The Pathologies of Individual Freedom: Hegel’s Social Theory by Axel Honneth (Princeton University Press) £20.95/$29.95 (hb)
Though the name of Hegel is still bound to set off allergic reactions among many philosophers, recent scholarship has done much to undermine simplistic dismissals of his work as conceptually impenetrable or politically reactionary. Recent Anglo-American research, sometimes influenced by pragmatism or the so-called “post-analytic” turn, has stressed the importance of Hegel as a thinker of intersubjectivity, norms and social institutions. On the evidence of this brief tome by Axel Honneth, heir to Adorno and Habermas as the director of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Continental critical theory has also abandoned a number of its earlier reservations about Hegel’s work, and, in dialogue with recent Anglo-American interpretations, is also occupied with the presentation of a Hegelian philosophy stripped of its speculative hubris, rhetorical convolutions and grand narratives.
Honneth begins by acknowledging the recent tendency to approach Hegel as a thinker of the rationality embedded in social life, but notes a neglect of Hegel’s crucial work on social justice and ethical norms, the Philosophy of Right. Hegel is praised for his critique of those philosophies, such as Kantianism, which propose a formal and disembodied conception of justice. With the Philosophy of Right, the focus shifts to the social preconditions for self-realisation. Key here is the idea of communicative freedom, whereby interaction with other free subjects is a condition of my own free activity. Having explored the limits of those understandings of justice that rely on an abstract and individualistic prioritising of morality and law, Hegel presents his alternative, couched in terms of “objective spirit” and “ethical life”.
Behind these easily misunderstood notions, Honneth discerns two arguments. First, there is a rationality (a “spirit”) really underlying social practice (this is why it is “objective”). Neglect of this rationality gives rise to the very pathologies of individual freedom (apathy, lack of fulfilment, atomisation) that give the book its title. Second, individuals realise themselves in multiple spheres of social life which possess their own rationality, in other words, their own ethos. The Philosophy of Right is thus “a draft of a normative theory of those spheres of reciprocal recognition that must be preserved intact because they constitute the moral identity of modern societies.”
In order to reactivate Hegel, Honneth has to engage in some serious pruning. This is a “post-metaphysical” Hegel, without the categories of the Logic and the grand narrative of “spirit”. In bringing Hegel “up to date”, Honneth also criticises Hegel’s excessive reliance on institutions for the production of lasting patterns of social recognition, and, most significantly, downplays the centrality of the state in the architecture of the Philosophy of Right.
The reasonable, social-liberal Hegel that emerges from this operation is certainly not the one which the earlier Frankfurt School wrestled with. For the likes of Adorno or Marcuse, a critical social theory had to embrace important aspects of Hegel’s dialectical method, namely his idea of negativity. But it also needed to think through the way in which the processes of integration and rationalisation identified by Hegel could take monstrous and oppressive forms. In contrast, Honneth chooses to circumvent those moments when Hegel foregrounds the more disturbing facets of modern life: the discussions of inequality and the “rabble”, the necessity for monarchical decisions, or the role of war in forming modern subjects. Little of the drama of Hegel’s text is conveyed, and Honneth’s laborious, cautious prose can often make this slim volume feel considerably longer.
Honneth rightly counters the view of Hegel as a philosopher of reconciliation and conformism. To say that the real is rational is not to justify everything which is, but rather to accord full reality only to those behaviours that contribute to collective self-realisation: “social reality is always permeated by rational reasons to such an extent that a practical infringement of them is bound to create dislocations in social life.” Misunderstanding and misrecognition matter. Yet Honneth’s proposal that Hegelian liberation is a kind of “therapy” that would allow the individual to find self-realisation in social patterns of recognition is still plagued by the ambivalence between adapting to the supposed rationality of the world and seeking to transform the world in keeping with a rationality it has failed to fully express. Honneth revisits the spheres of the family, civil society (economic life) and the state as the contexts for freedoms that the individual develops in relation with others, on the basis of need, interest and honour. He perceptively discusses why Hegel’s statism leads to an undue reliance on the nuclear family, and to moving away from his earlier emphasis on friendship. But how “modern” is this Hegel, in which there is no trauma in the family, no class conflicts in civil society, and no violence in the state? In the end, as the vagueness of Honneth’s proposals for a “democratic rounding off” of the Philosophy of Right shows, neglecting Hegel’s concern with negativity leads to a social theory which, for all of its internal coherence, has little purchase on the pathologies of modernity.
Alberto Toscano is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (Verso)
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