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A Reconstruction and Critique of the 'Individualisation as Social Pathology' Thesis of Axel Honneth

A Reconstruction and Critique of the 'Individualisation as Social Pathology' Thesis of Axel Honneth

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Eoghan McMahon. Originally submitted for Current Debates in Social Theory at University College Cork, with lecturer Piet Strydom in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Eoghan McMahon. Originally submitted for Current Debates in Social Theory at University College Cork, with lecturer Piet Strydom in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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A Reconstruction and Critique of the 'Individualisation as Social Pathology' Thesis of Axel Honneth: Axel Honneth’s article ‘Organized Self

-Realization: Some Paradoxes of Individualisation’ (2004) offers an analysis of one of the many problems we are facing in Western civilization since the rise of what has referred to variously as neo-liberal, disorganised (Urry and Lash, 1988), or post-fordist capitalism (Harvey, 1990). As the title would suggest, he seeks to analyse individualisation as it is experienced in contemporary society. Honneths thesis is that in late modern capitalism the need for individualisation is no longer seen or felt by the individual as coming from inside of themselves in a ‘self defining’ praxis that could contribute towards their self-realisation. Rather, it has been inverted ‘into an external compulsion’ (p.475: Honneth, 2004), forced on them by the outside. The areas of ones life and personality where these demands are being made are also multiplying. He argues further that the outcome of this ‘paradoxical reversal’ in the nature of individualisation can be evidenced in increasing numbers of individuals experiencing ‘a number of symptoms of inner emptiness’ (p.467: ibid.), such as depression. In short, Honneth argues that the process and potentialities associated with individualisation have become ‘pathologised’. In this essay I will firstly provide an overview of some of the grounding concepts of Honneth’s thesis. Secondly I will provide a reconstruction of Honneth’s argument illustrating the defining nuances of this reading of the problem of individualisation1; and thirdly, I will provide a critique of Honneth’s reading of the current situation. Underlying Grounding Concepts: Social Pathology and Recognition Honneth argues (2007) that the core task of social philosophy/theory has been, from Rousseau through to Habermas and Foucault, identification and discussion of ‘processes of social development that can be viewed as misdevelopments (Fehlentwicklungen), disorders or “social pathologies”’ (p4: ibid.). Misdevelopments he argues are those developments in society which mitigate against the emancipatory potential of modernity and society. More concretely for Honneth this means creating ever greater autonomy for an ever greater number of people; or, in negative terms, the abolition of all forms of oppression for all. The development of organized individualisation is an example of a social pathology, as it blocks the furthering of this particular ideal. With the identification of this normative project2, Honneth also provides us with an explication of a more concrete framework by which we can measure societal developments or structures through his theory of recognition; which though primarily a tool for analysing and assessing the subjective premises of social movements can be used as a base to critique other social developments. According to Honneth, society can only be regarded as fully developed if all those members of that society have the ‘the possibility of realizing one’s needs and desires as a fully autonomous an individual being’ (p.265: Willig and Petersen). Furthermore, ‘the possibility of *identity

Individualisation in late-modernity has been identified as problematic by a number of others, such as Ulrich Beck (e.g Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002) and Anthony Giddens (1990).

Honneth argues that normativity should always be a part of social theorising, an explicitly so. He in fact argues against functionalist theories of society on precisely this ground, as without a normative guide to ones work a full hermeneutics of injustice is lost, and the possibility of assessing critically social movements directed against subjective oppression. (p11: Deranty in Petheridge, 2010).

formation/self-realisation], depends on the development of self-confidence, self-respect, and selfesteem’ (ibid.). The development of each of these aspects of one’s personality correspond with particular types of intersubjective relationships; basic self-confidence with one’s personal or primary relationships, self-respect with ones legal status (e.g whether accorded full rights and ‘recognition’ by the polity) and self-esteem with the community of value in which one seeks to socialise with and sees as one’s peers (Honneth, 1995). Only with full and equal recognition of the individual in each of these areas of intersubjective relations can an individual develop the capacity to achieve selfrealization autonomously.The development of society is dependent upon the development of individuals. There can be free co-ordination between human beings only in post-traditional communities, and only if they recognise each other as autonomous and free agents. This following quotation from Deranty summarises the relationship between the theory of recognition and social pathology most clearly – “With the structural interlocking of full individuation, socialisation and social integration, the critical theorist can then develop stringent and multi-faceted criteria to analyse social pathologies: some individual pathologies can be traced back to pathological social developments, and society as a whole can be diagnosed as more or less pathological depending on the flourishing, or lack thereof, of the individuals living in it”.
(p.6: Deranty in Petheridge, 2010)

Paradox of Capitalism Honneth and Hartmann (2006) have described a recent change in the organisation of capitalism as the ‘the neo-liberal turn’. This refers to an increase in ‘the exploitation for the purpose of increased economic profit the normative resources and personal potentials that have been made available by the rise of modern individualism’ (p.18: Deranty in Petheridge, 2010.). More concretely this restructuring of the capitalist economy exerts a constant pressure to adapt that does not merely undo the progressive forces released through the developments of the welfare state3, but radically transforms them in their function and significance (p48: Honneth and Hartmann, 2006.). This occurs so much so that what was almost unambiguously analysed as a rise in the sphere of individual autonomy assumes the shape of unreasonable demands, discipline, or insecurity which taken together have the effect of social desolidarization and an increase in negative individualisation4. Honneth and Hartmann argue then that the logic of capitalism has developed to such an extent that this particular development can be viewed as not merely another example of the contradicting tendencies of capitalism, but more specifically a paradox of capitalism.


As well as the other concurrent developments of the golden period of social democracy in Europe from the 1940s to the early 1970s (Honneth, 2004). 4 As Simmel would have identified it – “the tendency of individuals to become ever more lonely as the network of anonymous social contacts expands” (quoted in p.465: Honneth, 2004)

Individualisation As stated in the introduction, Honneth’s main thesis concerning Individualisation in late-modern capitalist society is that as a process and a concept it has been ‘robbed’ of its emancipatory potential through its institutionalisation within the systemic structures of capitalist production (2004). He states that this new ‘spirit of capitalism’ (Chiapello and Boltanski, 2007) has led to the rise of unprecedented levels of depression and inner emptiness in Western Civilisation, as has been reported in the likes of Ehrenburg (1998) and Petersen (2009). Individualisation however, is a contested concept with a number of different meanings. Using the work of Simmel, he identifies three separate meanings. When any author states that ‘over the past 100 years there has been an increase in individualisation in Western Civilisation’ (or something of that sort) Honneth argues that they could be referring to either:  A pluralisation and differentiation between individuals of their individual roles, community ties, etc. This differentiation of lifecourses has been a clearly observable trend over the past hundred years. An increase in self-autonomy and an increase in personally defined achievements and self determination.5 Or a possible third, which Simmel identified as ‘the tendency of individuals to become ever more lonely as the network of anonymous social contacts expands’ (Simmel quoted on p.465: Honneth, 2004).

 

Over the past hundred years, there has been extreme diversity in interpretation of the “the discovery of a *process of+ ‘individualization’ taking place in modern societies” (p.466: ibid.). Schroer (referred to in Honneth, 2004) identifies 3 currents within this debate. One the one side, there is the argument that individuality has become to be allotted to people via education, administration and the culture industry; and it has essentially been an advance in ‘discipline’ which paralyses peoples conscious ability to resist things. This could be argued to be broadly evident in the writings of the first generation of the Frankfurt School. On the other side of the debate, Durkheim and Parsons argued that the neutralisation of tradition would allow for the unleashing of people’s ability to live in a conscious and responsible manner. Between these one finds the argument that while there has been an intense deterioration in traditional ties, a new conformism is rapidly forming. Of these middle ground arguments Honneth notes in particular those new empirical studies which call attention to – “the expectations raised by institutional arrangements, on account of which the creation of biographical originality has become something required of individuals themselves: more and more the presentation of an ‘authentic self’ is one of the demands placed upon individuals, above all in the sphere of skilled labour, so that it is frequently no longer possible at all to distinguish between a real and a fictitious self-discovery, even for the individuals concerned...”.
(p.467: ibid.)


It is interesting to note that Simmel seems to regard this as in fact two separate developments, delineating between “an increase in individuals’ powers of reflection or to their developing autonomy” (p.466: Honneth, 2004).

The above are important to note as they are in fact those closest to Honneth’s line of argument on the aspect of individualisation which refers to self autonomy and realisation. With the delineations drawn the issue then becomes how has a scenario like the one described in the quotation above could have come to pass. Reconstruction of Honneth’s ‘social pathology of contemporary individualisation’ thesis: Honneth’s argument is that towards the ‘golden years’ of social democracy and the Welfare State in 1960s Europe a particular constellation of ‘material, social, and intellectual processes of change which [had] so many traits in common’ came together ‘in the manner of an elective affinity, as to have been able collectively to create a new kind of individualism” (p.468: ibid.). Materially, the expansion of economic growth and leisure time left more space for individual decision and less for the influence of socio-economic cultural norm-imposition; the service sector explosion allowed for previously unimaginable social mobility and thus variation in biography; with increased educational opportunities vocational choice was expanded beyond any other preceding generations’ level. During the same time, especially due to increased levels of education, the individual’s capacity for autonomy in the performative sense (experimentation) towards the discovery of ones identity increased. Indeed, already young people were advised, compelled or encouraged to put themselves at the heart of their own life-planning and practice (p.469: ibid.). Socio-Culturally there was the growth in acceptance of the idea of ‘the need to seek an intensification of one’s own feeling of being alive in the consumption of cultural goods’, which gave a near religious impetus to the new consumerism which emerged at this time6 (p.469:ibid.). In tandem, there was also a removal of rigid cultural expectations concerning one’s life course which, rather than simply leading to the ideal of a new ideal personality, multiplied the probability of individuals appropriating the cultural traditions of those of other socio-economic and cultural backgrounds (ibid.). Cumulatively – “what took the place of this relatively fixed map of personal identity ... was the tendency to think of the various possibilities for personal identity as being the stuff of experimental selfdiscovery. In Simmel’s terms, it was the appearance on a large-scale of individualization of a ‘qualitative’ kind: individuals were trying out various ways of life in order to be able, in light of these experiences, to actualize the core of their own personalities, which is what most clearly distinguished them from everyone else7”
(p.470: ibid.)

The structural conditions and institutions in society had to ‘adapt themselves creatively to [this] new ideal of conduct’ (p470: ibid.). Honneth shows how a number of institutions did exactly this, most clearly in the spheres of production and consumption. It is here that the ‘paradox of capitalism’ began its pathological development.
6 7

Which was also undercut with the search for self identity via experimentation in consumption. He gives the ‘sexual revolution’ as an example of this kind of newly enabled performative experimentation in identity formation (p.470: ibid.).

Patterns of consumption have changed, as people are now ‘encouraged’ to profile their identity aesthetically via their belongings and by default their consumption habits (p.471: ibid.). In the advertisement industry there has been an instrumentalizing of peoples increasing demands for individualisation ‘by means of the subliminal promise that by buying them consumers will acquire an aesthetic resource for both the presentation and the heightening of the originality of their own chosen life-styles’. As this spiral continues, the relationship seems to be reversed, with individuals taking their cues from people in the advertising industry rather than the other way around (p.472: ibid.). In processes of production, Fordist type arrangements of labour have fallen to more individualised types of work where the intellect of workers is called upon to a significant degree. New conceptions of management such as New Public Management see the levelling out of hierarchies and an increase in autonomous direction of labour as providing the space for individualisation and self-realization as demanded by workers previously. However: “workers’... must be ready and willing to present every change of position at work as flowing from their own choice, and their involvement is to benefit the business as a whole. Thus, over the course of only two decades, there has arisen a new set of demands that allows employment to depend upon a convincing self-presentation on the part of the employees of their will to realize themselves in their work; and this reversal creates in turn the space for legitimizing economic deregulation, by pointing out how obsolescent the system of fixed job descriptions is in view of the greater readiness of individual employees to assume responsibility for themselves. The pressure with which employees and workers are thus burdened takes on an extremely paradoxical form: for the sake of their future employment prospects, they have to arrange their biographies in a fictive manner, in accord with the model of self-realization... “(p.473). Thus, the self-realising capacity of individuals once promised to be released by the process of individualisation has become inverted; resulting ultimately in a paradox in which individualisation, the more it is aimed for, the more it becomes more difficult for it to achieve its normative function8. The seeming universality of these new calls for individualised responses and actions in all spheres of life leaves, ultimately, two avenues – to either live one’s life in a perpetual state of motion and change in response to a market of individualisation(s), or failing that, fall into a state of inner emptiness as those fleeting conceptions of oneself wither and are not replaced by newer ones. Appraisal of this thesis: One of the first things which must be said about this thesis is that both itself, and its conceptual/theoretical grounding is in fact quite systematic (Deranty in Petheridge, 2010). However, internal theoretical consistency does not guarantee actual validity. Honneth defends his theoretical framework on two grounds, the first underwritten ultimately by the second. The first of these grounds is through the immanent critique of those critical theories of society which have gone before and analysing the adequacy of their application to the current state of society. This can most clearly seen to have been done in his book ‘The Critique of Power’ (1993). The theories which he would see his own following are those which aim to provide ‘a critical theory of society,

This corresponds to the definition of a paradoxical contradiction in Capitalism as put forward by Giddens (referenced in Honneth and Hartmann, 2006).

with practical intent’ (p.13: Deranty in Petheridge, 2010). Honneth, through the use of empirical and conceptual refutation, shows how those theories in the critical school of social philosophy have been flawed in certain ways and has self-reflexively structured his own theory to avoid these traps; while noting the fallibility of his own work in this chain of theoretical development. The validity of his theoretical frame however, is subject always however to the empirical burden of proof9. Honneth often refers to the latest research (Deranty in Petheridge, 2010) such as, in this case, those of Ehrenberg (1998); who shows how there has been over the past decades an unprecedented growth in depression in western societies, which he claims to have been a result of the acceleration of individualisation and the strain which these new demands have put on individuals. In reference to Honneth’s lines of defence in this case however, one must look at the fact that the empirical findings he cites are not widely accepted in social psychology circles as of yet. The research in this area is not at a stage which we could regard Honneth’s theory as correct or not, the evidence is provisional. Honneth is not unaware of this however and does place this thesis under a disclaimer that at the moment ‘there exist only clinical indications’, and by elucidating the difficulties surrounding this kind of research (p.475: Honneth, 2004). In appraising Honneth’s arguments, one must make reference to how he does not take the idea of individualisation to what might be labelled the extremes of Beck et al. (2002), who has criticised the sociological study of concepts such as class as inappropriate in an individualised society; an idea which has been criticised by Atkinson (2007). Pierre Bourdieu’s work on the ‘everyday unhappiness’ generated by the growth of unfettered capitalism is singled out as an example of the continuance of other forms of social distress caused by the capitalist mode of production. In summary of the appraisal of Honneth’s analysis of the pathologies of individualism in contemporary society, we must firstly note the provisional nature of the conclusions which he comes to in regards to the links between individualisation and depression. However, the conceptual tools with which we are able to analyse the process of organised individualisation have quite definitely been sharpened by Honneth’s analysis.


Without it, despite the presuppositions of the theorist having been self-reflexively outlined and despite any apparent reasonableness of those presuppositions, they can still be legitimately charged with arbitrariness. However, if one was to then question the legitimacy of the project of empiricism as a whole, one might be found to be still not having the required levels of proof for a truly accurate theory of society. But then, ‘this is the fate of all theory’ (Deranty in Petheridge, 2010).

 Atkinson, W. (2007) “Beck, individualization and the death of class: a critique”. In: British Journal of Sociology, 58 (3), pp.349-366.    Beck, U., and Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002) Individualisation. London: Sage. Chiapello, E., and Boltanski, L. (2007) The New Spirit of Capitalism. London: Verso. Deranty, J. (2010) “Reflective critical theory: a systematic reconstruction of Axel Honneth’s social philosophy”. Forthcoming In: Petherbridge, D. (ed.) The Critical Theory of Axel Honneth. Leiden: Brill, 2010. Accessed at: <http://www.crsi.mq.edu.au/people/staff/documents/MicrosoftWordreflectivecriticaltheoryasystematicreconstruction.pdf> , 19/12/10.     Ehrenberg, Alain (1998) La Fatigue d’être soi: Dépression et société. Paris: Odile Jacob. Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity. Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell. Honneth, A. (1993) The Critique of Power: Reflective Stages ina Critical Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.  Honneth, A. (1995) The Struggle for Recognition: The moral grammar of social conflicts. Cambridge: Polity.  Honneth, A. (2004) “Organized Self-Realization : Some Paradoxes of Individualization”. In: European Journal of Social Theory, 7 (4), pp.463-478.   Honneth, A. (2007) Disrespect. Cambridge: Polity. Honneth, A., and Hartmann, M. (2006) “Paradoxes of Capitalism”. In: Constellations,13 (1), pp.41-58.  Petersen, A. (2009) “Depression: A Social Pathology of Action”. In: Irish Journal of Sociology, 17 (2), p56-71.  Petersen, A., and Willig, R. (2002) “An Interview with Axel Honneth”. In: European Journal of Social Theory, 5 (2), pp.265-277.  Urry, J. and Lash, S. (1988) The End of Organised Capitalism. Gerrards Cross: Polity.

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