Reification – a study of recognition theory

Image: John Kotze


Commentary on Axel Honneth's Book

Em reification, Axel Honneth (p. 40) intends to provide a new basis for the Lukacsian concept, to be understood now as “atrophying or distorting an original praxis, in which human beings adopt a participatory relationship with themselves and their surrounding world” . With a positive description of such praxis, variegatedly characterized as “active participation”, “existential involvement”, “care”, Axel Honneth hopes to fill the infamous abyss from which the critical theory of dialectical extraction enunciates with an (other) ontology Social.

Unlike the attempts to provide a safe ground for criticism that are based on the reconstruction of a universal argumentative-rational paradigm, Axel Honneth argues that the neutral and objective apprehension of the world and the other, the “mere understanding of reasons”, is preceded by the recognition, an attitude of “affective engagement, of prior identification” (p. 76). It is from the perspective of such a redescription in terms of affections of man's original attitude that his recovery of the notion of mimesis that pervades Theodor W. Adorno's work — a context in which, not by accident, such a notion never received a positive conceptualization.

This is not to the detriment of the theoretical principles that Axel Honneth does not hesitate to make explicit: with regard to the 'idealist' and 'totalizing' position of the young Lukács, he had agreed that “for reasons of effectiveness” the “social spheres in which the observant and indifferent behavior has a perfectly legitimate place” (ibid., p. 41).[I] It is therefore expected that, with respect to the Adornian argument against ultimate reasoning and in favor of the constellation as a logical form, adults will also be brought into the room. Be that as it may, if reification will be admitted in certain cases under the name of objectification, it does not hurt to find out briefly how the field of objects that best fits the new terminology will be treated, that field whose treatment, moreover, reveals in its fullness the operant distortion of the Adornian notion of mimesis: the nature.

Let's review the mentions of Adorno. Of special importance to Honneth is the following aphorism: “The human adheres to imitation: man only becomes man by imitating other men. In this behavior, the first form of love, the priests of authenticity smell traces of that utopia that would manage to shake the structure of domination.” (ADORNO 2008, p. 151) Initially listing it at the end of a review of research in developmental psychology, Axel Honneth affirms its similarity to a thesis attributed to Tomasello and Hobson. In general, it is accepted in this field of studies that the assumption of the perspective of the other is the mechanism that provides the child with “a corrective instance that allows him to create, for the first time, an objective representation of objects” (p. 63).

However, contrary to the cognitivist tendency, these authors argue that such learning cannot take place if she “has not previously developed a feeling of bonding with her reference person; because only such prior identification allows the child […] to understand with interest his changes in attitude” (p. 66). The temporal anteriority of the affectively based identification with the person of reference would indicate, even if only in ontogenetic and not logical terms, the primacy of recognition in relation to knowledge. While the section discussed more specifically aims at a theory of intersubjective recognition, with a new reference to the aphorism, the author outlines a theory of recognition of nature. The point is that the assumption of the perspective of the other treated by developmental psychology accounts only for the prior, affective, recognition of another person.

For this reason, regarding the thesis implicit in György Lukács that by itself “the instrumental treatment of nature violates a necessary assumption of our social practices”, Axel Honneth states that he does not see how to demonstrate it. An indirect route will then be needed, based on the primacy of intersubjective recognition, in defense of which Theodor Adorno will be summoned. According to Honneth's reading, Adorno would understand that, with the formation of the so-called objective representation of the object by the perspective-taking mechanism, the child “keeps in his memory the perspective of the loved one, to whom he feels evidently linked, considering him as a additional aspect of the fixed object”; thus, recognition of nature in Theodor Adorno would be “only to respect in such objects all the singular aspects and meanings that arose when related to other people's attitudes” (p. 93-94). The recognition of nature would only be recognition of nature as being-for-another, for the established intersubjective horizon.

As intertwined as they are, let us leave aside the psychoanalytic dimension of this reading to locate its problem in epistemological terms. Axel Honneth promises, after his psychological argument, “a systematic or categorical proof” (p. 62) of the precedence of recognition in human interaction. It is proposed that, for a proper understanding of an interlocutor's manifestations, interpreting them “as demands that suggest some kind of reaction” (p. 74) is a precondition for interpreting them argumentatively correctly. Even accepting the questionable premise that “normally [we have] no difficulty understanding the emotional expressions of other subjects” (p. 75), initially it seems that we are only facing a pragmatic grammatical norm of human interactions that would admit violation in effectiveness; that is, that the immanent logical relationship between such a must and real human interactions has not been thematized.

If that were the case, as a non-conceptual assumption, affectively gauged, but logically necessary of all logic, recognition would resemble common sense in Kant (2016, p. 134-135), which “does not say that everyone will agree with our judgment, but that they must do it”. However, this would disagree with the objection, which Axel Honneth (2003, p. 270) aims to integrate into his critical project, to the ineffectiveness of the Kantian must-be, that it “leaves a decisive question unanswered, since it does not is capable of identifying the end of morality as a whole in the concrete objectives of human subjects”.

The author adds, therefore, that “also mere indifference or negative feelings” are expressions of such recognition and that “we have to affirm the value of the other by adopting the attitude of recognition, even when, at a certain moment, we curse or hate him. ” (p. 76). That is, even under the attitude of complete neutrality towards the other, we must see a valuation that recognizes this other as a subject, even if such recognition is being forgotten. In this case, however, it is not clear what criterion would remain to distinguish, in the midst of what appears as the 'other' for the subject, between the mere 'object' and what 'values' as a reified subject. If we place ourselves in the so-called logical-categorial point of view, it is no longer possible to activate the empirical distinction, made by the child, in operation in developmental psychology: the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate things remains unproven.

If no logical-categorical criterion for the distinction is provided, what is its content of experience? This can be clarified by an essay in which the author is dedicated to recovering the romantic dimension of Lévi-Strauss' structural anthropology. With his theory of the principle of reciprocity, with which he provides a functional explanation of kinship structures and myths, Lévi-Strauss would have reached “a given datum that cannot be further explained sociologically”, a fact that “cannot be further traced back to social facts, because they for their part first give rise to the social”. (HONNETH 1995, p. 144) It would be a new version of the state of nature, no longer conceived as a historical stage, but as a cognitive invariant. Its empirical facticity could only be causally explained by the assumption that it expresses the unconscious activity of the human mind.

As an expression of this unconscious, at the center of the gift or sacrifice whose purpose is not the reception of an equivalent value, would be “[a] feeling of solidarity and primordial accord with every natural life form (bearing an inner kinship with Adorno's doctrine of mimesis)” (ibid., p. 148). While the essay is largely presented as a simple exposition of the theory, one can infer from the critical remarks that conclude it the affinity and difference with the scheme of recognition outlined by Axel Honneth. He states that the structural method, which leads to the reduction of social facts to a logical structure, of a cognitive nature, would have made it impossible for Claude Lévi-Strauss to take into account “the affective basis of archaic thought, to which precisely his attention was led by his romantic interests” (ibid., p. 149). From the opposition already seen between cognitivism and the affective basis, it appears that, for Honneth, the answer to the question about the unconscious to which Claude Lévi-Strauss refers the causal explanation of symbolic structures would be his concept of prior, affective recognition.

Even without going into the meanders of structural anthropology, it is not necessary to remember how much has already been insisted that, if Claude Lévi-Strauss's principle of reciprocity describes the function of the gift or sacrifice as a structural invariant that implies the primordial openness to otherness and nature, also presupposes as invariant the distribution between those who will count as exchangers and those who will count as exchanged goods — and “women constitute the good par excellence” (LÉVI-STRAUSS 1982, p. 102). Even in the exchange of gifts, the approximation with the other takes place at the expense of the removal of a third party that falls to the condition of a subjugated natural object, an exchangeable thing covered by the projection of the intersubjective relationship between opposites, which contains in germ the form of the legal relationship .

At least that is, in general lines, the thesis defended in the excursus on Ulysses of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, whose brief comparison sheds light on the so-called kinship of Lévi-Strauss's reciprocity with the mimesis adornian. Even though this is considered speculative historicism with no empirical anthropological basis, the authors in question, in their reflection on the exchange of “hospitality gifts”, judge it “halfway between exchange and sacrifice” (ADORNO; HORKHEIMER 2006, p. 50). In general lines, the magical-religious interpretation of sacrifice takes it as a mystical confluence with nature and re-immersion in the collectivity, as a mimesis of the divine by the sacrificed. This interpretation appears for the ratio as a simple rationalization on the part of the priests, a deception by which they assert their domination.

The very faith of individuals sacrificed in sacrifice, a primordial figure of the total openness to alterity, already appears as permeated with reflection on ends in the face of collective pressure, according to which they “once again inflict on themselves the injustice that was inflicted on them , in order to be able to bear it.” (ibid., p. 52) However, taken to its ultimate consequences, the very affirmation of the self for self-preservation implies a sacrifice: “the hostility of the self to sacrifice included a sacrifice of the self, because its price was the negation of nature in the man, in view of the domination over extra-human nature and over other men” (ibid., p. 53). The rejection as a decoy of the mimesis of nature operated in sacrifice converts self-preservation into an end in itself, which initially is a means of protest against the social injustice implied in sacrifice. Finally, the very ratio of self-preservation must be seen as mimetic: it is the feigning of death that is at the core of Ulysses' cunning, who “loses himself in order to gain himself”, who constantly endorses this sacrifice of the self as “a formal presupposition of his own existence”. rational decision”.

“He has to recognize as a fact the sacrificial ceremonials with which he always ends up getting involved, because he doesn't have the strength to infringe them. […] in class society, all power is linked to the uncomfortable awareness of one's own impotence in the face of physical nature and its social heirs, the majority. Only consciously controlled adaptation to nature puts it under the power of the physically weaker. A ratio, which represses mimesis, is not simply its opposite. She herself is a mimesis of what is dead. The subjective spirit, which excludes the soul from nature, dominates this soul-deprived nature only by imitating its rigidity and including itself as animistic. Imitation is put at the service of domination to the extent that even man becomes an anthropomorphism for man” (ibid., p. 55).[ii]

If the human itself appears as anthropomorphic, it is because, for ratio, even the self-relation of subjects must be represented as that of a thing with its properties. With such a sacrifice of the self, we are facing an initial form of the phenomenon that Axel Honneth (2018, p. 102), in the wake of György Lukács, refers to as self-reification, according to which “the self-relationship of subjects needs to be thought of according to the same standard with which we relate to the objective world. Axel Honneth has no difficulty in reapplying the scheme developed for intersubjective recognition, which presupposes the distinction between thing and person, and explaining self-reification as forgetting recognition: “With the purpose of knowing what it means, after all, to have desires, feelings and intentions, we must previously experience them as a worthwhile part of our own life” (ibid., p. 113).[iii]

Axel Honneth states, however, that the fact that our feelings and desires do not appear in their entirety as the result of active decisions, but also as objects that we perceive passively “does not mean having to assume, as the source of that sensitive impulse, an object that was free from all conceptual genesis and that suddenly, in the condition of a vestige of the first nature, caused an effect on us” (p. 108). At this point, it would be necessary to question whether such an affinity with what appears in the form of the “objective world” or “first nature” would not point to a constitutive relationship with the natural.

As has become clear, there is for Adorno a continuity between the reification of the self and that of natural objects—that is, between the self and nature. The very distinction between the two, far from being naturalized, is taken as the mythical core within the Enlightenment, which reveals an overlap between imitation and domination, as well as between natural and historical.[iv] However, Honneth's notion of self-recognition only abstractly neutralizes, through recourse to the notion of affective identification as an immediate prior unit, the contradiction that, in solitary reflection, the self simultaneously appears as a pure activity that it relates to itself, subject, and as immediate qualities passively perceived, object.

It is precisely this representation of the self that is under criticism in the aphorism of the Minima Moralia quoted by Axel Honneth: “Precisely as an absolute, the individual is nothing more than a reflection of property relations [ownership]. It raises the fictitious claim that the biological unit [of biologisch Eine] precedes the social totality, from which it is only forcibly isolated, and its contingency is presented as a measure of truth. Not only is the ego inscribed in society, it owes its existence in the most literal sense to it. All its content comes from it, or from the relationship with the object without more” (ADORNO 2008, p. 150; 1951, p. 291).

The biological unity does not precede, but is the moment of, the social whole. The violent isolation, through which its content is abstracted, is preserved in the form that the individual assumes: the form of reflection on property relations. For, in order to sever his mimetic affinity with nature and subject it to the condition of property, the subject needs to represent his relationship with another subject as a relationship between things: he needs to pretend to be dead and give his content, mimetically filled, the form from a collection of strange objects. Therefore, even in his relationship with himself – which comes from the relationship to society or the relationship with the object – the individual cannot but represent himself as the owner of himself.

This intersubjective relationship as a relationship between things is precisely the “contractual relationship as legal persons”, which Axel Honneth (p. 211), on the contrary, assumes from the beginning that “speaks against the possibility of reification”. Here the critical core of the concept of reification is reached, without which, in fact, there is nothing left but the triumphalist assertion of the foundation that “beneath the staged surface, the ontological difference that really exists between person and thing always remains conscious” (p. 210). This ontological difference, far from being innocent 'objectification', is the mark of the reification of nature which ends up in self-reification and in the reification of the other. At the end of his journey, Axel Honneth himself recognizes that his attempt to recover the concept of reification without the radical critique of property and exchange collapses in on itself. If nothing else, he at least revealed that, like a little critical theory, a little reification is a dangerous thing.

*Fabio Bonafini graduated in letters from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).


Axel Honneth. Reification: a study of recognition theory. Translation: Rurion Melo. São Paulo, Editora Unesp, 2018, 224 pages (


ADORNO, TW Minima Moralia: Reflections from the injured life. Translation: Gabriel Cohn. Rio de Janeiro, Azougue (

______. Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1951

ADORNO, TW; HORKHEIMER, M. Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Translation by Guido Antonio de Almeida. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Ed., 2006.

HONETH, A. Struggle for recognition: The moral grammar of social conflicts. Translated by Luiz Repa. São Paulo: Ed. 34, 2003 (

______. The Fragmented World of the Social: Essays in Social and Political Philosophy. New York: State University of New York Press, 1995 (

KANT, I. College of Judgment Critique. Translation by Fernando Costa Mattos. Petrópolis, RJ: Voices; Bragança Paulista, SP: Editora Universitária São Francisco, 2016 (

LEVI-STRAUSS, C. The elementary structures of kinship. Translation by Mariano Ferreira. Petrópolis, Voices, 1982 (


[I] If it wasn't already clear, a remark right at the beginning of fight for recognition leaves no doubt about which spheres the author has in mind: expounding the political philosophy of the young Hegel, he states that his reading of English political economy had already led him “to the temperate discernment that every future organization of society inevitably depends on a sphere of production”. and distribution of goods mediated by the market, in which subjects cannot be included if not by the negative freedom of formal law” (HONNETH 2003, p. 38).

[ii] Without delving into the question of women, it is interesting to remember that their socially affirmed affinity with natural objects, the organizational element of exchange, does not go unnoticed by the authors: “As a representative of nature, woman has become in bourgeois society the image enigmatic image of irresistible seduction and impotence. It thus mirrors to domination the vain lie that substitutes reconciliation for the subjugation of nature.” (DE, p. 65)

[iii] Such an affirmation of the value of one's own experiences is due to the fact that the notion of prior affective recognition in operation throughout reification aims to absorb from the psychoanalytic theory of object relations (cf. LpR p. 159-177) its concept of “self-confidence”, a basal affective sedimentation of maternal protection and love that conditions the “capacity of being alone” to the immediate certainty of protection — of the reconciled world.

[iv] This is a thesis that runs through Adorno's work, from the conference Idea of ​​Natural History (“[…] paralyzed history is nature, or the paralyzed living being of nature is a mere historical having-been” p. 8) to the aphorisms about the natural beauty of nature. Aesthetic Theory (“Natural beauty, supposedly ahistorical, has its historical core, which both legitimizes it and relativizes its content.” TE, p. 105). According to Adorno, this is “just an interpretation of certain founding elements of the materialist dialectic”, that is, of Marx's thesis according to which the human is a natural being and “nature interrelates with itself” through man.

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