Axel Honneth and Jacques Rancière, Recognition or Disagreement: A Critical Encounter on the Politics of Freedom, Equality, and Identity.  K. Genel and J.-P. Deranty eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016; 240 pages. ISBN: 978-0231177160.

Reviewed by Matheson Russell, The University of Auckland.

Recognition or disagreement? Jacques Rancière and Axel Honneth present influential yet divergent contemporary approaches to critical theory. In Recognition or Disagreement, they are brought into dialogue with each other for the first time. The centerpiece of this volume is Part II, which contains three documents: (1) a short text on Honneth’s theory of recognition written by Rancière; (2) a short text on Rancière’s conception of political disagreement written by Honneth; and (3) the transcript of a conversation between the two in which they respond to each other’s analysis of their work and press each other on points of contention. These contributions are fleshed out with two “scene setting” introductions written by the editors, Katia Genel and Jean-Philippe Deranty (Part I), and two supplementary essays penned by Rancière and Honneth (Part III). Of these latter two essays, Rancière’s is a revised version of a piece that has already appeared in print, while Honneth’s, which analyses and criticizes Hegel’s conception of ethical life as a conception of freedom, is new, and serves as an accessible and useful introduction to issues explored in his recent work, Freedom’s Right (2014).

The editors of the volume arranged for the personal encounter between Honneth and Rancière to take place at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Of course, neither theorist endorses the program of the original Frankfurt School without reservation. Yet, this historically poignant backdrop is entirely fitting. Both Honneth and Rancière retain an intellectual commitment to the legacy of critical theory, understood as the task of reflectively articulating the logic of emancipatory political struggles from the standpoint of (and in solidarity with) participants in those struggles. Their shared commitment on this point is assumed in their exchange, and it provides the common reference point for the disagreements that are explored in the book. Therefore, their disagreements centre more precisely around how the dynamic of political struggle is to be conceived, how it is motivated, what it aims at, whether it needs to be normatively grounded, and, if so, how.

A variety of theoretical issues are canvassed and explored in the exchange: the role of recognition and misrecognition in social domination, the normative significance of social suffering, the conceptual relation between “identity” and “subjectivity,” the role of normative expectations in social struggles, the historicity of “equality” as a political ideal, the relationship between aesthetics and politics, to name a few. Although the remarks made on each of these points are brief, they nonetheless illuminate the differences between the two thinkers with considerable force. Furthermore, at certain moments in the face-to-face exchange, one even gets the impression that genuine reflection and creative thought is taking place, especially on the part of Honneth.

What do we learn from the encounter? First, some possibly surprising points of agreement:

  1. Rancière (as well as Honneth) is willing to frame his theoretical position in the language of recognition. Although Deranty provides evidence in his introduction that the theme of recognition has played a role in Rancière’s work stretching back to the 1970s (36-40), Rancière’s willingness in the present day to offer what he calls “a kind of ‘Rancièrean’ conception of the theory of recognition” is noteworthy. (95) What this “Rancièrean” theory of recognition amounts to, however, we shall consider shortly.
  1. Rancière and Honneth agree that struggles “for” recognition are just as often struggles “against” recognition, a fight to liberate ourselves from established categories of identification, i.e., acts of “dis-identification.” (92; cf. 108f.) The struggle for recognition is thus best framed as a struggle for “another form of recognition: a redistribution of the places, the identities, and the parts.” (90) They agree, in other words, that it is more precise to speak of “struggles over recognition” rather than merely of “struggles for recognition.
  1. Both Honneth and Rancière find it useful to analyze the structures of social domination in aesthetic as well as discursive terms. Notably, Honneth explicitly accepts Rancière’s basic characterization of the normative order of recognition (“the police”) as equally an aesthetic order, as a “distribution of the sensible”: “our way of perceiving the world, of being able to see what ‘is the case’ in the social order, is structured by the pregiven political categories and normative principles that allow justification of inequalities and asymmetries.” (116f.) Our interpretative relation to the world is thus an aesthetic relation, and vice versa. The question of the struggle for recognition, then, is a question of different ways of seeing just as much as it is a question of offering reinterpretations or arguments.

Now to the points of divergence and disagreement.

Honneth believes that a critical theory must, among other things, elucidate (i) the psychological motivations of social struggles, which he locates in experiences of “suffering” (128), and (ii) the normative grounds that legitimate these struggles, which he connects to the social conditions for “self-realization” or “undistorted self-relationship.” (109) From Honneth’s perspective, Rancière’s conception of politics remains ungrounded, since it fails to account for (i) the desire for equality it apparently presupposes (123), and (ii) the normative force of “social equality” itself as a political ideal. (102f.)

For his part, Rancière not only rejects Honneth’s responses to (i) and (ii), he also questions whether a critical theory must fulfill these tasks at all.

(i) Rancière is skeptical of the possibility of developing an anthropology that identifies basic human desires and needs: “I don’t know what human beings desire in general.” (111) Furthermore, he regards social suffering as a dubious basis for a political theory, since suffering is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for political struggles. (126) But, more to the point, what characterizes politics is not so much the struggle to end suffering as the conflict over what suffering and whose suffering will count as an injustice. (127)

(ii) Rancière rejects the idea that politics can be given normative grounding in terms of “good” self-relations or reconciled social relationships. This supposes the possibility of a situation in which the recognitional needs of all are satisfied within a well-ordered community—a good Hegelian thesis, even if it is presented only as a “regulative idea.” (110) Rancière does not deny that a well-ordered community could be established, but he regards such a vision as thoroughly anti-political (and anti-democratic)—indeed, he claims, politics is “endangered” by the ethical orientation of Honneth. (87) To see why, we have to trace the distinction Rancière makes between social struggles that aim to overcome “social pathologies” (i.e., deficiencies in relation to a certain idea of normality) and social struggles that are “political.”

Rancière’s assumption is that the self-conceptions and normative expectations of recognition that we internalize through socialization are the mechanisms by which “the police order” is reproduced. If, with Honneth, we understand the struggle for recognition to be driven by a sense of violation of our identity claims, then we have an inherently conservative theory of recognition, one that merely works to reaffirm and realize the normative expectations already embedded within the social order. On this point, Rancière echoes the skepticism of Foucauldian theorists such as Judith Butler, Lois McNay, and Amy Allen, who regard struggles for recognition to be profoundly ambivalent as struggles to overcome domination.

The alternative that Rancière develops locates the “motor” of emancipatory political struggles elsewhere. Fundamentally, Rancière locates the “principle” or “power” that disrupts the reproduction of existing patterns or expectations of recognition in the ability of subjects to construct a new way of seeing the world, one in which they appear as equal participants within the sphere of social interaction, even though they are supposed to be unqualified or incompetent to participate. On this model, political conflict occurs when the existing normative order of recognition (“the police order”) comes into tension with a “different logic,” namely an assumption of equality (“the egalitarian principle” or “democratic principle”), i.e., the presupposition of the equal capacity to participate in ruling. What results is a “disagreement” or simply “politics.” The “construction” or “invention” of the political subject has effects when it is made the basis of a certain kind of speech act–an “enunciation” that introduces the speaker as someone who shares with their interlocutor “the capacity to discuss common affairs.” (93) In this way, a presumption of equality is made the basis of political action, and these political actions have consequences for the social order itself which, in Rancière’s terms, is “inscribed” by the effects of equality. (125)

What is fascinating about this “Rancièrean” conception of politics is that in a curious way it affirms what deliberative democrats and critical theorists such as Rainer Forst say about equal participation in discourse: that it is the “master dimension of justice.” (FTF, 301) Of all forms of recognition, the most fundamental, from a political point of view, is the recognition of our status as “speaking beings,” as beings to whom others “owe appropriate justifications” and who “co-determine the structures of production and distribution which determine their lives.” (Ibid., 300-1) Similarly, Rancière articulates a “democratic principle,” (112) which is the principle of the participation in decision-making by those who are concerned by collective decisions. (118)

However, unlike Forst, who seeks to demonstrate a basic “right to justification” as the normative ground of his theory of justice, Rancière’s “democratic principle” is not presented as a “normative ground” or “demand of justice” at all. Rather, the equal capacity to discuss common affairs is that which is assumed by speakers on the basis of which it makes sense for them to engage in debate with opponents as peers, despite the prevailing assumption of inequality (i.e., the assumption that they have no right or competence to engage as peers). The “assumption of equality” or “democratic principle” is therefore not a telos or regulative ideal, but more like a pragmatic presupposition. Equality is the conditio sine qua non of politics, not its conditio per quam.

At the same time, Rancière stresses that political struggles are not a question of demanding affirmation of an existing property or capacity of the speaker, e.g., their moral autonomy or equality as persons. Rather, politics involves a construction of the subject as a competent speaker, a construction which demonstrates or validates itself only in the act of “subjectivization,” i.e., in the act of enunciation, in the performance of acting as a subject who discusses common affairs. “It’s a matter not only of claiming this capacity but of asserting it by enacting it.” (93) In short, the equality of the speaker as a participant is enacted or performed by them in their very act of speaking out of an assumption of equality. This is what Rancière calls “the method of equality.” (133-55)

For Honneth, the idea of recognition serves as an “ethical telos”: a normative framework that must be presupposed as the horizon of justice, however “formally” it is conceived. For Rancière, by contrast, recognition can never be set up as a telos, and the logic of political struggle cannot be understood teleologically as an attempt to approximate an ideal of mutual recognition, whether understood as an ideal of “equality” or in some other way. Instead, Rancière’s approach is an attempt to “think equality, not as a kind of dream in the future, but as the power that is already at work in our relations.” (95) His conception of politics is experimental, rather than teleological. (124) This is a radical point of view, and it clearly places him at odds with the left Hegelian tradition of critical theory as understood by Honneth, which requires “a sociological account of the condition of the society’s state of consciousness or its desire for emancipation.” (DR, 64)

As such, the critical confrontation between Rancière and Honneth takes the form of a mésentente (“disagreement” in Rancière’s sense): it is not simply a clash between conflicting theoretical assertions, but a torsion caused by a misalignment of languages, metaphors, and ways of seeing, being, and acting. (83) Their dispute cannot be settled by tallying up the score for each side and declaring a winner. Yet that is not to say that such disputes are without consequences. Following the publication of this book, it will be fascinating to see how the disagreement over recognition between Rancière and Honneth inscribes its effects within the self-conception of critical theory.

Additional Works Cited

Forst, Rainer. (2007), “First Things First: Redistribution, Recognition and Justification,” European Journal of Political Theory, 6:3: 291-304.

Honneth, Axel. (2007), Disrespect: The Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity Press).

Honneth, Axel. (2014), Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life (New York: Columbia University Press).