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The Significance of Respect

(c) the Euskadi 11

This post provides further commentary on the work of Axel Honneth (pictured), described in a previous post as a key influence on Dirty Looks. Dirty Looks is about 4 months old now, and over the coming months I intend to provide further clarification on the central ideas behind this site. One of them is the significance of respect in social life, a major theme in Honneth’s work and a cornerstone of what I refer to as the ‘relational’ world. Of particular interest is the emotional content of respect as both a mechanism and mediator of power.

The key societal problem, according to Honneth, is the experience of various forms of disrespect, based on forms of mis-recognition. Such a take on the intersubjective as the battleground for critical theory follows to some extent in the footsteps of Habermas’ earlier anti-cartesian linguistic turn; Honneth argues that the struggle for recognition offers a more effective model than communicative action for grasping the ‘normative pre-suppositions of social interaction’ (Honneth 2007: 71). Like Habermas, Honneth views the paradigmatic character of his approach as offering critical theory a viable future in the context of philosophy. According to him, his theory of recognition offers the best way to do this ‘as it established a link between the social causes of widespread feelings of injustice and the normative objectives of emancipatory movements’ (Honneth, in Fraser and Honneth, 2003: 113).

Although Honneth’s comment sounds like a rebuttal of Habermas’ claim to have provided a sufficient normative grounding for critique, it was in fact written in response to Nancy Fraser’s critique of his own work.

Nancy Fraser 2008 in Jena
Nancy Fraser 2008 in Jena (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The debate over the relative importance of recognition versus political and economic distribution, a debate to which Fraser has greatly contributed, has cast a shadow over this form of relational theory, to the extent that his possible contribution to debates over, for example, structure and agency, are not as established. For example, his analysis of the affective domain as both a core component of relational life and a worthy point of enquiry for social theory, should be taken more seriously. According to Honneth, the emotional domain acts as the ‘missing psychological link’ (1995: 135), between experience of disrespect and the struggle for recognition. According to him, the motivational function ‘can be performed by negative emotional reactions, such as being ashamed and enraged, feeling hurt or indignant. These comprise the psychological symptoms on the basis of which one can realize that one is being illegitimately denied social recognition’ (Honneth 1995: 136).

By acknowledging the affective domain and its significance to a relational analysis of social processes, Honneth legitimises existing strands of research that take the intersubjective domain as their starting point. Although Habermas’ communicative action was very much a ‘relational’ theory of capitalist modernisation, Honneth’s emphasis on recognition specifically places relationships at the centre of social inquiry, to some extent shifting what were previously considered ‘private’ (or at least individual) matters into a public arena. Most importantly, Honneth’s work suggest that interpersonal relationships, theoretically speaking, are a force to be reckoned with, and the intersubjective domain should not be underestimated nor reduced to questions of class or other ‘objective’ relations.

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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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