The Resistance to Recognition


(c) Diana Kathrina Leomo

Axel Honneth, a key influence on Dirty Looks, has had a mixed reception in academic and
intellectual circles. His position as Head of the Institute for Social Research (still known to some as the Frankfurt School), guarantees him some prestige and authority, but still many aren’t comfortable with his core ideas – specifically his notion that the desire for recognition and respect from others is a key driver of who we are. Some commentators are much more comfortable talking about issues of redistribution and structural issues in society, suspecting Honneth of a tendency towards personalising the world’s problems (this point can be dressed up any number of ways, but that effectively is the root of the scepticism).

A related criticism centres on the suspicion that recognition theory such as Honneth’s assumes a universally sympathetic account of human intersubjectivity. This is a concern shared by all three commentaries included in Honneth’s book Reification (2008) (a great but flawed attempt to resurrect a classic idea of Western Marxism – at least he tried).One of the commentators, Judith Butler, no stranger to the relational herself, takes

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Honneth to task for what she considers a convenient denial of the less savoury aspects of recognition in his work: ‘What if we express a hateful or sadistic impulse towards the other? I would presume that such attitudes and relations are not distanced and detached, but are invested and involved … Where do they fit?’

Butler’s critique, like the other two which were surprisingly similar, was based on a strange reading of Honneth’s text. The fact that he never promoted a ‘sympathetic’ account of humanity, just shows how the value of any theory resides very much in the eye of the beholder. In response, Honneth is at pains to point out that his theory views recognition as a ‘necessary prerequisite of all human communication, one which consists in experiencing the other in a way that is not connected with normative
implications or even positive attitudes’.

While such critiques are questionable, Honneth’s work is not immune to criticism, Charles Taylor’s critique of intellectual monism carrying much more weight, for example (but you can’t win ‘em all). Nevertheless, there is much to be said for his theory of recognition and what it means. Via the prism of Dirty Looks, its meaning centres on its role as a form of regulation – that the intersubjective world regulates our behaviour, attitudes, interactions, judgements and decisions. The relational is not the only form of regulation, but it’s certainly one of them. It has a power onto itself, and should be considered as a domain worthy of consideration in the same way as politics, religion, class, and, dare I say it, culture.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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