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The most obvious way to unite a philosophical model of recognition with programmes of
research in the social sciences today is to do so by reference to the work of Axel Honneth.
The marriage of philosophical reflection and social-scientific inquiries is precisely what
Honneth has sought to develop throughout his writings in the last two decades, in the
tradition of German Critical Theory.
In Critical Theory’s canonical model, famously articulated in Max Horkheimer’s
programmatic writings of the 1930s (Horkheimer, 2002), that relationship was to be one of
mutual reinforcement: philosophy was to help critique and reformulate positivistic and
metaphysically grounded statements from the social sciences; whilst the social sciences were
indispensable for the full criticism of extant social reality as philosophy had given up any
ambition to account for reality on its own. This epistemological reciprocity was also to be
complemented by a practical one: the interest in emancipation to be found in the reality of
social life would inform theoretical reflection; whilst theoretical reflection would help
redirect and clarify, notably in their normative aims and means, the real efforts at
emancipation. Underneath these two fundamental forms of interdependence stood the
conviction that philosophy, like any other scientific endeavour, could no longer be conceived
as separate from social reality - that it is part and parcel of the reality it studies, and is
therefore influenced by and in turn influences that reality.
Despite Honneth’s oft repeated qualms about the difficulty of continuing the initial Critical
Theory project, his theory of recognition still attempts to follow its main methodological
principles. It is guided by the twofold reciprocity, epistemological and practical, between
conceptual work and empirical knowledge, proposed by the classical programme. On the one
hand, Honneth makes substantial use of key studies in sociology and psychology to
characterise his key social-theoretical concepts1, and to substantiate his diagnoses in social
criticism (Honneth, 1994, 2004; Hartmann and Honneth, 2006). On the other hand, several
large scale research projects have been developed at the Frankfurt Institute for Social
Research in recent times using the conceptual vocabulary of recognition.2
Today, however, this evident link between the conceptual and normative grammar of
recognition and concrete social-scientific studies is challenged by a powerful strand of Hegel
scholarship (Pippin 1988; Pinkard, 1994), which questions the validity of Honneth’s
interpretation of Hegel. These influential, “non-metaphysical” readings of Hegel reject what
they see as Honneth’s unwarranted anthropological and psychological interpretation of
Hegelian recognition. Not only is this interpretation antithetical to Hegel’s intentions, so these
scholars argue, but it also leads social and political theory into an impasse. For these readers,
it is clear that Hegel’s practical philosophy provides the most original and attractive
On the “objective” side of his social theory, the key references are, besides Hegel, Durkheim’s early theory of
the “division of labour in society”, as well as the historical sociology of E.P. Thompson. On the subjective side,
Honneth’s theory of socialisation is famously indebted to Mead’s social psychology and recent literature in
genetic and comparative psychology (Winnicott, Hobson, Tomasello).
In 2001 an overarching programme dedicated to the “Paradoxes of capitalistic modernisation” encompassed
five specific research programmes on “Transformations of normative integration”, “Capitalistic rationalisation
of work”, “Changes in family structures”, “The culture industry and electronic media”, and “Transformations of
the democratic state”.
alternative to liberalism and utilitarianism, the two predominant frameworks in mainstream
social and political theory. Consequently, to miss the spirit of Hegel’s practical philosophy is
for them to a large extent equivalent to missing the point about the most adequate social-
theoretical and political-theoretical position. This does not mean that these authors fully
endorse all of Hegel’s claims, but it is clear from their writings that the great exegetical
energy they spend on his writings is justified by the belief that his sophisticated conception of
normativity is without rivals in contemporary social and political philosophy. The resulting
connection between the exegetical and the systematic then forms the basis for the criticism of
other positions, notably of critical theorists and the type of Hegelianism to be found in
Critical Theory.3
In this chapter, I want to defend Honneth’s take on Hegelian recognition, and its “critical
theory” adoption in concrete social-scientific inquiries, against the criticisms emanating from
“non-metaphysical” Hegel commentators. I will consider mainly the writings of Robert
Pippin, in particular his 2008 book Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, since Pippin is the author
who so far has engaged in the most explicit fashion with Honneth’s appropriation of Hegel
and his theory of recognition (see in particular Pippin, 2000).4 My argument will be that
Honneth’s critical project is not just interesting and valid in its own rights, as defined against
the criteria of such projects (as a unity of theoretical work and empirical research), but also
from the point of view of Hegel scholarship. I will argue that the theory of recognition does
not need to be overly apologetic about its use of Hegel, that there are sufficient resources in
Hegel himself to warrant the kind of reading that Honneth proposed, which became the basis
for the critical theory of recognition. This also means conversely that, at some level, despite
its high sophistication and often compelling character, Pippin’s non-metaphysical reading
only accounts for some of the relevance of Hegel’s philosophy for social research today.
After sketching Pippin’s main objections to Honneth, and his own recommendation for how
Hegel should be read (sections 1 and 2), I will ask (in section 3) what this entails for an
application to the social sciences. This perspective, I will argue, is particularly apt to
highlight problems in Pippin’s faith in his Hegelian take on modern society and modern
politics: it is overly abstract (section 4); and its radical constructivism and historicism, despite
claims to the contrary, risk leading to an unduly conservative stance (section 5). If, by
contrast, one is, like Hegel, concerned with the actualisation of freedom, that is, with
emancipation, then a purely philosophical account of individual action and social institutions
is not sufficient. What becomes needed is an alliance of the theoretical and the empirical that
looks uncannily like the Critical Theory project. Ultimately, however, I will argue that the
founders of this project were just as good readers of Hegel as current ones. That is, one can
find in Hegel himself the key methodological features needed to ground the Critical Theory
project. And Honneth, as a rightful heir to that project, is included in this assessment (sections
6 and 7).
1. Pippin’s radical constructivism
In order to fully grasp what is at stake in Pippin’s objections to Honneth’s critical theory of
recognition, it is important to have in mind the main thread of his reading of Hegel’s theory
of freedom. Pippin argues that Honneth misconstrues Hegel’s theory of freedom and, as a

This way of marrying the exegetical and the systematic and using it for critical purposes in contemporary
debates is well illustrated in Pippin’s critical reading of Habermas and in particular of Habermas’ interpretation
of Hegel (Pippin, 1997).
Though see also the contribution by Terry Pinkard to this volume.
result, elaborates a misguided platform for inquiries into modern society, the locus where
freedom is realised.
Pippin’s interpretation of Hegel’s theory of freedom is characterised by three main features,
all interrelated and making up a radical kind of philosophical constructivism. These features
are: strong anti-naturalism, institutionalism and historicism.
Pippin’s characterisation of Hegelian freedom is an expressivist one, in a sense however that
is at odds with previous expressivist readings. Accordingly, freedom involves conditions
“such that my various deeds and projects could be, and could be experienced by me as being,
my deeds and projects, as happening at all in some way that reflects and expresses my
agency” (Pippin, 2008, p. 36). There are several possible philosophical ways of interpreting
this definition of freedom. For Pippin the originality of the Hegelian view boils down to a
radical constructivist view, the notion, illustrated in numerous references to corresponding
passages in Hegel’s text, that “spirit makes itself”, or that “spirit is the product of itself”.
Human beings can recognise themselves in the actions they undertake in the world because
somehow they have themselves created the conditions allowing for the meaning of these
actions; they have made the human world in which these actions meaningfully take place.
The three key features identified above together explain how this claim is to be specifically
First, the claim is anti-naturalist in that it insists on the radical divide between natural and
spiritual (in the sense of geistig) logics. What distinguishes spirit from nature is that only the
former can be “for itself”, that is, not just be what it is, but be what it is as a result of its
relation to itself. This relation to self always involves some form of negativity. Indeed, this is
the core of Hegel’s spirit: its capacity to negate immediately given features, objective or
subjective, and to reappropriate them “for itself”. Pippin insists that this anti-naturalism (in
the explication of freedom) should not be confused with an ontological dualism. It is natural
beings (embodied, socialised human beings) that display the capacities of also being
“spiritual”. But it is also the worst kind of category mistake from a Hegelian perspective, to
account for spiritual realities in causal, naturalistic ways. Even at the most immediate levels
of human experience (sensation, affect), there are distinct qualities to human affections, forms
of self-reflexivity, loops between the subjective and objective poles, which radically
distinguish them from those of other animals, however much they might overlap in other
ways. In accounting for freedom, this anti-naturalism means that we shouldn’t view freedom
as the realisation of capacities or the unfolding of a certain nature. Rather, freedom comes
from the ability of the human world to gradually detach itself from natural constraints, from
forms of immediacy and determinacy, and to gradually construct, for itself, its distinctive
normative dimensions.
The view of freedom as obedience to the laws one has given to oneself, of freedom as “self-
determination” and “self-legislation”, was first elaborated in politics by Rousseau and then
expanded in a transcendental sense by Kant. Hegel is their direct successor in this respect.
Furthermore, Hegel remains fully in Kant’s footsteps when, like him, he insists (so Pippin’s
reading continues), that such self-determination is rational self-determination: the laws
human beings give themselves when they act freely (in social action, in politics as well as in
individual action), are laws that can be accounted for rationally. To be able to stand behind
one’s actions and to see the reasons for one’s actions are synonymous on that view. Hegel’s
position however becomes specifically his own when he gives this view of freedom as self-
determination radical social, historical and institutional slants.

Hegel’s “self-legislative” theory of freedom is radically social in that Hegel famously rejects
Kant’s assumption that any and every rational individual can, by themselves, through the pure
use of their practical reason, determine the content of practical judgements. Rather, the
practical meaning of any action is determined by recourse to the extant norms and values of
an existing social community, or “ethical life” (Sittlichkeit). The reference to rationality
prevents this claim from being straightforwardly conservative or relativistic: I continue to
obey only my own reason when I abide by the rules of the community, as long as those rules
are rational ones. The rationality of social rules is therefore twofold: they are rules I can see
for myself to be rational, but they are also objectively rational. The sharing of rationality
between the subjective (individual) and objective (social) moments ensures both the
autonomy and the non-relativistic dimension of socially dependent freedom.
The claim is also radically historicist because Hegel insists on the transformations of these
normative worlds. This is the place for a second sense of negativity, this time no longer the
repression and “working over” of immediate features, but rather Hegel’s famous dialectic.
The ways in which socialised individuals collectively articulate the reasons regulating their
modes of action and interaction are under the constant pressure of rational justification. They
are structurally required to undergo processes of normative refinement. The concrete
instantiations of such moments of normative crisis and resolution are described famously in
The Phenomenology of Spirit, through “phenomenological” case studies of ways of life
undergoing the trial of the “negative”.
Finally, Hegel’s version of freedom as rational self-legislation is radically institutionalist as
the reasons regulating action and interaction are instantiated in different species of rules,
depending on the different functional requirements of individual and social life in which these
rules abide. Beyond functional considerations, however, the key point for us here is that the
different social institutions institute different kinds of normative reasons, which define
rational modes of acting, and consequently different ways for individuals to “be at home”
when they act in the world by following these rules.
The image that results from this reading is truly a radical kind of constructivism:
“there is nothing left to “counting as a rational norm” than being taken as one, effectively
circulating as one in a society, acquiring the authority that is determinative for what happens,
what trumps what, what cannot be publicly appealed, etc. (…) Without a possible Aristotelian
appeal to the realisation of natural capacities in order to establish when one is really acting in
practically rational ways (realising one’s natural potential as a rational animal), and without
an appeal to a formal criterion of genuinely rational self-determination, this turns out to be
the only criterion left: one is an agent in being recognised as, responded to as, an agent”
(Pippin, 2008, pp. 198-199).
The “boot-strapping” view of spirit (spirit not as a substance but as the result immanent in the
circulation of reasons) leads to a boot-strapping theory of rational/normative justification: a
social norm is rationally justified simply when it has been established as a norm following the
language game of “asking for and providing reasons”, as it occurs in a particular social and
historical context. Neither appeal to nature (as in Aristotle) nor appeal to some formal
criterion (as in Kant) can ground such justification. Justificatory exchanges, being circular,
are, as it were, “self-grounding”. Their end results are the instituted normative resources of a
given social world.
2. Objections to Honneth’s theory of recognition

It is on the basis of this radical constructivist reading of Hegel that Pippin rejects Honneth’s
theory of recognition as outlined especially in The Struggle for Recognition. Pippin agrees
with Honneth that the undisputed value of Hegel’s philosophy lies in his demonstration that
“a subject cannot be free alone”, that “subjects cannot be free unless recognised by others in a
certain way” (Pippin, 2008, p. 186). Pippin, however, also thinks that Honneth misreads what
this claim truly entails, with serious consequences for social and political sciences and theory.
First, from the perspective of Pippin’s radical constructivism, Honneth’s genetic mode of
argumentation completely misses the “boot-strapping” model of spirit. Honneth, as is well
known, interprets the spheres of recognition as structural and genetic conditions of self-
realisation. His basic idea is an argument that resembles transcendental modes of thinking: in
order for any practical identity or basic integrity of the self to develop, and given the essential
intersubjectivistic dependency of the human being, one can identify key structural conditions
of subjectivity by studying the essential, structural aspects of a functioning practical identity
in its genetic dependence on other-relations. Hegel, in the intersubjectivistic arguments of his
Iena fragments on spirit, provides a three-pronged model, later corroborated by social
psychology and genetic psychology, to delineate just such structures. For Pippin, this mode of
argumentation is simply a form of neo-Aristotelianism, arguing on the basis of an alleged
human potentiality (for autonomy) which would require certain social conditions to be
Such a neo-Aristotelian framework is belied by all the key features of Hegel’s radical
constructivism. Implicitly, it appeals to something like the specificity of human nature. But to
naturalise Hegel’s spirit (which, according to Pippin, recognition instantiates and realises) is
to completely miss the crux of recognition: it is the attempt to ground it in some essence,
whereas spirit and the recognitive structure underlying it, consist only in the circle of mutual
rational justification, which in turn creates the conditions for all norm-setting.
The genetic, psychological reading of recognition also “naturalises” the categories of agent,
subject and practical identity, by de-historicising them. By contrast the radical historicism of
Hegel’s model of freedom means that such categories are only historical achievements, not
metaphysically fixed categories. Honneth’s difficulties with ascertaining the exact
metaphysical and epistemological status of his key categories (is the self-realised agent an
anthropological category or the historical product of modernity?) are direct implications of
this (Zurn, 2000). We can see with this historicist objection in what sense Pippin believes he
is reclaiming the spirit of the “Left-Hegelian” tradition (Pippin, 2008, pp. 58-61). This is
ironic of course since this is the very tradition Honneth also claims to be pursuing with new
methodological means (Honneth, 1988; Honneth, 1995b).
The neo-Aristotelian reading also fails in adequately characterising the precise normativity of
Hegelian recognition. Hegel’s recognition has nothing to do with psychological well-being as
a social good, the lack of which would help define particular social pathologies. Recognition
is normative not in a psychological sense, but in a rational and institutional sense: precisely,
as the process by which norms are instituted through the exchange of justificatory reasons.
Hegel might well have considered psychological implications of the presence or absence of
recognition, but that is not the point of the recognition (Pippin, 2008, p. 183). The “point of
recognition” is freedom, defined not psychologically as a form of well-being but normatively
as rationally constituted collective self-legislation.
In such a debate, the exegetical question regarding the alleged split in Hegel’s work, between
an intersubjectivistic early period and a “monological” mature work, takes on systematic

significance. 5 Recognition, for Pippin, is fully at play in the mature work, even if it is rarely
mentioned as such. Recognition, as the key structure of spirit, is simply implied whenever the
latter notion is mentioned. Recognition, then, in the early as well as in the mature work is not
an ethical ideal: it simply designates the key structure of spirit, as the self-constituting power
to create (and potentially transform) the normative framework in which human life can
Finally, Honneth’s mistaken Aristotelian approach leads to an incoherent application of the
concept of recognition in political theory. It leads him to argue that since there are conditions
of individual freedom, communicative practices that realise recognition can be the object of
entitlements and claims. This is incoherent both on a political-theory and on a logical level:
“a common ethical life cannot be understood as the object of a rights or general entitlement
claim if that life amounts to a necessary pre-condition of the determinate meaning and
binding force of such a rights claim” (Pippin, 2008, pp. 256-258). Once again, the “boot-
strapping” structure of Hegel’s theory of freedom is completely at odds with Honneth’s own
theory of justice. There are no historically independent conditions of personhood (no natural
rights): since normative claims depend on the existence of a historical society in which such
claims are possible, that society cannot be the object of a rights claim. It is to put the cart
before the horse, or to adopt an external normative standpoint totally at odds with Hegel’s
strict immanentist solution, to claim, as does Honneth, that the “transcendence” within social
immanence can be got at by appeal to features of human subjectivity. In other words, the true
spirit of Left-Hegelianism is not a naturalistic grounding of normativity, as in Honneth’s
psychological take on recognition, but a truly historicist one.
3. Social Sciences in a Hegelian Framework
For the purpose of a critical theory grounded in Hegelian philosophy, the questions now
would be the following: what does a radical historicist and constructivist reading of Hegelian
recognition entail for the social sciences? What does an application of this model of
recognition mean for empirical inquiry within the social sciences?
The link between, on the one hand, a philosophically grounded social ontology of the kind
developed by Pippin, and, on the other hand, empirical inquiries into social realities, is an
excellent avenue, I will now seek to argue, to highlight problems with the “non-
metaphysical” readings of Hegel. This very link, by contrast, allows one to see the strength of
Honneth’s position.
But first we need to define more precisely what kind of empirical, “social-scientific” inquiry
might be meant here. We can do this by identifying the issues involved in developing a
scientific knowledge of social realities that remains adequate to Hegel’s view of society as
“objective spirit”, that is, as freedom made real in and through the social environment.
In the introductions to his systematic texts, as well as in numerous passages of the Science of
Logic and the Philosophy of Nature, Hegel made substantive comments about the link
between philosophical and empirical sciences. These comments amount to a full-blown
critical epistemology, one that already associated the results of the special sciences, notably
their capacity to extract law-like regularities, underneath the chaotic diversity of sensory

The split between an early, intersubjectivistic and a later, monological Hegel is a key exegetical assumption
defended by leading Hegel scholars (Theunissen and Habermas in particular) in the German philosophy of the
1970s, in which Honneth’s theory of recognition grew. This assumption underpins Honneth’s initial readings of
Hegel (see Deranty, 2009, pp. 206-215).
input, with their critical and systematic overhaul through speculative logic (Hegel, 1991a, pp.
31-37). However, in the case of spiritual, that is, social and cultural, realities, this critical
epistemology is complicated by the fact that the objects studied, like the subjects studying it,
are themselves self-reflective and self-critical. Even though social sciences like political
economy establish laws akin to laws of nature in the non-spiritual realm, these laws differ
from the latter because the social objects abiding by these laws take active, reflective part in
their law-like behaviour.
The epistemological problems arising in respect to social reality are therefore radically
different from those concerning natural reality. In the latter case, the main epistemological
obstacle is contingency, the fact that nature is the realm of infinite randomness and non-
conceptual behaviour. This makes laws of nature difficult to extract and indeed they are never
fully adequate to the phenomena. Nature produces monsters, one-off, aberrant phenomena; its
empirical features contain elements of utter randomness, and so on. In Nature, as Hegel
constantly repeats, the concept is “lost”; it is the realm of utter “Ordnungslosigkeit” (Hegel,
1970, pp. 3-13; see also Mabille, 1999). However, observation and experimental procedures
can be developed to screen the “noise” of nature’s aberrations and randomness, and to
gradually extract the conceptual structures undergirding natural reality in universal and
definitive fashion.
In social reality as well, contingency brings with it epistemological problems. Here, however,
contingency is of a different kind. Indeed there are two different kinds of contingency to take
into account here. The first contingency relates to the fact that human institutions always
remain in relatively external relationships to their material and natural environments. This
gap creates a structural lack of adequacy between concept and reality, since the material and
natural always tend to get in the way of the realisation of “geistige” realities, at all levels,
from individual action to the different forms of social action.6 There is also a second kind of
contingency, due to the fact that this realm involves laws of freedom. This means that the
agents caught up in the structures of social, institutional realities are not just passively acted
upon by them, but also actively and reflectively enact and, as the case may be, transform,
these structures. This second contingency simply denotes the fact that the institutions of, for
instance, modern society, are instantiated differently in different nations, depending upon the
latter’s historical and cultural traditions.
The purpose of social-scientific inquiries inspired by a Hegelian framework would be to
document and analyse the two kinds of variations between concept and reality resulting from
these two types of contingency. First, social-scientific inquiries have a simple hermeneutic
dimension, linked to the second kind of contingency. They study the variations in the
instantiations of social structures, resulting from different historical and cultural traditions, in
substantial relation to the material aspects of the environments.7 Second, the lack of
adequacy between concept and reality points to the fact that in the realm of objective spirit
The most famous aspect of contingency in social life relates to the economic organisation, which can
arbitrarily bring down large portions of the population into poverty, with no real solution in sight (Hegel, 1991b,
pp. 264-266). Another vivid passage relates to the organisation of the State: “The State is not a work of art; it
exists in the world, and hence in the sphere or arbitrariness, contingency and error, and bad behaviour may
disfigure it in many respects” (Hegel, 1991b, p. 279; see also Mabille, 1999, pp. 131-147).
See for instance the link Hegel establishes between geography and a nation’s “spirit” (Hegel, 1991b, p. 391).
Throughout his Berlin lecture courses, particularly in the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel made
substantial use of all the historical and cultural documents available to him, to demarcate different traditions in
the social, economic and political lives of given epochs and societies, and always in reference to the natural and
material environments.
freedom is not yet actual. The most important issue in objective spirit is indeed the question
of the actualisation of freedom. The social sciences play a significant part at this level as well.
They help document the many empirical obstacles preventing the rational core of social
institutions from achieving their full reality (Wirklichkeit).
Often, in Hegel’s own analyses, this second task is intimately linked to the first, hermeneutic
one in that some core element in a nation’s traditions can help to explain some crucial
aberration in its institutional life.8 But there are specific issues, separate from hermeneutic
ones, arising with the problems of the “actualisation of freedom”. Two in particular are worth
mentioning. First, empirical problems of actualisation must be different depending on the
institutional sphere considered. Irrationalities in the legal system, misplaced representations
regarding family life, self-contradictory regulations in the economic system, dysfunctional
political procedures, impact on the actualisation of freedom in different ways. Second, the
most useful contribution from the social sciences has to be the documenting of moral and
political conflicts between social groups around the interpretation and implementation of key
social logics. The problem of the actualisation of freedom is more specifically and
importantly the issue of emancipation.
4. Formalism, tautology and abstraction
If the social-scientific inquiries that would be adequate to a Hegelian definition of spirit are
defined as above, two problems immediately arise with Pippin’s interpretation.
The first is its high level of abstraction. Pippin’s interpretation is certainly very compelling
inasmuch as it is able to present Hegel’s system as a reasonable and indeed useful
contemporary philosophical model. But from the perspective of a research programme
encompassing any of the issues mentioned above, it strikes one as being too abstract to be of
much guidance for concrete social-scientific inquiries. As far as it concerns specific
institutions, Pippin’s key point is that those are historical constructions, developed through
the normative to and fro between social agents, which define in advance what a “good
father”, or a “good citizen” are. As a result, a historical, hermeneutic reconstruction of these
categories is always possible, which would determine for any particular society, what they
entail. The problem with this is that it remains at such a level of abstraction that it only
delivers a tautological guideline for social-scientific enquiries. It only tells the social
scientists that the meaning that a particular society attaches to some institution is just the
meaning that society attaches to the institution. But from the point of view of how Hegel
actually reconstructs the normative structures of different institutions, for instance for modern
society in his Philosophy of Right, this kind of tautological guideline is strikingly insufficient.
Something would have to be said in each case about the functional underpinning of the
institution, in order to demarcate its specific normative structure. The kinds of “reasons”
involved in being a good father rely upon considerations that are different from those
involved in being a good citizen. Hegel’s recourse to the different syllogisms in accounting
for the institutions of modern society aims precisely to try and articulate both their individual
specificity and interrelations, in terms that are not simply normative but also functional.
The hyper-abstraction of Pippin’s social ontology becomes evident if we compare it with a
sociological school that seems to have adopted as its key methodological standpoint one that
looks fairly close to the one advocated by Pippin. As was just said, Pippin’s treatment of
institutional reality can have an obvious and direct sociological and cultural-theoretical
extension. One can study the concrete ways in which a community constructs its institutions
As when he analyses the corruption of the English political system (Hegel, 1999, pp. 234-270).
in specific moral and cultural terms. This involves reconstructing the moral meanings and
cultural representations mobilised in different spheres of a given society. These moral and
cultural grammars construct specific normative categories of subjective identity and
acceptable forms of interaction. This model of sociological and cultural inquiry is fairly close
to the model developed in France in the last two decades as “convention theory” following
the thorough critique of Bourdieu’s “critical sociology” (Boltanski and Thévenot, 2006;
Boltanski and Chiapello, 2007; Eymard-Duvernay, 2006). In this line of sociological and
economic inquiry, the key methodological premise is that the social scientist needs to take
into account the ways in which social agents co-construct social reality by enacting and
transforming moral and cultural meanings, as well as the multiplicity and irreducibility of the
social roles they play. In particular, instead of a critical sociology, which seeks to uncover
structures of domination, this model of inquiry defines the aims of the sociological agenda as
“sociology of critique”, a reconstruction of the moral and cultural resources mobilised by
social agents in their social interactions, notably in situations of conflict. This sociological
model has developed sophisticated and detailed accounts of each of the different language
games employed in modern societies to navigate the complexities of social life. But lacking
such empirically informed analysis, Pippin’s description of institutional reality on its own
looks deficiently abstract and detached from the conceptual resources required to descend
from this level of abstraction.
Of course, one could object that this criticism is unfair as it accuses philosophy of not doing
sociological work, and confuses the levels of inquiry. This possible rejoinder however would
postulate a strict separation between philosophical and empirical sciences which Hegel
strongly rejected, as we just recalled. Hegel’s theory of objective spirit is not just based on a
general theory of spirit. It also relies on what we could call middle concepts, which mediate
between speculative logic and the empirical sciences of society. These middle concepts (the
person of abstract law, the subject of moral action, the family member, the economic agent,
the member of the corporation, the citizen) were extracted by Hegel from constituted
discourses (Roman law, Kantian moral philosophy, Scottish political economy, Rousseauian
and Fichtean political theories, and so on). They define specific subjective categories, modes
of social interaction, and most crucially, entail specific forms of “indeterminacy”, which
negatively point to their functional links to the other categories. The image of the social that
emerges from this, and the potential fields of inquiry that are thereby opened up for empirical
research, are far richer and diverse than what the single-minded insistence on “the boot-
strapping” structure of spirit intimates.
5. Which normativity of struggle?
The first criticism related to the hermeneutic dimension. The second, critical aspect is also a
problem for Pippin’s interpretation, in fact a more serious one.
According to Pippin’s reading of Hegel, any claim raised about what one ought to do is
always expressed from within the particular language game of an existing institution. There
are no external normative points from which these claims could be made. Demands for
rational justification presuppose a concept of reason that is always relative to a particular
institution of reason-giving, of what counts as good reason at all. The question that
immediately arises is that of relativism. Pippin argues that historical relativism is avoided by
Hegel’s commitment to the notion of normative progress: what counts as a good reason,
which provides the basic normative underpinning for defining subjective attitudes and
interactions, is progressively improved through the constraining justificatory requirements
entailed in the logic of asking for and providing reasons (Pippin, 2008, p. 201). We will see in
a moment that Pippin’s apparent embrace of this solution contains its own difficulties. Before
that, however, another problematic aspect of Pippin’s strong institutionalism emerges, namely
the questionable critical acumen of his Hegelian theory of institutions. If institutional
structures always predetermine the content and the scope of all normative claims, then the
possibility that new normative claims could arise challenging the existing ones seems to be
excluded. Radical constructivism, by delivering a tautological definition of social normativity
(social claims and meanings are what a given society institutes), might lead to an arbitrary
form of conservatism.
Pippin has three responses ready for this objection. The first is based on the story of
unsuccessful attempts at providing ultimate or complete normative justification models as
told by the Phenomenology of Spirit. As it is read by Pippin, the book demonstrates the
critical side of the constructivist/institutionalist theory of normativity: “One acts freely when
one acts on the basis of a claim to entitlement (a norm), but such a claim can be contested and
can fail” (Pippin, 2008, p. 201). To the objection of potential conservatism, Pippin can reply
that the Hegelian model he seems to largely endorse in fact puts conflict and struggle at the
centre of social theory since these are at the core of any normative exchange of reasons.
Brandom’s central metaphor of “score-keeping” seems to capture a great deal of the spirit of
Pippin’s interpretation, and states quite explicitly the antagonistic core of his institutionalism.
The insistence upon the rational justifiability of any normative claim undercuts any recourse
to an authority that would not be based in reason (Pippin, 2008, p. 260).
Linked to the conflict inherent in reason-giving practices is the developmental story also
inherent in Pippin’s institutionalism. The struggle between different kinds of reason-giving-
practices leads to the unveiling of internal contradictions and shortcomings and, because of
the inescapability of rational justification (the impossibility of taking refuge in some
unquestioned standpoint once one’s normative position has been denounced), to the
development of new, normatively more refined language games.
Thirdly, Pippin also highlights the fact that the different normative logics at play in social life
deliver a complex view of the latter but in no way undermine the radical institutionalist
definition of reason, in fact reinforce it. Accordingly one can mount a normative claim
against an existing institution only on the basis, precisely, of a language game that is secured
elsewhere in society, in some other institution (for instance, to question a law on the basis of
established morality or family or political values) (Pippin, 2008, p. 265).
Despite these responses, however, one might still ask whether Pippin’s strong institutionalist
reading does not run the risk of social and political conservatism. There is a weak and a
strong version of this criticism.
The weak version focuses on the rationalistic optimism implied in Pippin’s reconstruction.
The social conflict that Pippin’s constructivist reading sees as forming the core of social life
is of a very specific kind: it is not a conflict of interests, nor a conflict about access to
positions of power, but strictly a conflict of reasons, a conflict of normative interpretations.
This vision of social conflict avoids a conservative stance on the basis of the following
argument: bad institutions, which rely upon bad reasons, cannot resist the demand for
justification; and so reason (as short hand for good norms, good practices, and good
institutions promoting full reciprocity) always triumphs in the end. This process of constant
normative improvement through the shedding of untenable normative positions forms the

inherent logic of (modern) social life.9 Viewed from the level of social-historical reality, the
obvious problem with this answer lies with the “in the end” clause. How long, how much
suffering, until bad reasons are defeated? How long until reasons which are bad in themselves
appear bad for themselves? At what point in time does a social theorist recognise that what
counted all along as a good reason was in fact a bad one? Which groups does the social
theorist entrust in the normative struggle with the unveiling of a reason as being in fact a bad
one? In reference to what criteria? Indeed, and more seriously: does it make any sense at all
for institutionalism to talk about reasons turning out to be bad? If a normative reason is only
ever what a society defines as such, isn’t any reason given at any time good at that time and
only bad from the perspective of a later time? The critical acumen of a radically historicist
and institutionalist social theory is not a very promising one from the perspective of such
A stronger version of the criticism questions another aspect of rationalistic optimism, namely
the idea that access to the language games of asking for/providing reasons is open to
everyone at all times. A rich sociological and political-theoretical literature argues that
domination is at the core of social life (Bourdieu, 2000; Rancière, 1998; on the link between
Rancière and recognition, see Deranty, 2003). Domination indeed always attempts to justify
itself, to paint itself in normative colours through moral arguments and cultural references.
From this point of view, it is true that social life has an ineliminable normative underpinning,
is not a pure relation of power. But such normative underpinning to a greater or lesser extent
reflects and indeed helps to entrench the power of some groups over others. From this point
of view, social conflict is always asymmetrical, waged between groups whose norms are
dominant, count as the good ones and are indeed instituted as such (in particular, by being
able to appeal to force to defend and enforce themselves), and other groups whose norms are
not recognised, whose concerns and voices do not count as relevant or even meaningful.
From this point of view, the primary task of the social sciences would be to unveil the
structures of domination, the normative and cultural resources put to work by the ruling
classes to justify their domination, and the counter-discourses developed by the dominated, in
order to reveal potentialities for a more equal social life.
6. Philosophy and the social sciences from a critical theory perspective
The Critical Theory programme is developed precisely with this latter aim in view. The very
name of the research programme indicates that it is not intent on simply describing social
reality, but that it approaches social reality from the perspective of emancipation, inasmuch
therefore as freedom is not yet achieved, has to overcome obstacles that are specific to each
social context. The critical element in “Critical Theory” concerns firstly the critique of the
specific social obstacles to freedom, where social, as is well known, concerns the impact of
social structures upon subjective factors (psychological obstacles), objective factors (the
material, especially the economic infrastructure), as well as the element where the two
converge (culture). But the critical element also has an epistemological dimension, which is
fundamentally of Hegelian spirit (even before its materialist, that is, Marxist origin). Critical
Theory’s unwavering attachment to philosophy for the very purpose of providing a critical
theory of modern society stems from Hegel’s already mentioned critical reliance upon the
empirical sciences. The reference to the empirical sciences is necessary: philosophy is not
In the rare passages where Pippin shifts from the exegetical to the programmatic, it becomes clear that he
embraces this vision of modernity and sees his own contribution as defending that vision. Indeed, it becomes
clear that the great exegetical energy spent defending Hegel’s “ethical rationalism” is an indirect but powerful
way for him to fulfil what that philosophical programme promises (see in particular Pippin, 1997, pp. 23-25;
2008, pp. 273-281).
able by itself to extract the conceptual sub-structure of the different spheres of complex,
apparently chaotic reality. But the empirical sciences are incapable, by themselves, to
uncover their links to social reality as a whole, the limits of their conceptuality in the light of
other spheres of that reality, the role they play in the reproduction of the reality of which they
are part, and as a result, their potential justificatory role. Philosophy’s role is to reconstruct
the conceptual content of the empirical sciences, highlight their logical limits, link their
particular results to the overall social structure, and as a result of this, to critically highlight
their potential justificatory logic. This fundamental Hegelian view of the critical role of
philosophy in relation to the empirical sciences was maintained throughout their work by
such key authors as Adorno and Marcuse (Adorno, 1969; Marcuse, 1968).
This brief reminder about the key theoretical intentions of Critical Theory, of what it
understood by “critical”, is meant to exemplify a theoretical use of Hegel for the purpose of
social-scientific inquiries that is more substantive than contemporary, non-metaphysical
interpretations. Whereas the critical element is the most serious gap in the latter, it is richly
theorised and exemplified in Critical Theory. It is the direct object of its empirical inquiries
(the subjective and objective obstacles to emancipation) as well as its mode of philosophical
reflection (how do the different empirical results relate to each other; in what ways do the
empirical sciences play a part in the reproduction of the social order).

7. The theory of recognition as post-Hegelian framework for social-scientific

Against this background and in response to Pippin’s rejection of Honneth’s take on Hegel, we
can now delineate elements of a rejoinder to try and vindicate briefly the latter’s theory of
The key intention behind Honneth’s theory of recognition is to pursue the critical programme
of Critical Theory. The concept of recognition has an immediate negative, critical import: it
serves to delineate different ways in which particular groups in given social contexts
experience injustice, and, in circumstances which allow for it, are able to mount claims
against it. The title and sub-title of Honneth’s key book indicate this explicitly: recognition is
first of all a normative concept, which articulates the moral core of “struggles” against
injustice, and thus delivers “the moral grammar of social conflicts”. The issue of domination
is central in the development of Honneth’s theory of recognition (see in particular Honneth,
1991). Behind Honneth’s embrace of the recognition problematic lies his conviction that
Habermas’ communication model also falls in the rationalistic trap already highlighted above.
That is, it assumes all too readily that any normative claims can be made with equal force in
the public sphere. The recognition model by contrast distinguishes sharply between the moral
experience of an unfulfilled normative demand, and the explicit articulation of it in the public
sphere (Honneth, 1995c; Honneth, 2000; Honneth, 2007a). Thanks to this key distinction,
recognition theory can directly inform empirical studies, which, in specific contexts, seek to
document the social, cultural and political factors preventing particular groups from being
The hermeneutic dimension is also well articulated in Honneth’s model. His concept of
“formal ethical life” indicates that the structures of recognition as constructed by normative,
philosophical reflection need to be instantiated in every case by empirical sociological,
historical and cultural inquiries (Honneth, 1995a, pp. 171-180).

Similarly, over-abstraction and tautology do not plague Honneth’s model as they do the
constructivist readings of Hegel. Recognition is firstly a general concept which is supposed to
articulate the normative underpinning of a social order. The concept fulfils this general role
inasmuch as it answers the question of “the normative presuppositions” of social life. As this
general concept, recognition can play the role of theoretical integration demanded of
philosophical reflection. But recognition also delivers some of those “middle-range concepts”
required to articulate the theoretical and the empirical. Recognition does this in particular
when it is specified according to its three main normative axes (Honneth, 1995a; Fraser and
Honneth, 2003, pp.135-159). Honneth agrees with Pippin that many tensions in the social
field (but not all, as we just saw) arise from the “pulls” of different normative institutions
upon subjects (Honneth, 2007b). But the obvious difference between the two models is that
Honneth’s provides much more precise indications as to the content of these tensions. On this
point, we can note that a historicist rejoinder, which would argue that it is impossible to
delineate the normative content of different institutions as they are historically relative, would
fail to take seriously Hegel’s claim in his Philosophy of Right, to have identified the
functionally necessary institutions of modernity. Hegel’s radical historicism finds a stop at the
point where his analyses encounter the institutions of modernity. Pippin, one could object,
argues in exactly the same way.10 But instead of attempting to provide differentiated accounts
of the different institutional spheres of modern society, Pippin’s reading remains at the most
general level, emphasising only the link between the historical and the normative dimensions
in Hegel’s justification of modern society’s rationality. By contrast, Honneth’s primary aim is
to delineate the specific normative grammars underpinning different modern institutions.
Strikingly however, by doing so, he ends up highlighting the inherently functional roles
played by these recognitive logics in some key institutions, in the family, the judicial system
but also, and most especially, the market (Fraser/Honneth, 2003, pp. 248-256; Deranty,
In summary, it seems that Honneth’s theory of recognition is able to provide more substantial
guidance to social-scientific inquiries conducted in a Hegelian spirit, that is, inquiries seeking
to document cultural, sociological and psycho-social obstacles to the actualisation of personal
and collective freedom. In view of the different dimensions of such a project as they have
been outlined above, Honneth’s theory of recognition seems to avoid the weaknesses of a
non-metaphysical Hegelian approach like that of Pippin, that is, the risks of abstraction,
tautology, lack of critical acumen and rationalistic optimism.
Of course, it would be quite possible that Honneth’s philosophical model has merits from the
point of view of social-scientific inquiries, but only a loose connection to Hegel. Pippin’s
criticisms of the recognition model target it for being both an inaccurate appropriation of
Hegel and for being the wrong type of philosophical foundation for social and political
theory. One could try to defend Honneth’s model against Pippin’s criticisms by disconnecting
the question of social-scientific fruitfulness from that of fidelity to Hegel. Against such a
strategy, I have tried to show that Honneth’s theory of recognition recommends itself as a
fruitful philosophical guideline for the social sciences especially if one attempts to conduct
the latter in the spirit of Hegel’s social and political writings. There are many sides to Hegel.
Non-metaphysical readings are especially interested in giving acceptable, deflationary
accounts of Hegel’s developments, in his systematic writings, of his fundamental thesis
concerning reason’s self-determining and self-realising powers. Just as essential however, one
might argue, are Hegel’s detailed analyses of the differentiated ways in which these powers of
self-determination are exercised, notably as a result of the obstacles they encounter.
Notably in chapters 9 and 10 of Hegel’s Practical Philosophy.
Honneth’s recognition model, if it doesn’t provide a general account of the definition of spirit
as self-determining, does justice to that other side of Hegel’s social and political philosophy.

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