situation widens. In this transitional stage, the child still needs a “pivot” for the separation of meaning and object, and actually gains enjoyment from doing this. In all cases, play enables the child to ‘act above their age’, doing things which they are unable to do ‘in reality’, and in this way prepare themselves for doing them in reality.

The free adoption of rules in a play situation with other children and adults, gives the child for the first time a possibility to distinguish between moral (voluntary) and ‘instrumental’ (determinant) constraints.

Vygotsky says of role-playing play:

“play gives the child a new form of desires, i.e., teaches him to desire by relating his desires to a fictitious “I” - to his role in the game and its rules. Therefore, a child’s greatest achievements are possible in play - achievements that tomorrow will become his average level of real action and his morality.” [ibid.]

According to Vygotsky, play is the leading factor in the development of a child, even though it is the subordinate part in the life of the child, which is generally oriented to real situations, and while in the early stages of development of play it is the imaginary situation which predominates, in the later stages it is the game’s rules which predominate.

Play is always purposeful, but as play develops the imaginative more and more outweighs the real, and rules become more and more exacting, and the constraints to correctly fulfil one’s role in a game passes over to the aim of winning a game, and finally to the setting of records, a feature of adult games, in each case the successful achievement of the game’s purpose is always a source of pleasure, predominating over the suffering which may be entailed in physical exertion, self-restraint, risk of failure and so on.

According to Daniil Elkonin, children’s role-playing games are themselves an historical product; in times when production was carried out within a family context and no specialised system of education was required, children simply participated in the productive life of the family up to the limits of their own capacities. Correspondingly, the earliest stages of development of play in a young child are barely distinguishable from reality, taking its cue from the immediate challenges, just as the play-fighting of young lion cubs cannot be deemed to be “role playing games” as the cubs are not exercising any degree of imagination in their activity. In a world with a highly developed division of labour, symbolic activity, tools, etc., it is quite beyond a youngster to emulate, far less participate in the activity of the adults. The child’s desire to collaborate in the productive social activity around it is therefore frustrated, and imaginative situation play enters this void. This imaginative play is as deadly necessary and enjoyable as the wrestling of lion cubs, but its key feature is the “suspension of disbelief.”

I am not aware of any evidence that role-taking play involves, as Honneth claims, children imitating the activity of their partner to interaction.

“In the stage of role-taking play, the child communicates with himself or herself by imitating the behaviour of a concrete partner to interaction, in order then to react in a complementary manner in his or her own action. By contrast, the second stage — that of the competitive game — requires the maturing child to represent the action-expectations of all of his or her playmates, in order to be able to perceive his or her own role with the functionally organised action-context.” [p. 77]

I suspect that this stage of symmetrical imitative play is a construction on Mead’s part in order to substantiate his ‘me’-hypothesis. In any event, play may not even involve another human partner to interaction, but may instead involve the autonomous use of an artefact. At the very earliest stages of play, typically the child adopts their own role and ‘plays’ themself in a role play with their real partner to interaction.

When you think about it, the ‘me’-hypothesis, though engaging and with a big grain of truth in it, is not strictly feasible. Mead says, according to Honneth, that one can “call up in oneself the meaning that one’s action has for others.” But this is not true. The reactions of others as perceived by the subject are complementary and not identical to the perception and internal reaction of the others which can only be inferred. The sensori-motor perception of the subject of its own activity which is associated with the audio-visual perception of the reaction of others is something quite distinct from those of the subject’s partners to interaction. On the other hand, Honneth needs this construction to substantiate the ‘analogy’ of rights-based recognition with symmetrical role-taking play and give him the ‘empirical backing’ he is looking for.

According to Vygotsky, there is an intermediate stage in the development of play called “rule-based” play, in which the imaginary ‘situation’ underlying role-taking play is formalised and abstracted into the rules-of-the-game, and the role of artefacts in mediating the activity of players by “standing for” real things has given way to formal rules. These rules frequently have their historical origins in role-playing (e.g. chess from war-games) but these have been lost in time. The competitive side of the game develops, but in its beginning, the rules-based play is just a development of role-taking in which the behaviour required by each player is given not by the hypothetical situation but by formal rules. Athletic competition is the highest stage. Here the player competes not only against the other participants but in setting records and so on, competes in an historically articulated social practice which is real in every sense and may become literally professional. Vygotsky is also at pains to emphasise the distinct roles of role-taking and rules-based games in the development of the child.

It is understandable the role-taking play was such a significant part of children’s play during an era when a child’s life-world was populated by the local grocer, the policeman, doctor, as well as uncles and aunts, etc., etc.. But it is a very different world that surrounds the youngsters of today’s modernity.

Since World War Two, there have been three significant developments in play flowing out of the developments in the labour process: (i) the childhood of baby-boomers which corresponded to them being a new market for mass production of toys, (ii) the emergence of television as the ubiquitous childminder and (iii) the development of video games and in particular the current generation of “character-building” games. According to Jay Lemke, young researchers entering the field are the first generation of those who were themselves raised on video games.

Research on the nature and impact of play under the impact of these changes is only in its infancy. Worthy of mention however are firstly that television has brought about a flourishing of “autonomous role-taking play” among children, where children autonomously act out roles adopted from fictional or celebrity characters on the TV, and secondly, the dungeons-and-dragons-type games which are currently popular among young children, in which the players build the characters they are going to play, adding clothing, physique, weapons, personality, qualities, powers and aims to the character. This activity of constructing the character one is to play in the game may be as engaging as playing the game itself or even more so. In an age when young people are told that they will have to invent their own biography, where they are told that the job they will do does not probably yet exist, the popularity of such games is truly remarkable!

According to Jim Gee [Gee, J. P. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy, 2003], video games players adopt three distinct roles when playing a game: “real”, “virtual” and “projective”.

If play is subject to historical change, then we have to be careful not to elevate passing phases in the historical development of play into a metaphysical status. I think that the observations quoted from Vygotsky above, about the broad developmental role of play remain valid, but in a more detailed examination of different forms of play, we must consider them as part of an historically developed adult culture. In general play-activity and the various kinds of artefacts that function as “toys”, mediate between what the child is able to do at any given stage in its development, and what the child needs to do later in life.

It would seem to me though, that play does always require some form of external, mediating object to facilitate the development of imagination; and imagination, the ability to separate meaning from the immediate objects of perception and build new forms of activity around newly acquired meanings, is essential to the development of the human personality. Play does not necessarily involve using other people as the mediating object however. Play with others clearly plays a crucial role in moral development however, but not necessarily an exclusive role.