Axel Honneth’s Theory of Recognition

July 9, 2019
Axel Honneth's theory of recognition speaks of the human need to be recognized in a world packed with technology. Also, of the volatility of what some people consider important. Read on to learn all about it!

Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition is based on the human struggle to be recognized. In previous eras, people fought for the recognition of their nations or for the rights of large groups of people. Currently, in a society that’s constantly changing, people still seek recognition.

Understanding his theory means understanding our current context. We live in a globalized world surrounded by hypermodernity. According to Zygmunt Bauman, the rigorous social patterns that once marked our path as people are now gone. This is because advances in communications, economics, and technology drive the process.

Do we ever question the speed of the world and the role we play? Our era is well-known for its technological revolution. The Internet and the cyber world. Unfortunately, the more communications advance and humans change, the more the space-time relationship becomes distorted. Human beings continue to change and our meaning as humans and individuals also changes.

We’re now involved in a nomadic tide in which we cling to objects. Also, most of our activities are now part of a “network”. The question is, how does it all affect us?

Axel Honneth, Creator of the Theory of Recognition

A diagram of interrelated dummies.

Axel Honneth is a German philosopher and sociologist born in 1949. He was also part of the so-called “third-generation” of the Frankfurt School, a school of social theory and critical philosophy associated with the University of Frankfurt Institute for Social Research.

Most consider him a disciple of Jürgen Habermas, from whom he takes the analysis from the philosophy of social movements. He also reused concepts of Immanuel Kant and Hegel.

Axel Honneth constructed a moral sociological theory of human suffering. This is the product of poor recognition, the engine of social struggles in today’s world.

The author recognizes three spheres of human recognition: love, law, and solidarity.

  • Firstly, the law provides guidelines to ensure forms of recognition. It also produces the rules that ensure the dynamics between the spheres.
  • Secondly, love is a substrate of the other spheres and promotes care and attention.
  • Finally, social valuation is the sphere of solidarity in which the qualities and capabilities of a person in a given community are recognized.

What Happens When the Spheres Are Damaged

The relationship between the various spheres of recognition isn’t always that harmonious. It’s the constant tension between them what expands the margins. The consequences of non-recognition vary according to each sphere.

The author understands justice as the acquisition of rights and duties beyond the social order. That understanding would only be possible when a person detaches themselves from moral traditions, when they let fundamental universal principles guide them.

Social struggles extend the margin of rights and duties. Thus, we identify damage in that sphere when the subject’s moral capacity to take charge of their own actions isn’t recognized. When we’re not legally recognized, there’s impairment in our ability to make decisions and exercise our rights.

When people don’t feel recognized in their community, their neighborhood, or their work, then the sphere of solidarity breaks. Not feeling like we’re a fundamental part of our daily group produces cracks in our self-esteem and our bond with others. This lack is the result of stigmatization and it affects a person’s honor and dignity.

In turn, love is kind of particular because it depends on a subject’s group of reference. The deepest and most fundamental ties of a person such as our family, our better half, and our friends are the pillars of recognition. It’s not the same to feel valued by co-workers than to feel loved by family members or others close to us.

Axel Honneth on Social Interaction

According to the theory of recognition, social bonds are important because they allow people to express themselves in multiple ways.

A symptom of bad recognition could be the excessive use of social networks and the concern many people have these days to create a profile that will be highly valued by others.

In contrast, it’s possible to promote the psychological well-being of this theory through the following actions:

  • Taking an active part in moral causes that arouse your interest and concern.
  • Promoting links beyond social networks. Paying more attention to the links with people from our closest environment through direct dialogue with them.
  • Taking care of the more intimate links. There’s no “like” nor an excellent comment in someone’s shared photo that can compare to a gesture of love from a close friend or a relative.

Axel Honneth and the Movements that Fight for Recognition

Two people hugging each other.

As we discussed earlier, the struggle for recognition stretches beyond the margins of law, love, and solidarity. Let’s review some current and past examples:

  • In the sphere of law, ecological movements have always had a special role. Their struggle for nuclear regulation led them to consolidate themselves as political parties (Germany, for example). This way, the concern for a sustainable world demands new regulations in regard to the use of raw materials.
  • On the plane of solidarity, the struggles of the LGTB movements don’t just demand rights. They also demand recognition as equals by the rest of the members of society and the fight against stigmatization.
  • The sphere of love is the most difficult to interpret because of its intimate character. Any fault here has a direct impact on the order of the rest. Several studies associate the deficit of affection with addictive behavior and social rejection. Likewise, we see movements that fight for the inclusion of emotional and sexual education in schools.

Conclusion

Thus, the theory of recognition is very important when trying to better understand our links and social dynamic. Do you ever wonder what’s wrong when you see a negative or depressed person? It doesn’t matter if you’re a health professional, a friend, or a family member. Do you ever wonder if that person feels morally, socially and/or intimately recognized?

Furthermore, the theory of recognition gives us guidelines to question our own recognition. What’s our role in the groups we’re part of? Do we feel valued? These are questions to keep in mind.

  • Honneth, A., (1997), La lucha por el reconocimiento, Traducción española de Manuel Ballestero, Barcelona, Crítica (citado como LpR).
  • Honneth, A., (2003), Kamf um Anerkennung. Zur moralischen Grammatik sozialer Konflikte, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp (citado como KuA).