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]

JS: In several places Adorno stresses that every second nature is always already a new first nature. Similarly, Lukács speaks of how, during a revolutionary period in the crisis of capital, one sees the intensification, not the diminution, of reification. Indeed, he makes clear that reification is integral to the dialectic of theory and practice, and not simply an obstacle to it. How does this dimension of reification figure into your account? Or, to put the question a different way, what are the limitations to the immanent analysis of reification?

AH: I do not see that, I’m afraid. That has to do, I think, with one’s strategy for identifying reification. There is a huge difference between Lukács and Adorno, on one side, and myself, on the other. For them, the background idea is that capitalist exchange relations, as such, are producing reification. I have doubts about such a totalizing idea. I do not think forms of reification are automatically or necessarily produced by capitalist societies, but rather that specific forms of capitalism and specific forms of practices within capitalism are what produce really reified attitudes. Aside from this difference, however, I also think that Adorno and Lukács make mistakes even in terms of their own conceptualizations. If you take reification literally, which I think Lukács wants to do, then you cannot really say that all economic exchange, even exchange directly involving the labor force, is reification as such. Not all practices involved in the production process necessarily require that the human potentialities of the workers must be exacted from them. Capitalist production as such entails the use, as a commodity, of the human potentialities of the labor force, but only in some specific cases does this form of production also exhibit the opposite — namely, an ignorance of, or disregard for, human potential. Only in these particular cases does it make sense to speak of reification. In the sex trade, for example, we have a clear case of reification. But reification does not obtain in all forms of capitalist production.

The exterior of the Institute for Comparative Irrelevance, Frankfurt, Germany.

The Institute for Comparative Irrelevance, Frankfurt, Germany.

JS: In an essay you wrote that concludes the Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, entitled “A social pathology of reason: on the intellectual legacy of Critical Theory,” you argue that the process of social rationalization, or what Hegel would have called the historical unfolding of freedom, has been interrupted, and that it is the task of Critical Theory to think through the contradiction between capitalism and the aspirations of bourgeois society. You claim that this interruption poses a moral or ethical challenge, whose resolution does not necessarily require the sublation of capitalism, and that history has demonstrated that the “Marxist wing of left Hegelianism” was wrong, since the working class did not “automatically develop a revolutionary readiness.” You argue that, in light of the failure of Marxism, psychoanalysis may offer powerful tools for analyzing social irrationality. In your view, what would be the significance of psychoanalysis for a revitalized emancipatory politics?

AH: It is a very complicated question. First, I would not claim that Marxism as such has failed, but that it has clearly erred in one respect, namely in its conviction that the proletariat or the class of the labor force will automatically develop a critical perspective. An empirical doubt of that premise had already been formulated by the early Frankfurt School. Their starting point, in a way, was hesitation as to precisely that premise.

I think Adorno and some of the other representatives of the Frankfurt School relied mainly on psychoanalysis as a way to think through the emancipatory mechanisms already immanent in capitalism. In certain passages Adorno suggests that a certain component of our psychic life simply resists the existent capitalist conditions because of the element of suffering implicit in these conditions. However, if you follow Freud, suffering produces certain dispositions, not for emancipation, but for enlightening knowledge. Nonetheless, Adorno, until the end, believed in that kind of psychic mechanism. With Marcuse it is completely different. Marcuse argued there are certain drives that permanently resist the capitalist form of rationalization, which would point to a completely different usage of psychoanalysis. But, regarding how I think psychoanalysis might contribute to emancipation, I would give several answers. First, I am most interested in object relations theory, a certain strain within psychoanalysis. In brief, I think this strain, and the work of Donald Winnicott in particular, is very helpful in order to think about emancipatory moments in normal human life. More generally, one element I would take from psychoanalysis is a deep suspicion about the completely rational actor. Psychoanalysis is one tradition among others that helps us to see that human beings are driven not only by their purposive rational interests, but also by their unconscious wishes. I take this insight to be necessary for any analysis of emancipatory potentialities within a given capitalist society.

JS: In a recent interview, you announced your support for the Institute for Comparative Irrelevance (Institut für Vergleichende Irrelevanz, or IvI), just before the building it has occupied for nearly a decade was seized. In a February 2012 dispatch entitled, “Critical Thinking Needs and Takes Time and Space,” available on its website, the IvI writes that it sees itself as offering an alternative form of politics based around a self-organized space within which it is possible for participants of any age, gender, or ethnicity to achieve autonomy.[2] Do you think this sort of alternative political project realizes, or at least approximates, the kind of mutual recognition and de-reifying behavior that you call for in your work? Adorno argues in several places, most notably in his late essay “Resignation,” that attempts to “rescue enclaves of immediacy in the midst of a thoroughly mediated and rigidified society” amount to pseudo-activity, obscuring the need for change on the level of society.[3] How would you respond to this critique?

AH: I would hope that the notion of mutual forms of recognition can help to make a little bit clearer what Adorno had in mind, actually. Concerning the Institute for Comparative Irrelevance, I think one should support it, simply because this is one expression of the interests of students to have alternative spaces for their own way of thinking, within a non-regulated, non-hierarchical form of university education. And I think it is a good sign for a generation of students if they develop interest in creating such spaces. I do not think that these spaces represent another form of life. In the IvI’s own self-description it does sound as though the IvI has already created an alternative form of life. I do not think it has done that, but the IvI nevertheless has, through a legitimate form of occupation, created a unique place close to the university. They occupied the building in order to reclaim a space for free thinking and free discussion outside the control of official representatives of knowledge. I think this is a good step. There is still a determined group of students who believe they need these places, beyond the specific regulations of education within the university, where they can debate and discuss their own matters, their own theoretical interests, their own insights. It is a good sign if a university allows those spaces, because that’s the whole idea of a university — not to distribute formal knowledge that allows one to attain a position within society, but to represent a space where free thinking is possible. And, if the usual forms of teaching are being put under greater pressure of certain economic interests, then more places like the IvI become necessary. |P


1. Adorno, Theodor, “Reflections on Class Theory,” in Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 110.
2. The full text of “Critical Thinking Needs and Takes Time and Space” (“Kritisches Denken brauchtund nim- mt sich-Zeit und Raum”) can be found online by clicking here.
3. Adorno, Theodor, “Resignation,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 291.

5 thoughts on “On becoming things: An interview with Axel Honneth

  1. Pingback: On becoming things: An interview with Axel Honneth | Research Material

  2. Pingback: Walking between precipices: An interview with Ernesto Laclau | The Charnel-House

  3. Pingback: The skyscraper in the Old World | The Charnel-House

  4. Pingback: The skyscraper in the Old World | The Charnel-House

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