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First published online January 1, 2009

Rights, Contribution, Achievement and the World: Some thoughts on Honneth's Recognitive ideal


This article explores Axel Honneth's theory of recognition as the most worked out account of recognition available to political philosophy. I argue that Honneth over-estimates the degree to which rights deliver recognition; faces internal problems if his theory is extended to evaluate global injustice; and shows an ambivalence over the criterial basis for esteem. I go on to argue that the institutional fabric of everyday life has a more significant role in delivering recognition than Honneth acknowledges — a point which partially resolves some of the problems identified.

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I'm very grateful to Heikki Ikäheimo, Arto Laitinen and Cillian McBride for helpful comments on a previous draft of this paper.
1. Axel Honneth (1995) The Struggle for Recognition: The Zoral êrammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge, Polity.
2. The ways in which persons' autonomy is fostered in and through a social environment, which must therefore be evaluated by the standards of justice, is explored in Joel Anderson and Axel Honneth (2005) `Autonomy, Vulnerability, Recognition and Justice', in John Christman and Joel Anderson (eds) Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism: New Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3. See Simon Thompson (2006) The Political Theory of Recognition: a Critical jntroduction, pp. 163—84. Cambridge: Polity.
4. Antti Kauppinen (2002) `Reason, Recognition, and Internal Critique', jnquiry 45(4): 479—98 at pp. 491—2. Cf. Axel Honneth (1997) `Recognition and Moral Obligation', Social Research 64(1): 16—35.
5. Christopher Zurn (2000) `Anthropology and Normativity: A Critique of Axel Honneth's “Formal Conception of Ethical Life”', Philosophy and Social Criticism 26(1): 115—24.
6. In The Struggle for Recognition, Honneth claimed that the private sphere was extra-political and not a channel for moral progress. David Owen among others attacked this stipulation on the grounds that denigration or exclusion might rupture a person's trust in themselves. David Owen (2007) `Self-Government and “Democracy as Reflexive Cooperation: Reflections on Honneth's Social and Political Ideal', in Bert van den Brink and David Owen (eds) Recognition and Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. More recently, and along these lines, Honneth has suggested that progress in the sphere of love might be measured by how far society can eliminate stereotypes and cultural norms that stand in the way of recognition of subjects' needs. See Axel Honneth (2004) `Recognition and Justice: Outline of a Plural Theory of Justice', Acta Sociologica 47(4): 351—64 at p. 362; and Martin Hartmann and Axel Honneth (2006) `Paradoxes of Capitalism', Constellations 13(1): 41—58 at pp. 42—3. It seems to me consistent with Honneth's larger theory to believe that reforming any kind of social configurations that damages a subject's relation to herself is a political task, but I shall not pursue this here. I focus instead on respect and esteem. For reflections on Honneth's view of love see also Heikki Ikäheimo (2002) `On the Genus and Species of Recognition', jnquiry 45(4): 447—62.
7. Maeve Cooke (2006) Re-presenting the êood Society, pp. 64—9, 299—302. Cambridge: MIT Press.
8. Nancy Fraser (2003) `Distorted Beyond All Recognition: A Rejoinder to Axel Honneth', in Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, Redistribution as Recognition: A Political-Philosophical Exchange, pp. 222—33. London: Verso.
9. Honneth (n. 1), pp. 119—20.
10. Ibid. pp. 115—17.
11. Joshua Cohen (1997) `The Arc of the Moral Universe', Philosophy and Public Affairs 26(2): 91—134.
12. Axel Honneth (2003) `Redistribution as Recognition: A Response to Nancy Fraser', in Fraser and Honneth (n. 8), p. 152.
13. For an illuminating attempt to apply Honneth's theory to the international sphere, see Volker Heins (2008) `Realizing Honneth: Redistribution, Recognition, and Global Justice', Journal of êlobal Ethics 4(2): 141—53. See also Christopher F. Zurn (2005) `Recognition, Redistribution and Democracy: Dilemmas of Honneth's Critical Social Theory', European Journal of Philosophy 13(1): 89—126 at pp. 111—17. Cf. Fraser, (n. 8), pp. 88—93; 215—16, 222—3. One place where Honneth does discuss global politics is `Is Universalism a Moral Trap? The Presuppositions and Limits of a Politics of Human Rights', in James Bohman and Matthias Lutz-Bachmann (1997) Perpetual Peace: Essays on Kant's Cosmopolitan jdeal. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Here he suggests that moral norms are implicit in the contemporary world (dis)order.
14. Axel Honneth (2003) `The Point of Recognition: A Rejoinder to the Rejoinder', in Fraser and Honneth (n. 8), pp. 258—9.
15. Honneth (n. 1), p. 120.
16. Honneth (n. 13), pp. 251—2.
17. For an elaboration of this point, see Heins (n. 13). Honneth (n. 12), p. 212, quotes with approval Kant's remark in Perpetual Peace that `a violation of rights in one place in the world is felt everywhere'. In the context of recognition theory, I think that point needs to be shown.
18. Peter Jones (2006) `Equality, Recognition and Difference', Critical Review of jnternational Social and Political Philosophy 9(1): 23—46.
19. Honneth (n. 14) , pp. 251—2.
20. Honneth (n. 1), pp. 123—6.
21. The argument that follows is somewhat similar to Nick Smith's criticisms of Honneth in this volume. Smith, however, interprets the esteem principle as a principle of achievement (not contribution), and sees a tension between individual achievement and Honneth's more general aim of mutual recognition between equals.
22. Honneth (n. 1), pp. 122, 128—9, 142—3, 147—50.
23. Ibid. p. 148.
24. Ibid. pp. 147—50.
25. Ibid. p. 147.
26. Axel Honneth (1998) `Democracy as Reflexive Cooperation', Political Theory 26(6): 763—83 at p. 777.
27. Honneth (n. 8), pp. 147—50.
28. Axel Honneth (1995) `Work and Instrumental Action' in his The Fragmented World of the Social , pp. xix, 15—49. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. Cf. Axel Honneth (1994) `The Social Dynamics of Disrespect' Constellations 1(2): 255—69 at p. 267. Honneth (n. 1), pp. 141, 148, 153—4.
29. Honneth (n. 26), p. 777.
30. Honneth (n. 1), p. 126; Cf. Honneth (n. 1), pp. 144, 154.
31. Honneth, in Fraser and Honneth (n. 8).
32. Honneth (n. 26), p.780.
33. One place where Honneth does discuss something similar to what I've termed the institutional fabric in his and Anderson's brief remarks on the `recognitional infrastructure' in Anderson and Honneth (n. 2).
34. Michael Hardimon (1994) `Role Obligations', Journal of Philosophy 91(7): 333—63.
35. Garrath Williams (2006) `“Infrastructures of Responsibility”: The Moral Tasks of Institutions', Journal of Applied Philosophy 23(2): 207—21 at pp. 212—17.

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Article first published online: January 1, 2009
Issue published: January 2009


  1. esteem
  2. global justice
  3. Honneth
  4. institutions
  5. recognition
  6. rights

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Published online: January 1, 2009
Issue published: January 2009



Jonathan Seglow
Royal Holloway, University of London, [email protected]

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This article was published in European Journal of Political Theory.


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