hegelWEBAxel’s Honneth’s recent compendium of essays The I in We: studies in the theory of recognition is a bit of a Hegel love-in. As Honneth says himself, the essays are all effectively efforts to ‘build upon the assumptions of a Hegelian theory of recognition’. He is correct when he states that the chapter on self-consciousness in Phenomenology of spirit has attracted more attention than any of his other works, including Philosophy of Right. The intersubjective take on self-realisation sketched out in the chapter – what Honneth summarises as the movement from desire to recognition – has remained influential among a select group of theorists, including Honneth himself, who views Hegelian concepts as central to his own efforts to develop a recognition-based critical theory of society. According to him,

Hegel’s claims were much more fundamental than historical or sociological interpretations cared to realise; he was primarily interested in elucidating not an historical event or instance of conflict, but a transcendental fact that should prove to be a prerequisite of all human sociality.

Key to this importance is the notion of the intersubjective encounter as incorporating a process of self-negation – a negative process that according to Honneth offers space to link Hegel and Kant:

The moment these two subjects encounter each other, both must perform a negation upon themselves in which they distance themselves from what is their own. If we add to this thought Kant’s definition of ‘respect’ (Achtung), which he views as ‘thwarting’ (Abbruch) or negating self-love, then for the first time we see clearly what Hegel sought to prove by introducing the intersubjective relation. In the encounter between the two subjects, a new sphere of action is opened in the sense that both sides are compelled to restrict their self-seeking drives as soon as they encounter each other (p. 15).

This connection between Hegel and Kant is an interesting one to make, and to be fair not too outrageous for the time. But the parallel drawn between the kind of recognition Honneth wants to valorise and Kant’s notion of Achtung is not without its problems. For a start, it’s not a watertight argument – there’s no reason to dismiss outright, for example, the notion that ego-centric desires are incompatible with the act of reciprocity. Why is there a desire for such a demarcation between the two? Honneth states elsewhere (p. 16) that

both subjects perceive in the other the negative activity through which they themselves produce a reality they can grasp as their own product.

The co-production of reality through negation of self-love may well be a key source of production, but there’s no reason why it has to be the only or even the main source. While sympathetic to Honneth’s argument I do question the ease by which recognition via the promotion of self-seeking drives is dismissed as a source of intersubjective co-production. But maybe this is what happens when you make a de facto distinction between desire and recognition in the first place.

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