Academic journal article Capital & Class

Honneth's Social-Democratic Turn?

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Honneth's Social-Democratic Turn?

Article excerpt

Honneth's social-democratic turn?

Christopher F. Zurn

Axel Honneth: A Critical Theory of the Social, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015; Viii + 257 pp.: ISBN 9780745686806, AUD$30.99 (pbk)

Perhaps the most peculiar thing about Zurn's book on Axel Honneth is its cover--the terracotta warriors of China. Neither Zurn, nor Honneth, nor the Frankfurt School, nor critical theory, nor the theory of recognition or 'freedom's right' have the remotest to do with China, warriors, armies, ancient rulers, and terracotta. Nonetheless, Zurn retells Honneth's version of critical theory in minute detail, outlining Honneth's 'struggle for recognition', his diagnosis of social pathologies, recognition and market, as well as social freedom and recognition. With the struggle for recognition, the social-democratic Hegelian Honneth has surely established himself as the main representative of the 'third generation of critical theorists' (p. 1) after Adorno, Horkeimer, Marcuse, and so forth being the first, and Habermas the second.

In his brief biography, Zurn notes that Honneth was born in Essen, growing up in the 'bourgeois milieu' of Horst Honneth, his father a 'medical doctor' (p. 2) even though medical doctors are hardly bourgeois--perhaps petit-bourgeois. Essen's unchallenged bourgeoisie remains the staunchly reactionary war mongering, Nazi supporting, and Jewish prison labour using--and abusing--Krupp family. But soon the 1949-born Axel Honneth moved from Essen to nearby Bochum and later to Berlin and Frankfurt to become the 'director of the Institute for Social Research' (p. 3)--critical theory's main institution. Zurn writes that critical theory must also have a practical purpose' (p. 5) even though one might be somewhat hard pressed to find such a 'practical purpose' in, for example, Adorno's (1944) seminal masterpiece 'Minima Moralia'. Beyond that, Zurn notes that Honneth 'has consistently tied his recognition theory to issues of political economy' (p. 9), albeit political economy remains rather marginal in Honneth's recognition work and even more marginal in his Freedom's Right.

On the latter, Zurn emphasizes that Freedom's Right is a 'monumental book' attempting nothing less than a contemporary re-actualization of Hegel's 1820 ambitious project, the 'Philosophy of Right' (p. 10). Surely, anyone aiming to measure up to Hegel has set himself a most formidable task. Yet this does not seem to have created an awareness that Hegel--unlike Honneth--was not only aware of the current literature on the political economy of his time but also--again unlike Honneth--critically reflected on it. If Hegel himself would have undertaken such a 're-actualisation (Honneth) himself, he might have included at least some of the political economy literature that occurred since 'Philosophy of Right' (1821) in a book on 'freedom's right'. One author that Hegel would most likely have included in such a project could have been that of one of his prime pupils by the name of Karl Marx and perhaps Karl Polanyi, Keynes, Schumpeter, Immauel Wallerstein, Leo Panitch, Kenneth Galbraith, Barbara Ehrenreich, David Harvey, Joseph Stiglitz, and so forth. But despite Zurn's claims, Honneth's work remains weak on this.

Nevertheless, it remains true that 'the most influential single thinker for Honneth is undoubtedly Hegel [as Honneth] follows Hegel's lead rather than Kant' (p. 12). But stating that 'Hegel seeks reason and morality in the space of social interactions between persons' (p. 12) may be overstating Hegel as the latter was at least equally, if not more, interested in reason and morality inside institutions; with the state being among his prime institutions and perhaps corporations being minor institutions (Klikauer 2015a). It beggars belief to claim that 'humans actually come to have an understanding of themselves only in and through social interactions with others' (p. 16). As if this was the 'only' (Zurn) way we understand ourselves, perhaps indirectly also indicating that institutions like kindergarten, schools, universities, the army, the police, and even down to your local taxation office have no impact on how we understand ourselves. …

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