Image: Marco Buti. Metal Engraving, Paper: 45 x 44 cm / Image: 45 x 44 cm


Presentation to the Brazilian edition of the book Axel Honneth

Axel Honneth, one of the most important names in critical theory today, presents in the book Reification: A Study in Recognition Theory an extremely challenging, innovative and original proposal. Its aim is to emphasize the relevance of the concept of reification, which is central in the history of critical theory, in helping to understand current forms of social domination.

But, in Honneth's view, the concept reveals its critical potential due to its ability to encompass quite peculiar modes of domination, not only linked to extreme phenomena of violence and coercion (as in the case of wars and genocides), but also linked to everyday behavior (in the case of family environment, in the job market, in love relationships mediated by social networks, etc.) and more latent, albeit systematic, occurrences of disrespect (Honneth points to examples of racism and discrimination against people, groups and minorities).

More precisely, Honneth seeks to show in the book that, with the help of his “recognition theory”, we can again use the concept of reification to apprehend diverse and complex experiences of subjectivation. And the author knows that, in order to succeed in this conceptual update of reification, decisive aspects of the constitution and theoretical foundation involved need to be reconstructed. But what were the references of the intellectual tradition known as critical theory in relation to the concept of reification?

Despite its broad and, to a great extent, varied use, the concept of reification has always sought to point to the negativity of certain social processes. Originally, no doubt, reification corresponded to work experiences diagnosed around the Industrial Revolution or to the economic and social crises that, from the end of the 1920s, devastated the USA and Europe. It was also linked to the corresponding vision of a social modernization structured, in general, by a rational and calculating purpose, which subjects human behavior to merely instrumental attitudes and, therefore, makes forms of autonomy and criticism by the subjects unfeasible.

It was Georg Lukács who managed, in his book History and class consciousness (Martins Fontes) of 1923, characterize this key concept through an important junction of themes taken from authors such as Karl Marx and Max Weber. Lukács decisively influenced the Marxist reception of Weber's theory of “rationalization” as an expanded expression of social reification. And the subsequent development of the concept of reification was marked by its degree of rationalization and generalization: the leading names in critical theory – among whom Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas – identified in their diagnoses increasingly broad or varied phenomena of reification to which modern rational societies were subjected.

The updating of the concept of reification undertaken by Honneth shares with this school of thought the idea that critical theory still has the task of understanding the forms of domination inscribed in our social practices. But the theory's original critical-emancipatory interest needs to be realized today through new conceptual means, new theoretical strategies of foundation and new empirically observable phenomena.

If, on the one hand, this means accepting that we are facing the continued expansion of expressions of reification (an expansion clearly observed among the previously highlighted authors), Honneth, on the other hand, avoids that his updating of reification depends on the linked concept of “rationalization”. : we can only continue using the concept of reification today to explain socially apprehensible forms of domination and subjectivation if we give up the central idea, which determines almost all of Lukács's critical theory to date, of “rationalization as reification”.

At the outset, the effort to update the concept of reification indicates that the grounding strategy Lukács used would prove unsatisfactory today for a more adequate critical understanding of social processes in their complexity. By pointing to the phenomenon of reification as a result of “commodity fetishism”, Marx already had before his eyes the experience of a relatively advanced capitalism such as that which emerged in eighteenth-century Europe, in which production processes, taken to a high degree of development, would create impersonal relationships of socialization.

Following Marx, Lukács also fundamentally departed from the phenomenon of the expansion of the exchange of goods to support the central thesis about the social cause of the increase in reification. As soon as subjects begin to regulate their relationships with other men primarily through the exchange of equivalent commodities, they would thus be forced to relate to their surrounding world and to other people by adopting a reifying attitude. Subjects who live immersed in the process of reification resulting from capitalist societies would perceive the elements of a given situation only from the point of view of the benefit they could achieve for their own selfish utilitarian calculation.

It is in this sense that, on the one hand, the phenomenon of reification stems essentially from the issue of commodity fetishism. On the other hand, however, the diagnosis of the generalization of reification in modern capitalism only gains an appropriate foundation when Lukács joins the Marxist thesis of fetishism to the Weberian thesis of rationalization: rationalization in modernity has extended to other social spheres (which not only economic) the pattern of indifferent and selfish modes of behavior, enhancing the production of reifying actions.

For Lukács, this decisive influence of the phenomenon of reification on society as a whole would occur in three dimensions. In the exchange of commodities, subjects are reciprocally forced to perceive existing objects in their surrounding world only as potentially profitable “things”; they also see their social interaction partner simply as the “object” of a profitable transaction; moreover, they consider their own faculties and personal qualities not from the point of view of self-realization, but only as objective “resources” for calculating profit opportunities. All relationships are abstracted in their uniqueness when integrated into a principle of calculus-based rationalization. Although we can find different nuances between the three dimensions (that of the objective world, of society and of the “I” itself), Lukács' analysis, recalls Honneth, would be concentrated on an ontology of strictly capitalist phenomena from which the entire social process would result. .

The difficulty, according to Honneth, would not consist in the pretense of analyzing the moments of reification in the simplest behaviors of everyday life, but rather in the pretense of analyzing them as economically usable quantities without taking into account the fact that it is a question of the relationship with objects of the surrounding world, with other people or with one's own skills and feelings. In other words, the representation of reification as “second nature” would have to encompass new phenomena when it was transferred precisely to non-economic spheres of action and when it was investigated from the very dynamics of intersubjectively considered social interactions.

Where, then, would we have to look in Lukács's own analyzes to undertake a reformulation of the concept of reification? Honneth believes that the most important thing would be to consider the Lukacsian analyzes that focus on the transformations and changes in behavior that the subjects themselves go through: it would be possible to notice in Lukács himself elements that allow identifying typical behaviors in which the subjects would not participate more actively in the processes of their surrounding world, but would place themselves in the perspective of a neutral observer who is not psychically or existentially affected by events.

Thus, Lukács himself would somehow show that the subject who adopts the role of an exchange partner starts to behave as a merely contemplative and indifferent spectator, and this type of behavior or pattern of action could be found in several other dimensions. intersubjective not limited to the phenomena of exchange in the capitalist market or the sphere of production: attitudes considered reifying generalize to other domains of socialization indifferent, passive and merely contemplative behaviors, as opposed to engaged and participatory attitudes in social interactions between human beings.

With the word “contemplation”, explains Honneth, what is meant here is less a posture of theoretical introspection than an attitude of indulgent and passive observation; and “indifference” must mean that the acting subject is no longer existentially affected by events, but, even when observing them, does not relate to them showing any kind of interest or engagement. Therefore, Lukács would understand under the term reification the habit or custom that corresponds to a merely contemplative behavior in whose perspective the natural surrounding world, the world of social relations and the very constitutive potentials of the personality would be apprehended only with indifference and in a neutral way. in relation to the affects, that is, as if they possessed the qualities of a “thing”.

But a decisive step still needs, according to Honneth, to be investigated. If Lukács refers to an anomalous behavior, which can be characterized as a misrepresentation, so to speak, of the subjects' more engaged attitude in their intersubjective relations, then surely his theory also presupposes something like a genuine praxis on the basis of which the reifying modes of action can be compared and criticized. Honneth thus underlines those passages in Lukács's text where an original and true human praxis is attributed to the active and cooperative subject, but which undergoes a certain transformation, motivated by various social constraints, whereby the engaged character of behavior becomes contemplative and indifferent. That is, Lukács seems to have to assume an engaged form of human praxis from which we can distinguish reification as a deficient praxis.

Maintaining this constitutive difference between two forms of human praxis – engaged and reified – is fundamental for the theory to preserve a critical point of view that is immanent to social practices themselves. practice engaged in some moral perspective, he also does not allow to clarify the presupposed normative point of view that guides his denunciation of social reification from the referred differentiation. The explanation of this normative point of view that operates in the concept of reification will consist of one of the main tasks of Honneth's critical reformulation.

Instead of thinking of reification only according to the description of the alienated production of the object by a subject who was excluded from the collectivity, Honneth insists on using those passages from Lukács' text in which the presupposed genuine praxis is understood as an intersubjective attitude. Lukács would also be concerned with the intersubjective quality that precedes behavior and which forms, at the heart of his argument, the standard that will serve as a contrast for the determination of a reifying praxis. The intersubjective point of view can thus provide a measure from which we could diagnose that the exchange of goods would result in a loss of interest and participation on the part of the subjects, that is, it would allow a contrast between an intersubjective attitude and the determination of a reifying practice. Now, it is exactly this intersubjective attitude – characterized by engaged participation and existential involvement in contrast to mere contemplation and indifference – that Honneth will found based on his theory of recognition.

The function of the category of recognition in Honneth's argument is to fulfill an important assumption not developed by Lukács. It would not be clear from the Lukacsian foundation on which the primacy of this original participatory praxis is based, which would be lost when the subject starts to behave in a reified way. To fill this grounding gap, this disposition prior to engagement would need to enjoy both ontogenetic and conceptual primacy so that reification could, on the one hand, be described as a distortion of a genuine praxis and, on the other hand, make it possible, along with his diagnosis, also his criticism and overcoming.

Honneth – making use of concepts still present in Martin Heidegger and John Dewey – intends to support the thesis that, in the subject's relationship with himself and with his surroundings, a posture of recognition has ontogenetic and categorical precedence when compared to all other attitudes . Every apprehension of reality would be linked to a form of experience in which all the existing data of a situation would be found, in principle, qualitatively accessible to the perspective of an affective participation. This type of qualitative experience originating from all our experiences is interpreted by Honneth as an essential characteristic of proximity, non-distancing, and practical engagement with the world, that is, as a primary interaction opposed to the self-centered, egocentric and neutral attitude. Recognition would therefore express this original form of relationship and existential concern with the world that only an act of distancing and indifference could separate.

Therefore, to forms of action sensitive to recognition we can oppose behaviors in which the traces of a previous recognition are no longer present. Merely contemplative or observant behavior is characterized by indifference when we are no longer aware of its dependence on a previous recognition. In this case, the social world appears as a totality of merely observable objects in which existential motivations and affective psychic sensations would be lacking: we thus develop a tendency to forget that recognition would be constitutive of intersubjective experiences and to perceive other men merely as objects the more we get used to putting aside all traces of an affective engagement.

We can call this forgetting of recognition reification, according to Honneth, if we understand by it the process through which, in our knowledge about other human beings and in the way we interact with them, we no longer become aware that both cases are tributaries of prior engagement and recognition. It is this moment of forgetting, understood as a kind of “amnesia”, that Honneth emphasizes as a new determination of the concept of reification. To the extent that, in the process of social interaction, we lose the original disposition of recognition, we develop a reified perception in which the intersubjective world is apprehended only with indifference and in a neutral way in relation to affects.

If the core of reification resides in a forgetting of recognition, then the fundamental task of critical theory will be to look for its social sources in the practices and mechanisms that systematically enable and perpetuate such forgetting. In the case of Lukács, above all economic constraints could lead to the denial of people's properly human traits. His gaze was so focused on the effects of capitalist commodity exchange that he failed to consider other social sources of reification.

For Honneth, however, human beings can, on a variety of occasions, adopt reifying behavior as they lose sight of previous recognition, and this due to two general causes: by participating in a social praxis in which mere observation on the other hand, it became an end in itself, extinguishing all awareness of the existential engagement of the preceding socialization; or when they conduct their actions through an ideological system of convictions that is reifying, coercing them to later deny the original recognition.

The translation that the Brazilian public now has in their hands consists of the expanded edition, which includes, in addition to Honneth's original text, both the criticisms made by Judith Butler, Raymond Geuss and Jonathan Lear to Honneth's updating of reification and the reply written by the author himself. . It is evident, from the discussion raised by Honneth's book, that the originality and strength of his thesis on reification as forgetting recognition also raise difficult and crucial problems for any attempt by critical theory to understand the forms of subjectivation of domination in the present time.

*Rurium Melo is a professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of São Paulo (USP).


Axel Honneth. Reification: A Study in Recognition Theory. Translation and presentation: Rúrion Melo. Sao Paulo: UNESP.


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