On becoming things: An interview with Axel Honneth

Jensen Suther

Platypus Review 59 | September 2013

On July 3rd, 2013, at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt, Germany, Jensen Suther interviewed Axel Honneth, director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and author of numerous books and articles, on behalf of Platypus. Their conversation focused on the problem of “reification,” or the tendency for processes of transformation to appear as, and be treated as if they were, static objects of an immutable nature. Reification was the theme of several writings Honneth delivered as the Tanner Lectures at Berkeley in 2005. These lectures are compiled in the book Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Jensen Suther: In your 2005 Tanner Lecture series, you argue that Georg Lukács’s Marxist analysis of the problem of reification is problematic, particularly in that he ascribes the overcoming of alienated social relations to the working class. You end the lecture by emphasizing that, pace Lukács, for whom reification is generated by the commodity form, different sets of social practices give rise to reifying behavior and no one group, class, or social movement can be singularly assigned the task of abolishing reified social relations. However, reification has historically been an important concept for the Left. Do you see the critique of reification as necessarily leftist? How, if at all, does your contribution to the discourse on reification relate to the Left?

Axel Honneth: This is a surprising question, one I would not have thought to ask, so my answer comes very much ad hoc. I do not believe that concepts belong to any specific political community or group. The degree to which concepts help us explore something or see something new, they should be taken as an instrument potentially available for everyone in society. So, in that sense, I do not believe that reification is an automatically leftist concept. Moreover, in terms of the history of ideas, I am not even sure that reification is necessarily a concept developed only by leftists. For instance, the French Marxist thinker Lucien Goldmann sought to demonstrate the similarities between the approaches of Lukács and Heidegger. You can find in Heidegger an idea of reification, which already indicates that reification was a concept also utilized by the right, or on the right. There are many problems with Lukács’s analysis. The almost mystical role he assigns the proletariat is only one of them. Even if we grant that his was one of the most fruitful periods in the Left tradition, in the history of Western Marxism, I think that today we can see much more clearly the limits of that analysis and the mistakes bound up with those limits. And, surely, the biggest mistake is not only the emphasis on the world-historical role of the proletariat, but also how this is emphasized, namely by way of a very peculiar set of background ideas, let’s say, about the social structure of reality. Lukács relies on a kind of Fichtean-Hegelian metaphysical concept by which all human society is thought to be grounded in a certain kind of world-constituting activity, and so Lukács thinks that the only class that can overcome reification, which is seen as the destruction of that world-constituting activity, is the class which is representing — even under alienated or distorted conditions — that kind of praxis. Therefore, we have this almost fantastic piece within the whole study, wherein Lukács wants to reveal this one moment of the overcoming of these distorted conditions. For Lukács, this moment looks almost like this one revolutionary act; I mean, you almost get the sense that in one second all these destructive conditions are overcome. It’s a very peculiar analysis — enormously inspiring, but also very strange.

Georg.Lukács seated in the darkness of his library (1913)

Georg Lukács seated in the darkness of his library

JS: You argue in your 2005 lectures that reification does not eliminate non-reified forms of social praxis, but only papers over them, and you claim that this was also Lukács’s position. In other words, you argue that a “genuine form of human existence,” one based on mutual recognition, perseveres beneath reified social relations. Even if this is the case, is it possible to grasp this genuine, underlying social reality, “as it really is”? Or is it rather the case, as Theodor Adorno suggests, that misrecognition is constitutive of our social condition? And what of Lukács’s claim that the commodity form not only generates reification, but also produces consciousness?

AH: That strikes me as an epistemological question, or probably better still an ontological question: If we grant the condition that reification is constitutive of our society, how could we ever attain a less distorted, or “undisturbed,” form of praxis? If we are to avoid contradicting ourselves, we can only hold out hope for this better form of praxis if we also believe that there must always already be an element of the better, undisturbed form of praxis in our already existing society. This is a difficult issue in Lukács. One way to understand him is to say that all praxis in the present moment of capitalist society is completely reified. But then you have this problem of how one has access to any sense that an undistorted form of praxis is possible. In Adorno it is trickier still. Even when Adorno is saying that reification is constitutive, he believes that there are still alternatives, or signs of another form of praxis. Be it in art, the artwork, or be it in small examples of everyday practices — there are, he claims, elements of an undistorted practice. So in Adorno you have this idea of the immanent appearance of an undistorted praxis, whereas Lukács is much more radical in his claim that reification is total. But this makes it much more difficult for Lukács to think the revolution, or think social change. Thus for Lukács it has to be this completely eschatological transformation, a complete reversal. With respect to this question I think Adorno is more open.[1] Continue reading

Comment moderation policy

Because of some recent rude ad hominem attacks on various individuals and unfounded rumors about various organizations in comments on this blog, I’m instituting a policy for moderating all future threads. Now, I’d like it to be known that I will still allow any and all comments, even those that are sharply critical or polemical, so long as they are relevant to the topic at hand. You don’t even have to be polite or feel like you’re walking on eggshells in writing in. The aim here is not to censor voices of disagreement, but rather ensure those comments that do go through meet basic discursive criteria that make them conducive to meaningful debate.

Of course, since no such policy existed before, it would be unfair for me to go back and retroactively enforce a screening process that I’ve only established after the fact. Just as with the blog controversy several months back, when some of my own personal views were conflated with those of Platypus as an organization, I issued a disclaimer but decided against going back and sanitizing various opinions I expressed at one time so as to avoid criticism. This did not mean that I still held these views; it merely meant that I was not looking to exempt myself from critiques ex post facto. Likewise, all past comments on this blog, whether authored by myself or others, will be left intact.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have, at times, made remarks that fall well beneath the threshold of the kind of commentary I’m advocating here. This has led some to point out the hypocrisy of my request not to baselessly attack certain individuals or organizations. Such an observation is, of course, warranted, but it in no way weakens my resolve to enact this moderation policy henceforth. In a similar fashion, I will make every effort to refrain from writing posts or comments that violate this norm. Self-regulation is not always the best way to go about this, though, so feel free to write in if you feel this standard is not being met. Continue reading