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Axel Honneth

Critical Theory
in Germany Today
1
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An Interview with Axel Honneth

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Axel Honneth is Professor of Philosophy in the Faculty of
Political Science at the Free University, Berlin. He is the
author of The Critique of Power: Reflective Stages in a
Critical Social Theory (1985; English translation, MIT
Press, 1991) and Struggle for Recognition (1992; English
translation, Polity Press, forthcoming in 1994) – books
which have placed his work at the centre of current debates
in Germany within the Frankfurt School tradition.

RP: We’d like to begin with a question about your
background. What was it like going through university
in Germany in the late 1960s and early ’70s? What were
your formative experiences, theoretically and politically?

Honneth: I started to study in 1969, after the birth of the
student movement, in very conservative surroundings, at
the University ofBonn. Neither in philosophy nor in literature
(which I studied at that time) was there anything of interest
there for someone who had already been influenced by the
student movement. In philosophy, a kind of neo-Kantianism
was still hegemonic, which was typical of German
universities at the time. It was oriented towards German
Idealism in an enlightened way, but for the most part it was
very boring. It had nothing to do with the questions of the
political movements. The same was true in literature, where
a very conventional form of literary history was prominent.

The only point of contact between the two was Gadamer’s
hermeneutics. It was the bridge between literature and
philosophy in the university. There was nothing left from
the original generation of the 1950s in Bonn, to which the
young Habermas and Karl Quo Apel belonged. They were
both in Bonn as either students or assistants of Erich
Rothacker, who was oriented towards philosophical
anthropology, and they learned to combine Heidegger with
a certain anthropological theory there. The early pragmatism
of that generation was born in Bonn, but there was nothing
of it left by the time I arrived, and it was not my reason for
studying there.

What influenced me at the beginning was logical
positivism. It was the methodological counterpart to Bonn’ s
strange combination of neo-Kantianism, hermeneutics, and
German Idealism; a methodological standpoint from which
Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

we could criticise these boring conservative orientations
which we found at the university. That took a year or two,
no longer. The first person whose work allowed me to build
a bridge between my.political interests and what was going
on in my theoretical studies was Adorno. Like a lot of young
students in philosophy, I was totally influenced by Adorno.

I had this tendency to just imitate him. It’s awful to read
now, the imitation of his language, using arguments which,
if you don’t really deepen them, if you don’t have the
background to place them philosophically, sometimes seem
very silly.

At the same time, I wasn’t very active in the student
movement in Bonn. The real places for the student movement
were Berlin and Frankfurt, maybe Heidelberg. That’s where
the interesting and intellectually far-reaching debates were.

In Bonn, the student movement didn’t really occur in the
classroom, but only through some happenings on the street.

I had no connections to this. I came from a much closer and
much safer world, and I felt quite distanced from it. That
changed when I went to the University of Bochum, which
is huge.

RP: Which year was that?

Honneth: 1971. In philosophy, it’s an interesting place
because of the Hegel archive. They are preparing and
editing the new Hegel edition, and they are very careful. The
leading figure at that time was Quo Poggeler. Being there
changed my philosophical orientation in two ways. Firstly,
I could see that there was something in German Idealism
which is not, let’s say, simply to be killed by logical
positivism. There are some speCUlative ideas which we
should take much more seriously. Secondly, I read Habermas
for the first time. This was of unbelievable importance to me
because he started out from an immanent critique of logical
positivism, and an immanent critique of what was happening
in the conventional German university. If you read some of
his early things in Theory and Practice, you can see how it
was related by way of immanent critique to what was left
over from Max Scheler and N icolai Hartmann, and that kind
of German philosophy of the 1920s and ’30s. There was a
chance for me to bring my different interests together.

This was also the way I came into contact with Marxism.

33

Maybe that’s strange, for a student in a German university
at that time to come into contact with Marx via Habermas,
and not the other way round. My political orientation had
changed insofar as I had become a member of the USOS,
which is the youth organisation of the SPD, and which was
quite radical at that time – although not as radical as most of
the groups in the student movement. And I had become
interested in a critique of capitalism from the standpoint of
workers’ movements. I began to see how one could formulate
philosophical and theoretical questions in such a way that
they have a certain relation to these movements. That was
a very fruitful experience for me, even though the
philosophical debates in Bochum were not relevant to this.

RP: What was the reception of Heidegger like in this
period? We ask because of the more recent debates
about the politics of He idegger’s philosophy. Heidegger’s
role in German philosophy is obviously much more
complicated than these debates suggest. So I wonder,
was there any Heideggerian influence?

Honneth: As far as I can remember, none at all. Most of us
had read Adomo’ s Heidegger critique, and that was all. The
fact that Habermas and Apel had a certain closeness to
Heidegger in their early period – and you can see that when
you read the very first articles, especially Apel’ s – was
always something very strange for me. We did not even read
Being and Time then. It was simply outside the debate of the
philosophically-oriented members of the student movement.

RP: Gadamer wasn’t viewed as a Heideggerian?

Honneth: No, Gadamer was the big person in Germany
philosophy, formulating a hermeneutical position which
had, we thought, quite conservative elements. But that was
a book we read. One was very familiar with this book. It
started to have a very big influence. It was already clear that
there was an interesting confrontation brewing between
Habermas and Gadamer. Gadamer’s hermeneutics on the
one side, and the developing theory of Habermas on the
other, were the two poles between which we lived.

RP: At this time, was Habermas seen to represent an
extension of the Frankfurt School tradition?

Honneth: No. Not at all. Never during my whole educational
career was he ever seen as that.

RP: Was Habermas viewed primarily as a philosopher
or as a social theorist?

Honneth: More or less a social theorist, I would say. The
influence of Marxism and critical theory started in sociology.

But he had a very hard time, because he was totally isolated
from the student movement. He was even seen as an enemy
in the circles of the student movement, because of his use of
the phrase ‘left fascism’. The movement was becoming
more and more orthodox. Around 1973, when I wrote my
Magisterarbeit (on Habermas, mainly his interpretation of
psychoanalysis), the interesting people of my age started to
orient themselves towards either communism in the Leninist
sense or a certain Maoism. Only a very few people remained
34

unorthodox in the sense that they were simply oriented to
the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, or had a strong
interest in Krahl. Krahl was a young, intellectually brilliant
member of SDS, who combined a strong interest in Hegel
with an enormous know ledge of the tradition of Western
Marxism – something like a young Lukacs in the the student
movement. He played a very decisive role in all discussions.

He died in 1969, but he was an adversary of whom you
really took notice. For myself, the move away from
philosophy towards sociology was decisive. I started to
study sociology, I came into contact with people who did
empirical research on the class structure in Germany, and I
learned a lot about empirical research.

Two other things should be mentioned. One is the
growth of small groups reading Capital. I was a member of
one of these private groups. It was a very typical event in
these years. Everyone who had an interest in Critical Theory
and in the critique of capitalism was in one way or another
a member of such a group. This was interesting because the
group I was in was not too orthodox. We had objections to
either the methodology of Marx, or the content of the first
volume of Capital. The other big experience was the opening
up of a whole repressed tradition of Left thinking. I started
to read Lukacs, I was even influenced by Bloch in a certain
way, and Karl Korsch. The unorthodox tradition of Western
Marxism was a big influence.

RP: Did Althusser have any influence in your Capital
reading group?

Honneth: At that time, no, not at all. That’s something I was
confronted with for the first time in Berlin. That was the
next decisive step in my development. I got an offer to go
with Jaeggi to the Free University in Berlin. He had written
a book on capital and labour in the Bundesrepublik – an
empirical study, which was very influential both among the
unions and the student movement – and he invited me to go
with him to the Institute of Sociology. That was an incredible
break in my intellectual development because in Berlin
there was a totally different atmosphere. It was
overpoliticised in every class.

The Institute of Sociology was very orthodox, in the
sense that most of the members believed either in Marx or
in some other tradition in a very uncritical way. There were
a lot of Leninists there at the time, a lot of people oriented
to Maoism, and a growing interest in Althusser. Althusser
was someone producing a new form of social theory and it
was my luck or my fate, I’m not sure which, that the person
I had come to Berlin with decided to establish an Althusser
group. This group was totally convinced by Althusserianism.

(One has to say that Althusser played a very minor role in
Germany.) I had a very hard time because I was already a
totally convinced Habermasian, and there were very few of
us at that time. We were seen by members of the student
movement and the growing parts of orthodox movements as
reformists, absolutely reformists, betrayers of the goals of
the movements; and for the very few conservative people in
the humanities at the Free University we were too left-wing.

So I was in the strange situation of defending my
Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

Habermasian approach against a growing belief in Althusser.

On the one hand, I was very frightened by these orthodox
tendencies, I felt very alone; on the other, I developed a real
interest in a critique of Althusserian orthodoxy. It forced me
to write an article against Althusser which was strongly
attacked by all the other members of the group. * That was
something like a first chance to formulate my own position.

I wasn’t an orthodox Habermasian in a strong sense, although
everyone took me for one. I already had certain objections
against Habermas especially in connection with his notion
of work. I had problems with the way he reduced the
Marxian notion of work to instrumental action because I
was influenced by sociological studies on the experience of
work. I always had a feeling that it is a much broader field
of experiences than is possible to reduce to instrumental
action.

The critique of Althusser gave me the chance to make
my own approach much clearer. At the time, this meant
starting out from something like a philosophical anthropology. So I was greatly interested in Marx’s early writings.

This also had something to do with the early Habermas and
the early Apel. I found out that at the Free University, in my
own Institute, there were people with a strong interest in
philosophical anthropology. I came into contact with them
and I started to work with Hans Joas. We wrote a book
together on philosophical anthropology. ~here .were s~me
interesting people who were interested In phIlosophIcal
anthropology. There was Gehlen, a conservative anthropologist, and Plessner, who played a ver~ i~te.resting .role.

We could connect this with certain tendenCIes In InternatIOnal
Marxism, especially the Budapest School around Agnes
HelIer and Gyorgy Marcus. They had a special interest in
anthropology via Lukacs’ s development. So I could locate
myself in a new and interesting way. I could see that there
were certain bridges to developments in unorthodox Marxism, and on the other hand, to developments around
Habermas in Frankfurt.

This was a strange point in my intellectual development.

I started to come closer to philosophical anthropology at the
precise moment at which Habermas was totally convinced
that he had to give it up, for methodological reasons because the propositions of an anthropology are too strong.

They can’t be falsified. He switched to th~ theor~ of
language which was to replace the phIlosophIc~1
anthropology in his approach. My own development was In
opposition to that. I thought of philosophical anthropology
as a very fruitful and helpful tradition. It’s a very German
tradition. Much later I saw that, in Charles Taylor, for
example, there was a similar development. But at that time
I took it as a German tradition which had something to do
with the early Marx. So my approach was in total opposition
to the Althusserians, and to what was happening at that time
in the hegemony of intellectual thinkers in Berlin.

*A translation of this piece, ‘History and Interaction: On
the Structuralist Interpretation of Historical Materialism’ ,
will appear in Gregory Elliott (ed.), Althusser: A Critical
Reader, Blackwell, Oxford, forthcoming in 1994.

Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

RP: In turning to the empirical, in a sense Habermas
was more in line with the Althusserians: rejecting
philosophical anthropology in the name of positive science – not the same positive science, but nonetheless …

Honneth: Yes, one could say so. I wouldn’t formulate it in
that way, but I can see that one could say that. The orientation
towards social theory, concentrating on the inner logics and
mechanisms of development, one could understand it as a
development in the same direction that the Althusserians
took in concentrating on the late Marx and the inner logic of
Capital. But I was strongly opposed to this development. At
the same time, what was going on politically isolated me
from any political movement. The youth organisation of the
SPD became a more and more unfruitful form of orthodoxy
– what was called Stamocap theory (State Monopoly
Capitalism) – believing in the essentially capitalist character
of the state. On the other side of the student movement there
was a lot of debate about the importance and the moral
legitimacy of terrorism. The colleagues I had were either
orthodoxly oriented toward Leninism or, ifthey were unorthodox, they were oriented towards what I would call an
orthodox Adornism. Adorno played a very decisive role at
the Free University. But because I had separated from
Adorno, via Habermas, I also felt isolated from this kind of
thinking: something like a totalising critique of capitalis~,
as we know it from Adorno. This approach was used In
every field of research, not only in the philosophical debates,
but also in the different branches of sociology in which I was
working at that time. I had split my work into a philosophic~l
part and a sociological part, doing studies on the expenences of workers’ children. I had dedicated (Jlot of my own
work to the socialisation processes of working class youth.

This was a very helpful empirical period of my own research
and development, but again I felt quite isolated in this area.

I was living in different worlds in Berlin. The only shared
orientation I had was towards philosophical anthropology.

Critique of Power
RP: Perhaps we could move on to talk about some of the
positions you adopt in your book The Critique ofPower.

The thing that strikes the British reader immediately is
the way you place Foucault in the Frankfurt tradition.

Habermas and Foucault are usually constructed in a
binary antagonistic way, whereas your book assumes
from the very beginning that Foucault is part of the
Frankfurt tradition. Why is this?

Honneth: It has to do with my experiences in Berlin.

Foucault was read by people who were formerly interested
in Adorno. He was taken as a kind of extension of what
Adorno did. The interest in poststructuralism came from
people who were oriented towards Adorno. They switched
from Adorno to Foucault. That was the intellectual situation
in which I started to think of a book which would be a
critique of the present situation of Critical Theory, taking
Foucault as a part of it. I wanted to distance myself from
approaches like those of Adorno and Foucault, in order to
35

show that neither has the means or the potentiality to build
up a social theory which could compete with the complexity
of theories like Parsons’ and the tradition of Durkheim. That
was my interest at that time. It was strongly located in a field
of social theory, not so much in philosophy. I wanted to find
a way to develop the necessary means to construct a social
theory. So I started to give lectures on Adorno, on Foucault,
and on Habermas.

RP: Could you say something about your understanding
of the category of the social here? The book hinges
around quite a strong claim that there is no such category
as the social in Adorno and Foucault. Now, of course, in
one sense that’s quite explicit in Adorno in the essay
called ‘Society’, but in other ways it’s not so clear. Could
you say something about this missing category? At what
level is it constructed? Is it a transcendental category, or
what?

Honneth: Yes, but that’s a question of how to interpret
Durkheim. If you take Durkheim as someone who was only
describing mechanisms of ideological integration, like
Althusser, maybe. If you take Durkheim from this side, it is
easy to show that Foucault is in the tradition of Durkheim.

B ut I took Durkheim much more from the concept of social
consent: we don’t have the methodological possibility of
separating a priori an ideological consent from a true
consent. On the other hand, I saw some big advantages in
Foucault’s approach over Adorno’ s. I had a very bad feeling
about what Adorno had produced in the intellectual
atmosphere of the German Left. It was my conviction that
his critique of the sociological tradition had cut us off from
a fruitful body of work, especially in my Institute. There is
a biographical background to this feeling. I had the
impression that my colleagues were not really able to read
Durkheim or Parsons or Bourdieu, because they had
internalised Adorno’ s critique of ideology. It put them in the
position of not taking this approach seriously enough.

RP: This leads us on to the question of how you conceive
the book in relation to what might be called the Frankfurt
tradition. Would you now say that Habermas is in that
tradition? And are you? At the Waiter Benjamin
conference in London last summer you were introduced
as a member of the third generation of the Frankfurt
School, but you immediately denied it by saying that
there is no third generation. Is this really so?

Alternatively, is there even a second generation?

Honneth: It had to do with the influence of philosophical
anthropology combined with my growing interest in the
French tradition of sociological investigation – Durkheim,
but also Levi-Strauss. I also started to read Bourdieu at that
time. I took all these approaches to be investigations into the
inner structure of the social – what Durkheim had in mind
when he spoke of the collective consciousness, that binding
force which is the only power to integrate a society. One
could say that I meant what David Lockwood described as
social integration as opposed to system integration.

RP: And this would be a more differentiated, and more
empirically open way of doing what the Marxist category
of ideology does, or something like that, would it?

Honneth: Yes, but without the immediately negative undertone which the notion of ideology has. Today, I would
say it was a very Durkheimian step to concentrate on the
social as those mechanisms of social integration which have
to do with a certain amount of social consent in a society. I
always had the feeling that neither Adorno nor Foucault had
the right means to describe these mechanisms.

RP: Some people would put Foucault in the Durkheimian
tradition of French social theory …

36

Honneth: On the question of the second generation, I
always answer positively. I once wrote an article on the
linguistic turn in Critical Theory, quite simiiar to the article
by Well mer (we both wrote articles separately on the same
topic) showing that all the decisive elements of Critical
Theory could be saved on a methodologically higher level
by Habermas ‘s linguistic turn. That means that the decisive
element of Critical Theory, the broad tradition of, let’s say,
the unorthodox Western Marxist critique of capitalism, is
retained.

RP: That’s much broader than Frankfurt Critical
Theory …

Honneth: Yes, that’s broader. I would prefer a broader
notion of Critical Theory. One that doesn’t reduce it to
Adorno and Horkheimer, but includes the young Lukacs
and Korsch. Habermas is still interested in a critique of
capitalism as a reified form of social life. That interest is
shared with the tradition, but he uses totally different
methodological means. From the beginning, I thought this
to be a better formulation of Critical Theory than the
orthodox one I came to know in Berlin.

The problem with the idea of a third generation is that I
can’t see anyone who will reformulate Adorno’ sand
Horkheimer’s critique of capitalism in the horizon of the
early Critical Theory. There is a lot of interest again now in
Adorno in Germany. But all I see is an increasing interest in
aesthetics, and in the critique of identity – an interest in the
methodology of philosophy. I don’t see a new way of
Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

bringing back the critique of capitalism in my generation.

Therefore I wouldn’t say there is a third generation.

RP: But this is to define the third generation in terms of
the first, rather than as a development out of the second.

Honneth: Yes. This is the other part of my answer. It’s
difficult to say whether those who are trying to develop an
immanent critique of Habermas, bringing some motives of
the early tradition back into Habermas, should be thought of
as a third generation. The person who is doing that on the
highest level is Albrecht Wellmer, who has a certain relation
to Adorno, and tries to reformulate certain ideas of Adorno
in the framework of Habermas. It’s an open question. It
really would be a third generation if we were able to
reformulate some of the stronger notions of the critique of
capitalism which Adorno and Horkheimer had, in a totally
new framework, using a lot of Habermas but making the
critique of capitalism much stronger. Then one could speak
of a third generation.

Moral Struggle and Recognition
RP: In the linguistic reformulation of earlier motifs in
the critique of capitalism, like reification, in the move
away from political economy, there is a much closer
relationship to classical liberal thought, in a Kantian
mode. Now, one of the things that seems to be distinctive
about your own work is an emphasis on the conflictual
aspect of communicative action. This picks up some of
the non-liberal motifs in Critical Theory, because of the
notion of struggle. But it is formulated as moral struggle.

Could you say something about this category of moral
struggle, specifically in relation to whether the term
‘moral’ here has primarily Kantian or Hegelian
implications?

Honneth: To answer the last part of your question first, I
would say that it plays in between them. We can see this in
all the productive approaches of Critical Theory: it’s always
an ongoing tension between Kant and Hegel. I would say
that the most productive element – one of the most productive
elements of the Critical Theory tradition – is to be unable to
decide which side you are on here. The notion of moral
struggle became more and more important to me in order to
criticise the more liberal elements in Habermas. That’s one
of the backgrounds for it. The theoretical background is an
interest in a more Durkheimian reading of Foucault; a
reading in which the notion of struggle, which is very
decisive for Foucault, is given another interpretation: struggle
is morally motivated in a very broad way, not only by
questions of injustice, but by all forms of disrespect,
indignation, and so on. So I think the background for my
notion of moral struggle is more Hegel than Kant: they are
not only struggles for a just legal order, they are struggles
for the recognition of the special value of your own life
form. Charles Tayloris going in a quite similar direction. He
has just published a book on multiculturalism, which has as
a subtitle ‘The politics of recognition’. He is making the
Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

same step of describing struggles with the help of the notion
of recognition. This is a distancing from Habermas, to see
in struggle, I would say like Marx, the real productive force
in society.

RP: In your latest book, Struggle For Recognition, you
go back once again to the origins of the paradigm shift
to an inter-subjectivistic theory of recognition – namely,
to the young Hegel- in order to question anew the scope
and direction of the theory of communicative rationality,
and its normative implications. Could you say a little bit
about the motivation for this attempt to actualise the
insights of the young Hegel anew? In what respect does
your attempt to reconstruct a formal theory of the good
life differ from Habermas’s attempt to offer normative
foundations for Critical Theory by means of the concept
of communicative rationality?

Honneth: The young Hegel is a motivating power for so
many people. Everyone who has an interest in a critique of
the modern world – the capitalist world – at a certain
moment returns to the young Hegel. I really can’t describe
why that is. Perhaps it is because this young Hegel is very
open and very direct, and not so controlled (like the later
Hegel) by his own system. The young Hegel is one of the
richest thinkers of the last two hundred years. There are
romantic motives in him, there are certain influences of
Kant in him. Everything is working towards him at a certain
tangent. More specific was my conviction, which was
influenced by certain studies in Germany, that in the young
Hegel we can find a much broader notion of recognition
than we can find in the later Hegel, who was used by
Habermas. In the young Hegel we can see a threefold
conception of recognition: love, something like a relation of
rights, legal relations, and a third dimension which I would
call solidarity, a word Hegelneverused. He wrote Sittlichkeit,
ethical life, a kind of community of shared values.

In relation to Habermas, this. means two things. First, it
means that we can ground Critical Theory not in a linguistic
theory, but in some form of philosophical anthropology.

I’m not sure whether that’s the right word or category, but
it is a much broader conception of human life than is
allowed by linguistic theory. This allows me to bring in
disciplines or motives which Habermas is forced to exclude
more and more – like psychoanalysis, concentrating on
prelinguistic experience, and so forth. So that’s the first
step, the first difference. The other difference is with
reference to the normative foundation of Critical Theory.

More and more I have the impression that if you have a
broader notion of recognition you also have a broader
concept of the normative background of Critical Theory.

That’s what I call a formal concept of the good. This is
working together with certain trends in American philosophy, like Martha Nausbaum, and also some approaches in
Germany. In normative questions you don’t reduce yourself
to the moral standpoint of a just society, but to the formal
standpoint of identifying aspects of a good society. My
impression is that the concept of recognition allows one to
formulate some quite abstract conditions for every form of
37

a good human life. That gives me the hope of reconstructing
some of the deep insights of the early Frankfurt School. But
in this respect I’m still very unclear, and I have to work on
that. The situation is as follows. The early Frankfurt School
never had anything like a normative theory. There were,
without question, some normative insights, some normative
criteria, which they used to criticise capitalist society. But
they never tried to work this normative background out in
reference to what was going on in ethical theory, or in moral
theory, at that time. You can find Horkheimer’s article on
morality, but there is no explicit contribution to the question
of the normative background of Critical Theory there.

RP: One thing that is striking about your recent article
on the young Hegel* is that in constructing an opposition
between a Hobbesian/Machiavellian tradition of selfpreservation and the Hegelian concept of recognition
you connect up with the early Horkheimer’s book on the
bourgeois philosophy of history, which is very much
concerned with this tradition of self-preservation. (Think
also of the centrality of the concept to Dialectic of
Enlightenment.) So in a sense you are tracing the problem
of a lack of normative foundations right back to there.

Honneth: It was always my conviction that it would be
easier to go back to the early Horkheimer than to the middle
period Adorno.

RP: Habermas himself begins by trying to go back to the
early Horkheimer. There seems to be a whole series of
overlapping returns here …

Honneth: Going back to early Hegel, going back to early
Horkh~imer,

yes.

RP: Going back to early Habermas!

Honneth: Yes. Maybe there is a systematic background for
this: the early stage of a thinker is the methodologically
more naive one, but the theoretically more productive one;
the early stage of a thinker is the richest one in the sense that
the most normative and creative ideas are formulated in a
direct way in the first period. After that, there are certain
tendencies to the systematic reduction of these early insights.

I hope that it is possible via the reconstruction of the formal
theory of the good, to make clear the normative background
of the early Frankfurt School, which could then be
redescribed in terms of normative criteria about the
conditions of a good life for human beings. I would guess
that, for example, in Minima Moralia you can find a
negativistic form of such a theory. Adorno would like to
show, via a negativistic method, what forms of human life
exist, from which we can all see that they do not belong to
a good form of human life; and then via this negativistic
route to show indirectly some preconditions of a good

* Axel Honneth, ‘Moral Development and Social Struggle:

Hegel ‘s Early Social-Philosophical Doctrines’, in Axel
Honneth et aI., Cultural-Political Interventions in the Unfinished Project ofEnlightenment, MIT Press, Cambridge,
Mass., 1992, pp. 197-217.

38

human life. If that is possible, it would mean that I would
have a broader, but methodologically more disputable
foundation for a critical theory; not so universalisable as the
normative criteria Habermas is looking for, by reducing all
normative criteria to the question of ajust society. That is a
difference, a difference from the liberal tradition. To go
back to philosophical anthropology instead of linguistic
theory means to have a broader approach to certain
transcendental features of human beings. The only anthropological propositions Habermas would maintain nowadays
are those describing mechanisms of understanding in human
beings via language. Going back to philosophical anthropology is a necessary step if you want to have a stronger
foundation, a broader foundation, for the normative critique
of our present society.

RP: But isn’t there a problem here? Any philosophical
anthropology will already have normative assumptions
about the most appropriate form of human existence
built into its basic theoretical orientation. You would
seem to be involved in a circle. Can philosophical
anthropology ever be foundational in the way in which
Habermas wants universal pragmatics to be?

Honneth: This is a very difficult question. I think that
philosophical anthropology has to be understood in the
same falsifiable way as universal pragmatics. This means
that it follows exactly the same methodological rules: in
order to find out whether there are any universal constraints
on the process of human individuation, we have to collect
as much empirical data as possible. My hope is that there is
sufficient convergence between psychoanalysis, theories of
moral development and sociological studies on personal
concepts of injustice to show that the process of human
individuation presupposes certain demands for recognition.

It is clear that this anthropological hypothesis is not separable
from the normative assumptions we have about the most
appropriate forms of human existence. But as long as this
hypothesis is not falsified empiricially, this seems to me a
legitimate presupposition.

RP: In Struggle For Recognition you use the
psychoanalytic theories of Donald Winnicott – who is
still relatively unknown in Germany – to provide an
account of the intersubjective foundation of personal
identity in childhood experience (Hegel’s dimension of
love). Why did you find the work of Winnicott in
particular useful for these purposes?

Honneth: In the first place, Winnicott is one of the leading
figures in object-relations theory. In my view, this is a much
more convincing and promising approach than orthodox
psychoanalysis because it understands the psychic
development of the individual as something which is
internally dependent on emotional relations with other
people. What is most interesting about Winnicott’ s approach,
however, is the way in which, almost like Hegel, he sees the
intersubjective process of individuation as a struggle for
recognition: namely, as a struggle between two people on
the edge between fusion and demarcation. J essica Benjamin
Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

was the first person to make this implicit relation to Hegel
clear to me, in her analysis of female masochism in her book
The Bonds of Love.

RP: The project of a critical social theory has been
radically challenged in recent years, both by the lack of
utopian energy within society and at an intellectual
level. What role do you think critical social theory has to
play within modern society? Can we still conceive of an
utopian drive for radical democratisation and a substantial redemption of the claims to a good life, or is
Critical Theory confined to a level of critique which first
and foremost concerns the distribution of goods and
rights within the modern welfare state, as it would seem
to be for Habermas?

Honneth: There is a certain tendency to reduce the potentialities of Habermasi an theory in respect of his own political
and normative insights. If you take his new book, F aktizitat
und Geltung, which just came out in Germany, and which
has started to be discussed there now in the academic world ,
you can see that in respect to his book on communicative
action he is not taking a step in the direction of
accommodation, but in the direction of radicalisation. He’s
taking back some of his claims about the inviolability of
systems. Nowadays, in this book, he sees a certain chance
for the democratisation of what he previously called the
political system, which was taken as a given. That was Tom
McCarthy’s criticism: in using systems theory for describing
the political-administrative system Habermas was reducing
himself to the conviction that no further democratisation of
the political world is possible. In this new book he is much
more radical in this respect, because he is again thinking of
ways of democratising the administrative system. On the
other hand, it’s clear that you could say that immanent
critiques of capitalist societies, hinting at a certain increase
of democracy, without taking into view the possibilities of
other forms of economy, or the working life, are too narrow.

In this respect I am in a difficult position, because I can see
the empirical justification for that. We are in a position in
which we can’t see a clear alternative to certain mechanisms
of the capitalist economy. All over the world there is a
certain apathy of Marxists and Leftists with respect to these
economic questions.

On the other hand, I’m not sure whether we should put
the question of the reconstruction of the economic system
at the centre of our concerns today. Maybe it is more
productive to ask what the preconditions are for a good life
in our present situation, and then to ask how to reorganise
society in order to fulfil this. I would strengthen some
criticisms of the capitalist organisation of everyday life, and
then ask myself, in a second step, what are the societal
means to fulfil these normative conditions we think of when
we criticise the capitalist organisation of everyday life in
our time. I don’t know whether we should call that utopia.

There are certain utopian elements in it, but that is not what
is decisive. If you think of the young Lukacs, or the young
Adorno, they are not utopian thinkers. They had a very
strong idea about what reification is, and to describe
Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

something as reification we need some standards or criteria
in mind about what a non-reified human life is. But maybe
that’s enough today. Maybe that’s an utopian background
which you don’t have to spell out.

Politics in Germany
RP: Perhaps we could move on to some more immediately
political issues. Could you give us some indication of the
way in which the German Left is responding to current
events in Europe, particularly concerning nationalism,
in relation to German reunification, on the one hand,
and European integration on the other? What’s most
striking from the standpoint of the Left in Britain is
what looks like a peculiar resonance between certain
views of the German Left and views on the Right of the
Conservative Party in Britain. What they seem to share
is an incredible distrust of Germany as a re unified
nation in Europe. From the standpoint of the British
Left that looks like a very British chauvinism. Yet in
some respects it’s held even more extremely by people
like Gunther Grass in Germany. So a certain German
Left position looks very much like a certain British
Right position.

Honneth: I’m not sure that’s the right description. I have to
say, there is a certain lack of interest in questions of
European unity on the Left in Germany. Everyone is concentrating on the question of German unification and on the
social results of this unification, in terms of the economic
situation in which there is now a strong discrepancy between
East and West in Germany, the new right -wing movements,
and racism in Germany. The Left and the Right are both
concentrating on Germany even though the Left wants to be
non-nationalistic. I would say that the big mistake in this
situation is this over-concentration on Germany, on both
sides – the negativist nationalists and the positive nationalists.

I see this tendency even in. Habermas: overstressing
nationality in a negativist way, struggling all the time
against German nationalism, instead of thinking of a
productive route to European unification. Leftists are in a
familiar position because, on the one hand, we see that
without any doubt European unification is the best way, as
a next step in the political development of Europe; on the
other hand, we see all the mistakes of the Maastricht treaty:

the centralisation of Europe in a single financial system, the
over-concentration of all political and economic power in
one system. That is the main problem of the Maastricht
treaty. The task of the future should be to think of new forms
of federalism: new intelligent constructions of complex
systems oflocal democracies, hanging together in a federalist
way, so that we can speak of a unified Europe. That hasn’t
even started in Germany. Interestingly enough, the liberal
thinkers are the only ones who are concentrating on this
question. I can’t see any interesting Leftist approach to it.

Even people like Dahrendorf are thinking of these questions
in Germany, but not the Leftists.

RP: There is a piece by Adorno from 1959 in which,
39

reflecting on the question of ‘working through the past’ ,
he writes: ‘I consider the continued existence of National Socialism within democracy potentially much
more threatening than the continued existence of fascist
tendencies against democracy.’ This defines a very
specific Frankfurtian position. How do you view that
distinction, given the current situation? Does it still
make sense, this way of thinking about capitalist democracy and fascism such that in some sense fascism isn’t
‘outside’ the system? Or is this a completely anachronistic
way of thinking?

Honneth: It belongs to the tradition of the political theory
of the Frankfurt School concerning which I have many
doubts, for liberal reasons. I see a strong difference between
a Rechtsstaat and a totalitarian state. In this respect, there is
a certain relevance to Hannah Arendt’ s separation between
democracy and totalitarianism. Adorno and Horkheimer
always wanted to undermine this differentiation, but I
would say that all the experiences we have speak for Arendt
instead of Adorno and Horkheimer.

RP: In a recent speech Manfred Frank went so far as to
draw an analogy between the bowing to popular
xenophobic sentiment on the part of the German political
establishment and Goebbels’s populism. Was Frank’s
analogy therefore misplaced? You don’t think there is a
danger within the political treatment of recent events
which might reflect a new kind of cynicism in Germany’s
cultural consciousness of its past?

Honneth: I would be much more cautious than Frank,
because what I hate at the present moment in Germany is
this kind of instinctual reaction you have to use traditional
words like fascism. We are still living in this schemata of
being either fascist or a good leftist. So I have many doubts
about Frank’s analogy. The question of whether there’s a
new cynicism with respect to the past is one on which I’m
quite optimistic regarding the cultural state of Germany.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m much too optimistic, but I
think that even the conservatives, most of them, are quite
aware of Germany’s broken past. Even Kohl is aware of the
moral debt we have. The difficulty that the conservatives
have in debating the question whether German troops
should join the UN troops shows how aware they are of this
past. The only danger I see for a new cynicism is when the
element which one finds in the young generation of skinheads
has an influence on other generations and other groups.

Then we have the cynical perspective on German history.

That could be a danger. You can see it in certain elements
of German cultural life. It is an intellectual reaction going
back to the thirties. In this respect, I am quite worried
sometimes that there could be a new conservative right.

Interestingly enough, it is not in the conservative party as
such. But that kind of cultural elitism does keep coming
back.

RP: Do you regard the current situation in Germany social disturbances, riots, strong reactionary sentiments,
etc. – as simply a side effect of the reunification process,
40

likely to disappear according to the logic of a democratic
learning process? Or are they perhaps due to more
substantial insufficiencies within the contemporary
political and societal formation, which make it hard to
conceive of a frictionless development of German society?

Honneth: I would like to say two things. The first is I don’t
think that the events in Germany are correctly explained
using the left-right schemata to describe them. What’s
going on in these teenage riots, for example, is very hard to
describe with the notions we are still using in the German
debate of ‘fascism’ versus ‘leftism’. In Germany we are
much too quick in using fascism as the key word for
describing what’s going on. It has a lot to do with the
situation of jobless youth, a generation which has no other
cultural means to find an identity except by using certain
symbolic elements of the German past, which they know
can produce certain provocations. That has to do with the
cycles of cultural demarcation in the last thirty years. There
was a whole generation using leftist symbols, even though
we can see now that not all of them were morally convinced
leftists – they were simply using the symbols. Now the
members of the youth generation are in a situation in which
their opposition to what’s going on in Germany can only be
made by using some protest materials in this way. It sounds
as if I’m making the situation look much nicer than it is, but
one has to respect that there is a cultural element there. On
the other hand, it has to be said that there is also a big revival
of small radically right-wing groups, even fascist parties,
trying to exert an influence on the skinhead scene. The
danger is without doubt this convergence. between the
symbolic and cultural forms of the young skinheads and the
ideological content of the right-wing parties. It could happen
that the fascist explanations make a more consistent,
biographically more convincing, sense of the cultural
symbols that the younger people are using.

RP: There does seem to be something specific about the
West German state here, concerning immigration laws,
for example, and the way that immigrant communities
have been formally dealt with by the state in terms of
their political rights. The move towards European unity
is likely to make the German model the standard
European model. Do you have any views about the
political rights of Gastarbeiter?

Honneth: Germany is in a special position because we were
never under the real pressure of an immigrant country. Now
we are coming under this pressure, and we simply have to
learn from the big immigrant countries. That means learning
in a political respect and in a cultural respect. That’s a
learning process that has to be undertaken not only by the
younger generation of skinheads, but by every other
generation now living in Germany as well. It sounds very
easy when the left is saying we have to become a multicultural
country, but I’m not sure whether we are all prepared for
that. There is a lack of the cultural democratisation which
other countries simply had to learn. Something like the

Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

introduction of a right to dual nationality would be a very
helpful legislative means to force us into such a learning
process.

RP: Is this why there is this distorting concentration on
the concept of nationalism? Does it mark a resistance to
these issues?

Honneth: Yes, on both sides: on the positive and the
negative side of nationalism. Taking the rights of cultural
traditions seriously, the rights of groups coming into
Germany, and taking them as a normal part of our life,
would destroy both sides of nationalism.

RP: So you would agree with Habermas’s idea of posttraditional identities?

Honneth: Yes, but it has to be filled out. And I’m not sure
whether I would agree with Habermas there, because I don’t
know whether this post-traditional identity really has to be
a post-national identity. It may be a more open nationalism.

RP: How does this relate to the retributive side of
German unification? By which I refer not only to such
matters as the trial of the East German intelligence
chief, Markus Wolf, but in particular to the treatment of
intellectuals from the old East Germany, the vast

majority of whom have lost their academic jobs, and
presumably have little hope of acquiring new ones. As a
member of the German Left, how do you view this
process?

Honneth: With very mixed feelings. On the one hand, there
is the feeling that there should be sanctions (if not legislative,
then moral) against all those who helped the totalitarian
system to reproduce itself ideologicall y. On the other hand,
I have strong doubts as to whether we, the West Germans,
are the right ones to judge these intellectuals. We do not
have enough know ledge about the everyday routines of this
system, we are not in the hermeneutic position to understand
the hopes, the ambivalences and the fears these intellectuals
had at the time. There is still this tragic feeling that something
is wrong when someone who spent years in a fascist prison
is now the victim of a trial organised by the West German
judiciary. I can’t avoid seeing in all this a colonisation
process which has given birth to a system of unequal
exchange of moral power. In my view, what would have
been best was a very open, public moral debate in the former
GDR – a chance we have gambled away.

Interviewed by Peter Osborne and Stale Finke
Essex University, February 1993

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