Sunday, 9 February 2014

What is reification? Critical comments on Honneth

According to a popular understanding, reification means treating human beings as things. Reification would in other words be when people are treated in a way that disregards what makes them specifically human - for instance when we instrumentalize them for our own purposes or regard them as mere "cogs in the wheels" of some larger structure or system.
Axel Honneth

However, this conception is at odds with how the concept was used by the generation of social thinkers who introduced it in social thought - thinkers like Lukács, Bloch and Adorno. Contrary to common belief, to them reification had nothing to do with the opposition of“human beings” and “things”. To them reification means that an object, human or not, appears to possess substance independently of the process of its historical mediation. In this sense even the act of identifying a person as “human” in distinction to animals or things could be an instance of reification. Reification, in other words, is not the opposite of the human but of the historical. “For all reification is a forgetting: objects become purely thing-like the moment they are retained for us without the continued presence of their other aspects: when something of them has been forgotten”, Adorno writes in a letter to Benjamin (Adorno & Benjamin 1999:321). Here, then, reification doesn’t mean just to treat human beings as things. It’s to treat any aspect of the dialectically constituted world as a thing.

The concept of reification was first made widely known through Lukács' History and Class Consciousness, published in 1923. In his usage, the roots linking the concept of reification to Marx' idea of commodity fetishism are clear: just as the commodity appears to possess value in its own right, independently of the process of production, the reified "thing" appears to possess an essence in its own right, regardless of social or historical context. Thus Lukács criticizes "bourgeois thought" - characterized by a stance of putatively neutral, contemplative observation - for its treatment of concepts as rigid and timeless entities independent of history. Through its attempt to grasp things as if they had a fixed ahistorical essence that could be captured through formal categories or definitions, such reifying thought becomes blind to the dialectical movement of history, to the mediation of its objects through the “totality” of societal relations. What he counterposes to such thinking is dialectics, the ability to grasp shifting meanings by relating them to the whole. Controversially, he argued that this ability to grasp the whole was embodied in the proletariat, which he portrayed in Hegelian terms as the identical subject-object of history.

As Axel Honneth notes in his 2005 Tanner Lectures (available as pdf here and also included in his 2006 book Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea), the concept of reification has nowadays fallen out of use. A primary aim of his lectures is to revive it. He does so, however, by tearing it out of the theoretical context in which Lukács developed it. Linking it instead to his own theory of recognition - developed in a series of writings from The Struggle for Recognition (Honneth 1995) onwards - he follows the popular understanding of the concept by opposing it to the human rather than the historical. Rather than seeing it as inherent in capitalism, he redefines it as a "forgetfulness of recognition" not necessarily tied to any particular social formation. On the way he subjects Lukács to a rather patronizing critique. Below I will criticize Honneth's reformulation of the concept. I will not do so, however, by arguing that Lukács was right. Lukács was a problematical thinker whose proclivity to a dogmatic philosophy of history blunted his own best insights. Instead I will point to possibilities inherent in the concept which inspired thinkers like Benjamin and Adorno and which suggest how it can be made useful today.

Honneth's criticism of Lukács

Honneth subjects Lukács to criticism on at least two scores.

To begin with, he objects to the "totalizing" nature of Lukács' critique of reification. Such a critique, according to Honneth, only makes sense when viewed against a more primordial or genuine form of praxis in which humans take up an "engaged attitude" towards the world (Honneth 2005:192). Due to his totalizing critique, however, Lukács is unable to clarify adequately what a human relation not affected by reification would look like. To be sure, Lukács does employ a notion of non-reified life inspired by Hegel and Fichte, according to which view human agency is defined as when mind and world coincide. To Honneth, this view is utterly untenable. A more plausible view of agency is suggested by Lukács in passages where he describes engaged praxis using words like “cooperative”, “empathetic”, or experiencing objects as “qualitatively unique” (ibid. 101).

Honneth argues that what Lukács was aiming at in passages like these is similar to Heidegger's "care" and Dewey's "practical involvement" and to what Honneth himself calls "recognition". Being constitutive of social life, this more caring, existential relationship must precede the attitude of detached contemplation which Lukács associates with a reified view of the world. The former can never be wholly replaced by the latter; at most it can be "forgotten" in the sense of not being paid attention to. Thus reification is "forgetfulness of recognition" rather than its wholesale abolition. To forget is not to unlearn, but a “kind of reduced attentiveness... which causes the fact of recognition to fall into the background” (ibid. 130). Lukács' critique therefore cannot be totalizing, since it implicitly relies on the presence of unreified human behavior that is still present even in capitalism, and which can serve as a yardstick of the critique.

Secondly, Honneth faults Lukács for being unable to explain the causes of reification properly. Lukács saw reification as rooted in commodity exchange, but also extended it to the entirety of capitalist social life. But how can reification occurring outside the sphere of commodity exchange be explained? As Honneth points out, Lukács vacillated between on the one hand claiming that capitalism requires all activities to be assimilated to commodity exchange and on the other arguing along Weberian lines that it is the outcome of general processes of rationalization rather than capitalism per se (ibid. 97, 102). Honneth suggests that this difficulty was noticed by Lukács himself, who reacted to it by shifting direction in his approach. Instead of attending to the reified object he turned to the reifying gaze, arguing that when people take up the role of an exchange partner, which is ubiquitous in capitalism, they become “detached” observers, for whom the social surroundings habitually come to appear as a “second nature”, as mere thing-like givens (ibid. 98f).

But how should the emergence of this attitude be explained? In dealing himself with the question of causes, Honneth states that “we cannot move as directly and immediately to the sociological level of explanation as Lukacs did” (ibid. 130). Instead of moving much at all, however, he merely argues that to discuss causes one should distinguish between two types of reification:
To start with the first case, in the course of our practices we might pursue a goal so energetically and onedimensionally that we stop paying attention to other, possibly more original and important motives and aims. An example of this phenomenon might be the tennis player who, in her ambitious focus on winning, forgets that her opponent is in fact her best friend, for the sake of whom she took up the game in the first place.[...] The second kind of reduced attentiveness that provides a model for explaining how reification is possible derives not from internal but from external factors influencing our actions: a series of thought schemata that influence our practices by leading to a selective interpretation of social facts can significantly reduce our attentiveness for meaningful circumstances in a given situation. (ibid. 130f)
Having gesticulated in this direction, he abruptly drops the discussion of causes. It thus remains unclear what the external factors might be that he mentions.
It is clear that we are dealing here either with institutionalized practices, which cause contemplation and observation to become independent of their roots in recognition, or with socially effective thought schemata, which compel a denial of antecedent recognition. For now, however, I would prefer to leave this point aside. (ibid 131)
It's a pity that Honneth prefers to "leave this point aside", since dealing properly with it would have strengthened his theory. His theory of a struggle for recognition has often been criticized for being divorced from history. The notion of reification might have helped him anchor it better in social context. This, however, would have required him to actually discuss the social forces that have established it as a social pathology. By simply leaving the question of causes aside and describing it as a "forgetfulness" of recognition that can occur when playing tennis, the possibility of reification risks being turned into something close to an anthropological constant. The impression is strengthened that his account is ahistorical, being based on a model of recognition which is unconcerned with the social-historical origins of reification.

What is reification?

Honneth claims that Lukács' critique of reification is totalizing. But is this correct? As Honneth himself observes, a "totalizing" critique is difficult to square with the lukácsian celebration of the proletariat as a liberating subject that functions as a de-reifying force in history. Honneth criticizes Lukács for being inconsistent. A far more reasonable conclusion, however, would be that Lukács' critique isn't really totalizing at all.

The problem with Lukács is not that he fails to identify a model of non-reified praxis, as Honneth claims. The problem is rather that he theorizes the relationship between reified and non-reified realms in a too crude and rigid fashion. By linking up his critique of reification with a class metaphysics tied to a philosophy of history that predicts the victory of the proletariat, he himself succumbs to a reified view of history. Thereby he compromises his own criticism of reification and introduces an ambiguity in his own theory, which makes it amenable to being developed in two fundamentally different directions. On the one hand, the philosophy of history can be emphasized and the critique of reification de-emphasized, a route preparing the way for and adumbrating Lukács' own later turn to Stalinism. On the other hand, the critique of reification can be foregrounded and the philosophy of history jettisoned, which was the route travelled in Western Marxism by Adorno and others who were inspired by Lukács.

Georg Lukács
But how about Honneth's point that a critique of reification, in order to be valid, must take its point of departure in a notion of non-reified human praxis? Isn't this point valid? Not necessarily, if it is taken to imply the need for a theory of such praxis. All that is needed is a theoretical insight into the limits of reification. Such an insight can be grounded in experiences of shock or pain, giving rise to the sensation that "this cannot be all there is" or that "something is missing" (etwas fehlt), as Adorno put it (in Bloch 1988:1ff). What Adorno tried to show through his theory of negative dialectics was precisely the validity of such experiences as an impulse for critique.

Adorno’s negative dialectics dispenses with the Lukácsian notion of “totality”, but an even more significant amendment is his stress on self-preservation as the essential purpose of reified thinking, or “identity-thinking” - i.e. thought that strives to repress or shut out the perception of non-identity and thus the awareness that things can be otherwise, of qualitative change and history. This is significant since it introduces the idea, absent in Lukács, that reified thinking, far from being a stable structure, is constantly under siege by shocks and impulses. Approaching its objects from the standpoint of self-preservation, this sort of thinking cannot but sense the non-identical as a threat.

Adorno thus offers the idea that something in perception itself – namely, the perception of non-identity – offers the possibility of resisting and upsetting reified thinking. Similarly, to Benjamin shock could play the role of a liberating rupture that awakens us to history. This awakening was not only political, but also methodological. One way to understand this is by asking how we may express a viable notion of “reality”. The position of Benjamin or Adorno would be that this reality is history. Not, however, history as an objectified body of facts or of interpretations, but as a force which destroys our expectations. “History”, as Jameson wrote, “is what hurts” (Jameson 1981:102). History, then, is a force which is most keenly felt through its effects but which can never be directly represented. It is what breaks through and invalidates our expectations and the conceptual net by which we struggle to contain it. This means that reality can never be wholly expressed in words. But it can be known. We know it as that which outwits, upsets and defeats our words.

The fact that reality can be felt but not directly represented means that perception is not entirely governed by concepts. To perception belongs not only the categories through which we order reality, but also the failure of these orders in those sudden moments when something occurs and something is perceived which forces us to view reality in a new way. Concepts only correspond imperfectly to the fluid historical processes which we are nevertheless able to apprehend – to that “adventurously moving, latently expectant world” which Bloch called “the most real thing there is” (Bloch 1988:154). The discrepancy between concepts and what they claim to represent is what Adorno calls non-identity. For him non-identity was a central concern precisely for the reason that it is the language by which changes on the material or social level are communicated to the subject. It is the negative way in which consciousness registers the discrepancy between itself and the external world.

Honneth, then, goes wrong when he presumes that a theory of reification must rest on an anthropologically derived yardstick positing care, engaged praxis or mutual recognition as fundamental to social life. Indeed, even to talk of an ahistorical yardstick would be reification. What a theory of reification needs, as an index of wrongness, is simply history: a history that hurts, shocks and undermines identity. Adorno understood that, as did Jameson. Even Lukács did, although he made the mistake of trying to theoretically nail down this "history" by decreeing its subject to be the proletariat, whose praxis was supposed to do away with the reified categories.
As Lukács showed, only a thinking that itself does away with reified categories is capable of grasping the role of particular things in the evolving course of history. By reworking dialectics into negative dialectics, Adorno removes some of the reifying parts of Lukács' own theory while at the same time demonstrating the viability of a critique of reification that takes its point of departure in a form of thinking that can still be considered dialectical. Honneth, by contrast, tends to rely on formal, ahistorical categories of human behavior. To make the concept of reification fit into this ahistorical framework, he needs to shrink it. In his hands, it is no longer a concept for criticizing ahistorical essences, but for criticizing a dehumanizing way of treating other people. Although he does discuss the reification of non-human objects briefly, the fact that he redefines reification in terms of his theory of recognition means that his concept of reification is primarily modelled on human relations. As I have already suggested, this misses that to Lukács and others, thingness was not opposed to the "human" so much as to the "historical".


Adorno, T. W. & Benjamin, Walter (1999) The Complete Correspondence 1928-1940, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Bloch, Ernst (1988) The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Honneth, Axel (1995) The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Honneth, Axel (2005) Reification: A Recognition-Theoretical View, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered University of California, Berkeley, March 14-16, 2005; (accessed 2014-01-18).
Jameson (1981) The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Lukács, Georg (1971) History and Class Consciousness. Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London: Merlin Press. 

1 comment:

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