Das Recht der Freiheit

Grundriß einer demokratischen Sittlichkeit

Axel Honneth
Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2011

Door Robin Celikates, associate professor of political and social philosophy (UvA)

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When Hegel wrote his Philosophy of Right in the first third of the nineteenth century, he attempted to develop a practical philosophy in the double sense of a philosophical account that is about practice – our legal, moral and political practices and how they should be organized – as well as rooted in practice – in a proto-sociological understanding of how these practices are organized. In the contemporary theoretical landscape, where philosophical concerns have come to be largely separated from sociological concerns, such an integrated perspective has given way to a division of theoretical labor in which practical philosophers engage in normative theorizing and sociologists empirically investigate our social reality. Unhappy with the results that this distanciation has produced on both sides, more recently a series of scholars have attempted to bring the Hegelian framework up to date.

One of the most prominent and interesting attempts at renewing this integrated perspective can be found in the work of the German philosopher Axel Honneth. Honneth, a Professor of Social Philosophy as well as the director of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main (and thus something like the current official head of the Frankfurt School) and Professor for the Humanities at Columbia University in New York, has become most famous for his theory of recognition. What Honneth prepared in his Amsterdam Spinoza Lectures The Pathologies of Individual Freedom: Hegel’s Social Theory (2010), namely a re-actualization of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he now systematically executes in a massive 600-page monograph with the title Das Recht der Freiheit. Grundriß einer demokratischen Sittlichkeit (which would roughly translate as The Right of Freedom: Outline of a Democratic Ethical Life).

In this book, Honneth undertakes a historical reconstruction of how modern society – its legal, moral, political, as well as social and economic practices and institutions – came to be centered around individual freedom as the highest value of this cultural formation. The aim of this reconstruction, however, exceeds historical narrative and is both theoretical and  normative in nature: Theoretically, and against both normative as well as empiricist approaches which focus either on abstract principles or on actual reality, Honneth wants to show that we can only gain an adequate understanding of, and critical perspective on, modern society if we analyze its different social spheres as attempts to institutionalize the value of freedom; normatively, and against both revolutionary and conservative approaches, he wants to show that the structure of this institutionalization allows for a progressive, ever more adequate realization of the value of freedom as social actors appeal to the constitutive idea of freedom to challenge the concrete forms of ‘unfreedom’ that remain characteristic of our social reality. Democratic ethical life – demokratische Sittlichkeit – is that set of dynamic practices and institutions which both already realizes freedom and enables its own transformation from a partial towards a more comprehensive realization of freedom. In this process a one-sided, e.g. overly individualistic and negative understanding of freedom is overcome in the direction of a social order that can be regarded as just to the extent that it adequately institutionalizes freedom in its comprehensive sense.

In a veritable ‘long march through the institutions’, Honneth gives an account of personal relationships, market-mediated economic interactions and the public sphere as the three spheres which he identifies as fundamental to the modern project of the social realization of freedom (not only in its narrow legal and moral, but also in its more encompassing social sense). His analysis traces the progress in the realization of this project as well as its ‘pathologies’ and regressive tendencies, which are largely due to one-sided interpretations of the ideal of freedom and an unawareness of the social conditions that allow these spheres to function.

While his assessment of the family and other personal relationships is largely positive and optimistic (for some probably overly so), his perspective on the current state of the economy and democracy is gloomier. Honneth follows Durkheim instead of Marx in interpreting the capitalist market not as system of domination and exploitation to be analyzed in functional terms, but as an institution which promises the general realization of individual interests and capacities – an essential dimension of freedom – and therefore has to be understood in normative terms. From this perspective, the manipulation of the needs of consumers and the fragmentation and precarization of work relations appear as deeply antithetical to the market’s promise of freedom but not as structural features of the capitalist system. In an essentially social-democratic spirit Honneth hopes that the problematic developments he identifies with great care can in principle be countered by more regulation, democratic control and a general re-embedding of markets on a transnational level. The extent of the current crisis and the at the same time helpless and deeply authoritarian political reactions it has until now provoked, seem to put even this hope into question.

Honneth’s analysis of the sphere of democratic will-formation is equally ambivalent: on the one hand, the nation-state has for some time successfully institutionalized public deliberation and the implementation of democratically legitimate decisions; on the other hand, however, the structural transformation of the public sphere through mass media, the legitimacy crisis of the established party system and the general inability of politics to control globalized and financialized capitalism let him end on a rather pessimistic note – democratic ethical life, despite its prefiguration in actually existing societies and the historical evidence of learning processes, still seems a long way to go.

An ambitious project of this size and scope can be expected to raise difficult questions on the methodological, theoretical and historical level, and it is certainly one of the marks of the innovative, original and challenging character of Honneth’s book that it does so. Let me point to three exemplary issues that his approach opens up but to my mind does not fully resolve. First, on a methodological level, it remains unclear to what extent taking the existing social order as a starting point limits the possibilities of critique in advance. Why should the primary, maybe even exclusive, mode of critique consist in reminding actually existing institutions of their original promises? Critique, thus understood, is largely ameliorative: it aims at making the existing institutions better in what they already try to achieve and partially succeed in achieving. Sometimes, however, and on the basis of Honneth’s own analysis, one could also claim today, a more radical, imaginative and transformative critique seems called for, although this, obviously, comes with problems of its own. Secondly, on a more theoretical level, despite his emphasis on the dynamic development of society Honneth gives no detailed theoretical explanation of how historical change occurs, how social learning processes unfold on the basis of certain experiences, their interpretation and translation into collective action and struggle. Finally, on a historical level, his normative reconstruction – the selection and interpretation of the historical material with a view to how modern societies institutionalize the value of freedom – at times seems to lead him to an all too rosy picture, for example when in his history of capitalism crucial enabling factors such as colonial war, domination and exploitation are passed over in silence.

In spite of, and as indicated also because of it, raising methodological, theoretical and historical questions such as these, one can only hope that Honneth’s book (especially its surely forthcoming English translation) will find a broad audience. It provides one of the few systematic and convincing alternatives to the separation of normative philosophy on the one hand and social-theoretical and empirical analyses of social reality on the other, as well as a convincing analysis of both freedom and justice that in important ways goes beyond the liberal paradigm, reminding us of a normative commitment modern societies have already disavowed far too often and might be in the process of damaging irreparably.