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Philosophy & Social Criticism
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DOI: 10.1177/0191453710363582
2010 36: 587 Philosophy Social Criticism
Anita Chari
critical theory
Toward a political critique of reification: Lukcs, Honneth and the aims of

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Toward a political critique
of reification: Lukacs,
Honneth and the aims of
critical theory
Anita Chari
Social Sciences Division, University of Chicago, USA
This article engages Axel Honneths recent work on Georg Lukacs concept of reification in order
to formulate a politically relevant and historically specific critique of capitalism that is applicable to
theorizing contemporary democratic practice. I argue that Honneths attempt to reorient the
critique of reification within the terms of a theory of recognition has done so at the cost of
sacrificing the core of the concept, which forged a connection between the socio-political analysis
of capitalist domination and an analysis of the unengaged, spectatorial stance of human beings
toward the world, showing how they together impede emancipatory social transformation. In
order to accomplish the unfinished task of rendering the critique of reification applicable to con-
temporary critical theory, I seek to synthesize the advantages of Honneths approach, which
focuses on the normative aspects of the critique of reification, with Lukacs emphasis on the prac-
tical, political-economic dimensions of reification and the historically specific pathologies of the
capitalist social form.
capitalism, Axel Honneth, Georg Lukacs, recognition, reification
After decades of neglect, there has recently been a growing awareness in the field of
political theory that a sophisticated critique of capitalism is crucial to understanding the
limits and possibilities of democratic practice in the context of the contemporary
neo-liberal conjuncture. Along these lines, a recent work by the philosopher Axel
Honneth seeks to recuperate a concept that was central to the critique of capitalism
Corresponding author:
Anita Chari, Social Sciences Division, The Society of Fellows, University of Chicago, 5845 South Ellis Avenue,
Gates-Blake Hall, 305, Chicago, IL, 60637, USA.
Philosophy and Social Criticism
36(5) 587606
The Author(s) 2010
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DOI: 10.1177/0191453710363582
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prevalent in a strand of western Marxism reification in order to highlight its relevance
for understanding features of contemporary social reality. Rather than simply returning
to the influential analysis of reification by Georg Lukacs, Honneth invokes the category
of reification with a crucial twist. Lukacs used the concept to link a particular form of
economic life, capitalism, with an unengaged and passive stance that individuals take
toward the social world that is prevalent, even socially necessitated, in capitalist society.
By contrast, Honneth argues that the most important aspects of reification can be under-
stood in the terms of a theory of recognition, as a wholly intersubjective phenomenon
whereby human beings lose sight of their originary affective and engaged relation with
others in their social world. In this article, I argue that Honneths attempt to reorient the
critique of reification within the terms of a theory of recognition has done so at the cost
of sacrificing the core of the concept, which forged a connection between the socio-
economic structure of capitalist domination and the unengaged, spectatorial stance
human beings take toward the social world, showing how they together impede emanci-
patory social transformation. While Honneths turn to reification is no doubt motivated
by the intuition that the concept has relevance for the analysis of social injustices related
to the structure of social life in contemporary capitalism, his decisive separation of the
critique of reification from the critique of political economy leaves him with too thin an
understanding of the socio-economic aspects of capitalist domination that the category of
reification is intended to describe and critique.
If this is the case, the question of why Honneth operates with such an emaciated
understanding of the processes of reification remains, and it is a question that is crucial
to understanding the central challenge that critical theory faces today: to formulate a
politically relevant and historically specific critique of capitalism. I go about answering
this question by exploring the way in which Honneths theory of recognition both
responds to problems generated by the communicative turn of critical theory initiated
by Jurgen Habermas, and yet unintentionally reproduces them. An analysis of Honneths
work on reification invites a discussion of how the concept of reification has been refor-
mulated prior to the first generation of the Frankfurt School. My study reveals that
Honneths concept of reification inherits a repressed version of the distinction between
Habermas concepts of system and lifeworld that tends to effect a sharp distinction
between intersubjectivity and communicative action on the one hand, and the structural
critique of capitalism on the other. Honneth therefore deprioritizes the socio-economic
aspects of reification on the basis of a purified concept of intersubjectivity. Purged of its
material mediations, Honneths approach to intersubjectivity leads to a concept of reifi-
cation that is inadequate to the task of criticizing capitalist forms of domination or to the-
orizing radical democratic political practice today. To the extent that critical theory
remains bound to the dichotomizing framework of the communicative turn, I argue that
it will be unable to formulate a politically relevant critique of contemporary neo-liberal
capitalism, as the borders between the economy and the political are being articulated in
new ways that confound its assumptions.
In order to accomplish the unfinished task of rendering the critique of reification
applicable to contemporary critical theory, I seek to synthesize the advantages of Hon-
neths approach, which emphasizes the normative aspects of the critique of reification,
with Lukacs emphasis on the practical, political-economic dimensions of reification and
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the historically specific pathologies of the capitalist social form. By bringing together
Honneths and Lukacs approaches rather than opposing them, I develop a critique of
reification that reconnects the social-theoretic, normative and political aspects of reifica-
tion and lays the groundwork for a political critique of capitalism that can aid us in
rethinking the possibilities for democratic practice in the present.
In this article I first gloss Lukacs and Honneths theories of reification, highlighting
their differences. Then I review Habermas formulation of the critique of reification in
order to show the ways in which his communicative paradigm leads to a dichotomizing
theory of reification. I contend that a dichotomy similar to the Habermasian system/life-
world distinction remains problematic in Honneths theory despite his attempts to
resolve the issue. Finally, I indicate how a more politically relevant critique of reification
might be developed through a synthesis of Honneths and Lukacs theories, in particular
by recognizing the distinct ideas about intersubjectivity implied by their respective
Lukacs: reification and capitalist subjectivity
In Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, Lukacs argues that reification is
the central social pathology of capitalist society.
Reification is above all an unengaged,
spectatorial stance that individuals take toward the social world and toward their own
practices. Reification is characterized by a lack of participatory involvement (Teilnahm-
slosigkeit) in social objects, whereby humans apprehend things in the world as inert
objects to which human consciousness merely conforms rather than actively constructs.
More specifically, according to Lukacs, reification is a form of consciousness that is
uniquely constitutive of capitalism. It is the subjective stance that individuals take
toward a society in which the economy exists as a separate, self-grounding and autono-
mous realm of social life, operating in a way that is seemingly independent of human
will. By drawing attention to the ways in which the independence and objectivity of the
economy function as a form of appearance or illusion that itself perpetuates the dominat-
ing social structure of capitalism, Lukacs makes explicit an unconscious link between
subjects everyday practices and the dynamic of the capitalist economy. The concept
of reification therefore describes the ways in which individuals in capitalist society fail
to recognize that the economy is constituted by human practices, even as it appears to be
an autonomous and self-perpetuating dynamic.
Lukacs explicitly relates the critique of reification to the critique of commodity
fetishism, theorized by Marx as a form of relation between humans that is disguised
as a relation between things. Taking Marxs lead, Lukacs claims that if the unengaged
attitude of reification characterizes human consciousness in capitalism, this has some-
thing to do with the peculiar structure of capitalist social life itself. In Capital, Marx
referred to this field of problems with the idea of fetishism, which describes how social
relations in capitalist society appear in the form of things as commodities whose
actions and movements come to be regarded as beyond the domain of human agency.
Commodities take on a life of their own, alienated and separated from the laborers that
produce them. According to Marx, the fetish character of the commodity, which veils
the social labor that produces the objects of human need, is the central structural feature
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of capitalism.
No longer rendered meaningful by social relations external to labor, as in
pre-capitalist societies, in capitalism labor takes on a self-grounding form, thereby
rendering invisible its status as a social relation. The fetish character of labor consists
in the fact that it is a form of social mediation that obscures itself from the experience of
social actors, thereby taking on the character of non-conscious social determination.
Labor under capitalism therefore exerts an objective form of compulsion upon individ-
uals in capitalist society, and the social relations of labor take an alienated, self-
obscuring form. Commodities in circulation appear to be mere things or objects of
need, but in fact as commodities their movement follows the independent logic of
While Marxs analysis of fetishism in Capital reveals the way in which the dynamic
of the capitalist social form becomes autonomous and apparently self-perpetuating, he
does not focus on the specific question of how individuals relate to commodities and
to their own labor, nor does he address the ways in which the individuals subjective
stance itself becomes a crucial feature of the capitalist mode of production.
essay on reification addresses this lacuna. If Marxs point was to show that commodity
fetishism entails the obfuscation of human activity from the dynamic of capitalism, then
Lukacs contribution is to emphasize that Marxs analysis presupposes a subject who
regards the dynamic of capitalism as naturalized and immutable. Lukacs extends Marxs
analysis by examining reification as a specific form of consciousness that accepts the fet-
ish forms of capital as naturalized and independent of human agency. The production of
this disengaged, spectatorial form of subjectivity, he contends, is as crucial to the repro-
duction of capitalism as the production of commodities. Indeed, this spectatorial stance
itself becomes a commodity.
Illustrating this point, Lukacs makes repeated use of the
jarring metaphor of spectatorship, of a subject that can only look on passively at its own
mechanistic activity: . . . the personality can do no more than look on helplessly while
its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle and fed into an alien system.
thus makes explicit the link between the institutions of modern capitalism and a
deformed and self-limiting form of rationality, which legitimates rather than critiques the
unfreedom of capitalist social life.
By formulating the problem this way, Lukacs reveals the specifically political dimen-
sion of reification, or rather the way in which reification promotes an apolitical orienta-
tion toward the capitalist social form. From the activity of philosophy to industrial labor,
Lukacs shows that the defining feature of reification, the pervasive aspect of capitalist
subjectivity, is the misrecognition of the practical basis of human activity. In capitalist
society, reification perpetuates contemplation and passivity in relation to a seemingly
inert and unchangeable social world. Humans do not recognize themselves or their own
practice reflected in commodities or in society, nor do they recognize the fetishized pro-
cesses of capitalism as an impediment to human self-determination. The result is that
individuals come to relate to structures of domination as beyond the realm of their
own practice, failing to see the ways in which human activity produces and reproduces
this structure. Instead, society confronts individuals as an abstract, immutable
structure, which appears to reproduce itself independently of human agency or reason.
Consequently, Lukacs observes, human beings under the spell of reification continue
to obstruct potential sites of social transformation.
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Honneths critique of Lukacs: reification as misrecognition
Although History and Class Consciousness is a foundational text for the Frankfurt
School of critical theory, the theory of reification has tended to be neglected in contem-
porary discussions. An important exception to this rule is a recent work by Axel
Honneth, Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea, which reinterprets the critique of rei-
fication within the terms of his theory of recognition to render it usable for contempo-
rary social philosophy.
Honneth responds to what has been perceived as a normative
deficit stemming from the Marxist orientation of Lukacs work and the consequent
neglect of the intersubjective dimensions of reification. To rise to the challenge of for-
mulating the concept anew, Honneth translates the concept of reification into the terms
of a theory of recognition, which emphasizes the phenomena of reification at the level
of intersubjectivity. In Honneths framework, reification consists in the forgetting of the
antecedent stance of recognition which is presupposed by our knowledge of and
engagement with other persons and objects in the social world. I take issue with Hon-
neths reconstruction of the critique of reification on two points. First, I argue that Hon-
neths separation of the critique of reification from an analysis of the social form of
capitalism results in an ahistorical concept of reification that is inadequate for theoriz-
ing contemporary political possibilities. Secondly, I contend that by separating the nor-
mative aspects of reification from an analysis of their socio-economic basis, Honneth
evacuates much of the critical potential of the concept of reification for political theory,
reducing reification to a phenomenon of intersubjectivity, whereby intersubjectivity is
conceived too narrowly to ground a critique of social domination in capitalism. Rather
than pose Honneths theory against Lukacs, I argue that Honneths work is more use-
fully seen as an effort to render explicit the implicit normative basis of Lukacs
A full presentation of the architecture of Honneths theory of recognition goes
beyond the scope of this article. I will only briefly gloss the basic points relevant to
the discussion of reification, focusing particularly on Honneths restatement of his the-
ory of recognition in his recent debate with Nancy Fraser, which sought to clarify the
extent to which a theory of recognition could take over the theoretical role filled by the
critique of capitalism in the more modest terms of that exchange, by claims for
Honneths theory of recognition seeks to reveal the moral constraints underlying
social interaction and is based on the presupposition that the inclusion of members of
society will always proceed through the mechanism of mutual recognition, whereby indi-
viduals are normatively incorporated into society by learning to view themselves as
socially recognized in light of certain characteristics.
Honneth argues that social theory
requires concepts that can grasp social injustice in terms of subjects normative expec-
tations of how society conditions their personal integrity. Therefore, he writes, the expe-
rience of a withdrawal of social recognition of degradation and disrespect must be at
the center of a meaningful concept of socially caused suffering and injustice.
Honneth, the importance of social misrecognition as a motivation for social struggle
is an empirical finding of social theoretic relevance, but it also indicates a normative
principle of recognition that transcends these empirical instances. It therefore indicates a
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much-needed point of contact between social theory and the everyday expressions of
injustice and disrespect, which has long been a blind spot in critical theory. Honneth
This difficulty a legacy of the sociological anti-normativism that also prevailed in the
older Frankfurt School must now stand at the beginning of any renewal of critical social
theory. For without a categorical opening to the normative standpoint from which subjects
themselves evaluate the social order, theory remains completely cut off from a dimension of
social discontent that it should always be able to call upon. . . . What is needed is a basic
conceptual shift to the normative premises of a theory of recognition that locates the core of
all experiences of injustice in the withdrawal of social recognition, in the phenomena of
humiliation and disrespect.
Honneths reformulation of Lukacs concept of reification takes its lead from the
phenomenology of misrecognition, which stands at the center of Honneths theory.
Accordingly, Honneth effects a theoretical shift from what he perceives as the econo-
mism of Lukacs concept of reification to the analysis of reification in terms of recog-
nition. Without such a reformulation, Honneth argues, the theory of reification is
divorced from an account of the normative criteria by which the phenomena of reifica-
tion can be criticized as well as an understanding of how reification can be experientially
grasped. These normative criteria, on Honneths account, elude a theory that seeks to
ground itself in an immanent critique of capitalism alone, since even the institutions
of the capitalist economy are to some degree dependent upon the normative expectations
placed upon them by members of a society. Honneth writes:
. . . even structural transformations in the economic sphere are not independent of the nor-
mative expectations of those affected, but depend at least on their tacit consent. Like the
integration of all other spheres, the development of the capitalist market can only occur
in the form of a process of symbolically mediated negotiation directed toward the interpre-
tation of underlying normative principles.
Honneth therefore diverges sharply from Lukacs in his decisive decoupling of the pro-
blematic of reification from the critique of the social form of capitalism.
Honneth observes a fundamental problem in Lukacs argumentative strategy, which
relies on a social ontology of practice in order to explain precisely why reification is a
form of domination. Reification is meant to refer to a deformed, pathological structure
of practice, a passivity of the subject in relation to other human beings and the objective
world. On this reading, reification appears to be problematic, and thereby subject to cri-
tique, insofar as it violates certain ontological presuppositions of human activity. Hon-
neth claims that Lukacs measures pathological, reified practice against the standard of a
non-reified form of practice, a fundamental, originary, active form of interaction
between the human being and the world. Insofar as we relate to the world passively
or as Lukacs called it, contemplatively we deviate from the form of practice that is
proper to the rationality of our form of life. In this sense, Honneth argues that Lukacs
critique of reification is insufficiently justified by his social ontological critique: reified
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forms of practice merit critique not primarily because they contradict certain descriptive
elements of social ontology, but rather because they violate certain moral principles.
The forgetfulness of recognition
Honneth sees a more fruitful social theory of reification in Lukacs analysis of the sub-
jective dimensions of reification, that is, the changes in the way subjects practically
relate to the social world, rather than in the analysis of commodity fetishism. The key
point that Honneth distills from Lukacs in this regard is the notion of Teilnahmslosigkeit,
or lack of participatory involvement. This term refers to a form of interaction whereby
subjects lose sight of their fundamentally active, engaged, and sympathetic engagement
with the world, and instead act as detached observers, contemplating the world passively,
without existential or emotional involvement.
Honneth argues that in the critique of Teilnahmslosigkeit, lies an alternative, unoffi-
cial version of the critique of reification, which is based not on an idealist, demiurgic
theory of human agency, but rather upon a normative standard of intersubjective praxis
that, far from fully eroded in the present by the generalization of commodity exchange,
forms an ineradicable kernel of human being in the world.
In these moments, Lukacs
doesnt contrast reifying praxis with a collective subjects production of an object, but
with another, intersubjective attitude on the part of the subject.
For Honneth, this
unofficial strand of Lukacs argument suggests a way of recuperating the critique of
reification from totalization: reification does not eliminate engaged, non-reified praxis
altogether, it has merely concealed it from our awareness.
Armed with this insight, Honneth proposes to reinterpret reification in recognition-
theoretic terms, arguing that the disinterested, contemplative forms of practice referred
to as reified obscure but never fully eliminate the primary, interested, active stance of the
human being toward the world. Honneth proposes to think this stance as a primary recog-
nitional stance, which enjoys a genetic and categorial priority over all other attitudes
toward the self and the world.
Honneths critique of reification is based upon the pri-
ority of a recognitive, empathetic, interested relation of the human being to the world
over a merely cognitive, passive attitude. Taking a suggestive line from Dialectic of
Enlightenment as his inspiration, Honneth proposes to think reification anew as the for-
getfulness of recognition, which indicates the process by which humans beings lose con-
sciousness of the antecedent stance of care and recognition that underlies knowledge of
other persons and of the world. This priority of recognition, according to Honneth, is
both genetic and categorial. Using the insights of developmental psychology and
socialization research, Honneth locates the chronological priority of recognition over
mere cognition in the experience of affective relationships with significant others in
childhood to show how a critique of reification can be rooted in learning processes that
reveal the emotional conditions of thought processes.
Honneth turns to Heidegger and
Dewey to show the conceptual priority of recognition to cognition, which he argues is
implicit in Lukacs theory as well.
While Honneth develops a concept of reification that may be more analytically
nuanced than Lukacs, demanding a higher level of empirical specificity in differentiat-
ing the phenomena of reification, it is hardly possible to overlook one crucial absence in
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Honneths theory of reification: it no longer views itself as a critique of socio-political
relations in capitalism, which in Lukacs account formed the basis of the critique of
social domination and of the elusiveness of self-determination. Why does Honneth distill
such a narrow concept of reification from Lukacs theory, one which remains confined to
such a small range of phenomena and which severs the tight link between the phenomena
of reification and the structure of capitalist society? I contend that this question can be
answered by viewing the critique of reification within the tradition of critical theory
more broadly, paying particular attention to the way in which the concept of intersubjec-
tivity has been theorized by Habermas and then Honneth as an attempt to reorient critical
theory away from the normative model of the philosophy of the subject.
reformulation of the critique of reification is an instance of a larger paradigm shift in crit-
ical theory towards communication and intersubjectivity and away from the structural
critique of capitalism. The concept of reification, however, is useful only insofar as it
calls into question this opposition. I will go on to argue that elements of Lukacs critique
of reification indicate a more expansive way of theorizing intersubjectivity that avoids
the stark distinction between intersubjectivity and materiality at the heart of Habermas
and Honneths analyses.
The communicative turn of critical theory: beyond the
production paradigm
For better or for worse, the contemporary reception of Lukacs is mediated largely
through the work of the first-generation theorists of the Frankfurt School, who were
greatly influenced by Lukacs critique of reification. The collapse of the Frankfurt
School into idle pessimism is widely believed to be a result of their adoption of the thesis
of total reification, in which the standpoint of critical theory is consumed by a thoroughly
administered society. Lukacs, writing from the perspective of a revolutionary situation,
addressed his analysis of reification to the practical questions that arose in the course of
political struggle and he was oriented toward theorizing the possibility of revolutionary
By contrast, the early Frankfurt School theorists, discarding Lukacs positing
of a revolutionary subject of history, saw in the concept of reification the key to why
revolution had faltered. The critique of reification assumed a role in critical theory sim-
ilar to that of psychoanalytic theory it was a tool to explain why the working class
failed to assume their historical role, persisting in their enslavement to the ruling ideol-
ogy. This was especially true of the works of Adorno and Horkheimer produced in the
1940s under the influence of Friedrich Pollocks state capitalism thesis, which diagnosed
a new phase of capitalism in which state intervention and the primacy of the political
over the economic had effectively absorbed the immanent contradictions that were pre-
viously present in the liberal phase of capitalism.
In the hands of Horkheimer and
Adorno, in their classic work Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), the critique of reifica-
tion is detached from its basis in the Marxian analysis of the historically specific com-
modity form, and instead is deployed in the service of a critique of reason as such, which
is now identified with instrumental rationality.
Dialectic of Enlightenment, according
to this familiar history, posits reification as a feature of all human societies, from the ear-
liest shamanic rituals to the most recent manipulations of science, and thus capitulates to
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the myth of a social form without contradictions, where society supposedly no longer
generates the standards for its own criticism. The reception of Lukacs own theory of
reification has been tarred by its association with the pessimism of the Frankfurt School
critique of reification. This tends to foreclose a real confrontation with the theory of rei-
fication at the conceptual level.
Habermas reorientation of critical theory away from the paradigm of instrumental
reason, which he argued was bound to an all-encompassing theory of reification,
attempts to redeem the project of immanent critique by recuperating the perspective
of communicative reason. The communicative turn of critical theory is an attempt to
counter the pessimism of early critical theory by revealing the concealed presuppositions
of its critique of modernity, which, according to Habermas, relies on a normative
standard of communicative reason that is immanent in everyday practice. Central to
Habermas project is the rejection of the paradigm of production, the normative model
of human agency underlying the left-Hegelian project of Marx and early critical theory.
The production paradigm of agency, according to Habermas, is at the core of what has
been referred to as the philosophy of the subject, a normative model in which history is
understood as the activity of a collective subject that exteriorizes itself through its pro-
ductive activity and then reappropriates that which it has exteriorized.
The general
thrust of de-reifying critique, as theorized by Lukacs, which proceeds by revealing the
historically constituted nature of existing social forms in order to comprehend the pos-
sibility of their transformation, is regarded as part of this problematic tradition of the phi-
losophy of the subject. According to Habermas, this tradition restricts the concept of
practice in a way that is unable to account for the immanence of reason to communica-
tive relations themselves, which provides the practical standpoint of critique and
discloses the proper sphere of social transformation. Habermas writes:
. . . the emancipatory perspective proceeds precisely not from the production paradigm, but
from the paradigm of action oriented toward mutual understanding. It is the form of inter-
action processes that must be altered if one wants to discover practically what the members
of a society in any given situation might want and what they should do in their common
Habermas thus reinterprets the critique of reification in the terms of communicative
action, which he argues could succeed in grounding the normative standpoint of critique
where the paradigm of production had failed. But insofar as Habermas critical project
throughout relies on a sharp opposition between his intersubjective concept of interac-
tion and the Marxian concept of work (Arbeit), which Habermas accuses of conflating
instrumental and social action, I contend that his concept of intersubjectivity becomes
abstracted from its material conditions of possibility.
This will have implications for
the way in which Habermas, and later Honneth, theorize the critique of reification.
Reification as the colonization of the lifeworld
Habermas describes his Theory of Communicative Action as a reformulation of the rei-
fication problematic in terms of systematically induced lifeworld pathologies.
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reinterpreting reification from the perspective of communicative action, or, in other
words, as a phenomenon of a lifeworld that is invaded by autonomous, norm-free sys-
temic institutions, Habermas places the dimension of intersubjectivity at the center of the
theory of reification. In effect, he argues that reification is comprehensible only as what
he calls the colonization of the lifeworld by systemic rationalization the analysis of
fetish forms is absent. Habermas reinterpretation of reification along these lines, I argue,
has the problematic effect of sharply demarcating the intersubjective realm of the reified
lifeworld from the denormativized sphere of systemic rationalization, without theorizing
the ways in which the two are fundamentally intertwined without recognizing, in
effect, both that the system is far from denormativized, and that the normativity of the
lifeworld is materially constituted. Furthermore, I will show that Honneths attempt to
address the shortcomings of Habermas theory, to set the theory back on its feet as
Honneth puts it,
nevertheless inherits from Habermas a constrained concept of inter-
subjectivity, implicitly generated by some (repressed) version of the opposition between
system and lifeworld, which is ultimately responsible for Honneths narrow understand-
ing of reification.
What Habermas finds insightful in Lukacs is his analysis of reification as a systemic
problem. As long as the production of goods is organized as the production of exchange-
values, which is accompanied by the commodification of labor power itself, economi-
cally relevant action orientations are detached from lifeworld contexts and linked with
the medium of exchange value (or money).
Interaction in such societies is coordinated
through an external mechanism, rather than through the values and norms which prop-
erly characterize the sphere of interaction itself. On Habermas reading, Lukacs insight
is to illuminate the connection between the sphere of the capitalist economy, mediated
through the principle of (exchange-) value, and the deformation of what Habermas calls
the lifeworld, that is, the horizon of communicative, social action.
In Habermas terms,
this connection, which is the core of the phenomenon of reification, can be stated as fol-
lows: The form of objectivity that predominates in capitalist society prejudices the
world-relations, the way in which speaking and acting subjects can relate to things in the
objective, the social, and their own subjective worlds.
Habermas proposes to under-
stand these quasi-objective mechanisms for coordinating action, such as the dimensions
of the economy and the state, with the concept of system. Systemic integration is coor-
dinated not through norms and values, but rather through the denormativized and auton-
omous steering media of money and power. In the system,
The mechanism for coordinating action is itself encountered as something external. Trans-
actions that proceed through the medium of exchange value fall outside of the intersubjec-
tivity of reaching understanding through language; they become something that takes place
in the objective world a pseudonature.
Apparently independent of human intersubjective constitution, the system takes on a
self-grounding, thingly character.
While Habermas credits Lukacs for challenging Max Webers pessimistic diagnosis
of modernity, thereby implying an alternative theory of rationalization, which is not sim-
ply identified with reification, Habermas central critical point is that Lukacs relies on a
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too undifferentiated notion of rationalization. In effect, Habermas claims, Lukacs
analyzes all processes of societal rationalization in light of the generalization of the com-
modity form and the abstraction of exchange. He writes:
As Lukacs takes only one medium into consideration, viz. exchange value, and traces rei-
fication to the abstraction of exchange alone, he interprets all manifestations of Occidental
rationalism as symptoms of a process in which the whole of society is rationalized through
and through.
To give an account of its own normative foundations, Habermas contends, the critique of
reification must appeal to the notion of communicative action in order to comprehend the
standard of communicative rationality as itself inherent to the social lifeworld, even
under conditions of reification.
The main point of Habermas reformulation of Lukacs theory of reification is to dis-
tinguish between systemic components that remain within boundaries, and those sys-
temic mechanisms which force their way into the domains of cultural reproduction,
social integration, and socialization the sphere of the lifeworld.
This overstepping
of boundaries constitutes a colonization of the lifeworld, which, according to
Habermas, refers to a more specific and differentiated notion of reification than the one
Lukacs presents. Systemic integration, which Habermas posits as a functional require-
ment of complex societies, is not in itself problematic, nor does it constitute a form of
reification. It is only when the steering media of the system overstep their boundaries
and penetrate the communicative realm of the lifeworld that the problem of reification
occurs. Habermas concept of society as system and lifeworld therefore aims to under-
stand reification as the colonization of the lifeworld, without resulting in a totalizing
critique of rationalization as such. He can thereby claim that some form of systemic inte-
gration that is, of economy and state will be necessary to all complex societies, as
long as systemic structures do not penetrate the symbolically mediated lifeworld.
His criticisms of Lukacs notwithstanding, Habermas explicitly says that his attempt to
reinterpret the problematic of reification is fundamentally influenced by the Marxian cri-
tique of capitalism. However, it should be clear that his approach diverges in significant
ways from that of Lukacs, particularly with regard to the way in which communicative
action is conceived as immanent to the structures of linguistically mediated interaction:
the critique of reification in capitalist society is rooted in the structures of communica-
tion itself, which contain an ineradicable potential for resistance to the lifeworld-
colonizing systemic structures.
Two concepts of intersubjectivity
Habermas reorientation of critical theory within the terms of a theory of communicative
action forms the horizon of Honneths own reworking of critical theory along the lines of
a theory of recognition. In The Critique of Power, Honneth takes issue with Habermas
conception of the system as a denormativized form of integration, arguing that this posi-
tion obfuscates the ways in which normative structures of interaction are always
embedded in social and political institutions.
Honneths turn to recognition seeks to
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avoid the dualism inherent in Habermas theory, which concedes too much to
systems-theoretic analysis. However, contrary to his own intention, Honneths theory
tends to address the problem by reducing the field of phenomena referred to by
Habermas with the concept of system to the lifeworld, that is, the sphere of social inte-
gration, which, rather than solving the conceptual problem, merely displaces it to a higher
level. This helps to illuminate the curious way in which Honneth theorizes reification with
reference to lifeworld concepts alone, as the forgetfulness of recognition, without account-
ing for the commodity dynamic. Honneths reinterpretation of reification confines the cri-
tique of reification to the plane of a purified intersubjectivity. He therefore does not grasp
the critical core of the concept, whose original intent was precisely to explain the peculiar-
ity of capitalism as a system in which intersubjective relations appear as relations between
non-human objects and thereby exert an abstract form of compulsion upon human action.
In order to recuperate the concept of reification for contemporary political theory,
Honneth is certainly correct that the intersubjective dimensions of reification, which
reveal the normative logic of reification, must be theorized in a more explicit way than
in Lukacs text. However, it becomes clear in the exchange between Lukacs and
Honneth, that two competing notions of intersubjectivity must be differentiated. On the
one hand, Honneth theorizes intersubjectivity on the model of interaction between
individuals: in his theory, recognition is essentially extra-institutional in character.
Institutions (in the most general sense of the word) are not themselves the place of
recognition; recognition takes place in the field of interaction between individuals.
Jean-Philippe Deranty and Emmanuel Renault refer to this as an expressive concept
of recognition, whereby institutions are conceived as an external, rather than internal,
condition of recognition and, indeed, of subjectivation itself.
Institutions can express
or deny recognition, but this very way of figuring the problem tends to render the insti-
tutional contexts of recognition supplementary to, rather than constitutive of, individual
demands for recognition. While Honneths expressive theory of recognition captures the
normative content of demands for recognition, its reliance upon an interactionist concept
of intersubjectivity is less able to grasp the material conditions of social struggles. On the
other hand, the notion of intersubjectivity that can be distilled from Lukacs theory is one
in which institutions, the institution of capital, for example, can be understood as veiled
forms of social relations which are in some sense constituted by intersubjective agency.
Therefore, institutions do not merely express or deny recognition in some way that is
external to their constitution, nor can this concept of intersubjectivity be understood
within the model of interaction that is presupposed by Honneths theory. Lukacs pushes
beyond the terms of the purely interhuman intersubjectivity present in Honneths model,
instead understanding interaction in a thicker sense, which can begin to theorize the
material mediations of intersubjective interaction. Furthermore, the stark dichotomy
between system and lifeworld is explicitly ruled out by the Lukacsian position, insofar
as the critique proceeds by revealing supposedly denormativized systemic structures
to be self-obscuring forms of social relations, which can be criticized insofar as they are,
in some sense, a product of human agency, and thus not merely given, necessary, or
It will perhaps be objected that my attempt to reactualize the critique of reification by
recourse to the Lukacsian model of intersubjectivity harkens back to untenable
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productivist normative presuppositions, which reinstate the long-ago discredited per-
spective of transsubjectivity. My objective, however, is to begin to unsettle the very
assumptions of the communicative turn of critical theory, which have expelled the pro-
ductivist model of intersubjectivity outlined by Lukacs from contemporary debates, as
well as the dimension of materiality along with it. One need not reduce this model of
agency to a pseudo-Hegelian caricature whereby de-reified practice is conceived as
nothing less than mind and world coinciding to take the insight that de-reified practice
will have something to do with making social institutions more reflective of human self-
determination by making individuals conscious of the non-conscious forms of determi-
nation inherent in capitalist institutions. If the critique of reification is to have any
relevance for theorizing political practice oriented toward overcoming social domination
in capitalism, I argue that it must be based on a re-examination of the relation between
intersubjectivity and social institutions.
The materiality of reification
The essence of the fetishism of the commodity, Marx observed, is that a relation between
human beings takes on the form of a relation between things commodities and
thereby assumes an autonomous form that conceals its fundamental basis the social
relations themselves. What is crucial to note in this formulation is that while fetishism
surely involves a certain kind of misrecognition that is, the misrecognition of the social
relation masked by the relation between things it is not limited to this misrecognition.
Moreover, what is rendered thing-like is not only other persons although through the
commodification and mechanization of labor power this is also true. More fundamen-
tally, it is the social relation itself that is rendered thing-like, objective and apparently
immutable. To develop this point further, fetishism, as Marx theorized it, takes place
at the level of social reality itself that is, in the social activity of commodity exchange.
Although the fetish is an abstraction, it has an objective existence.
We could under-
stand this point in terms of Alfred Sohn-Rethels remark: What the commodity owners
do in the exchange relation is practical solipsism regardless of what they think and say
about it.
Or as Slavoj Zizek humorously puts it, in capitalist society, individuals are
fetishists in practice, not in theory.
This is to underscore the crucial point of the mate-
riality of reified social practice. Lukacs analyzes the phenomena of reification in terms
of the mutually constitutive dimensions of subjectivity and objectivity.
Reification is a
form of practice that stands in a relation of mutual constitution to the fetish forms of cap-
ital. Lukacs connects an analysis of the rationalization of the labor process and the
abstraction and commodification of labor with a theory of the ways in which human con-
sciousness becomes progressively contemplative, passive, and unable to comprehend the
dimension of human agency inherent in the dynamic of capitalism, which would provide
the only means by which the autonomous form of capitalist domination could be over-
come. I contrast this to Honneths way of addressing the status of macro-social settings,
which contends that economic processes, for example, are not only normatively but also
factually embedded in the normatively structured social order.
With his theory of
recognition, Honneth grasps crucial dimensions of the normative order of capitalist
social relations, but he does so at the cost of neglecting the material constitution of those
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relations. This has implications for the relevance of his critique of reification to
contemporary political theory.
Toward a political critique of reification
Habermas, Honneths, and Lukacs critiques of reification imply different ways of
thinking the political through the lens of reification, and I will now delineate the
respective critical models to which they point. I argue that aspects of Honneths theory
of reification can be useful in thinking a political critique of reification when taken in
conjunction with, rather than against, Lukacs theory.
Habermas reorientation of reification through the concepts of system and lifeworld
theorizes reification as the effect of systemic mechanisms impinging upon intersubjec-
tive relations, which should rightfully be directed by communication oriented toward
reaching mutual understanding. For Habermas, then, reification is not simply a projec-
tion of the lifeworld. However, with the conceptual dichotomization of society into sys-
tem and lifeworld, the critical dialectical character of the Lukascian analysis is lost.
Habermas interprets the system as a denormativized structure, rather than as Lukacs had
theorized it, as an autonomized structure, whose normativity is veiled. Furthermore, with
his functionalist theory of society as a system, Habermas theory implicitly takes the
existing forms of economy and state as necessary, and therefore cannot put forth a trans-
formative politics. By collapsing the realms of the economy and state into the category of
the system, Habermas cedes the theoretical basis for grounding a conception of radical
participatory democracy, that is, a de-autonomized form of politics for such a form of
true democracy would be unthinkable as a political system, in Habermas terms.
As a
consequence, Habermas understanding of the political-theoretic significance of the con-
cept of reification is limited: he can only understand social movements that mobilize
against forms of reification as boundary-defending forms of politics, which guard against
the invasion of the lifeworld rather than transforming the systemic structures that reify
the lifeworld.
Honneths theory of reification is ambiguous in terms of its implications for a political
theory of reification. On one hand, I contend that Honneths move away from the anal-
ysis of systemic rationalization that was central to Habermas analysis is a fruitful
direction for the political critique of reification. Honneth rejects the functionalist notion
of a de-normativized systemic structure at the core of Habermas account, thereby pro-
viding a pluralized account of reification that is not simply confined to the boundary-
defending reflexes of agents in the lifeworld. Instead, the specific causes and sites of
various instances of the forgetfulness of recognition must be separately investigated,
in order to discover in each case how such forgetting is systematically enabled. Honneth
writes: If the core of every form of reification consists in forgetfulness of recognition,
then its social causes must be sought in the practices or mechanisms that enable and sus-
tain this kind of forgetting.
In that case, Honneths theory would not seem to rule out
an analysis of the relation between the general structuring principles of society and the
corresponding and mutually constitutive intersubjective phenomena of reification in
effect, a project similar to the one Lukacs attempted. Yet at many other points in the
text, the forgetfulness of recognition is viewed primarily as a cognitive process, and
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so what is needed is an account of how the cognitive process can cause our antecedent
recognition to be forgotten.
At such moments, Honneth seems to reduce the phenom-
enon of reification to the realm of affective intersubjective relations alone, ruling out an
account of the mediation of social relations with the structures that constitute them. Even
in terms of Honneths own theoretical trajectory, the focus on the affective identification
of humans with significant others as the basis for a norm of de-reified forms of social
practice lacks the political connotations of the earlier struggle for recognition. In Hon-
neths work on reification, the lack of participatory engagement delineated by the con-
cept of Teilnahmslosigkeit denotes that the primary, active, recognitive stance of the
human being has merely been forgotten, but it is far from clear how this forgetting could
be significant for social theory or political theory. When decoupled from the critique of
fetishism, one must ask whether the concept of reification retains the necessary concep-
tual force for illuminating contemporary democratic politics.
A serious consideration of this question cannot ignore the strengths of Honneths
approach, which bring to the fore the crucial normative dimension of the critique of rei-
fication, admittedly undertheorized and only implicit in Lukacs account. Furthermore,
I would argue that foregrounding the concept of Teilnahmslosigkeit, as Honneth does,
should be central to the attempt to think the significance of de-reification as a normative
standard of political practice in political theory. Focusing on the lack of participatory
involvement characteristic of reification, this approach could point toward a critique that
searches for points of intervention in autonomized social processes, translating them into
the logic of the political or in Honneths terms, into the normative logic of recognition
by grasping social and economic structures in light of their potential transformation.
However, this promising line of inquiry is not pursued by Honneth in his study. His anal-
ysis indicates the possibility of articulating the normative logic of reification, but a polit-
ical critique of reification would need to focus on the point of translation between the
normative level of the theory of recognition and the social-theoretic analysis of the struc-
ture of capitalism, without reducing capitalism to a system in the Habermasian sense.
Insofar as Honneth speaks of the structure of capitalism at all, however, he tends to
operate with a rather problematic understanding of its processes, claiming, for example,
that even seemingly anonymous economic processes are determined by normative
This has left Honneth vulnerable to the charge for example, by Nancy Fraser
that he reduces the processes of capitalism to its order of recognition.
Frasers cri-
tique raises the important question of whether Honneth grants any exteriority to the rec-
ognition order of capitalism, or rather whether capitalism is ultimately no more than its
recognition order.
Honneth has described his project as guided by a kind of moral
monism, which argues that any normatively substantial social theory must discover
principles of normative integration in the institutionalized spheres of society that open
up the prospect of desirable improvements.
In other words, as Honneth argues in The
Struggle for Recognition, recognition is the moral grammar of social conflict. There-
fore, even struggles that make claims for redistribution in the terms of class struggle,
or in anti-capitalism terms, presuppose a moral logic of recognition as the basis of claims
to redistribution. Marxist theory, according to Honneth, tends to sacrifice the logic of
recognition to a metapolitical theory of the dynamics of capital to secure its scientific
claims. This is self-contradictory, he claims, insofar as it must simultaneously conceive
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of the very same processes as strongly dependent on value-mediated communication in
order to accommodate immanent moral demands for redistribution within them.
this sense, one might translate Honneths thesis to say that recognition denotes the struc-
ture of political emancipation as such, one which refuses the distinction made by the
young Marx between political and human emancipation.
To that end, Honneth might
claim that contrary to the hesitations raised above about the relevance of a recognition-
theoretic concept of reification to theorizing politics today, only a theory of reification
retranslated in this way can provide an account of the immanent logic of politics.
Honneth concedes that his theory of the capitalist recognition order
. . . is, of course, not sufficient to explain the dynamics of developmental processes in
contemporary capitalism. But it is only meant to make clear the normative constraints
embedded in such processes because subjects face them with certain expectation of
The recognition-theoretic approach thus appears to be an assertion of the autonomy of
politics, posed in the terms of a normative social theory.
Ultimately, I want to argue that by decoupling the critique of reification from the cri-
tique of fetishism, Honneth reinforces a problematic separation between the economic
and the political, which renders the theory unable to grasp the breadth of emancipatory
political struggles today, limiting politics to the logic of recognition without taking into
account the dimensions of political movements that struggle for transformation of the
existing structure of socio-economic relations. Nevertheless, I contend that Honneths
pluralized understanding of the social mechanisms of reification suggests a fruitful way
of comprehending a politics of de-reification, provided that it resists Honneths tendency
to absorb material structures of domination fully within a lifeworld concept and to oper-
ate with a purified concept of intersubjectivity. Honneths pluralized account of reifica-
tion, which begins with the diverse experiences of reification, can be used to expand the
Lukacsian account, which contends that the experience of reification is only comprehen-
sible as such from the perspective of an analysis of totality. A truly political critique of
reification would theorize more adequately the transition between these two moments to
delineate the structure of de-reified practice.
With the idea of a political critique of reification I seek to push beyond the terms of
Frasers and Honneths debate in Redistribution or Recognition?, which tended to grasp
anti-capitalist struggles as struggles over redistribution, thereby misrecognizing their
potentially transformative character by construing their claims as claims posed primarily
in the terms of distributive justice. Anti-capitalist struggles against neo-liberal globaliza-
tion, for example, make claims that go beyond the demand for social recognition within
existing institutions and institutionalized principles of legitimation and distribution, even
if they are indeed motivated by feelings of social disrespect.
Take the example of the
landless workers movement (MST) in Brazil, which has organized massive occupations
of land for use by displaced rural populations, expropriating more than 50,000 square
kilometers of land for use by landless families. The logic of this movement cannot be
reduced to a claim for social recognition, although this is obviously an important dimen-
sion of the struggle. Beyond the claim for recognition, the landless workers struggle
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against the institution of private property itself, setting up democratically organized rural
cooperatives of agricultural producers on occupied lands.
The structure of politiciza-
tion in this movement invokes a translation from the analysis of capitalist domination
to the forms of intersubjective practice that could alter those structures into de-reified
political forms. Similarly, the Water Wars against the privatization and commodifica-
tion of public water in Bolivia, in India, and in other parts of the world are yet another
example that suggests that many political struggles today cannot be comprehended
solely within the logic of recognition, nor can they be reduced to claims of redistribution.
These are struggles against reification and they highlight the importance of a critique of
reification that takes into account both the intersubjective and material dimensions of
reification to theorizing democratic struggles in the present.
I am grateful to Patchen Markell, Axel Honneth, Moishe Postone, John McCormick, Jacinda
Swanson, and J. J. McFadden, for their suggestions on an earlier draft of this article, as well as
to the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for fellowship support and the Institut fur
Sozialforschung, Frankfurt am Main for office space during the writing of this article.
1. On the neo-liberal articulation of the economy and politics, see Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism as
Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
2006); David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press,
2005); and Luc Boltanski, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005).
2. Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, in Georg Lukacs, History and Class Con-
sciousness; Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. R. Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
3. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. B. Fowkes (New York: Vintage
Books, 1977).
4. See Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marxs Crit-
ical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), part II, ch. 4, pp. 12383.
5. Certainly Marxs early writings focus on the question of the subjective stance of the worker in
relation to the object of labor; however, his analysis there is not posed in the terms of a critique
of commodity fetishism.
6. On this point see Theodor W. Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture
(London: Routledge, 1991) and Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone
Books, 1994).
7. Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, p. 90.
8. Axel Honneth, Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea, ed. Martin Jay (Oxford: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 2008). On the term social philosophy, which is somewhat different than political
philosophy or social philosophy, in Honneths usage, see Axel Honneth, Pathologies of the
Social: The Past and Present of Social Philosophy, in The Handbook of Critical Theory (Cam-
bridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), pp. 36998.
9. Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, Redistribution or Recognition?: A Political-Philosophical
Exchange (London: Verso, 2003).
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10. Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995).
11. Axel Honneth, Redistribution as Recognition, in Redistribution or Recognition? (New York:
Verso, 2003), p. 132.
12. ibid., p. 134.
13. Axel Honneth, The Point of Recognition, in Redistribution or Recognition? (New York:
Verso, 2003), pp. 2501.
14. For a discussion of social-ontological critique, see Honneth, Pathologies of the Social.
15. Honneth, Reification, p. 24.
16. The Heideggerian inflection of Honneths reading of Lukacs is noteworthy, although I will not
deal with this theme in this article. In addition to Honneths chapter (ch. 2) on Heidegger and
Dewey in the original German version of the work, Axel Honneth, Verdinglichung: Eine aner-
kennungstheoretische Studie, 2nd edn (Suhrkamp, 2005), see Lucien Goldmann, Luk acs and
Heidegger: Towards a New Philosophy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977).
17. Honneth, Reification, p. 27.
18. ibid., p. 31.
19. ibid., p. 36.
20. ibid., pp. 416.
21. On this point see Seyla Benhabib, Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of
Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
22. See John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition,
Revolutionary Studies series (London: Routledge, 1998); Michael Lowy, Georg Luk acs:
From Romanticism to Bolshevism (London: NLB, 1979).
23. Friedrich Pollock, State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations, in Critical Theory and
Society: A Reader, ed. Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner (New York: Routledge,
1989), pp. 95118.
24. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Frag-
ments, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).
25. See Seyla Benhabib, The Origins of Defetishizing Critique, in Critique, Norm, and Utopia:
A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986),
pp. 4469.
26. Jurgen Habermas, Excursus on the Obsolescence of the Production Paradigm, in The Philo-
sophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), p. 82.
27. On the distinction between labor and interaction, see Jurgen Habermas, Labor and Interaction:
Remarks on Hegels Jena Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. Viertel (Boston, MA: Beacon
Press, 1973), pp. 2678. Before Habermas, Hannah Arendt proposed this distinction explicitly
in contrast to the Marxian concept of labor. See Hannah Arendt, Karl Marx and the Tradition
of Western Political Thought, in Social Research 69(2) (Summer 2002): 273319.
28. Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1, Reason and the Rationaliza-
tion of Society (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984), p. xxxii.
29. Honneth, The Point of Recognition, p. 242.
30. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1, p. 358.
31. On the concept of the lifeworld, see Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action,
vol. 2, Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason (Boston, MA: Beacon Press,
1987), pt VI.
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32. ibid., p. 359.
33. ibid., p. 358.
34. ibid., p. 360.
35. ibid., p. 374.
36. Axel Honneth, The Critique of Power: Reflective Stages in a Critical Social Theory, trans. K.
Baynes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).
37. Jean-Philippe Deranty and Emmanuel Renault, Politicizing Honneths Ethics of Recogni-
tion, in Thesis Eleven 88 (February 2007): 99100.
38. For a fascinating working-out of this thought, which shows the specific way in which Marx
sought to expose Hegels logical categories as categories of social existence, see Lucio
Colletti, Marxism and Hegel, trans. L. Garner (London: NLB, 1973).
39. Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Geistige Und K~ orperliche Arbeit: Zur Epistemologie Der Abendl~ an-
dischen Geschichte (Weinheim: VCH, 1989), p. 37 [my translation].
40. Slavoj Z

izek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), p. 31.

41. Luk~acs, History and Class Consciousness, p. 84.
42. Honneth, The Point of Recognition, p. 256.
43. On this point see Thomas McCarthy, Complexity and Democracy: or the Seducements of
Systems Theory, in Communicative Action: Essays on Jurgen Habermass Theory of
Communicative Action, ed. Axel Honneth and Hans Joas, trans. J. Gaines and D. L. Jones
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991). Whether my critique is applicable to Habermas later
works, in particular Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), which does not focus on reification, cannot be addressed
44. Honneth, Reification, p. 79.
45. ibid., p. 58.
46. On this point see Deranty and Renault, Politicizing Honneths Ethics of Recognition. They
note that Honneth makes a conscious effort to avoid referring to it [his theory] as a politics of
recognition, and that while His reluctance to discuss the political and his focus on the ethical
has good reasons within his theory, his avoidance of the political is symptomatic of a weak-
ness (p. 92).
47. One brilliant attempt at such an analysis is Kojin Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).
48. Honneth, The Point of Recognition, p. 254 (emphasis added); one exception to this tendency
is an article delineating the new research program of the Institute for Social Research in Frank-
furt am Main, where Honneth and Martin Hartmann present a concrete theory of the para-
doxes of capitalism, in which a certain kind of structural analysis plays a greater role. See
Martin Hartmann and Axel Honneth, Paradoxes of Capitalism, in Constellations 13(1)
(2006): 4158.
49. See both of Nancy Frasers contributions to Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-
Philosophical Exchange (London: Verso, 2003), for a discussion of this criticism. For a
thorough discussion of the way in which Honneths theory constitutes a response to the
shortcomings of historical materialism, which nevertheless tends to overcompensate for
these shortcomings and thereby to repress the material mediations with which intersubjective
interactions are mediated, see Jean-Philippe Deranty, Repressed Materiality: Retrieving the
Materialism in Axel Honneths Theory of Recognition, in Critical Horizons 7(1) (2006):
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11340. See also Jean-Philippe Deranty, Les horizons marxistes de lethique de la reconnais-
sance, in Actuel Marx 38 (2005): 15978.
50. While I concur with Frasers critique, I disagree with her argument that a two-front strategy
that combines analysis of recognition and redistribution into one normative model suffices to
solve the problem. In my framework, reification undercuts the binary between redistribution
and recognition, which remains trapped within the framework of a liberal democratic politics.
51. Honneth, The Point of Recognition, p. 254.
52. ibid.
53. In this regard, Honneths theory of recognition looks surprisingly more like Jacques
Rancie`res autonomous conception of politics than is immediately apparent, although
Rancie`re would reject the strong moral overtones of Honneths theory of social struggle as
well as Honneths Hegelian conception of moral progress. What is somewhat similar in both
theories is the focus on the experiential dimension of the political, as well as the delineation of
the structure of emancipation demands for equality, although expressed in economic or
social terms, contain an immanent political/ethical logic that is not reducible to the economic
or sociological dimensions of the struggles. See Jacques Rancie`re, Disagreement: Politics and
Philosophy, trans. J. Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). For Rancie`res
own discussion of the relation of his theory to the theory of recognition, see Max Blechman,
Anita Chari, and Rafeeq Hasan, Democracy, Dissensus and the Aesthetics of Class Struggle:
an Exchange with Jacques Rancie`re, in Historical Materialism 13(4) (November 2005):
285301. See also Jean-Philippe Deranty, Jacques Rancie`res Contribution to the Ethics of
Recognition, in Political Theory 31(1) (2003): 13656.
54. Honneth, The Point of Recognition, p. 250.
55. For a discussion of this point, see E

tienne Balibar, Three Concepts of Politics: Emancipation,

Transformation, Civility, in Politics and the Other Scene, trans. C. Jones, J. Swenson and C.
Turner (London: Verso, 2002), pp. 139.
56. Nancy Fraser has recently addressed this issue with her theory of abnormal justice, which
diagnoses the contemporary situation as one in which the very metapolitical conditions of
justice, that is, its subjects, institutional sites and norms of adjudication, are themselves
placed radically in question. See Nancy Fraser, Abnormal Justice, in Scales of Justice:
Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World (New York: Columbia University Press,
2008), pp. 4875.
57. For a discussion of this movement see David McNally, Another World is Possible: Globaliza-
tion & Anti-capitalism (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2006), especially ch. 6. See also
Sue Branford and Jan Rocha, Cutting the Wire: The Story of the Landless Movement in Brazil
(London: Latin American Bureau, 2002), esp. part II and part IV; and George Meszaros,
Taking the Law into Their Hands: The Landless Workers Movement and the Brazilian
State, in Journal of Law and Society 27(4) (2000): 51741.
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