Axel Honneth on the Material of Justice

In an essay entitled, “The Fabric of Justice: On the Limits of Contemporary Proceduralism” (in his recent collection The I in We: Studies in the Theory of Recognition) Axel Honneth explains where and why his Hegelian-inspired theory of recognition differs from procedural liberalism.

Honneth argues (via Hegel’s understanding of the emergence of self-consciousness) that autonomy is grounded not in the exercise of choice itself or the goods accumulated thereby. Rather it’s found “along intersubjective paths” whereby we learn “to understand ourselves, via others’ recognition, as beings whose needs, beliefs and abilities are worth being realized.” Autonomy is realized within social relations. “We do not acquire autonomy on our own, but only in relation to other people who are willing to appreciate us, just as we must be able to appreciate them.” Thus, “relations of reciprocity, and not goods, represent the conditions of autonomy…Autonomy is a relational, intersubjective entity…fashioned out of living relations of reciprocal recognition that are just to the degree that they allow us to reciprocally value our needs, beliefs, and abilities.” [1]

While sympathetic to many of the ‘communitarian’ critiques of liberalism, Honneth’s break with procedural liberalism follows from his thoughts on the intersubjective ground of autonomy. This break is found in what he calls “the material of justice.” For Honneth, proceduralists like Rawls are overly reliant upon autonomy as a purely individual phenomenon, which results in advocacy for distributive justice. In a distributivist framework the material of justice is some sort of good. Justice is determined – and injustice remedied – by access to or possession of “exchangeable goods.” Honneth’s break with proceduralism is firstly on this point, claiming instead that the material of justice is actually “reciprocal social relations.” [2]

According to Honneth, the consequence of the proceduralist determination of the material of justice is an over reliance upon the state, the only entity with adequate power to control the distribution of goods. This power is the state’s because individual’s have (hypothetically) autonomously agreed to it (see: Rawls’ original position).

However Honneth acknowledges Foucault’s thinking on the decentering of power, which argues “political power is largely exercised through a broad and decentered network of semi-governmental, civilian organizations.” He claims,

Because political rule is reproduced through different, loosely connected points, social justice is fought for and secured by many agents connected through network-like structures, all of which are found on the terrain of civil society…That we cannot perceive of the activities of such civil organizations as moral interventions, or as instances of the social promotion of justice, is the consequence of a restricted view inherent in currently prevalent theories of justice. [3]


It seems Honneth’s claim about the material of justice is intuitively powerful, and I appreciate his use of a Foucaultian sense of power. I am incredibly sympathetic to his commitment to a social-relational framework. However there are a couple things keeping me from diving in…

First, at the theoretical level, it seems Honneth can’t really claim that recognition precedes autonomy. Granting him the Hegelian argument that self-consciousness emerges by being recognized as such, the preferences (desires, needs, etc.) a person has cannot be recognized until they are expressed in some way. Thus autonomy must precede the recognition or else there’s nothing to be recognized. I suppose Honneth could claim that self-conscious autonomy emerges from a more primitive form of autonomy that is recognized by another. Or perhaps he means that the individual preferences of a person need not be recognized, just the person herself. But what is to be recognized in a person that isn’t an expression of her autonomy in some way? Some sense of autonomy must precede recognition, just as is true for the self generally, and it must be of an un-self-conscious sense.

Second, despite claiming the reverse, this essay doesn’t seem to bridge the divide between political theory and political practice. While I did find myself nodding along at times it remained difficult throughout to conceive of how these insights might be applied.



[1] Axel Honneth, The I in We: Studies in the Theory of Recognition, trans. Joseph Ganahl (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012) 41.

[2] Ibid., 42.

[2] Ibid., 44-45.


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