Tag Archives: critical theory

Asger Sørensen, Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics (Leiden: Brill, 2019)

The compilation of texts under the title Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics is Volume one of a trilogy named Dialectics, Deontology and Democracy by Asger Sørensen. The collection is a child of its time: ambivalently modest and dashing when stating its aim, it scratches the surface of vital questions about human prospects impregnated in a global capitalist system and goes in-depth at others in the same class of issues, offering both less and more than what one might expect under certain headings.

The volume includes seven main Chapters divided in two parts (i.e. Economy and Dialectics) and throughout comes back to the initial argument that dialectics, deontology and democracy are “obligatory and necessary ways of relating to social reality” (p.11). Notwithstanding that ‘necessity’ arguments invoke primarily the necessity of immediate syllogistic precision, the exploration is generally done without being oblivious to the need to question various claims on ‘validity’ or to think of (social) science as a political practice. The included name index with bibliography and a separate subject index could well serve students stepping into the world of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, getting inspired by the Hegelian dialectical nuances of Aufhebung, or discovering briefly Durkheim’s sociological conception of value as a way to situate persistent to this day realities, in which liberal politics ‘liberate’ the economic decision-making from moral reasoning.

An Interlude considers the potency of the classical Critical Theory and its current relevance, whereas the work concludes with a Postscript where the critique of political economy is continued from the first part and refreshingly deepened. This last and closing section in fact abounds with solid critique of several layers of capitalist ideology and is perhaps what one might prefer to read precisely in the first part dedicated to Economics, rather than an analysis of George Bataille’s quasi-political and neo-gnostic flow-of-energy concept on general economy in a macro- and micro- perspective.

The second part dedicated to Dialectics has a low start. Its beginning chapter dedicates only few lines to summarizing Aristotle’s contribution to the topic. The point is not that there is no mention of Topika or Analitika protera or that relevant works from Aristotle’s deeply political anthropoeia philosophia are, as if, footnoted (and briefly abstracted in other chapters), but that in the volume’s Introduction, the author summarizes this Chapter as the one where “dialectics is presented in a very classical philosophical way, i.e. taking it all the way from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx […]” (p.14). A careful reader (or simply a radical one in the sense of going back to the original ancient text in the spirit of the Hegelian Bildung tradition) can arrive to Aristotle’s dialectics either through his logic and the understanding of dialectic premises, or his Metaphysics and the theory of ousia. At least, this is what one would expect from a classical philosophical treatment.

Hence, the reader gets the impression that Aristotle somehow falls under the ‘et al.’ category, which the author uses throughout the entire volume. No matter how playfully or only practically intended, the ‘et al.’ practice is at points inadmissible for arguments’ sake, opening up with no need a dismissive context which inadvertently goes against the author’s own hailing of credible normative frameworks and emancipatory politics. At times the usage is outright obdurate as in “[…] and the discovery of Auschwitz et al. […]” (p.49). In any case, even if the promised classical treatment is missing as a simple consequence of preference or choice of focus, we should be mindful that these themselves might be due to a long tradition of ‘readings’ of Aristotle which sometimes impoverish dizzyingly (Kant), adapt fecundly (Hegel) or appropriate catachrestically (Heidegger) Aristotle’s potent theoretical system and dialectic approach.

In this sense, by being too eager to ‘move on’ in his argumentation at points too quickly, Sørensen risks being not radical enough in the most necessary sense, the political one. Leaving unmined treasures of insights and knots that could have been brought to light is evidenced also when the dynamic of lotteries, gambling halls, internet scams and casinos is put under the umbrella of ‘ideology of hope’ (p.290), without mining one’s own or contextual anthropological assumptions as crucial for giving a consistently critical perspective. The work itself, for instance, is seen as seeking to contribute to the establishment “of credible normative frameworks enabling us to comprehend conceptually, and hopefully also to cope with, the current human predicament, while remaining painfully aware that such an ambition may in fact be overly presumptuous” (p.20). Perhaps claiming an aim only to give it up rhetorically in the same assertion might be attractive to a certain readership, but some might see the claimed scope as complacent and missing any substantial ethico-political challenge. Moreover, even though Sørensen is afraid that Honneth’s critique might be politically impotent “due to its very radicality” (p.12), the reader might wonder what in particular is radical in reducing Critical Theory to social philosophy, given also the well-presented argument on Honneth’s approach in light of the classical critical project (p.67-82).

Imprecision, inaccuracies, and possible contradictions are thus somewhat burdensome, even though the volume is not lacking in solid demonstrations; among else, into how the ever-growing mathematization of political economy is covering up its deeply ideological violence, which leaves out the problem of social (and political) justice. Nonetheless, the claim that an apolitical relation to social reality fails to recognize the value of all intermediary institutions, since it subscribes to the idea of a single individual facing the absolute (p.122), is potentially ideological itself if left unpacked, despite one’s otherwise evident dedication to the critical project. The fact that Durkheim’s or our current intermediary institutions would condition an answer to relevant questions, or aim to eliminate the challenging ethico-political questions altogether, does not cancel or salvage us from the human condition and facing ‘the absolute’ whose historical trajectory, from God to State to Market, is only a potent soil to plough into critically.

The collection is therefore a good reminder of a struggle. A struggle of weakened States embedded in the new practices of imperialism and fragmented by the cynical ideology of global capitalism, which relies on the displaced likelihood that once something happens, it can be quickly renormalized as already having been possible. Examples abound, but think of a recent one: the imposition of a European State onto a non-European one to change its name even in its relation to all other states, against the clear will of the only sovereign (i.e., the people) and through an openly illegal and anti-constitutional process, but such that the first (politically) demarcates the (ethnic) identity of the ‘Other’ by claiming exclusivity over cultural history and even symbols. It is such political violence par excellence that defines our current world, alongside the direct one and the one that counts several millions of people as nothing, for they are neither consumers nor employees. But, if we do not see that all three orders of violence sit in the lap of greed, force and ‘this is mine’ ideology so typical of capitalism, we have understood nothing of its nature.

Hence, if our aim is effective change of the conditions currently guiding people’s lives, the grand problem might not even be how do we system-wise sustain such change and reach those that are most in need of justice and equality. Badiou has already addressed this question elsewhere. Rather, are we aware that an ‘all-inclusive’ proletarization is already underway? Such that we are all (beyond the classical image of proletarians) potentially stripped of our substance? We could, at least potentially, imagine a rich rather than a meagre symbolic life offered to newborns brought to a world of biogenetic manipulation (geared, likely, out of any democratic oversight) and threatening ecological breakdown, coupled exponentially with freedom reconfigured as being able to follow one’s whims: yet lo and behold, our political problem is deeply ethical. It reconfigures for each of us the quintessential question of what do you believe in and hope for, and how do you live in the name of it.

There was a reason why Marx was concerned with raising the awareness of the working class and the need for unity in making a change that will indeed not be in the interest of the few only, and why education is such a potent ‘game-changer’, or why for that matter Hegel was obsessed with Bildung in line with the tradition of the classical Athenian polis, and his view that critique presupposes alienation. Potentially excluded from our very substance, each-of-us a Homo Sacer might be the only proper conceptual start.

Asger Sørensen, Capitalism, Alienation and Critique (Aarhus: Nordic Summer University Press, 2016)

As concerns the main contents of the new book by prolific Danish philosopher and social scientist Asger Sørensen, they are certainly relevant and urgent, for they constitute an articulate critical reflection upon the grim reality of avoidable human degradation and suffering within the capitalist order, as well as upon their callous and hopeless acceptance therein, all of which are important features of contemporary social life worth thinking about and, possibly, acting against.

Building upon a variety of essays written independently of one another and published individually elsewhere on previous occasions (e.g. the prestigious scholalrly journal Philosophy & Social Criticism), the book is internally diverse, but it is neither contradictory nor overwhelmingly heterogeneous. Rather, the book’s structure is sensibly and comprehensibly open, for it comprises:

(A) An introduction, a presentation and an interlude that, somewhat redundantly but very usefully, lead the reader into the rich intellectual panorama to follow, highlighting above all: (1) the common conceptual threads linking together the two subsequent, admittedly uneven parts; (2) their being the result of a single process of intellectual growth and maturation lasted many years; and (3) their more or less direct impinging upon the Continental school of thought known as Critical Theory, to which the book’s author claims to belong himself.

(B) A first part, entitled “Economy” and focussing on the classic social thinkers Émile Durkheim and Bataille, whose reflections provide a profound and complex theoretical backdrop for the correct understanding of the axiological significance of the emancipatory movements emerged in capitalist countries in our young new century (e.g. the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, the Indignados of Spain, etc.). Although admired and mined for important insights in existing realities and problems, neither classic social thinker is idealised and extensive criticism of their views, especially Bataille’s, is offered too;

(C) A second part, called “Dialectics”, covering a much wider spectrum of intellectual sources in all senses, i.e. disciplinary, geographical, historical and linguistic. It is also a more complex section, which requires closer attention to detail and serious efforts of synthesis in order to appreciate how the different notions of dialectics explored and explained in its five chapters (i.e. Aristotle’s, Hegel’s, Marx’s, Bataille’s, Tong Shijun’s, Mao’s, and the Frankfurt School’s) can be combined together so as to shed light on contemporary capitalism, its many woes and their possible solutions;

(D) A postscript that expands upon and integrates (A), developing a critique of key-aspects of liberal and neoliberal political economy, especially Ricardo’s doctrine of comparative advantage and the macroeconomic practical manifestations of the Austrian school of economics in pre-2008 developing countries and in post-2008 Europe, under the banner of austerity. Somewhat disconnected from both (A) and (B), it is per se a very interesting piece of intellectual reflection, and one that should appeal to open-minded economists as much as to social scientists at large and philosophers.

Noteworthy and original is the book’s attempt to give a better-contoured and more positive shape to the notion of cultural Marxism, which has been used very loosely in contemporary social discourse and, typically, with an almost taken-for-granted negative connotation. In this manner, the book can be useful both to the friends and to the foes of the broadly humanitarian, democratic and socialist (i.e. not liberal, as the book’s author vehemently states in his postscript) cultural tradition that goes under this name and that the book’s author identifies, investigates, interrogates and invigorates. Whether trying to promote it or to demote it, both sides can benefit from having a conceptually more refined version of it to dissect, debate and disagree upon.

From a scholarly perspective, the book is verily informed and informative. If anything, it is scholarly thorough and thoroughly scholarly. Its main arguments are sensible and sensibly constructed, but a reader unfamiliar with the classics of philosophy and of social thought that are so frequently referred to therein is unlikely to be able to grasp such arguments with ease, if at all. The spectrum of ideas and ideologies presented and toyed with in the book is immense, even if inevitably partial, and what is presented and toyed with is done so in a competent, intelligent and perceptive manner, as well as in an articulate, meticulous and subtle one. The overall style of the book is plainly academic. Positively clear and professionally tailored, no reader will find thrilling passages, stimulating wit or spiritually inspiring prose to ponder upon. Yet, it is unlikely that any reader but an academic one will purchase the book and read it.

From Critical Theory to Critical Hermeneutics


The origin of critical theory in the Frankfurt School during the 1930s

From their beginning in the 1930s, critical theory and the Frankfurt school had their focus on a critique of disturbed social relations in western society dominated by totalitarian political regimes like Stalinism, Fascism, Nazism, and by capitalism as an oppressive and destructive economic system and culture. The main theoretical references were Freud and Marx. According to Rolf Wiggershaus, the historian of the Frankfurt School, it was appropriate to talk about a school in the 1930s insofar as Max Horkheimer was a charismatic “managerial scholar”, who was able to formulate a theoretical program for the school that was institutionalized into the Institut für Sozialforschung (Wiggershaus 1986: 9-10). Horkheimer was able to attract many brilliant scholars like Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer to participate in the critical theory program. They all wanted in different ways to contribute to an interdisciplinary social science that could embrace the many specialized forms of social sciences, and express a critique that united the moral and social scientific perspectives. However, as Wiggershaus remarks, even in the 1930s there was no paradigmatic unity in the brilliant scholars’ different perspectives. Therefore one could say that even in the 1930s it was misleading to speak about critical theory as the expression of one single theory. There was, to a certain degree, only a common understanding that the task of social sciences is to exercise critique. But what could be meant by critique was not at all clear and univocal.


Now, 80 years later, this has all become history and thus it is time to leave the concept of critical theory behind us, and instead bring the concept of critique to a broader theoretical framework such as hermeneutics. This allows for the possibility of retaining the theoretical intentions of the old Frankfurt school and at the same time there will be no boundaries by specific dominant theoretical perspectives such as Marx’s, Freud’s, etc. This does not mean that these specific theories no longer have any relevance. But today we have another horizon of understanding and we live in another époque.


In the following, I would like to sketch a framework for such a critical hermeneutics with a discussion of the concept of hermeneutics by Weber, Gadamer and Habermas.



Max Weber’s concept of a hermeneutical social science

In fact, the idea of social sciences as a hermeneutical science is not a new idea. Max Weber is the great founder of hermeneutic sociology in which the important thing is to create an understanding of social relationships. Weber speaks programmatically of “eine ‘verstehende’ Soziologie” in his article, “Über einige Kategorien der verstehenden Soziologie” (Weber 1988a: 427 ff.). In Weber’s special version of “the sociology of knowledge,” the notion of “the objectivity of social science” has a very special meaning. Weber writes in “Die ‘Objektivität’ sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis“:


Die ‘Objektivität’ sozialwissenschaftlicher Erkenntnis hängt vielmehr davon ab, daß das empirisch Gegebene zwar stets auf jene Wertideen, die ihr allein Erkenntniswert verleihen, ausgerichtet, in ihrer Bedeutung aus ihnen verstanden, dennoch aber niemals zum Piedestal für den empirisch unmöglichen Nachweis ihrer Geltung gemacht wird. Und der uns allen in irgendeiner Form inne wohnende Glaube an die überempirische Geltung letzter und höchster Wertideen, an denen wir den Sinn unseres Daseins verankern, schließt die unausgesetzte Wandelbarkeit der konkreten Gesichtspunkte, unter denen die empirische Wirklichkeit Bedeutung erhält, nicht etwa aus, sondern ein: das Leben in seiner irrationalen Wirklichkeit und sein Gehalt an möglichen Bedeutungen sind unausschöpfbar, die konkrete Gestaltung der Wertbeziehung bleibt daher ?ießend, dem Wandel unterworfen in die dunkle Zukunft der menschlichen Kultur hinein. Das Licht, welches jene höchsten Wertideen spenden, fällt jeweilig auf einen stets wechselnden endlichen Teil des ungeheuren chaotischen Stromes von Geschehnissen, der sich durch die Zeit dahinwälzt“ (Weber 1988b: 213-214).


What is paradoxical in the formulation is that Weber turns the usual discussion of objectivity completely on its head. For Weber, it is a matter of guarding against the conception that the empirical could give our subjective values an objective sheen and turn them into an ideology (Larsen 1996: 81). It is not the purpose of science to justify values; the purpose of science is, with the help of values, to clarify empirical relationships (Collin 1996: 54 ff.). Yet, this clarity can never be final. It is a hermeneutic relationship, because it depends on the value point of view taken on the social relationship. In an extension thereof, it becomes an important, perhaps, the most important task of sociology to clarify what values lay the groundwork for the evaluation of the empirical social relationship.


Weber discusses this, among other places, in “Wissenschaft als Beruf”, where he reaches the conclusion that science has four professional tasks (Weber 1988d: 606-609). The first is technical insight into social reality. The second is training in a methodological procedure for inquiry. The third is clarity of thought, including, among other things, clarity in the choice between goals and means. The fourth is clarity about what values are at the basis of those assessments. Thus, science as a professional calling (“Beruf”) must serve “self-knowledge”’ and “knowledge of interrelated facts” (Weber 1988d: 609).


Weber discusses the same problem in “Der Sinn der ‘Wertfreiheit’ der soziologischen und ökonomischen Wissenschaften“, in which he writes:


Durch empirisch-psychologische und historische Untersuchung eines bestimmten Wertungsstandpunktes auf seine individuelle, soziale, historische Bedingtheit hin gelangt man nun und nimmer je zu irgendetwas anderem, als dazu: ihm verstehend zu erklären. Das ist nichts Geringes. Es ist nicht nur wegen des persönlichen (aber nicht wissenschaftlichen) Nebenerfolgs: dem wirklich oder scheinbar Andersdenkenden persönlich leichter ‘gerecht werden’ zu können, erwünscht. Sondern es ist auch wissenschaftlich höchst wichtig. 1. für den Zweck einer empirischen Kausalbetrachtung menschlichen Handelns, um dessen wirkliche letzte Motive kennen zu lernen, 2. aber, wenn man mit einem (wirklich oder scheinbar) abweichend Wertenden diskutiert, für die Ermittlung der wirklichen gegenseitigen Wertungsstandpunkte. Denn dies ist der eigentliche Sinn einer Wertdiskussion: das, was der Gegner (oder auch: man selbst) wirklich meint, d. h. den Wert, auf den es jedem der beiden Teile wirklich und nicht nur scheinbar ankommt, zu erfassen und so zu diesem Wert eine Stellungnahme überhaupt erst zu ermöglichen. Weit entfernt [davon] also, daß vom Standpunkt der Forderung der ‘Wertfreiheit’ empirischer aus Diskussionen von Wertungen steril oder gar sinnlos wären, ist gerade die Erkenntnis dieses ihres Sinnes Voraussetzung aller nützlichen Erörterungen dieser Art. Sie setzen einfach das Verständnis für die Möglichkeit prinzipiell und unüberbrückbar abweichender letzter Wertungen voraus. Denn weder bedeutet ‘alles verstehen’ auch ‘alles verzeihen’, noch führt überhaupt vom bloßen Verstehen des fremden Standpunktes an sich ein Weg zu dessen Billigung. Sondern mindestens ebenso leicht, oft mit höherer Wahrscheinlichkeit, zu der Erkenntnis: daß, warum und worüber, man sich nicht einigen könne. Gerade diese Erkenntnis ist aber eine Wahrheitserkenntnis und gerade ihr dienen ‘Wertungsdiskussionen’. Was man dagegen auf diesem Wege ganz gewiß nicht gewinnt – weil es in der gerade entgegengesetzten Richtung liegt –, ist irgendeine normative Ethik oder überhaupt die Verbindlichkeit irgendeines ‘Imperativs’. Jedermann weiß vielmehr, daß ein solches Ziel durch die, zum mindesten dem Anschein nach, ‘relativierende’ Wirkung solcher Diskussionen eher erschwert wird. Damit ist natürlich nun wieder nicht gesagt: daß man um deswillen sie vermeiden solle. Im geraden Gegenteil. Denn eine ‘ethische’ Überzeugung, welche durch psychologisches ‘Verstehen’ abweichender Wertungen sich aus dem Sattel heben läßt, ist nur ebenso viel wert gewesen wie religiöse Meinungen, welche durch wissenschaftliche Erkenntnis zerstört werden, wie dies ja ebenfalls vorkommt“ (Weber 1988c: 503-504).


It appears from this quote and the whole discussion in “Der Sinn der ‘Wertfreiheit’ der soziologischen und ökonomischen Wissenschaften” that Weber attributes discussions about fundamental values a decisive significance to scientific work, because it is through this discussion that what values are to be at the basis for scientific assessments are clarified. According to Weber, there is no such thing as a value-neutral scientific statement, which means that positivist sociology is, in Weber’s view, nonsense. On the other hand, according to Weber, there is no ultimate justification of values (Bruun 1996: 33 ff.; Crone 1996: 72 ff.). Scientific investigation is at the focal point of this contradiction (Bertilsson 1996: 11 ff.). Therefore, scientific investigation for Weber is ultimately grounded in a passionate ‘calling,’ whose virtue is “schlichte intellektuelle Rechtschaffenheit” (Weber 1988c: 613).



Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School

Critical theory is an attempt to get beyond the positivist and hermeneutic views of the social sciences. The social sciences must not merely explain and understand; they must also criticize. Horkheimer states this programmatically in the article ”Traditionelle und kritische Theorie” from 1937 (Horkheimer 1970a). Rolf Wiggershaus describes it in this way in his history of the Frankfurt School, Die Frankfurter Schule. Geschichte, Theoretische Entwicklung, Politische Bedeutung:


Seit Horkheimers Aufsatz über Traditionelle und kritische Theorie (1937) wurde ‘kritische Theorie’ zur hauptsächlichen Selbstetikettierung der Theo­retiker des Horkheimerkreises. Das war zwar auch ein Tarnbegriff für marxistischen Theorie, aber mehr noch ein Ausdruck dafür, daß Horkheimer und seine Mitarbeiter sich nicht mit der marxistischen Theorie in ihrer orthodoxen Form identi?zierten, die auf die Kritik des Kapitalismus als eines ökonomischen Systems mit davon abhängigem Überbau und ideologischem Denken ?xiert war – sondern mit dem Prinzipiellen der marxistischen Theorie. Dies Prinzipielle bestand in der konkreten Kritik entfremdeter und entfremdender gesellschaftlicher Verhältnisse. Die kritischen Theoretiker kamen weder vom Marxismus noch von der Arbeiterbewegung her. Sie wie­derholten vielmehr in gewisser Weise Erfahrungen des jungen Marx. Für Erich Fromm und Herbert Marcuse wurde die Entdeckung des jungen Marx zur entscheidenden Bestätigung der Richtigkeit ihrer eigenen Bestrebungen. … Für Adorno z.B. war dagegen der junge Marx kein Schlüsselerlebnis. Aber er wollte mit seinem ersten großen Musik-Aufsatz, der 1932 … erschien, die Erfahrung demonstrieren, daß im Kapitalismus alle Wege versperrt seien, daß man überall gleichsam auf eine gläserne Mauer stoße, daß also die Menschen nicht zum eigentlichen Leben gelangten … Das Leben lebt nicht – diese Feststellung des jungen Lukács war das treibende Element auch der jungen kritischen Theoretiker. Der Marxismus wurde für sie in erster Linie, soweit er um diese Erfahrung zentriert war, inspirierend. Nur für Horkheimer (erst später für Benjamin und noch später für Marcuse) bildete die Empörung über das Unrecht, das den Ausgebeuteten und Erniedrigten angetan wurde, einen wesentlichen Stachel des Denkens. Letztlich entscheidend war aber auch für ihn die Empörung darüber, daß in der bürgerlich-kapitalistischen Gesellschaft ein rationales, der Allgemeinheit verantwortliches und in seinen Folgen für die Allgemeinheit kalkulierbares Handeln nicht möglich war und selbst ein privilegiertes Individuum und die Gesellschaft einander entfremdet waren. Lange Zeit bildete er so etwas wie das gesellschaftstheoretische Gewissen des Kreises, die Instanz, die immer wieder mahnte, die gemeinsame Aufgabe sei, eine Theorie der Gesamtgesellschaft, eine Theorie des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters zu liefern, die die Menschen als die Produzenten ihrer historischen Lebensformen, aber eben ihnen entfremdeter Lebensformen zum Gegenstand hatte“ (Wiggershaus 1986: 13-14).


From its beginning, critical theory was borne by three interlinked views of criticism.

The first view of criticism deals with a critique of social relations as they appear in contemporary society. It is this desire for critique that makes it obvious to link it to the young Marx, who develops his critical theory from an immediate critique of bourgeois society and its limitations. In this sense, there is not so much a link to a particular theory, but to a particular theoretical matter and a particular theoretical practice in which the young Marx is a model. In this view, there is a strong desire to change society through criticism, as it was expressed in Marx’ 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern” (Marx 1968a: 341).


This leads to the second view of critical theory, which deals with a much broader traditional concern, i.e., that it is the task of every theory to be critical (Larsen 1991). In Plato’s dialogues, the philosopher is compared to a doctor, and Plato’s dialogues are permeated by the disparity between idea and phenomenon. Aristotle takes the true task of philosophy further in his phenomenological critical theory. Thus, from the beginning with Plato and Aristotle, there is a conception that the job of theory is to be critical. It is also this concern that leads to positivism and hermeneutics. In both these theories, there is a desire to be critical, even though the concept of criticism is entirely different.


Finally, the third understanding of critical theory is linked to a specific view of criticism, developed by Marx in his later work, as summarized in his critique of political economy.


It is no longer possible to refer unilaterally to Marx’ theory, as there is a tendency to do among a number of members of the Frankfurt School, without thereby disparaging the meaning of Marx’ work. On the other hand, the concerns of critical theory mentioned here are still relevant to the understanding of the purpose and significance of theoretical work (Larsen 1991). It is this concern in critical theory I will maintain as I take it into a broader hermeneutic horizon of understanding, as it will appear in the following.



Gadamer’s Hermeneutics

According to Gadamer, hermeneutics is not only a method but a fundamental philosophical understanding of our access to human life. In Wahrheit und Methode, Gadamer puts it in the following way:


Indem wir nun als das universale Medium solcher Vermittlung die Sprach­lichkeit erkannten, weitete sich unsere Fragestellung von ihren konkreten Ausgangspunkten, der Kritik am ästhetischen und historischen Bewußtsein und der an ihre Stelle zu setzenden Hermeneutik, zu einer universalen Fragerichtung aus. Denn sprachlich und damit verständlich ist das menschliche Weltverhältnis schlechthin und von Grund aus. Hermeneutik ist, wie wir sahen, insofern ein universaler Aspekt der Philosophie und nicht nur die methodische Basis der sogenannten Geisteswissenschaften“ (Gadamer 1990: 479).


In Gadamer’s hermeneutics, language has a fundamental ontological meaning as the fundamental horizon of human life, and it is the task of hermeneutics to interpret this horizon of understanding, so that it not only expresses the tradition of theology, literature, and the humanities but also concrete living conditions insofar as these concrete living conditions, according to Gadamer, must be seen as a hermeneutic linguistic matter. It is the latter that leads to the relevance of hermeneutics for the social sciences, insofar as hermeneutics’ view of human life as a linguistically-mediated relationship must also be expressed in the social sciences. Hermeneutics is often viewed as a conservative view of social life – in part, because hermeneutics is traditionally bound to texts of the past and, in part, because emphasis is laid in Gadamer’s interpretation of hermeneutics on the problem of the hermeneutic circle, which consists of the fact that we are always in a previously given view, a pre-understanding, or, in a true sense, prejudice and that we are bound to it (Gadamer 1990: 270 ff.).


However, one must be aware that Gadamer’s hermeneutics can also be read in such a way that it is inquiry and criticism, which are the important things in hermeneutics. Gadamer develops this in his discussion of the hermeneutic priority of the question, “Der hermeneutische Vorrang der Frage” (Gadamer 1990: 368 ff.). Gadamer notes that it is an inquiry and a radical negativity that is the decisive thing in hermeneutics. Gadamer puts it this way:


Damit ist uns der Gang der weiteren Untersuchung vorgezeichnet. Wir fragen nämlich …, welche Bedeutung bei der Analyse der hermeneutischen Situation dem Begriff der Frage zukam. Daß in aller Erfahrung die Struktur der Frage vorausgesetzt ist, liegt auf der Hand. Man macht keine Erfahrung ohne die Aktivität des Fragens. Die Erkenntnis, daß die Sache anders ist und nicht so, wie man zuerst glaubte, setzt offenbar den Durchgang durch die Frage voraus, ob es so oder so ist. Die Offenheit, die im Wesen der Erfahrung liegt, ist logisch gesehen eben diese Offenheit des So oder So. Sie hat die Struktur der Frage. Und wie die dialektische Negativität der Erfahrung in der Idee einer vollendeten Erfahrung ihre Perfektion fand, … so ?ndet auch die logische Form der Frage und die ihr einwohnende Negativität ihre Vollendung in einer radikalen Negativität, dem Wissen des Nichtwissens. Es ist die berühmte sokratische docta ignorantia, die in der äußersten Negativität der Aporie die wahre Überlegenheit des Fragens eröffnet. … Es gehört zu den größten Einsichten, die uns die platonische Sokratesdarstellung vermittelt, daß das Fragen – ganz im Gegensatz zu der allgemeinen Meinung – schwerer ist als das Antworten“ (Gadamer 1990: 368).


It is the central significance of an inquiry, a critique and a negation that leads me to be able to view hermeneutics as a critical science, which can also be applied within the social sciences. In an extension thereof, I will try to unite the concerns of critical theory, mentioned above, with the view presented of hermeneutics through which I am able to talk about a ‘critical hermeneutics’ in order to distinguish the critical dimension in hermeneutics.


Paul Ricœur has the same concern in his essay, “Pour une herméneutique critique”, in which he tries to show the connection between hermeneutics and critical theory (Ricœur 1986: 362 ff.). For Ricœur, hermeneutics and critical theory form a unit that must be viewed together. John B. Thompson has a similar perspective in his Critical Hermeneutics, in which he discusses the concept of a critical hermeneutics in the light of the theoretical works of Ricœur, Gadamer and Habermas (Thompson 1981) and Hans-Herbert Kögler, Die Macht des Dialogs – Kritische Hermeneutik nach Gadamer, Foucault und Rorty (Kögler 1992).



Habermas on Critical Hermeneutics

Habermas presents his view of critical hermeneutics in the introduction to Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (Habermas 1981, I, 8-9). Habermas shares hermeneutics’ conception of the fundamental ontological significance of language for human life – that is, the circumstance that human life is fundamentally defined as a linguistic matter. Habermas’ critique of Gadamer’s hermeneutics in his article “Der Universalitätsanspruch der Hermeneutik” (1970) is not directed toward hermeneutics as such, as it has often been understood, but toward the special understanding of hermeneutics that Gadamer sets forth in Wahrheit und Methode. According to Habermas, the problem is that Gadamer does not only connect hermeneutics to language in its abstract universality, but also to language in its particular tradition. Whereas, in Gadamer, there may be a tendency to displace the ontological from language to tradition, which makes it impossible to distinguish between a true and a systematically distorted communication. Habermas expresses it in the following way:


Gadamer ist, wenn ich recht sehe, der Auffassung, dass die hermeneutische Klärung unverständlicher oder mißverstandener Lebensäußerungen stets auf einen Konsensus zurückführen muß, der vorgängig durch konvergierende Überlieferung verläßlich eingespielt ist. Diese Überlieferung aber ist für uns objektiv in dem Sinne, dass wir sie nicht einem prinzipiellen Wahrheitsanspruch konfrontieren können. Die Vorurteilsstruktur des Verstehens verbietet nicht nur, sondern läßt es als sinnlos erscheinen, jenen faktisch eingespielten, unserem Mißverständnis und Unverständnis jeweils zugrunde liegenden Konsensus wiederum in Frage zu stellen. Hermeneutisch sind wir gehalten, uns auf konkrete Vorverständigungen, die letztlich auf Sozialisation, auf die Einübung in gemeinsame Traditionszusammenhänge zurückgeht, zu beziehen. Keine ist der Kritik grundsätzlich entzogen, aber keine kann abstrakt in Frage gestellt werden. Das wäre nur dann möglich, wenn wir einen durch wechselseitige Verständigung herbeigeführten Konsensus gleichsam von der Seite einsehen und hinter dem Rücken der Beteiligten erneuten Legitimationsforderungen unterwerfen könnten. Aber Forderungen dieser Art können wir nur im Angesicht der Beteiligten stellen, indem wir uns auf ein Gespräch mit ihnen einlassen. Damit unterwerfen wir uns wiederum dem hermeneutischen Zwang, einen klärenden Konsensus, zu dem das wiederaufgenommene Gespräch führen mag, als tragendes Einverständnis vorerst zu akzeptieren. Der Versuch, dieses gewiß kontingente Einverständnis abstrakt als falsches Bewusstsein zu verdächtigen, ist sinnlos, weil wir das Gespräch, das wir sind, nicht transzendieren können. Daraus schließt Gadamer auf den ontologischen Vorrang der sprachlichen Überlieferung vor möglicher Kritik: wir können daher nur an jeweils einzelnen Traditionen, indem wir selbst dem umfassenden Traditionszusammenhang einer Sprache angehören, Kritik üben.

Diese Überlegungen erscheinen zunächst plausibel. Sie werden aber durch die tiefenhermeneutische Einsicht, daß ein scheinbar „vernünftig“ eingespielter Konsensus sehr wohl auch das Ergebnis von Pseudokommunikation sein kann, erschüttert. Albrecht Wellmer hat darauf hingewiesen, dass in der Tradition der Aufklärung jene traditionsfeindliche Einsicht generalisiert worden ist. Die Aufklärung fordert bei allem Interesse an Verständigung, dass Vernunft als das Prinzip gewaltloser Kommunikation gegenüber der erfahrenen Wirklichkeit einer durch Gewalt verzerrten Kommunikation zur Geltung gebracht wird: “Die Aufklärung wußte, was die Hermeneutik vergißt: Daß das ’Gespräch’, das wir nach Gadamer ‚sind‘, auch ein Gewaltzusammenhang und gerade darin kein Gespräch ist… Der universale Anspruch des hermeneutischen Ansatzes (läßt sich) nur dann aufrechterhalten, wenn man davon ausgeht, dass der Überlieferungszusammenhang als der Ort möglicher Wahrheit und faktischen Verständigtseins zugleich auch der Ort faktischer Unwahrheit und fortdauernder Gewalt ist“ (Wellmer 1969: 48f).

Wir wären nur dann legitimiert, das tragende Einverständnis, das Gadamer zufolge der verfehlten Verständigung jeweils vorausliegt, mit dem jeweiligen faktischen Verständigtsein gleichzusetzen, wenn wir sicher sein dürften, dass jeder im Medium der sprachlichen Überlieferung eingespielte Konsensus zwangslos und unverzerrt zustande gekommen ist. Nun lehrt aber die tiefenhermeneutische Erfahrung, dass sich in der Dogmatik des Überlieferungszusammenhangs nicht nur die Objektivität der Sprache überhaupt, sondern die Repressivität eines Gewaltverhältnisses durchsetzt, das die Intersubjektivität der Verständigung als solche deformiert und die umgangssprachliche Kommunikation systematisch verzerrt“ (Habermas 1970: 97-99).


As it appears, Habermas has a positive relationship to hermeneutics, but he does not link hermeneutics to a given tradition as an ultimate arbiter of truth, because the tradition is also interwoven into a power relationship. Therefore, according to Habermas, it is a matter of taking a position with the help of reason as a critical relation to the given tradition. This is expressed in the following way:


K. O. Apel hat mit Recht betont, dass hermeneutisches Verstehen zugleich der kritischen Vergewisserung der Wahrheit nur in dem Maße dient, als es sich dem regulativen Prinzip unterstellt: Universale Verständigung im Rahmen einer unbegrenzten Interpretationsgemeinschaft herbeizuführen (Apel 1970: 105). Erst dieses Prinzip sichert nämlich, dass die hermeneutische Anstrengung nicht ablassen darf, bevor nicht im gewaltsamen Konsensus die Täuschung und im scheinbar zufälligen Mißverstehen die systematische Entstellung durchschaut sind. Wenn Sinnverstehen nicht a fortiori gegenüber der Idee der Wahrheit indifferent bleiben soll, müssen wir mit dem Begriff einer Wahrheit, die sich an der idealisierten, in unbegrenzter und herrschaftsfreier Kommunikation erzielten Übereinstimmung bemißt, zugleich die Struktur eines Zusammenlebens in zwangloser Kommunikation Vorwegnehmen. Wahrheit ist der eigentümliche Zwang zu zwangloser universaler Anerkennung; diese aber ist gebunden an eine ideale Sprechsituation, und das heißt Lebensform, in der zwanglose universale Verständigung möglich ist. Insofern muß sich kritisches Sinnverstehen die formale Antizipation richtigen Lebens zumuten. … Wir können auch sagen: sie schließt die Idee der Mündigkeit ein. Erst die formale Vorwegnahme des idealisierten Gesprächs als einer in Zukunft zu realisierenden Lebensform garantiert das letzte tragende kontrafaktische Einverständnis, das uns vorgängig verbindet und an dem jedes faktische Einverständnis, wenn es ein falsches ist, als falsches Bewußtsein kritisiert werden kann“ (Habermas 1970: 99-100).


In the 1970s, Habermas developed the fundamental principles, which were later developed in his theory of communicative action. It is worth noting that “the principle of rational discourse” is a regulative principle, which is the same as a critical principle for distorted speech and discourse. Thus, from the beginning, there is a critical principle embedded in Habermas’ ideas about language, which makes it legitimate to look at Habermas’ theory of language as a theory of critical hermeneutics, even though, in Habermas’ theory, there is also a strong tendency to look at language in positive consensus-oriented terms.


Concerning Habermas’ critique of Gadamer, Allan How’s The Habermas-Gadamer Debate and the Nature of the Social can be recommended, in which How recounts the way Habermas incorporates large parts of the hermeneutical view of language, even as he advances the above-mentioned critique (How 1995: 116 ff.). In this context, Paul Ricœur’s essay “Herméneutique et critique des ideologies” in Du texte à l’action. Essais d’herméneutique II should also be mentioned, in which Ricœur discusses the debate between Habermas and Gadamer (Ricœur 1986: 333 ff.). It is in this connection that Ricœur introduces his concept of critical hermeneutics (Ricœur 1986: 362 ff., see also Hermansen and Rendtorff (2002: 11 ff.)).


It is this critical perspective in Habermas’ theory that I have further developed in a more detailed way in the treatise The Right to Dissent, as I discuss the central meaning of the principle of Das Nein-sagen-Können in Habermas’ later theory of communicative action and his subsequent political and jurisprudential development of this principle (Larsen 2009 210 ff.; 220 ff.). Das Nein-sagen-Können, the right to dissent, represents the final critical perspective in Habermas’ theory of communicative action.


In the treatise Ethik und Demokratie, I use the concept ’dialectical hermeneutics’ instead of ‘critical hermeneutics’ related to the problem of a hermeneutical understanding of the ancient Greek democracy compared to modern democracy (Larsen 1990: 3 ff.). However, the two concepts are pretty much used in the same way.





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Axel Honneth: The law of freedom – Institutionalization of freedom in modern societies – A reconstruction and some remarks



Introduction: A theory of institutionalization of freedom

I understand Honneth’s book Das Recht der Freiheit (Suhrkamp 2011) as an argument for human freedom and autonomy in modern society that is based on a normative interpretation of legal, moral and social institutionalization of freedom in modern societies. In this sense Honneth’s book represents a re-interpretation and application of G.W.F Hegel’s concept of Freiheit als Sittlichkeit der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. I would argue that the central theme of the book is the description of processes of institutionalization that lead to the emergence of freedom as the most important legal, moral and social value of the modern society.


The book begins with a presentation of Honneth’s method that can be characterized as a kind of normative sociology or sociological philosophy in the sense that he characterizes theory of justice as analysis of society. The method is based on “normative reconstruction” of the basis of the social institutions of liberal democracy. Here we can say that the starting point is closer to the later Habermas’ idea of facticity and validity and to the later Rawls’ idea of overlapping consensus than it is to the more idealist and metaphysical positions proposed by these authors in their early works (p. 21). Honneth describes the prevailing norms of justice and morality of freedom in liberal democracies of the Western world with Hegel’s philosophy of rights as points of inspiration. Normative reconstruction also means reconstruction of the legal and moral legitimacy of the institutions of liberal democracy. Normative reconstruction leads to an analysis of the social reality of liberal democracies. The idea is to describe the institutionalized conditions of normativity. The premises for this are: 1) Social reproduction of a society is determined by the shared universal values of such a society; 2) Justice cannot be understood independently of these generally shared values and ideals; 3) The plurality of these values and ideas can be found in the social practices of this society that must be distilled out of the society; 4) This leads to the understanding of the Sittlichen institutions and practices of this society (p. 30). This concept of justice is to be considered as a post-traditional concept of Sittlichkeit in society.


Honneth begins by considering the historical conditions of the emergence of the values and ideals of justice of modern society (p. 35). Important for the emergence of modern society is the idea of individual autonomy and authenticity as the meaning of life. Individual freedom has replaced collective conceptions of the good. Honneth sees the focus on autonomy and self-determination as essential to modernity. In particular we can speak about a negative, a reflective and a social conception of freedom that express a differentiation of the concept due to the complexity of modern society. Negative freedom is linked to the philosophy of the social contract coming from Hobbes. But we also find this concept of negative freedom in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and finally in Nozick’s his philosophy of the social contract. Honneth argues that this concept is not enough to constitute the goals for the subject, because something must be presupposed. Therefore the reflective and the social conception of freedom become important. The reflective concept implies that the free individual can determine rationally his or her actions. This is based on a distinction between heteronymous and autonomic action. Rousseau and Kant are representatives of this conception. Autonomy and self-realization according to the idea of rationality are important dimensions of this concept, which forgets however the institutional dimension of freedom that we find in the social concept of freedom. This concept of freedom goes beyond the individual concepts of freedom in Habermas and Apel and goes back to the concept of freedom in Hegel’s philosophy of right. Mutual recognition in social institutions is an important part of this idea of freedom (p. 85). This is what Hegel calls the mutual institutions of mutual recognition. In this context, the central aspect of Honneth’s argument is Hegel’s concept of recognition of freedom as essential to the institutions of liberty in the modern society that are realized not only in the state, but also in the market and in civil society. Honneth gives a detailed account of the concepts of recognition and institutions at the basis of Hegel’s concept of law and justice as emerging as a part of the social institutions of the “Sittlichkeit of society” (p. 85-118).


On the basis of this discussion of Hegel, Honneth is able to present his own conception of “democratic Sittlichkeit” as essential to the institutions of freedom in modern liberal societies (p. 199) . Here Honneth understands his theory of democratic freedom as a theory of the legitimacy of the social order. He researches into the institutionalizations of values and conceptions of justice in liberal democracies where the value of freedom and equality through recognition become integrated in the institutional spheres of action in society. In this sense the idea of freedom is essential to justice and we can use this concept of universal freedom and recognition as a defense for correction of social pathologies and deviances in relation to the generally accepted normative ideas of freedom and justice. In this, through the research on the conditions for freedom and justice, the normative ideas of the democratic Sittlichkeit are explained.


On this basis Honneth discusses the possibility of freedom (p. 129) in relation to law and ethics. He begins with the presentation of the concept of legal freedom. This freedom is the condition of collective autonomy in civil society’s cooperation and also for democratic decision-making based on collective autonomy. The ethical idea of legal freedom is the effort to ensure private autonomy. In this sense legal freedom is understood as individual freedom. Honneth defines legal freedom on the basis of Hegel’s concept of personal rights (p. 134). Hegel proposed a system of positive rights in modernity. With Hannah Arendt we can refer to legal personhood as “protective mask” of the individual. The law of freedom implies this development of the legal rights of the subject. Subjective and negative rights are essential for the freedom of individual action, as suggested by Mill in his defense of the rights of belief, opinion and freedom of expression. This category of subjective rights includes rights of freedom and of participatory rights as the foundation of democratic communication and decision-making. However, it is also a limit to this idea of freedom that it is built on private autonomy and rights defined by its negative character. It is true that the law shall protect personal autonomy and freedom, but this is not enough – behind this lies the development of a society built on communal practices and cooperation in civil society (p. 156). 


Indeed, Honneth is well aware of the social pathologies of legal freedom in modern society. Social pathology is defined as something that emerges when people don’t understand the meaning of social norms of freedom and law and here we can speak about social pathologies. These pathologies can be people who misuse the system and ignore the rationality of subjective rights. They use the law to promote their own interest. This happens for example in the increasing tendency of legalization of the human life world and of life communities. This dynamics of the social pathology can for example be found in the movie with Dustin Hoffman Kramer vs. Kramer, where a divorce ends in a bitter fight about the custody of the child in court. The pathology is that the life world is ignored and the legalization of human affairs becomes an end in itself and we experience alienation and misunderstanding of the significance of moral freedom (p. 172).


Honneth describes the institutionalization of moral freedom in modern society as closely related to the institutionalization of legal freedom. Originally morality was the regulation of desire and a sort of rationalization of life in nature. Morality can be said to constitute the intersubjective limitations on actions. Moral autonomy comes from the idea of self-determination, as discussed in Rousseau and Kant. The Kantian idea of moral freedom is built on the concept of moral autonomy. This implies that human beings should strive to be moral persons and valued by others as moral persons. Respect and recognition of human dignity in the social life world is an essential dimension of this concept of morality (p. 181). To have dignity is not only due to intrinsic dignity as being created in the image of God, but indeed also a social dignity to which the individual him- or herself is important. Dignity can be defined as linked to the moral self-definition and self- creation of individuals with good moral identity. Kirstine Korsgaard has in this context defined the Kantian approach as an approach to the building and construction of one’s own practical identity. What are important are not only the categorical imperatives but indeed also the practical identity of the subject. To have a moral identity is to have a moral aim with your own life where you take responsibility for your own humanity. Self-legislation and moral autonomy in the Kantian sense means to take responsibility for your own life as the moral self-legislator of your life.


Habermas contributes to this discussion by emphasizing the importance of the moral socialization process. Legal freedom is interpreted through social freedom. Here we have the institutionalization of moral freedom in modern societies. We can refer to a cultural idea of moral in post-traditional societies where the cultural institutionalization of freedom is a part of this institutionalization of recognition. This process is a communicative and dialogical process where there is an on-going public discussion about conceptions of dignity and appropriate intersubjective moral norms in civil society.


Like his description of the legal social pathologies Honneth also describes the social pathologies of morality. Here we can observe a focus on personal absolute morality in contrast to intersubjective norms. The pathologies of morality could for example be the moralism of personal autonomy, where the duty to follow a certain kind of universalism means that the individual fails to take into account the social context (p. 209). This kind of focus on personal autonomy leads to rigid morals where the moral conception can lead to personal moral self-destruction. This is for example described in the novels of Henry James where the will to do good is in danger of leading to self-destruction (p. 212). Here personal autonomy leads to bad moralism and ignorance of social conditions of recognition and dignity. A similar pathology can be found in the moralist political extremism of terrorism, for example in the position of Ulrike Meinhof, who adopted a personal leftist moralism as the justification of her terrorist actions.


On the basis of this reconstruction of the foundations of freedom Honneth goes on to describe the reality of freedom in democratic liberal democracies. The reconstruction of the social life practice as based on recognition and personal autonomy in moral decision-making has to be demonstrated as being institutionalized as patterns of social action in different aspects of society. Honneth distinguishes between three important spheres of institutionalization of the norms of freedom and moral autonomy: 1) friends, love and family relations; 2) market relations; 3) relations in the political community. The intersubjective dimensions in these different groups illustrate different determinations of decisions based on freedom in the different institutions of society.


Honneth emphasizes that personal relations between friends and love relations in personal relations and in the family are based on freedom rather than on paternalism or pre-established social norms and hierarchies. Although it is considered informal, friendship may be conceived as social institution today. There is a difference between the ancient and modern concept of friendship, because friendship today is build on mutual affection without interest. Friendship is based on the romantic concept of the free encounter between friends. As an institution friendship can be said to illustrate the institutionalization of common ideas of community in a common normative structure. Even though it is based on freedom and mutual affection we can now say that friendship based on freedom has become an important institution in modern society.


With regard to love and intimacy, freedom is also considered an essential concept. Honneth argues that we can perceive the institutionalization of the principle of romantic love as the basis for intimate encounters. We are free to make our intimate connections and these are built on our own moral responsibility. Autonomous morality and freedom are proposed as the basis for sexual relations. The relations are based on love and freedom and the emergence of all kinds of couples or singles show this principle of freedom as essential in modernity.


The principle of free sexual relations has had an impact on the concept of the family where the encounter of man and women is also based on social freedom and the family as such is today becoming a place of social freedom. The family is now a place for individual self-realization. We see the emergence of different forms of constructed families that to a large extent are built on principles of free self-realization. Equality rather than authority is an important principle for organizing the family. Equality in families is indicated by the fact that the relation between man and woman is built on partnership between father and mother. Also recognition plays a much bigger role in the relations between children and parents in a situation where people live longer and mutual recognition between generations is emerging. In this sense moral autonomy plays a great importance in the social roles of family members. We see the institutionalization of a much more democratic family built on freedom and moral responsibility. This is a family based on mutual cooperation, love and recognition in contrast to a family based on authoritarianism and paternalism.


We can, according to Honneth, also see the emergence of the new law and morality of freedom if we look at the economic market. Honneth argues that the economic market also contributes to the institutionalization of social freedom in the capitalist economy. Honneth wants to provide a normative reconstruction of the contribution to social freedom of the market economy. He goes back to Adam Smith and takes up his problem about the morality of the market. The problem is how the market can be said to mediate social action. Here we can consider the market freedom as an extension of social freedom in the spheres of consumption and production. However, the question is whether this is an error in capitalism – a subversive doctrine that leads to the dissolution of capitalism.


Honneth defines capitalism and its markets as free economic exchange of goods and services. Historically speaking it was the legal subject (most of the time a man with property) who had the right to exchange in the market. The basis for behavior in the market was strategic utility maximization and calculation of cost/benefits. According to Honneth, both Hegel and Durkheim tried to investigate the normative dimensions of the capitalist system in order to go beyond that system and propose a new economic order with another value-orientation of the economic institutions. Honneth finds a paradox in this line of question that ask the questions about why the market should refer to pre-market norms when the market is about individual utility and utility maximization. The answer of Honneth is that intersubjective norms govern the market when we consider the market from the point of view of normative institutionalism, where morality is considered to be a part of the economic exchange. Honneth refers to Polanyi and Parsons to explain this dimension of the market economy. The question is “What is the Sittlichkeit of the Market System?” (p. 343) Such question have occupied the communitarian philosopher Etizioni and the German economist Hirsch and they search for the capacity of coordinating social action within the economy itself and contribute to legitimacy of the market system in society. With the focus on the principles of social cooperation it the market, Honneth wants to overcome Marx’s negative concept of capitalism and give a normative reconstruction of the concept of freedom within the market economy in liberal society.


Honneth focuses on the sphere of consumption and in particular the development of consumer culture where the market receives legitimation from the norms of the consumers. In fact, the culture of consumption can be seen as a medium for recognition, whilst the moral reaction of the consumers to corporations has an impact on the corporations. Honneth emphasizes that today the capitalist system requires its legitimacy from the consumer and these new conditions of consumption and production contribute to the legitimacy of the market through the consumer. We see how globalization of the market is realized through mass consumption and we see the emergence of morally and legally responsible critical consumers, what we can call “the consumer citizen” (p. 377). This critical consumer is aware of the necessity of having respect for human dignity (p. 377). At the same time reference to consumer citizens may be able to incorporate the critique of consumer society, since there is a struggle for recognition and a possible mutual recognition implied in the moral economy between seller and consumer where they struggle for the realization of the mutual legitimate recognition (p. 381). So Honneth emphasizes that the principles of legitimation are implicit in the consumer market. There is a search for ideal perfectibility regarding consumption built into the individual and corporations have to respond to this in order to get legitimacy. Moreover the consumer citizen takes up the criticism of mass consumption (Adorno, Arendt) and act critically in relation to this. In contributing to establishment of international institutions the consumer citizen also pushes for the establishment of national and international institutions that contribute to the moralization the economy.


After this normative reconstruction of market mediated consumption Honneth looks at the labor market. He reminds us that work was important for Hegel in his Philosophy of Right. Honneth also considers work and the labor market as central for the emergence of a moral economy. The capitalist organization of work has historically implied manipulation and oppression of the workers. Then they organized themselves in workers movement and organized struggle for recognition and social freedom on the labor market. This fight for social freedom implies a struggle for cooperation and recognition in the labor market (p. 431). The organization of workers in trade unions is an important dimension for establishing freedom in the capitalist system. It is important to humanize the work in this world. In particular, democratic organization of the economy and of business can contribute to this. Honneth argues that social freedom in the organizational sphere of corporations and business is dependent on the struggle for recognition by the workers. It is important to contribute to this humanization of work. Since the 1970s there has however been a neoliberal rationalization and technification of the capitalist system and workers have more to fight for in order to achieve freedom in the organized capitalism of the Western world. Here, all kinds of organizations, for example trade unions or welfare organizations, can contribute to the mutual recognition. In particular transnational unions in times of globalization are important for creating freedom in a civilization of capitalism.


The final section of the book presents the reality of democratic will formation in liberal democracies in a historical perspective. Honneth focuses on democratic public spheres, the democratic legal state and political culture. He begins by emphasizing that the potentiality of public deliberation in a free public sphere is essential to understand the reality of freedom in a modern society. Since the French revolution and the enlightenment this has been essential for creating social freedom in the public sphere. Deliberative decision making in a public sphere is an essential legitimation principle of a liberal democracy. We can say that we have experienced the social institutionalization of principles of democracy through the emergence of the free public sphere in Western democracies. Here equality of citizens and liberal rights of freedom based on the constitution are essential for creating a democratic public sphere. The morality of citizens is created through the institutionalization of social and democratic public spheres and debates. The normative idea of social freedom is a result of a democratic public sphere (p. 500). Public exchange of opinion is essential for this democratic public sphere in modern society. As Arendt and Habermas have shown, the media are important for democratic politics. Communicative freedom and the deliberative public sphere contribute to exchange of opinion and different points of view. With Habermas we can emphasize the importance of having both a national and international public sphere. With the new media and digital divide and the development of the internet we face, however, both possibilities and possible limitations of democratic freedom in open and free public spheres.


The democratic legal state built on the rule of law implies the realization of social liberty. The rule of law is a reflexive dimension of the state. The state is a reflexive notion and the democratic state was conceived as the opposite of National Socialism. This state is based on the legitimation by the people’s sovereignty in democratic legislation processes. Constitutional states follow specific norms of Sittlichkeit with a reflexive distance to the democratic legal state. The normative self-understanding of the European states implies a reaction against totalitarianism and in particular the rule of law against Hitler. In particular, we can talk about totalitarianism as the opposite to democracy. The universal declaration of human rights that was very modern even for modern democracy was established as a counter-reaction to the totalitarian regimes of the Second World War. We can also talk about the tension between nationalism and the rule of law in the Rechtsstaat or the tension between nationalism and people’s democracy. The concept by Habermas about Verfassungspatriotismus has been proposed to deal with this topic.


Finally Honneth discusses the concept of political culture as essential to the reality of the Rechtsstaat. Political culture is the reality of the realization of freedom in a democratic society. This institutionalization of the rule of law of the Rechtsstaat today also has an international dimension in the sense that the political public sphere, for example in the EU goes beyond the national borders towards the international community.


Some critical remarks to Honneth’s theory of the liberal state follow.

How should we evaluate his approach to the institutionalization of freedom in modern society? I will now propose three critical remarks for discussion.


The first remark concerns Honneth’s method of analysis. This method is very promising and I think that this constitutes the real novelty of the book. The focus on institutions and institutionalization is very important to make the bridge between philosophy and the social sciences. Moreover, I agree that this approach is very important for the definition of the relation between ethics and law in modern democratic states. However, it may be argued that this approach has already been worked out before. This is for example the case in Ricoeur’s work One-Self-as-Another from 2002, where the concept of institution as inspired by Hegel is a central concept. Ricoeur has an advantage with regard to Honneth because Ricoeur is able to introduce the concept of the good life that is not really there in Honneth’s approach. Ricoeur talks about “the good life for and with the other in just institutions”. Moreover there is no reference to the whole tradition of institutional theory within the social sciences in Honneth’s book. This is sad because then we don’t really have the dialogue between philosophical institutionalism and other kinds of institutionalisms. Moreover, it may be argued that the kind of combination of normative and descriptive analysis that Honneth proposes makes it difficult to advance any real argument of normative ethical, legal or political theory. In fact, this book is not so much a normative argument as a presentation of some lines of development in modern society. As such the book is confronted with competing arguments, as for example the Danish professor of political science Ove Kaj Petersen with his book about the recent developments of the state from welfare state to competition state in the book Konkurencestaten (the competition state). Why is the story that Honneth presents more compelling than the more negative story that is presented by Ove Kaj Pedersen? Here we need better and more advanced argument.


The proposal of the theory of law and morals may be conceived as the strongest part of the book. However, we can also propose some critical questions to this theory. In particular, we can address the substance of the theory that focuses so much on individual rights. I may be argued that it is not individual rights that are so important in the Rechtsstaat but rather democracy as community. It is not clear how this focus on individual rights makes the move from negative freedom to positive freedom. Indeed, it may be argued that the concept of rights may destroy the possibility of really founding a political community based on shared interests in the good. What Honneth seems to propose seems to be a very liberal theory that does not really correspond with his Hegelian starting point. Moreover, we may criticize his use of Kant to define the basis of his approach to the morality of freedom. It seems very idealistic to presuppose that people today act according to the moral law when they create their identity. Rather, we may refer to existentialist or postmodern concepts of identity, which seem much closer to the reality of life in the modern state and correspond to the elimination of politics in favor of individual rights. I cannot see that Honneth really achieves his point by reintroducing the Kantian concept of morality as a case of identity. In fact, Honneth’s position also becomes nearly neo-liberal, because so much emphasis is laid on individual rights rather to present the common good in the Res Publica as important. Here I also think that Ricoeur’s concept of the good life with and for the other in just institutions gives the communitarian elements of analysis that we really need to make Honneth’s argument convincing.


When we deal with the reality of freedom in modern society there are many problems in the book. The analysis of the spheres of recognition in the family seem to forget all the power relations that still persist in society and a Foucauldian approach to the family would be able to show many contradictions of the freedom of individuals in the family. Moreover, there are many critical questions to ask in relation to Honneth’s analysis of romantic love as the basis of intimacy. There may also be the manipulation of individual through forcing them to be free. As Rousseau says “L’homme est libre mais partout il est en fer”.


Moreover, the analysis of economic life and freedom in the market is far from convincing, although the general intention of moralizing the economy is very important. Honneth has understood the necessity of rethinking the capitalist economy in the perspective of virtues and ethics, but his Marxist basis of analysis and the prejudices of critical theory make it impossible for him to take the final step and understand the real emancipator elements of the idea of the moral economy. Here we should look at the whole basis for ethical interaction in the economy and, taking the Weberian perspective of looking at the ideal values of economic exchange, make it possible to understand much more of the functions of the moral economy. Honneth mentions the work of Etizioni on this point but he does not get into deeper analysis of much more recent literature on business ethics and corporate social responsibility and this makes his analysis rather general and not very innovative in relation to the recent debates in business ethics and management ethics.


Honneth has a good argument for the political consumer and legitimacy of consumption but he does not include recent literature in business ethics and institutions and therefore he does not really contribute something new or relevant. To propose unions as the basis for political freedom in the workplace also seems to be not very new in today’s discussions. Much more detailed analysis is needed here. For example of the interactions between unions and top management and how they contribute to develop stakeholder management in large corporations.


Indeed, in his final discussions of the deliberative politics and the importance of critical public space as essential for a democratic political culture, I can hardly see that Honneth presents anything new in comparison with Habermas. In fact we may argue that Honneth is much too positive to the reality of this political culture and that he does not take into account the many recent distortions of that culture. However, the critical remarks on the internet and the digital divide and democracy show a certain awareness of the important contradiction of democracy in the present context of society.



Axel Honneth: Das Recht der Freiheit. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2011.