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

Part III. Social-philosophical Perspectives

In part III of the book, Honneth deals briefly with three other writers — Marx, Sorel and Sartre — and draws his analysis to a conclusion.

I did not find that the reflections on Marx, Sorel and Sartre added very much to what Honneth had already set out. It seems to me that Honneth has misread Marx, mistaking as so many others have, Marx’s critique of political economy for a contribution to political economy:

“[Marx] appropriated a utilitarian model of social conflict: in his analysis of capitalism, he let the laws of motion of the conflict between different classes be fixed — in accordance with his new set of basic concepts — by the antagonisms between economic interests. ... class struggle no longer represents a struggle for recognition (as Hegel interpreted it) but is conceptualised along the lines of the traditional model of a struggle for (economic) self-assertion. ...

“In his political-historical studies, Marx explicates class struggle — in clear contrast to his writings on the theory of capitalism — according to the model of an ethical diremption. ... the collective actors opposing each other are oriented towards divergent values, owing to their positions within society ... against his utilitarian inclinations ...” [p. 151]

Honneth misses the fact that Marx’s work on political economy was aimed at revealing the logic of capital; although the logic of capital has a tendency to subsume under itself a wider and wider domain of life, Marx never supposed that it is ever the totality of human life.

Honneth proposes that social struggles follow either of two logics: that of a struggle for recognition, or that of pursuit of interests, but Honneth misses the processes by which both interests and collectivity are constructed, both of which are as much moral processes as the struggle for recognition. He points out that:

“to become the basis for a social movement ... We are here dealing with a practical process in which individual experiences of disrespect are read as typical for an entire social group, and in such a way that they can motivate collective demands for expanded relations of recognition.” [p. 162]


“hurt feelings can become the motivational basis for collective resistance only if subjects are able to articulate them within an intersubjective framework of interpretation that they can show to be typical for an entire group.”

However, before members of a group can jointly respond to a hurt, they must conceive of themselves as a group. I would contend that the formation of subjectivity in the first place is in fact more crucial to the understanding of social struggle, than how the struggle groups engage in is to be deemed in pursuit of interests or recognition.

Honneth explains this dichotomy as follows:

“[that] not all forms of resistance have their roots in injury to moral claims is clearly shown by the many historical cases in which it was purely the securing of economic survival that motivated massive protest and revolt.

“Interests are basic goal-directed orientations that accompany the economic and social circumstances of individuals, if only because individuals must try to obtain the conditions for their own reproduction. Such interests become collective attitudes to the extent to which various subjects become aware of the commonality of their social situation and because of this, come to see themselves as confronting similar tasks of reproduction.

“Feelings of having been disrespected, on the other hand, form the core of moral experiences that are part of the structure of social interaction because human subjects encounter one another with expectations for recognition, expectations on which their psychological integrity turns. Feelings of having been unjustly treated can lead to collective actions to the extent to which they come to be experienced by an entire circle of subjects as typical for their social situation.

“The models of conflict that start from collective interests are those that trace the development and course of social struggles back to attempts on the part of social groups to obtain or enlarge control over certain opportunities for their reproduction. This same line is also taken by those approaches that want to broaden the spectrum of these interest-guided struggles by including cultural and symbolic goods within the definition of group-specific opportunities for reproduction.

“By contrast, the models of conflict that start from collective feelings of having been unjustly treated are those that trace the emergence and the course of social struggles back to moral experiences of social groups who face having legal or social recognition withheld from them. In the first case, we are dealing with the analysis of a struggle over the intersubjective conditions for personal integrity.

“... that this second model of conflict, based on a theory of recognition, should not try to replace the first, utilitarian model but only extend it. It will always be an empirical question as to the extent to which a social conflict follows the logic of the pursuit of interests or the logic of the formation of moral reactions.” [p. 165]

I think that this dichotomy is fundamentally false. Once a collectivity is formed, its actions may be conceived as pursuit of collective self-interest; having something is common does not make a collectivity, as Hegel himself was at pains to point out; before a subjectivity is formed and objectified, its struggle may be conceived as a struggle for recognition. Both are part of a single cycle of struggle. It is my contention that a theory of intersubjectivity will always miss this process.

Honneth sums up his analysis by proposing that we can better make sense of history if

“the significance of each particular struggle is measured in terms of the positive or negative contribution that each has been able to make to the realisation of undistorted forms of recognition.” [p. 170]


“Every unique, historical struggle or conflict only reveals its position within the development of society once its role in the establishment of moral progress, in terms of recognition, has been grasped.” [p. 168]


“the moral force within lived social reality that is responsible for development and progress is a struggle for recognition ... [but] evidence [is needed] that the experience of disrespect represents the affective source of knowledge for social resistance and collective uprisings ...” [p. 143]

My position, having heard what Honneth has outlined, is that “the struggle for recognition” is still an imperfect model to conceive the continuity of progressive struggles underlying social progress, but the initiative Honneth has taken is very much worth pursuing.

Honneth concludes with:

“we cannot refrain from allowing substantive values — which are supposed to be in a position to generate post-traditional solidarity — to take their place alongside the forms of recognition found in love and developed legal relations ... whether these substantive values point in the direction of a political republicanism, an ecologically based asceticism, or a collective existentialism, whether they presuppose changes in socio-economic circumstances or are compatible with the conditions of a capitalist society — this is no longer a matter for theory but rather for the future of social struggles.” [p. 179]

but I think it is both too early to declare that the work of theory is done, and to late to declare that the substantive values of a future society are a matter for social struggles.

All in all, I think more work needs to be done on the formation of subjectivity. An intersubjective approach to analysis of social struggle tends to take for granted the existence of social subjects who only then enter into a struggle for recognition. However, the whole point of Hegel’s original idea was that it is only in the process of struggle for recognition that subjectivity comes into being in the first place. Thus “recognition” is not a concept which can completely capture this struggle.

Andy Blunden
December 2003.