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Axel Honneth Views on Feminism Term Paper

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Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition is a revision of Hegelian theory of recognition and presents an open support for garnering recognition of women but falls short of identifying the real reason for the continued denigration of women and women’s work even in the contemporary society. An enormously productive work that aims at building an interdisciplinary work of social theory has been admirably delineated in Honneth’s book The Struggle for Recognition. Honneth’s contention has been to evaluate the dilemma confronted by Hegel in his Philosophy of Right discussion the place of critical theory to elaborate the status of the individual’s personal freedom and the subsequent restrictions imposed on it.

The Hegelian dilemma was to impose constraints on personal freedom of individuals in order to optimize the self-interest of people constructed through isolated rational agents. The problem that arises from the construction of ideas of personal freedom in order to free the social life from the institutional foundations those are discursively rational. In other words, to answer the question arising of acquitting people from the their social life in order to establish individual and collective freedom. However, Hegelian theory of recognition and justice does not extend to the familial life, which is believed to be constrained within the perceived canopy of equality of conjugal love.

Honneth differs from Hegel on this point and extends his idea that women’s work is not simply constrained to her caregiving and nurturing tasks and this task must be recognized even when unpaid. However, his theory falls short there, as it does not extend his ideas of recognition and esteem to familial life. The struggle of women to fight for her equality within family and gender roles and the political rights attained by women through the nineteenth and twentieth century makes Honneth’s propositions out of context. Modern societies are based on to its members and their mutual relationship binding the various limitations arising out of accommodation in society.

However, these relationships cannot move beyond the sphere of friendship, familial relations, faith, ideological beliefs, and so on. The problem that thus arises is how to maintain this solidarity within modern society from the point of view of critical theory and maintain such relations. Thus, the Hegelian concept of independence of women rested on the idea that women identity rests on their desire to impress men.

In this paper, I argue that that Axel Honneth begins by expanding on the idea of recognition based on Hegelian concepts but later diverges from him to form the a pro-feminist recognition, which however, falls short of explaining why women’s paid work remains unrecognized even in modern society even when equality of rights has been established through feminist movements.

Assumptions Underlying Honneth’s theory of Recognition

Axel Honneth’s philosophical theory on recognition is largely a derivative theory from Hegelian concept of recognition. The underlying assumptions of Honneth’s theory are based on three contentions – love, rights, and esteem. Honneth points out that love alone cannot ensure equality within families for women as the discursive gender roles are enshrined within the society by social and legal structure.

The problem of recognition that human being sought was the inception of all problems pertaining to human society. Human being living within the society is in constant struggle to be recognised from others in it that has led to loss of independence of the self, which is no longer in control of itself, rather depended on the esteem of others. Honneth believes recognition is the central theme in the critical theory of social justice as man is essentially a self-conscious being. Honneth believes that an individual’s sense of dignity and self-worth is derived through his/her interaction with others, which contribute to his development of a self-image and well-being. Honneth supports the Hegelian claim that distortion in perception of recognition leads to issues like degradation, violence, and exclusion. Such violations are typically called injustices by Honneth who argues that such actions amounts to denying the intrinsic sense of self-worth among individuals.

In explaining the theory of justice and moral rightness, Honneth adopts the Hegelian distinction between family, civil society, and state to develop three distinct principles of recognition viz. love, right, and esteem. Others, within the sphere of family and civil society, create one’s perception of self. Familial and personal relations are manifests individual’s personal needs and thus shapes his/her personality. In addition, other’s esteem of an individual due to his/her participation and contribution in the production process is a vital source of recognition within society.

Modernity has created different aspects of life through laws, policies, institutions, and norms establish the position of individuals based on the above-mentioned spheres of recognition. History has been marked throughout the ages for this struggle for recognition in society and familial sphere. Social and emancipatory movements in the modern world have been marked by this struggle to achieve recognition. One of the reasons for participation in such movements, according to Honneth, is resentment and antipathy against the belittling that individuals suffer and for their equivocal demand for equality, justice, and dignity. Social progress can therefore occur only through resolution of such conflicts by bestowing recognition to the deprived class and widening the sphere of individuals who can be included in the socially discoursed class of recognized people.

Love is the form of recognition that satisfies the individual’s need for recognition in intimate and personal relations. Love, according to Honneth, is the most fundamental form of recognition, which parents give to their children in order to help them grow into independent, social, and self-sufficient adults.

Thus, love and caring given to the children helps them grow into social and communicative individuals. This is the reason throughout history we have seen adults giving special care and protection to children. Honneth therefore points at the effect this would have on gender roles and rights:

Parallel to this process, the recognition form of love similarly became independent: the relations between the sexes were gradually liberated from economic and social pressures and thus opened up to the feeling of mutual affection. … The recognition that individuals reciprocally bring to this kind of relationship is loving care for the other’s well being in the light of his or her individual needs. (139)

Conjugal love therefore delineates another form of recognition within the familial sphere. In respect of conjugal love, Honneth follows Hegel in entirety without revising any of its facets. Modern society allows the freedom to man and woman to choose their own partners without considering the social or economic imperative imposed by society. Thus, Honneth points out that conjugal love demonstrates a unique relation between partners based on their individual personalities and creates mutual love.

Legal rights also create a problem for societal recognition, as they are abstract. They do not point at particular personality or behavioural traits, rather recognition of the qualities, which are hard to define. When an individual is considered as a legal person it grants them formal and legal recognition of their position, employment, and personhood. Rights are given to people in form of their right to vote, to receive education, to represent, and so on.

Esteem again creates a problem for recognition as they are evaluated based on an individual’s attributes and achievements. Thus, in order to identify the individual it is essential to recognise what the person does. Honneth believes in societies individuals are given special places due to their skills or activities, and thus society rewards individuals according tot heir individual achievement. Thus, recognition here is based on the social contribution of individuals in the collective life. Hence, social esteem is derived from words like prestige, standing, and status that “signifies only the degree of social recognition the individual earns for his or her form of self-realization by thus contributing, to a certain extent, to the practical realization of society’s abstractly defined goals” (Honneth 126).

According to Honneth, love alone cannot ensure equality and justice of gender within family, as Hegel believed. Instead, the discursive gender roles infused in society’s mind create the injustice. The assumption of conjugal love being mutual and equal is erroneous. However, Honneth’s argument too has its setbacks, as it does not consider the equality of rights established by the feminist movements and speaks of the need to recognize women’s work.

Feminism as explained by Honneth

Love within families alone is not enough to establish justice. Within families, love relations helps recognize a person for form his/her individuality and thus put a direct pressure on the intimate relations and marriage. This disjoints them from constraints of economic relations and political alliances. Thus, they create a separate identity for men and women within families. This helps is encouraging free choices by partners irrespective of their sex. This ensures certain equality within the sexes. However, when rights established through law are not established such social equality assumes the form of an informal promise. Therefore, historically feminist struggle has been passion for equality under law and political rights of women independent from their male relations:

Here, the central argument is that, in view of the structural domination of men in the private sphere, the preconditions for women’s self-determination can only be secured when they take the form of contractually guaranteed rights, and hence are made an imperative of legal recognition. (Honneth 189)

Honneth’s theory is overtly critical of the denigration of the household work of women. The less value added to the work done by women within the house, which is not paid, and the work she does outside, holds less value for the society. One burning example is the non-recognition of women who are solely homemakers and the glass ceiling that curbs women’s growth in workforce. He points out that the society still does not value the work that womenfolk do and do not recognize their work as worthy. Honneth argues that such demoralising mentality of modern society is simply an identification of the traditionalist society where women’s worth was considered only in gratifying certain functions:

Within the social-ontological horizon of this naturalism, the activities of the housewife or mother, for instance, are never viewed as a “productive” contribution to social reproduction that would justify any form of social esteem, while women’s work in the formally organized sector is not believed to be as productive as that of men, since according to women’s nature it involves less physical or mental exertion. (148)

Honneth explains that definition of women through cultural discourses confirm a status of hierarchy to men that refutes the achievement principle of recognition of social esteem as society still degrades most of the paid works that are specially associated with women. The skill required or the intelligence required to perform these jobs should be a measurement of the lack of recognition of women’s jobs.

Honneth, therefore, demonstrates that the primary basis of gender division lies in the fact that society still perceives women’s primary role as a material and emotional support and caregiver of men and children. Honneth is critical of the fact that this supportive function of women as a caregiver towards the betterment and well being of the society is not recognized by the society. Further, the denigration of women’s professional work is also a factor that limits their opportunity in professional career building path. The basic sex role division that is established by society constraints women from pursuing active role in professional world and pursue a career. Professions, which are typically considered as women’s work such as housecleaning and caregiving, are often devalued, as they are believed to be a part of the naturalistic expression of women’s abilities and roles.

This explanation offered by Honneth has been criticised by Iris M. Young as shallow and insensitive to the achievements of the feminist struggle through the ages that has achieved equality of rights and other political admissions (201). Another shortcoming pointed out by her is the overlooking of the struggle within the family faced by women:

Honneth appears to assume that the affection in bourgeois marriage is indeed mutual, and that the struggle is over its content and quality. He seems not to find equality at issue in the family in the same way as in the public realms of rights and esteem. (Young 201)

Clearly Honneth’s arguments for feminism are limited in their understanding of the struggle that women face within the family to achieve recognition. Injustice and inequality within the family and conjugal love creates the essential bias that leads to the undervaluing of women’s achievements in professional world. Hence, discounting the inequality against women within families leads to simplistic and erroneous conclusion of a unified justice within family were love and mutual respect towards partners establishes equality and hence freedom for women. Therefore, marriage and family cannot be separated from the political, social, and economic imperatives, as advocated by Honneth as this simplistic. Love and care will be recognized as an achievement, even in the familial sphere, when the social practices and values will develop individuals and not men and women.


Looking at his theory critically, I believe, following the feminist movements of the nineteenth and the twentieth century, Honneth’s argument appears anachronistic as rights of women through legal proceedings has already be achieved. The theory presented by Honneth misses to point out the injustice and inequality within the family created within families that lead to undervaluing of women in workplace. The weakest assumption of Honneth’s theory is not including the injustice within families created through conjugal love that leads to the other manifestations on gender roles in the professional world.

Love and family as described by Honneth has mostly been an adaptation of Hegelian concept of mutual and complementary conjugal love between man and wife and the fulfilment of their togetherness in their progeny. However, Honneth differs from Hegel in the formation of justice through bonds of love. Hegel believes that love relations within families are enough to create a harmonious condition whereas Honneth believes that bonds of love are ineffectual to create justice in families. Thus, Honneth deviating from Hegel stipulates that equality of right will ensure equality of love in families.

Honneth thus posits that separating love with the social and economic realities may hinder justice and equality with family. The problem with this form of analysis is that conjugal love trivialises the importance of women who is seen as a partner who seeks to provide care and love to the husband, thus, establishing male supremacy within the familial structure. However, the woman should be recognised by the husband as an individual with her own needs and work. Honneth supports this modern concept wherein he differs from Hegel to point out that man must recognise these needs of a woman in order to establish justice and equality within family.

Love alone cannot sustain justice if a woman’s needs remain unrecognised. In conclusion, Honneth takes a feminist stand, differing from Hegel, to delineate the demand to recognise woman’s work and necessitates establishing justice and equality, which love and affection from her partner cannot singularly achieve. Therefore, establishing the relation between conjugal love and equality would lead to greater acceptance and recognition of women’s roles and work in the political and social sphere of the society.

Works Cited

Honneth, Axel. The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflict. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995. Print.

Young, Iris Marion. “Recognition of love’s labor: Considering Axel Honneth’s Feminism.” Recognition and power: Axel Honneth and the tradition of critical social theory. Ed. Van den Brink, Bert and David Owen. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2007. 189-212. Print.

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