suffering from indeterminacy

Arshile Gorky (1904–1948), Self Portrait at Age Nine, 1928.


Commentary on Axel Honneth's Book.

The book, whose original German edition dates from 2001, consists, as its subtitle indicates, of “a re-updating of the Philosophy of law of Hegel”. Despite this subtitle, however, the aim of the book is more ambitious than a simple restatement of Hegel's aforementioned book.

In fact, in addition to the purpose of recovering and pointing to the relevance of the theory developed by Hegel in that book, Honneth seeks to show how the theory constructed by the mature Hegel can help build a critical theory capable of overcoming the aporias of the debate between abstract universalism and contextualism. relativist; or, in other words, between liberalism and communitarianism.

Honneth's intention, at least since his book fight for recognition, has been to build a critical social theory that is universalist without being abstract, lending itself, therefore, to appropriation by social movements in their struggles against oppression; but which, at the same time, is not just a reflection of the historically situated demands of such movements. And, in this sense, the present book is another step in this trajectory, since it adds to the young Hegel of the Jena period, central to the book fight for recognition, the mature Hegel of Philosophy of law.

In its original edition, the book consists of three parts, each with two chapters; The Brazilian edition, which is the subject of this review, contains, in addition to the six chapters of the original edition, a long introduction, signed by Denílson Luis Werle and Rúrion Soares Melo. The latter helps to situate the book in relation to the works of Hegel and Honneth himself, as well as in relation to the contemporary debate about theories of justice and critical theory; for this reason, it is very useful mainly for uninitiated readers.

Like Hegel's book, Honneth's is also made up of three parts. It is not possible, however, to establish a simple parallel between the parts of the two books. Thus, Hegel's book is devoted in sequence, in three parts, to the discussion of “abstract right”, “morality” and “ethical life”, respectively. Honneth's, on the other hand, does not deal with the same themes as the Hegelian sequence.

Instead, the three parts of Honneth's book are dedicated, respectively, to "Philosophy of law of Hegel as a theory of justice”; the “link between the theory of justice and the diagnosis of the time”; and the “doctrine of ethics as a normative theory of modernity”. In the two chapters of the first part, where the philosophy of law is analyzed as a theory of justice, Honneth discusses the themes of abstract law and morality; here, his objective is to show how in Hegel the two themes are complementary, but still insufficient, since they are unilateral and incomplete, leading, therefore, to what he calls “suffering from indetermination”. The latter, in turn, is the subject of the third chapter that opens the second part of the book, in which the author analyzes the link between the theory of justice and the diagnosis of the time.

The concept of suffering is the synthesis of the pathologies of individual freedom. And the suffering of indetermination, which stems from the limits of abstract law and morality, can only be remedied in the sphere of ethics, the third and last sphere of the Hegelian model; this sphere is the only one that offers the intersubjective conditions of autonomy and individual self-realization capable of overcoming the suffering of indetermination.

Hence, the fourth chapter deals precisely with the liberation of this suffering through the discussion of the “therapeutic meaning of 'ethicality'”. Liberation from the suffering of indetermination is, therefore, the object of the fourth chapter, which opens the door to the problematic of the third part of the book, in which we find a more complete discussion of the doctrine of ethics. The sphere of ethics would be the arrival point of Hegel's theory, which Honneth defines as a “normative theory of modernity”; in the two chapters of this last part of the book, the author discusses, respectively, the relationship between self-realization and recognition (chapter 5) and what he calls the over-institutionalization of ethics (chapter 6).

As is known, the sphere of “ethical life”, found in the third part of Hegel's book, is formed by three institutions, namely, family, civil society and State. To deal with the relationship between self-actualization and recognition, Honneth focuses the analysis on these three institutions. The family is considered the elementary basis of every society and the institution responsible for the socialization of individuals; based on love, the family takes care of the needs and needs of individuals and provides them with the necessary self-confidence to participate in broader interactions in the other two institutions.

Civil society is the social space where adult individuals enter into interaction pursuing their individual interests, while the State is the place of the universal; and unlike civil society, where the idea of ​​interest would predominate, the State is based on value, so that instead of interest, what predominates here is the notion of honor. Therefore, lack, interest and honor are, respectively, the key categories of the three aforementioned institutions in the sphere of ethics; to them Honneth links forms of recognition necessary for self-realization that are based, respectively, on love, solidarity and rights.

It can be seen that there is an intention in this book by Honneth to link the model developed by Hegel in Philosophy of law with that found in the writings of the Jena period; in this way, the impression is left that the theory outlined by Hegel in those writings was not abandoned but developed in the mature work. This becomes clear in Honneth's attempt to relate the three forms of recognition (love, law and solidarity) to the three institutions in the sphere of ethical life (family, state and civil society).

In the last chapter of his book, Honneth also highlights the interweaving between the three institutions of the Hegelian sphere of ethics. Thus, the family, which has love as its foundation, is the institution responsible for taking care of the needs of individuals and their first socialization; but in the family there are also elements that indicate its link with the other two institutions (civil society and the State), as is the case of the marriage contract. The latter contains both the dimension of the contract between individuals that binds them to civil society and the dimension of legality that binds them to the State.

In civil society, on the other hand, there are corporations, whose operating logic suggests more the idea of ​​group solidarity than that of conflicting interests; the State, the place of the universal, is also represented as if it were an extension of friendship, that is, as an expression of a broad community based on friendship among its members. Evidently, all cases presuppose intersubjective relations and do not exclude the possibility of conflict, as the formula “struggle for recognition” translates well.

To conclude, I draw attention here to an apparently subtle change in Honneth's theory of recognition, but which has important consequences for it, mainly because its author presents it as a critical social theory. I am referring to the change in one of the elements of the typology of recognition between the book fight for recognition and more recent writings, including the book analyzed here. that is, in fight for recognition the three categories corresponding to the three spheres of recognition were: love, right and solidarity; in more recent writings, the word merit or merit has often appeared in place of solidarity.

However, whatever definition is given to solidarity, it is not possible to simply replace it with the notion of interests of individuals, without this having consequences for the theory, both in its dimension of social criticism and in the normative plane. I believe that a social theory that intends to be critical must be able not only to explain the iniquities of contemporary society, revealing its asymmetries; it also needs to be able to point out ways to overcome such iniquities. And, in my view, a large part of these iniquities experienced by contemporary society stem from the tendency of capitalism, especially in the current era, to invade all social spheres, trying to subject them to the logic of the commodity.

By substituting the notion of solidarity for that of merit in more recent writings, Honneth's promising theory seems to prefer to recover notions that contribute to further strengthen the logic of individual interests, instead of favoring a deepening of the critique of contemporary forms of “life fetishism”. merchandise".

* Joshua Pereira da Silva is professor of sociology at Unicamp and author of Work, citizenship and recognition (Annablume).

Originally published in Intersections: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, year 11, no. 1, June 2009.


Axel Honneth. Suffering from indeterminacy: a re-updating of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Translation: Rúrion Soares Melo. São Paulo, Editora Singular / Esfera Pública, 2007, 145 pages.


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