Thursday, 8 October 2015

Honneth's Freedom's Right (I)

Freedom's Right is Honneth’s grand undertaking to “normatively reconstruct” the principles of freedom and justice embodied in the major institutional complexes of modern society – the sphere of intimate relations, the capitalist market and the democratic public sphere. As can be expected from a critical theorist, Honneth’s aim is normative as well as descriptive. The reconstruction is meant to provide the foundations of a theory of justice which, in turn, can provide critical theory with yardsticks for critique.

The grand scope and ambition is evident in the book's design, which is modelled on that of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Honneth announces his intention to create an updated version of the latter already in the preface. In an amusing aside he complains about how burdensome his undertaking has been compared to that of Hegel, who was still writing in the very beginning of modernity and never needed to pay attention to the complex developments that took place in the two hundred years of history separating him from us (p. viii). Although this remark sounds like a joke, it is significant since it signals that his book will be about history as much as it will be about theory. According to Honneth, a valid normative theory cannot be founded on abstract principles, but must rest on a "reconstruction" of norms that have developed historically and that are already embodied in the major institutions of modern societies.

It's an ambitious book, and for precisely that reason it also invites critical reflexions. In this post, I will try to summarize Honneth's argument. I start with presenting his basic idea of normative reconstruction. I then turn to his argument that the major modern institutional complexes are institutions of "social freedom". Finally, I discuss how Honneth believes that the promise of freedom embodied in these institutions can be betrayed in two ways: pathologies and misdevelopments. In future posts, I plan to follow up on this discussion by adding some critical comments on Honneth's undertaking.

Normative reconstruction and immanent criticism:

The critical intent behind Honneth's normative reconstruction is to show how criticism is possible by appealing to values already embodied in the institutions that are being criticized, and that criticism indeed must appeal to such values in order to be legitimate and socially effective: “the criterion for determining what counts as just can ultimately only be judged in terms of the ideals actually institutionalized in that society” (p. 5). Criticism must, in other words, be an immanent criticism that judges to what extent institutions live up to their own values. The aim of the normative reconstruction is to “examine, by following the historical development of each of these social spheres, the degree to which the understanding of freedom institutionalized within them has already been socially attained” (p. viii).

By seeking to ground criticism on a normative reconstruction of the ideals of freedom that have historically become instittuionalized in modern societies, Freedom's Right marks a departure from Habermas' version of critical theory as well as from early versions of Honneth's own theory of recognition. The yardsticks meant to be uncovered by reconstruction would neither be quasi-transcendental presuppositions immanent to language (as in Habermas) or anthropological constants (as Honneth tended to portray them in his earlier work). Like Hegel, Honneth seeks to draw not on “an external standard” but to “point out ‘reconstructively’ the neglected potential of already existing institutions” (p. 10).

That he views the yardsticks as being historically embedded in the core institutions of modern society doesn't mean that he affirms the existing order in toto. What he seeks to do is rather to trace over time how the three institutional spheres have developed, sometimes approaching and sometimes betraying the underlying principle of mutual recognition and the promise of freedom with which they are associated. There is thus always room for criticism, but that criticism can never be totalized since it must be done “in light of embodied values” (p. 9).

The centrality of institutions

The premise of Honneth's undertaking is that promises of freedom are indeed embodied in central institutions. As he writes: “this project could only succeed if the constitutive spheres of our society are understood as institutional embodiments of particular values whose immanent claim to realization indicates the principles of justice at work in each specific sphere” (p. vii). Freedom and justice are linked since individuals are mutually dependent on each other in order to realize their individual freedom. Individual freedom, in a nutshell, rests on mutual recognition. Mutual recognition in turn can only be guaranteed by institutions. Freedom can therefore only be fulfilled with the help of institutions that “inform subjects in advance about the interdependence of their aims” (p. 65).

But what does Honneth mean by institutions? Mostly informal ones, it seems. He points out that he is not chiefly or only interested in juridical relations “but in practices, customs and social roles” (p. 66). We owe most of our individual freedom “not to legal entitlements granted by the state, but to the existence of a web... of routine and often only weakly institutionalized practices and customs” (p. 67). More important than the formality or informality of the institutions is therefore that they are stable, recognized and hence able to provide clear guidance for action. This is an important clarification which it is important to keep in mind when evaluating Honneth's theory. His business is not to justify existing state institutions; what he does want to show, however, is the necessity of certain normatively underminned practices for realizing what most people in modern societies think of as freedom.

Social freedom

In his book, Honneth focuses on three insitutitional complexes – those of intimate relations, the capitalist market and democratic will-formation (corresponding to Hegel’s well-known triad of family, civil society and state). Why these three? The answer is that Honneth believe that they embody institutions of "social freedom".

What then is social freedom? Honneth tries to argue that a viable ideal of freedom cannot simply be a "negative freedom" (freedom from external interference) or "reflexive freedom" (self-determination in the Kantian sense of being able to rationally decide over one's own choices). Instead it must be a “social freedom” in which the individual recognizes that his or her freedom can only be realized through the freedom of others, or in other words that people are mutually dependent on each other for their individual freedom. Thus in the family or love relationship, we usually don't look on the other as a limitation of our own freedom, but as a precondition for it. To love another person means to be unfree without her, as Hegel pointed out. In similar fashion, we cannot be free in the market economy if we remain totally on our own. The market economy is a system of interdependencies in which we only achieve our goals by engaging in transactions with other people who are also pursuing their own goals. Finally, in the public sphere too we can only realize our own goals by having them recognized by others or acting in concert with them. In all these cases, the institutional complexes create systems in which my own freedom is dependent on that of others. 

According to Honneth, the possibility of social freedom provided by these institutional complexes isn't just an objective part of the way they function. It also needs to be subjectively recognized. Fundamental to social freedom is thus the element of mutual recognition, a notion which has long been central to Honneth’s work. Social freedom thus rests on “the condition that other, accommodating subjects confirm my own aims” (p. 65). The reality of freedom is only given “if we encounter each other in mutual recognition and can understand our actions as a condition for the fulfillment of others’ aims” (p. 124).

That the institutions are recognized as contributing to social freedom is also what legitimizes them and makes them capable of gaining our support. When I engage in, say, the market economy, I can thus legitimize my action by referring to the "promise" of mutual freedom. Similarly, whenever I engage with any of these institutional complexes, I am entitled to do so in the expectation that the promise of social freedom will be fulfilled. Precisely because of this, I am also able to criticize the complex if this promise is betrayed. As Honneth shows, the history of each of the three institutional spheres is also a history of struggles, through which social movements of various kinds have brought accusations to bear on the institutions in order to make them live up to their promises of freedom. By constantly invoking this promise, these movements have also contributed to endowing the institutions with traditions in which these promises have become firmly embedded.


Normative reconstruction seems to presuppose the possibility of separating the empirial reality of institutions from their essential normative core. Although institutions may very well betray this normative core in the course of their development, the core nevertheless remains embodied in them as part of their tradition and thus exists in them as a form of "promise" to which criticism can appeal whenever institutions fail to live up to it. Honneth thus presents us with a high ambivalent portrayal of these institutions as Janus-like. On the one hand they possess a "good" core which remains intact through their history, but on the other they have increasingly come to deviate from that core through their historical development.

How does Honneth analyze these deviations? According to him, they can happen in two ways, through "pathologies" or "misdevelopments".

Pathologies are deviations that are rooted in the institutions themselves. Honneth defines them as “any social development that significantly impairs the ability to take part rationally in important forms of social cooperation” (p. 86). They arise when people one-sidedly adhere to limited ideas of freedom, i.e. "negative" or "reflexive" ideas of freedom. Although such ideas have a legitimate place in modern societies - Honneth writes that they help individuals “assure themselves of their intersubjectively accepted and socially anchored possibilities of retreating from the social lifeworld” (p. 66) - pathologies typically emerge as soon as these types of freedom are asserted alone. An example of this is the pathology of legal freedom, which occurs when everything is interpreted as being a matter of subjective rights (pp. 86-94).

But how does Honneth think that these pathologies come about? Are there any systematic causes behind these tendencies to assert one type of freedom alone? Honneth seems to suggest that the rise of pathologies is a result of the shift to a more complex society, “found at a higher stage of social reproduction” (p.86). For instance, people can be so overwhelmed by the “rapid increase of options for action” that they “cling fast to their legal claims”, leading to pathologies of legal freedom (p.87). Later on, Honneth specifies that he believes that the “major factor” behind the increasing tendency to rely on legal freedom is “the increasing legal codification of spheres of life that were previously organized in a largely communicative manner” (p.89), i.e. the process that Habermas referred to as juridification in The Theory of Communicative Action. This process leads people to “take up an objectifying stance toward their highly individuated interaction” with the result that “subjects are forced to abstract from their concrete experiences and recognize their needs only to the extent that they fit into the schema of generally typified interests, thus undermining overall communicative life” (p.90).

These remarks are interesting since they provide a glimpse into how Honneth addresses alienation, the phenomenon whereby human beings no longer recognize themselves in their own products which thus appear to possess their own independent being. An aspect of this is that people become unable to recognize their own freedom in institutional structures. Although Honneth discusses these processes in his book Reification, he never really provides a sociological explanation in that book of why reification occurs (a problem that I have addressed here). Here, however, he does provide at least part of the sociological explanation that is missing in that book - although the explanation is admittedly sketchy and doesn't really go beyond Habermas.

While this discussion of the social background to the "pathologies" is interesting, it is also slightly problematic. To begin with, if the social cause of legal pathologies is located in juridification or in a broader trend to growing social complexity, then what becomes of the claim that they are rooted in the institutions of freedom themselves? To trace them back to any internal processes within these institutions seems reductive (in relation to this, see Freyerhagen's criticism of the distinction between pathologies and misdevelopments; Freyerhagen 2015). Furthermore, if social complexity is really the cause of the pathologies, then there would be no remedy again them and alienation would have to be defined as a feature of modern society as such, rather than of the capitalist system.

In any case, while negative and reflexive forms of freedom are clearly important, Honneth believes that they must be kept from going to excesses. To keep them in their proper place, well developed institutions of social freedom are necessary - in other words, institutions regulating intimate relations, the market economy, and the political public sphere.


According to Honneth, the major instutitions of social freedom - those regulating intimate relations, the market and the public sphere - yield no pathologies. Instead they suffer from misdevelopments, meaning that the causes of the problems are external rather than internal to the institutions themselves. To Honneth, pathologies are in fact only a rather minor part of the problems faced by modern societies. Most of the book is instead taken up with the misdevelopments.

Here I think we should pause and reflect a bit on what the distinction between pathologies and misdevelopments does to Honneth's theory. One of the chief functions of this distinction is to provide a theoretical basis for arguing that these institutions are not bad in themselves, despite the fact that actual practices in these institutions may well fail to live up to the values embodied in them. The misdevelopments are certainly deplorable, but they are not the fault of the institutions. They are rather “anomalies” (p.129) for which the institutions are not responsible.

What then are the misdevelopments from which the major institutional complexes suffer? The sphere of intimate relations and the family is being hollowed out by the capitalist market. The political public sphere suffers from problems such as mistrust of public institutions and apathy, obstacles for the participation of all citizens, as well as the tension between the democratic constitutional state and the capitalist market.

So we can see that when it comes to the misdevelopments affecting intimate relations and the public sphere, Honneth to a considerable extent locates the "bad" external influences as having their root in the market economy and its tendency to encroach on these other institutional complexes. To rectify at least some of these problems he proposes that limits to the economic sphere must be determined, so as to prevent “the colonization of neighboring spheres of social freedom” (p.154). An important point the he makes is that the democratic public sphere has a key role in counter-acting misdevelopments not only in its own sphere but also in the other two institutional complexes, since the realization of social freedom in this sphere depends on “free” conditions in the other two. The public sphere, he writes, “can only live up to its principles of legitimacy if it learns... the necessity of supporting struggles for social freedom in the two other spheres” (p. 254f, also see pp. 330-335).

An important remaining question is, of course: if the market economy is a major cause of the misdevelopments affecting intimate relations and the public sphere, what causes the misdevelopments in the market economy? By definition, these causes would have to be external to the market economy, but where then do they come from?

But that is a question that will have to wait to my next post!


Freyerhagen, Fabian (2015) “Honneth on Social Pathologies: A Critique”, Critical Perspectives 16(2): 131–152.

Honneth, Axel (2014) Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.