Critically assess Honneth’s Account of Social Freedom.
‘Of all the ethical values prevailing and competing for dominance in modern society, only one has been capable of leaving a truly lasting impression on our institutional order: freedom, i.e. the autonomy of the individual.’
(Honneth, 2014, p. 15)
There may be many different theoretical principles at work within different spheres of society, however in modern society, according to Axel Honneth, freedom is easily the most worthy of consideration. In Freedom’s Right, Honneth (2014) identifies two prevailing understandings of freedom – ‘negative’ and ‘reflexive’ – before presenting his own, third account: ‘social’ freedom (p. 19). An individual displays negative freedom by ‘fulfilling any and all desires, provided they serve the subject’s self-assertion’ (ibid., p. 22), whilst according to the notion of reflexive freedom, Honneth writes, ‘individuals are free if their actions are solely guided by their own intentions’ (ibid., p. 29). He goes further with his conception of social freedom, claiming that ‘individual subjects can perform the reflexive acts required for self-determination only if they interact socially with others who do the same’ (ibid., p. 42). In other words, both negative and reflexive freedom are important parts of freedom, but without the necessary conditions of social freedom they cannot be realised. In this essay, I closely examine Honneth’s motivations for presenting his own account of freedom, as well as discussing some potential criticisms of Honneth’s account of social freedom.
Responding to the shortcomings of the negative and reflexive understandings of freedom – as he perceives them – Honneth suggests that his model of social freedom more accurately captures the true nature of modern freedom. In this model, as Zurn (2015) concisely summarises, ‘free actions require an accommodating social environment from which those actions derive their sense and purpose, and within which those actions fit into a cooperative scheme of social activity’ (p. 161). Thus, even if individuals act with autonomy, unburdened by external constraint, if their behaviour is not in harmony with the social conditions in which they exist, they cannot be considered free. In other words, complete freedom, according to Honneth, also depends on ‘certain objective social conditions not directly within an individual’s control’ (ibid.). It should be noted here that, despite this significant amendment, Honneth is not dismissing the reality or the importance of the conditions proposed by the negative and reflexive notions of freedom. Honneth, in Freedom’s Right, is merely claiming that, while negative and reflexive freedom are important components of modern freedom, they are best understood ‘within a broader conception defined by a more capacious conception of social freedom’ (ibid., p. 162).
Honneth’s (2014) understanding of freedom is informed by the experience of what he calls ‘mutual recognition’ (p. 46). This idea is reminiscent of certain sections of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s work. Hegel (1991), a philosopher whose ideas Honneth is keen to advance, claims in Elements of the Philosophy of Right that true freedom is ‘being with oneself in an other’ (p. xii). According to this notion, then, individuals are free when they see others as a necessary condition for their freedom – and not as a potential limitation upon it. Honneth (2014) argues that this view of freedom as mutual recognition is based on an individual’s ‘Erganzungsbedurftigkeit’, or ‘need for completion’ (p. 48): ‘mutual recognition’, Honneth explains, ‘refers to the reciprocal experience of seeing ourselves confirmed in the desires and aims of the other, because the other’s existence represents a condition for fulfilling our own desires and aims’ (p. 45).
The idea of social freedom as satisfying a need for completion is especially compelling when thinking about freedom in relation to friendship and romance. According to Honneth, friendship should be ‘free from instrumental considerations’ (ibid., p. 140), serving as an opportunity ‘to experience our own will as something whose articulation is desired by a concrete other’ (ibid., p. 139). Meanwhile, in romantic relationships the nature of this friendship intensifies and is maintained by physical intimacy. As Honneth writes, romantic couples ‘complete each other not only by promoting and supporting each other’s ethical formation, but also and especially by satisfying each other’s physical needs, which each views as especially important for their own vitality and well-being’ (ibid., p. 151).
The socially free individual depends on the support of others to meet their goals and likewise, the social freedom of other relies on the support of that individual. As such, social duties – which represent ‘a context-bound morality that is not centered on individual self-determination but on the realization of the aims of the specific cooperative practice that subjects are engaged in together’ (Claassen, 2014, p. 70) – are incumbent upon everyone in the society. This raises the question of whether these social duties, or ‘role obligations’ (Honneth, 2014, p. 125), mean that individuals must sacrifice their own individual freedom in order to attain social freedom. On this point, Honneth admits that these duties do require ‘individual self-restriction’ (ibid., p. 126), however, because the reward is the attainment of social freedom, he insists that individuals experience them as ‘the expression and social embodiment’ of their aims and therefore carry them out wilfully (ibid.).
Honneth views the pursuit of social freedom as a teleological process. Societal development, he claims, follows ‘a certain set of shared fundamental ideals and values’ that determine ‘which social measures or developments are conceivable’, as well as ‘the guidelines that each individual’s life path should follow’ (Honneth, 2014, p. 3). As Claasen (2014) observes, Hegel also saw this process as a teleological one, ‘in which his own time was at the forefront of progress in realizing social freedom’ (p. 71). Honneth, however, criticises Hegel for claiming that the social institutions of his time represented the peak of social freedom. Hegel, according to Honneth (2014), ‘appears to view the institutions of the bourgeois family, the corporatistically restrained market and the state as the culmination of the moral history of humanity’, but with the benefit of hindsight, ‘we know better’ (p. 62). Indeed, Honneth even suggests that Hegel perhaps merely wanted to protect the ‘practices and moral institutions that worked to uphold the dominant order’ (ibid., p. 7). Irrespective of Hegel’s motivations, though, Honneth holds that such a state of true social freedom is impossible as the desirability of these institutions is forever being re-evaluated. In other words, societies are always able to ‘critisize given practices as being unsuited to what it is they are supposed to represent’ (ibid., p. 9).
Honneth attempts to advance Hegel’s social theory, however whilst he does offer some criticisms, he neglects to challenge some of the unsubstantiated claims in Hegel’s work. For instance, like Hegel, Honneth accepts, without scrutiny, that there are a set of principles underlying society: the purpose of trying to construct a theory of social freedom, he claims, stems from the fact that ‘social reproduction hinges on a certain set of shared fundamental ideals’ (ibid., p. 3). Despite noting that there are a number of different views on this, he does not believe that this undermines his assertion. On the contrary, he claims that ‘the existence of “heterogeneous” societies . . . has little effect on this “transcendental” necessity of normative integration’ and indeed proceeds to declare that ‘material reproduction and cultural socialization must comply with a set of shared norms’ (ibid., p. 4). Thus, in his account of social freedom, Honneth appears to take it for granted that all societies have a predetermined set of moral principles underlying them. However, I believe that he has not given a significant enough justification to make this a claim credible.
Honneth’s account of social freedom, in its current form, has also been criticised for preventing meaningful consideration of how societies can confront contemporary global issues. Zurn (2015), for instance, notes that Honneth’s theory is primarily concerned with the norms and institutions within individual societies, but ‘gives little attention to understanding the relationships between societies’ (p. 211). Thus, it can be said that Honneth’s account fails to facilitate proper engagement with major contemporary issues, such as climate change and global migration crises. In the words of Zurn, it is unclear how ‘the different principles of social freedom are directly relevant to the multitude of quite pressing questions’, such as how ‘to avoid catastrophic environmental damage, or what we owe to future generations in terms of environmental stewardship’ (ibid., p. 210). Zurn does, however, concede that there is ‘hypothetical room’ in Honneth’s account of social freedom for these pressing issues to be considered, in so far as they have the potential to impinge upon an individual’s freedom (ibid., p. 211). Though, as Zurn recognises, accurately in my view, this technicality ‘is a long way from direct consideration of central problems of the age caused by our societies’ industrial and capitalist development’ (ibid.).
To conclude, I believe that Honneth’s attempt to present a new account of social freedom was certainly a worthwhile project. Notably, in Freedom’s Right, he was able to help advance Hegel’s social theory with the benefit of ‘two hundred years’ hindsight (Honneth, 2014, p. 62). However, his account of social freedom is far from all-encompassing and seemingly underestimates the existential threat that contemporary global issues, most notably climate change, could pose to individual freedom.
- Claassen, R. (2014) ‘Social Freedom and the Demands of Justice: A Study of Honneth’s Recht Der Freiheit’, Constellations, 21 (1), 67-82.
- Hegel, G. W. F. (1991) Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Honneth, A. (2014) Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Jütten, T. (2015) ‘Is the Market a Sphere of Social Freedom?’, Critical Horizons, 16 (2), 187-203.
- Zurn, C. (2015) Axel Honneth: A Critical Theory of the Social. Cambridge: Polity Press.