On Honneth’s Reification: or why Marx is not (yet) the messiah
In the wake of the Second World War and the ensuing dominance of late capitalism, western culture sunk into a state of deep disorientation. Try as they might — and they did try — Hollywood producers and Madison Avenue advertisers could not quite conceal the trauma of two World Wars, mass genocide, and pending global annihilation. For once, political and cultural elders had finally succeeded in extinguishing the moral torch that had (more-or-less successfully) guided successive generations throughout history. Western civilization plunged headfirst into an ethical darkness.
To meet this colossal challenge, the finest minds of the post-war West worked furtively to reclaim fertile land beyond the sterility and superficiality of consumerism: Lacan excavated the Real, Debord constructed Situations, and Ginsberg dropped LSD. During these final hours of the second millennium, intellectuals clung to the fervent, if desperate, belief that — through the thickening cloud of decadence, repression, and conformity — we might once again discover a more original and authentic Lebenswelt. Needless to say, this generation of politico-cultural passes, rushes, and punts has failed to return a first down.
It is in the shadow of this era of reclamations that Axel Honneth has put forth his own ideological coup. In his work, Reification: a new look at an old idea (2008), Honneth seeks to defend the concept of reification (a kind of objectification) as a relevant, coherent and justifiable foundation for contemporary social criticism. In doing so, however, he must first extricate reification from its traditional interpretations in Marxist thought. Although grounded in Georg Lukács’s “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” (1923), Honneth’s critique ranges from reification’s economic roots in Marx’s Capital (1867) through Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s denouncement of American pop in the Culture Industry (1944).
In this review, I will highlight Honneth’s critique of Lukács, on which basis Honneth redefines and defends reification as a category of social criticism. More specifically, I will consider Honneth’s own idea of reification in light of the work of Louis Althusser, which threatens to expose even Honneth’s modified formulation as, at best, disappointingly outdated or, at worst, a troubling regression toward a not-so-distant past in German thought. But first, a closer look at the history of reification.
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In the opening lines of “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” Lukács mimics Marx in defining reification as “a relation between people [that] takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” That is, reification is the process by which social or subjective qualities are mistakenly perceived as objective or independent objects. Quite literally, the German Verdinglichung and Versachlichung (Marx’s preferred terms) can be translated as “making into a thing” or “ — object,” correspondingly. Lukács sees reification as the root of a number of social maladies, from the false consciousness of commodity fetishism to reified structures in industry, politics, law, and reporting. In all of these instances, Lukács argues, objectivity has replaced subjectivity as the gold standard. Mechanization in industry seeks to eradicate individuality, government has evolved into a machine-like bureaucracy, legal theory is founded upon universality and equal (thus automated) treatment, and reporters are fired for exhibiting personal biases.
It is here that Honneth pauses, taking aim at Lukás’s definition of reification. Although agreeing with Lukács that such a process is certainly taking place, Honneth asks that we consider whether objectivity should be categorically rejected in favor of a more “organic” approach. After all, don’t we want our scientists, judges, and encyclopedias to be held accountable for factual inaccuracies? And, if so, doesn’t a rejection of all cultural manifestations of objectivity work counter to liberalism and progress? If, as Honneth insists, the answer to both of these questions is yes, reification must be redefined if it is to retain its legitimacy and relevance.
Having dealt with the concept itself, Honneth moves on to address reification’s place in capitalist society. Adopting a strictly orthodox Marxist position, Lukács maintains that it is the mode of capitalist production that is primarily (if not solely) responsible for reification. Quoting Max Weber, he writes:
“The modern capitalist concern is based inwardly, above all on calculation. It is a system of justice and administration, whose workings can be rationally calculated, at least in principle, according to fixed general laws, just as the probable performance of a machine can be calculated … For these modern businesses with their fixed capital and their exact calculations are much too sensitive to legal and administrative irregularities. They could only come into being in the bureaucratic state with its rational laws … that is to say, where the judge’s behavior is on the whole predictable.”
Weber points here to a need for legal and mathematical predictability within the modern (or, as Lukács puts it, radical) capitalist society. By expanding on the causes of reification — from mere predictability to the uses and abuses of technology and industry — Lukács extends the scope of reification to include not only the legal and scientific apparatuses (à la Weber), but the entirety of capitalist culture.
Responding to the claim that capitalism is responsible for a society reified through and through, Honneth complains that “nowhere does Lukács even begin to substantiate his assumption that the principles of the capitalist market have indeed ‘colonized’ family life, general public opinion, the parent-child relationship, or our leisure time” (77). Accordingly, Honneth argues that even if we take reification at face value, there is no reason to believe that a full account of its causes can be located within the capitalist apparatus.
The bulk of Honneth’s essay, however, is spent rehabilitating the concept of reification so as to preserve — for, after all, you cannot rebel against that which does not exist — its very real and arguably degenerative consequences. Throughout his work, Lukács is careful to avoid any explicitly moral terminology, and avoids basing his critique on ethical considerations. Rather, Lukács begins by vigorously defending the need to
“base ourselves on Marx’s economic analyses and to proceed from there to a discussion of the problems growing out of the fetish character of commodities … Only by understanding this can we obtain a clear insight into the ideological problems of capitalism and its downfall.”
Notice that, for Lukács, all criticism of capitalism — if it is to remain “scientific — must be based only in economic analyses, and never rely on moral or political concerns such as, say, equality or justice. Therefore, by focusing on the already inherent unsustainability of capitalism, Lukács seeks to undercut the need for any sort of ethical or political argument.
Conversely, for Honneth, reification cannot be summed up as a strictly epistemic or scientific mistake: “This is not only because reification constitutes a multilayered and stable syndrome of distorted consciousness, but also because this shift in attitude reaches far too deep into our habits and modes of behavior for it to be able to be reversed by making a corresponding cognitive correction” (25). Well, if reification is neither immoral (as Lukács points out) nor simply a factual inaccuracy (as Honneth insists), why is it so bad?
In order to rectify these issues and formulate a theory of reification which (1) respects the value of objectivity, (2) contains a normative (if not moral) element, and (3) is not so reliant on economic explanations, Honneth turns his attention to recent advances in developmental psychology and existential philosophy. Drawing on empirical research on cognitive development conducted by Peter Hobsin and Michael Tomasello, Honneth seeks to justify what he calls “the primacy of recognition.”
By this, Honneth refers to a certain kind of pre-cognitive awareness or “empathetic engagement” (Anteilnahme) which allows us to “take over a second person’s perspective.” This is both chronologically and ontologically prior to our ability to cognize them, and our selves, as separate entities. Honneth goes on to equate the “primacy of recognition” with Heidegger’s concept of care, Dewey’s interaction, and Cavell’s acknowledgement. Reification, Honneth concludes, is the praxis which ensues from a “forgetfulness of recognition” — when, “in the course of our acts of cognition, we lose our attentiveness to the fact that this cognition owes its existence to an antecedent act of recognition”(59). It is the stance which we take when we believe that our relationships are mediated solely by cognitive information, resulting in detachment, solipsism, and objectification.
What we are left with — or so Honneth would have us think — is an account of reification which is (1) compelling to the modern liberal individual, (2) irreducible to economic realities, and (3) results in a normative praxis (insofar as forgetfulness is improper).
Unfortunately for Honneth, upon delivering his newly minted theory in the form of the Tanner Lectures at Berkeley, he was immediately met with resistance by Judith Butler, Raymond Geuss, Jonathan Lear, and others. Honneth’s theory, they argued, draws numerous false equivalencies, fails to remain morally impartial, and so alters the original intent of reification that it can no longer function within the purview of Marxism. By reformulating reification as an improper praxis which results from a cogno-centrism, he joins the ranks of critics such as Heidegger, Dewey, and Cavell in explicating a bias which runs through the entirety of Western metaphysics. Far from being a product of contemporary modes of thought and production, reification ceases to be a specifically modern concern altogether.
However, in the remainder of this essay, I will consider a more fundamental aspect of Honneth’s formulation: his prioritization of recognition. I will grant Honneth his evidence from developmental psychology and the existential theories he invokes as correlates. But I would like to take a careful look at just what is being offered to us with the prioritization of recognition, and see where it fits within a larger discussion of Marxist social criticism. To accomplish this task, I will begin by laying bare just what is at stake with a prioritization of recognition and then contrast this position with a reading of of Althusser’s Ideology and the State.
What is recognition? How exactly does it differ from cognition? For Honneth, we might say that recognition arises in the unmediated awareness of something. By unmediated I mean to say that one cannot be “brought” to recognition. I recognize something only when it is already brought, when it has become or always has been obvious. All further “bringing” or demonstration is preconditioned upon what we already find to be obvious, i.e. by what is brought. Inasmuch as recognition is precognitive, it cannot be questioned or investigated in all the ways that normal cognitions might be. We cannot shine our intellectual lights upon recognitions, for such an investigation would itself assume the facticity of those same recognitions.
We are left with three distinct elements of recognition: it is unprovable (precognitive), unassailable (indubitable), and preconditional (for all further cognition).
Now, let’s join Honneth and assume that all of this is true. That is, that all of our cognitions are based upon some prior, unquestionable, already-demonstrated recognition. However, Honneth goes one step further and asserts that anyone who operates outside of an awareness of the priority of recognition is somehow engaging in an improper praxis. It is this last point which I would like to take up through a discussion of another “recognitional theorist”, Louis Althusser.
In 1970, Althusser penned “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in an attempt to outline the ways in which a ruling class comes to dominate public and private life. Althusser states that there are two distinct apparatuses which control the public: one state controlled (repressive) and one privately controlled (ideological). While the repressive apparatus insures conformity through a complex of governing bodies, police, and the military, the ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) function through education, culture, religion, and family. However, both branches of state apparatuses share a common goal of reproducing the conditions of (capitalist) production.
Althusser argues that it is the ISAs, as opposed to the politico-legal apparatus, which are responsible for what he calls the interpellation of the individual as a subject. Broadly construed, Althusser holds that an individual is not, and never can be, an objective observer. All of her experiences, beginning from birth, are filtered through the lens which the ISAs continue to propagate. It is in this context that Althusser introduces “recognition”:
“It is in the ‘Logos’, meaning in ideology, that we ‘live, move and have our being.’ … Like all obviousnesses, … the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects — and that that does not cause any problems — is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect. It is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are ‘obviousnesses’) obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out (aloud or in the ‘still, small voice of conscience’): ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’ At work in this reaction is the ideological recognition function which is one of the two functions of ideology as such (its inverse being the function of misrecognition — méconnaissance).”
Together with Honneth, Althusser claims that recognition is a (the?) basic category of human experience, one which is usually ignored. In the above passage, we can also once again locate the three key elements of recognition: its indubitability, precognitivity, and preconditionality. But if Honneth idealizes this already-giveness of recognition — its it-just-is-ness — Althusser views this characteristic as the unfortunate keystone of ideological domination. We cannot question what already is, we can only analyze what can be.
In other words, Honneth ends his analysis with a prioritization of recognition, while completely failing to address the question of how and why our specific recognitions have evolved in the first place! Althusser tells us that recognitions as such are a universal and inescapable reality; Honneth seems to think that our specific recognitions share these same qualities. Thus, instead of pointing out, with Althusser, our susceptibility to an arbitrary collection of basic beliefs and their roots in the ISAs which ultimately serve the ruling class, Honneth full-heartedly embraces the false messiah of obviousness.
Like every messianic tale, Honneth’s account of humankind’s forgetfulness resembles the perennial account of humanity’s fall and possible redemption. Firstly, Honneth inadvertently borrows the religious notion that man was once “properly oriented”, and that it is his scheming cognition that has distorted reality. “God created man simple, but he has made many calculations” (Ecclesiastes 7:29).
But more disturbingly, Honneth concedes to the radical notion that precognition, a state of uncritical obviousness, is precisely what is necessary for our redemption! It is as though the proper response to objectification and alienation is a return to a pre-critical stance in which things are so merely because they are so; to the position in which our relationship to ourselves, our neighbors, and our world is ultimately justified in that nothing is unjustifiable. This sort of naive perspective may make for good poetry, but rarely, if ever, does it produce responsible policy. (As a rather ominous aside, I have only to draw your attention to the last philosopher who attempted to prioritize poetics (dichtend) and remembrance (Andenken) over thought and techne. Benjamin’s definition of Fascism as the “aestheticization of politics” seems appropriate here; if only as a reminder of what’s at stake.)
Encapsulated by Tertullian’s famous credo quia absurdum [I believe because it is absurd], religious ideology and Axel Honneth join hands in encouraging us to abandon our critical faculties in favor of a more simple and precognitive reality: a position from which answers precede solutions and questions never become problems. Now, perhaps Honneth is right and recognition always precedes cognition. Perhaps there’s no escaping the reality that we are all interpolated subjects presented with a spectacular version of a lost paradise. But, Professor Honneth, that’s not something to be proud of.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, Monthly Review Press: 1971. Online.
Honneth, Axel. Reification: a new look at an old idea. Oxford University Press: 2008. Print.
Lukács, Georg . “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” History & Class Consciousness. Merlin Press: 1967. Online.