Review essay: Identifying recognition in the age of neo-liberalism

Jonathan Trejo- Mathys
J. W. Goethe Universitat, Germany

Philosophy and Social Criticism 000(00) 1–6 ª The Author(s) 2010 Reprints and permission: DOI: 10.1177/0191453710379034

´ ´ Emmanuel Renault, Le mepris social: ethique et politique de la reconnaissance, 2nd edn (Paris: Editions de passant, 2004) Emmanuel Renault, a scholar of German Idealism and Marx and a critical theorist in his own right, has worked to promote the recognition-theoretical turn in France, complementing recent work by the late Paul Ricoeur. When Axel Honneth’s The Struggle for Recognition (a translation of the German original Kampf um Anerkennung) was published in 1995, some reviewers greeted it as the most promising attempt to develop the tradition of critical social theory beyond the lines along which Jurgen Habermas has ¨ taken it in his long and prolific career. Peter Dews’ blurb on the back cover of the book, for instance, hailed it as a ‘major step’ towards a ‘‘‘post-linguistic’’ paradigm’ for critical theory. The notions of recognition and identity at play in Honneth’s seminal work have received a great deal of attention in Anglophone political theory since Charles Taylor’s famous essay on the ‘politics of recognition’. That two very visible mainstream figures such as Amy Gutmann (Identity in Democracy, 2004) and Kwame Appiah (The Ethics of Identity, 2005) have each recently published books on identity shows that there is no sign that this trend has come to a close. Other notable philosophers on the continent besides Honneth, Ricouer and Renault have taken up these notions as well. The Spanish philosopher Carlos Thiebault, in his very interesting La historia del nombrar: dos episodios en la historia de la subjetividad (Madrid: Visor, 1990) has developed a reading of modern ‘identity’ explicitly meant to be serviceable for a critical history of the present. Emmanuel Renault’s slim, economically argued book will come as a welcome contribution to this literature. It manages to touch on some of the important issues that Honneth’s

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but in this case it is not clear that Kant denies it. by adjectives like ´ ‘true’ (veritable). The second criticism. Metaphysical Elements of Justice [Rechtslehre]. in a time of nearly omnipresent de-regulation. ideological (read ‘neo-liberal’) fashion via a ‘triple process’: political norms are reduced to technical norms. For Kant was perhaps the first author to justify the entrance into a political community from a state of nature not on naturalist grounds. is related to this trend. as in Plato and Aristotle. Renault begins his book with a deft. Renault seems to accept these criticisms of Kantian approaches. the Hegelian and the Marxian traditions. It seems to me. of course. In this way it both breaks some new ground and also reveals in a starker form some of the major problems with the proposed paradigm-shift to a theory of recognition. (2) in addition. and thus leaves the negative thrust of Hegel’s philosophy as it stands. It tells her that she must herself exert effective control over the conditions of her personal and social life. state of nature (cf. Renault makes the very interesting suggestion that the sudden explosion of the demand for and interest in ‘business ethics’. and not yet an objection itself with any content. but on expressly moral grounds. The first is simply a description of an objection. though familiar. There is. as in the case of Hobbes and arguably Locke as well. has finally been addressed by Kantians.) As alternatives to this ‘new liberal common sense’ (14) view of politics. This exaggeration of the significance of personal morality makes an impossible demand on the individual. While the second and third objections provide content. no shortage of ethical and political theorists in the roughly Kantian vein. social diagnosis of contemporary society. the third seems plausible only when freedom and liberty are qualified. however. 2 .1 So it is not clear that Renault’s objections to Kantian moral theory have the desired force. §§ 8–9). which Renault acerbically names ‘la vague morale’. Renault makes clear that he is interested in extending the latter two traditions. towards the reduction of all social pathologies to moral categories understood in a particular. If ‘true freedom’ means ‘freedom in its fullest form’. (In passing. He presents very briefly some characteristically Hegelian criticisms of the Kantian view of politics: (1) it treats politics as the mere application of moral rules to social institutions or concerted action. as Renault does indeed qualify them. however. that only the second criticism touches the nerve of Kantian approaches. Renault mentions the Kantian. while it diverts her from the traditional political avenues of collective action that made such control possible in the past (14). who often deny that Kant was unaware of the point. In this he can be seen as joining Honneth in the attempt to bring some balance into a critical theory that has become so heavily ballasted towards the Kantian side that it is threatening to merge with the liberal stream in political philosophy. or prudential grounds. then perhaps the statement as it stands is sound. social problems are reduced to moral problems. There is a trend. is only possible in a political community (33–4). moral rules do not have a determinate content in abstraction from social institutions and practices. and moral problems are reduced to matters of individual responsibility (13). both in and out of university settings.2 Philosophy and Social Criticism 000(00) earlier (and subsequent) work left open. and (3) the realization of freedom or autonomy. in the sense that there is a rationally derived moral obligation to enter into a legally defined political community with other human beings to escape the lawless. and thus inevitably unjust. effectively becoming a minor variant of it. which is the content of moral norms.

and the overriding practical project is that of emancipation. while supplementing their more academic and theoretical sketches with a rich array of sociological and political applications to contemporary society drawing on some recent. how do we combine both adequate.Mathys 3 The positive element that Renault. According to Renault. itself incorporating and reworking the Kantian idea of freedom. Renault writes that ‘if the critique of the existing order can no longer be founded on history. both private property and communism are compatible with the categorical imperative). it must necessarily be based on moral norms’ (35). both positively in the striving for recognition. universal moral norms and enough concrete contact with social and political reality to give practical political guidance in one and the same theory? Renault’s own proposed answer to this question is an ethics of recognition that largely follows the work of Honneth and Ricoeur. The grounding of these moral norms cannot be Kantian. Both of these are said to depend upon intersubjective relations of recogsoi-me nition as their necessary conditions. however. The simultaneous rejection of the philosophy of history and Kant has consequences. Without recognition one cannot develop a positive relation to oneself. What he adds to this general 3 . like Honneth. then. or an understanding of oneself as one among others meriting equal respect. (2) the belief that one’s action depends on oneself. and esteem (estime de soi-me (3) a positive self-relation that lends (a) value to an intended action and (b) an ability to see that action as a realization of oneself (37). is to answer the following question: ‘How do we define an ethics that allows us to measure the injustice of society according to moral norms and at the same time directly leads to its denunciation and to political struggle for the realization of those norms?’ (35). Social conditions that hinder such interpersonal relationships. however. for according to Renault the moral norms we find in the Kantian approach are so abstract and indeterminate that they permit. defined as a ‘mastery of the subjective contribution [investissement] to actions and the capacity of finding oneself ` in action’. Renault aims to elaborate an ‘anthropology’ of politics and morality (76). and contemporary critical theory. Renault’s guiding theoretical ideal is that of freedom or autonomy. informative work by writers in other disciplines like Bourdieu and his collaborators. the justification and the denunciation of one and the same practice (as Hegel pointed out. and (2) the afore-mentioned positive form of self-relation [rapport positif a ˆme] (38). and negatively in the instinctive protest against misrecognition (what Strawson very aptly named ‘reactive attitudes’). In doing this. In other words. Two fundamental presuppositions or leading concepts of the entire approach are (1) autonomy. Renault is a faithful follower of Honneth in that he claims there are three basic forms of recognition (love. must be reconstructed on other grounds than the implausible philosophy of history underlying the systems of Hegel and Marx. Given these commitments the task Renault sets himself. self-esteem). and this inhibits the development of autonomy. So the Hegelian-Marxian model. and Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski. for instance. cut at the very root of what makes moral personality possible. on reasonable understandings. respect. social esteem) that yield corresponding forms of selfrelation (self-confidence. the three conditions of moral action are (1) a certain form of selfˆme). and are both unjust and debilitating. seems to retain from Hegel is the insight into the social character of recognition and its motivational power. self-respect. like Kant. Robert Castel. and like the entire tradition of critical theory. Still.

if one is successfully to have a life of one’s own. The different biographical strata of the triadic scheme of self-relations must be narratively unified if they are to have a concrete form in an identity. We desire positive self-relations because they are necessary for full autonomy. says Renault. who would have to be in a position to ‘recognize’ such a narrative. that is. and disposed to do so. is a set of ‘feelings of protest’ (affects protestataires) discoverable in the social and political realm.4 Philosophy and Social Criticism 000(00) framework is a Ricoeurian element in the form of a concept of narrative identity. Which brings me to what seems to be a crucial point. there must be a theoretical element that yields (1) a justification of the claims 4 . The question I have just raised concerning the justification of autonomy as the guiding normative concept in the theory crops up again in another way. Kantians like Korsgaard and O’Neill have made Kantianism seem rather more Hegelian. Autonomy here occupies two places within the theory. but it would seem that there may be more of Kant lurking around in the background than its Hegelian-Marxian rhetoric seems to indicate. Renault claims that any critical political theory requires two elements (58–9). and perhaps for this reason. This hunch is backed up by a trend in recent Hegel scholarship. and the forms of recognition that help us develop these are justified insofar as they enable the development of autonomy. in Honneth’s terms. In a complemenary fashion. For these reasons. But why should we develop autonomy? Why is autonomy the guiding concept here? I am not sure what the theory of recognition’s answer to this question is. but also our desire to be recognized as the particular individual we are beneath the masks of the different identities or roles we bear in social life (79–80). In an interesting passage. Second. On the front end. it is an achievement requiring the appropriate forms of recognition and positive self-relations. stressing the importance of notions like ‘practical identity’ (Korsgaard) and the ‘embodiment’ of universal norms in social practices (O’Neill). the need for recognition does not just express the desire to have our dignity as a human being recognized. Still. only their narrative unification is sufficient. the theory might imply rather implausible. society. this use of narrative does seem to be another way that Renault links the establishment of positive self-relations to the achievement of autonomy. With regard to personal identity. or an ‘intact identity’. Renault states that while the three basic forms of recognition and their requisite social conditions are necessary conditions for the constitution of personal identity. In addition. using Marx’s phrase. who would have to shoulder the responsibility of articulating such a coherent narrative – not a simple task for everyone. unless some of its proponents come up with a novel argument. it is the normative justification for the value placed on those forms of positive self-relation. and on (2) others. This would seem to place rather strenuous demands both on (1) individuals. Renault says that it consists of ‘the ensemble of enduring [durables] representations of ourselves in which the value of our own existence consists’ (78). as the ‘weapon of critique’. More and more scholars are stressing that Hegel is in fact quite a bit more Kantian than it was common to recognize a few decades ago. claims about the requirements for a good. let alone just. It would seem that this last claim entails that recognition of who we are involves the recognition of some relatively coherent and concrete narrative of our lives. and certainly very controversial. On the back end. I suspect that the justification of autonomy as the telos of the anthropology of the theory of recognition will require a rather familiar Kantian line of thought. Depending on what these two processes involve. These serve. First.

as shown already by Fichte and Hegel. I believe this is a welcome development. So. high rates of drug abuse and violent crime and/or gang activity in the banlieues of Paris are ways of escaping from the hell of misrecognition. we confront the question of justification in a stark form. This would be. as Renault notes. to provide us with a clearer exposition and defense of the normative foundations of a critical theory based on these concepts. Far too often the issue of normative justification was suppressed and tacitly absorbed by theses about the logic of history that supposedly guaranteed the victory (via revolution) of the interests in whose name social criticism was made. What seems important to me in this reading of the tasks of a critical theory is that it brings psychology. The objection is that the norms provided by recognition are both too restrictive and too wide (63). To the worry that the norms are too wide. There are forms of domination accepted by those who feel recognized. or dictatorial regimes. along with Honneth and others. They are too restrictive because universal fulfillment of the desire for recognition would not rule out the existence of domination. or critical theorists who are deploying the notion of identity as a central concept. While the avoidance of the perils of philosophical-historical theses that are ambitious and difficult to verify is all to the good. the focus on justification and an attempt to assess the reasonable chances of success helps to prevent any return to the excesses of the philosophy of history of earlier generations of Marxism and critical theory. So here again. The norms one can derive from the necessary and constitutive conditions of recognition thus normatively underdetermine the range of social orders that can meet them. back into the center of our attention. The onus is on the theorists of recognition. like Honneth. and hence become a form of Humean moral sentiment theory. ultimately anti-realist with respect to moral norms? Renault does helpfully deal with two criticisms of recognition theory. Critical theorists have one option in Habermas’ universal pragmatics and the discourse ethics he has developed along with Apel. or Charles Taylor. these cases are in general caused by extreme deprivation or misrecognition. Renault. One can imagine how such a desire could lead to socialist. What can assure us that some of the social orders that exist within this range are not unjust on independently plausible principles of justice? Renault responds to the first worry by saying that while there are indeed circumstances in which resistance does not appear despite apparent relations of domination. Renault. for instance. How does it differ from Habermas? How does it differ from contemporary analytic Kantianism? How does it avoid overemphasizing the role of feeling and sentiment. or who apparently do not care about recognition. 5 .Mathys 5 embedded in these feelings and (2) a perspective that shows how action in accordance with these feelings can possibly succeed. given the general character of the problems. In addition. Psychology had moved to the periphery of critical theory in the systematic treatises Habermas wrote after he took his own version of the linguistic turn. Renault replies that the logic of recognition. feelings that are taken to justify political action must themselves be justified. feudal. liberal. though not at as great length as one might have wished. is pushing for its explicit reintroduction. They are too wide because the desire for recognition can lead to lots of different constellations of interpersonal relations and social orders. and this justification will only go as far as the importance of autonomy and the need for an ‘intact’ identity go. the ‘critique of weapons’. or in which the victims of domination appear to accept their condition. again following Marx. Thiebault. both social and individual.

individualistic – point of view by Jon Garthoff. the sense of ‘private’ being used here must be very carefully specified if it is not to be used in such a way as to imply undesirable moral and political consequences. According to this argument. At the very least. of course. Reservations concerning this claim seem to be related to the fact that Renault does not make the ‘formal conception of ethical life’ clearer than it was in Honneth’s original. though he disagrees about the range of social orders allowed by the normative standards that can be derived from it. He claims that it is incompatible with ‘neo-liberalism’ (69). Notes 1. moral theory is incomplete without social theory. though from a rather non-Hegelian – i. It has been recently reformulated. and this unclarity seeps into the claims Renault derives from that conception. He also claims that it requires a subordination of private autonomy to public autonomy. rather vague formulation. 6 . a former student of Barbara Herman’s. Renault falls back upon Honneth’s quite problematic idea of a ‘formal conception of ethical life’. who is developing a line of thought also found in Onora O’Neill’s work. Habermas has already made a very strong case that public and private autonomy depend upon and even imply each other. Lastly. This seems to me to be a step backwards. one being favored to the detriment of another in particular situations on the basis of case-by-case political judgments that are the stuff of everyday legislation. see his article ‘The Embodiment Thesis’. which is quite a different matter).6 Philosophy and Social Criticism 000(00) is strictly egalitarian. The reader must decide how satisfactory these replies are.e. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 7(1) (2004): 15–29. but perhaps most disappointingly. All forms of intersubjective recognition that involve lasting inequality or domination lead to social institutions that are unstable for conceptual (or ‘quasi-transcendental’) reasons. extra-socially valid moral values or norms leave the obligations of individuals indeterminate until they are ‘embodied’ in social institutions or schemes of collective action: put otherwise. and that therefore there can be no question of subordinating one to the other in any general way (as opposed to.