Is Intercultural Critique Possible?
An Examination of Recognition Theory
is difficult, living in the modern west, to conceive of
approaches to social justice that do not focus entirely on economic
forces. Many of us
are familiar with theories
of social justice that strive for the just distribution of money, goods
resources. As Nancy
explains, such approaches have “supplied the paradigm case for most
about social justice for the past 150 years” (p. 21). There is,
alternative approach to social justice that departs from the largely
focus of distribution theories: recognition theory.
Recognition theory centres on adequate
acknowledgement of the many unique groups that comprise the global
The most notable recognition theory scholar is Axel Honneth. Honneth took recognition
theory from a tool
in Hegel’s early work and launched it to a prominent position in the
has recently penned
a response to two of his contemporaries – Arto Laitenen and Antti
in which he provides a valuable discussion of the role recognition
play in social critique. In
however, he attempts to broaden the scope of his theory making it
cross-cultural critiques. It
contention that although recognition theory works well for internal
Honneth’s attempts to locate a universal ground for critical social
prove problematic upon application to scenarios of intercultural
from Hegel’s Phenomenology
of Spirit, the basic tenant of recognition theory is that
require independent validation of the subjective conceptions they form
themselves. This validation is
achieved through a process
of mutual recognition. For
example, if I
deem myself to be autonomous, I seek to have that characteristic
another subject. That
come from either tacit acknowledgment – acting toward me in a way that
indicates an acceptance of my autonomy – or explicit declaration on
the other party.
examining issues of social justice, recognition theory is generally
whole groups, rather than the individual members of
those groups. In
assessing a situation, we need only examine the recognitive demands of
group and the degree to which those demands are met.
Each group has a unique set of qualities it
deems worthy of recognition and these evaluative qualities are
is nothing objective
about the particular qualities that a particular group thinks ought to
recognized or valued. For
(2002), appeals to norms governing recognitive activity are neither
transhistorically nor transculturally valid, neither “immutable [nor]
objective” (pp. 503).
example of this
phenomenon is the value of individual franchise.
For citizens of western democracies, to deny
an individual the ability to vote or participate in government is to
basic human right. In
our culture, it
seems obvious that all people ought to have some degree of political
Nancy Fraser, this
right – which she called ‘participatory parity’ – comprised the
of humanity around which all recognitive activity ought to centre. However, in ancient
Athenian society, it
seemed equally self-evident that only adult male citizens should
upon completion of
military training did an Athenian possess the political knowledge
participation in political life. Since
only adult males were suited for military training and because
slaves were not committed to the polis, it followed logically that only
male citizens should participate in government.
of the modern west, the
Athenian extension of franchise might seem crude; but it made sense to
Athenians in the context within which it was created.
This is because values do not occur in a
vacuum and they are not created independent of the humans who use them. Values are products of a
certain people in a
certain place at a certain time.
Construction of Norms
collection of variables on which values are contingent
is referred to as a lifeworld. The
example above indicates the differences between our lifeworld and the
Athenian lifeworld. We
are all born into
a specific lifeworld and we gradually come to learn how our own
contrast with our raw,
natural inclinations, the socially constructed lifeworld is “a kind of
nature’ into which subjects are socialized” (Honneth, 2002, pp. 508).
through this socialization that we grasp the values and norms around
socialization process of which we are speaking often happens without
effort. We learn
the norms of our
society simply through the navigation of daily life.
Borrowing from Robert Brandom, both Kauppinen
and Honneth claim that value norms take the form of “generalized
expectations that we follow … implicitly” (Honneth, 2002, pp. 514). In other words, the value
norms to which we
adhere are manifest in our daily interactions.
The process of learning to act normally
in society is the process of learning these norms.
To use the
word ‘learn’ here may be
somewhat misleading. This
is a very
different sort of learning since we do not learn these value norms the
we acquire theoretical knowledge.
the learning of math or physics, we do not have a specific norm-teacher
do not (often) articulate the material being learned.
Rather, our classroom is the community, our
teacher the members of that community and our tests and exams happen
as we manoeuvre through daily routines, actions and interactions. We evidence our knowledge
through proper – or
normal – social practice. The
norms we learn are thus unarticulated yet manifest in daily practice. Take, for instance, the
meeting of a new person. If
I were to meet a new colleague of mine, I
would most likely shake her hand, introduce myself to her and offer to
find her way around. I
not ignore her, fail to introduce myself or use profane sexual language. To use Brandom’s (1994)
appropriately navigating this interaction I make clear my “practical
over the norms that govern the situation (p. 89).
Even this mundane daily interaction evidences
some basic values we hold with regard to other people:
They are deserving of some level of respect,
they deserve to know the people with whom they work and they deserve to
treated politely, regardless of gender.
this type of knowledge can be difficult. Since our knowledge of value
rarely explicitly articulated, some might argue that we do not ‘know’
at all. Following
Honneth disagrees, asserting that this knowledge is ‘knowing-how’
rather than a
‘knowing-that’ (Honneth, 2002, pp. 515).
This knowledge is evident in our practical mastery over
the norms. Knowledge
of these norms is made clear only
in contrast to demonstrations that evidence a lack of norm knowledge. In other words, we only
become conscious of
these norms when the expected behavioural pattern is broken. Often the violation of a
norm is not frequent
enough to make it wholly explicit but the violation will nonetheless
conscious of its existence. Were I to have ignored my
colleague or been
rude to her, this may have aroused some anger from my peers, but few
venture to articulate the complex, context dependant value-norm I had
(Kauppinen, 2002, pp. 487). Yet
seemingly intuitive experience of norm-violation is fundamental to
critique based on misrecognition. If we are to examine social issues
recognition model, we must be clear as to what expected norm was
social problems via recognition
forces articulation of the implicit value violated.
matter of clarity, the emotional experience of misrecognition does not
necessarily accompany actual misrecognition.
Emotions are not always reliable indicators of failed
(Kauppinen, 2002, pp. 488). As
(2002) instructs, felt misrecognition should merely indicate that we
reconstruct the norms we perceive to have been violated and bring them
evaluative space (pp. 487-8).
in this light, negative moral experiences are often an indication that
implicit social value norm may have been violated and deserves
I had said to my
colleague: ‘a women’s place is at home, not in the workplace’. The moral injury she would
would evidence the violation of some fundamental norm – viz. that women
to be recognized as valuable members of the workplace to the same
their male counterparts. If
positive can come out of these negative moral experiences, it is a
reflection on the imbedded social norm(s) violated.
It is here that we begin to see the full
power of recognition theory in internal social critique. The application of
recognition theory forces
the reconstruction of implicit moral norms violated.
If we are to demonstrate that a token of
misrecognition is deserving of correction, we must make explicit the
held norm it has violated.
implicit norms is paramount for social critique.
An effective critique will illustrate an
incongruence between norms implicitly adhered to and actions that
norms. The most
effective and frequent
use of this type of recognition claim comes from children. Consider the
following example to help illuminate the rhetorical power of this type
Sally’s parents refuse to let her move away to
college on the grounds that she is too young.
Sally might argue that her parents allowed both of her
brothers to move
away to college at her age. She
argue further that she is in no different a situation than her brothers
her age. Sally
would effectively be
arguing that she ought to be recognized as deserving of coverage under
aforementioned norm. Having
illustrated a norm implicit in her parents’ past actions and petitioned
adherence to that norm in this situation, Sally’s critique would likely
– provided her parents respond well to rational argument.
critiques generally take
the form of analogical arguments.
claimant must illustrate that the norm to which s/he is appealing is
held then illustrate that the norm is not being applied in a given
it is nevertheless warranted. A
that exposes a contradiction within a social system is likely to be far
efficacious than a critique appealing to external norms. Appeals to external norms
– like justice,
fairness or piety – are generally dismissed as vacuous or antiquated,
norms that demonstrated to be tacitly held are not so easily
Recognition as a
Fundamental Human Need
have objected to Honneth’s theory on the grounds that
the norms of a given lifeworld are rarely consistent and often contain
contradict the norms that govern recognition.
Continuing with the example of my colleague: suppose that
I do not live
in this lifeworld; rather, I live in lifeworld-x. In lifeworld-x,
like this world, my colleague
experiences moral injury upon hearing my rude remark; but unlike this
citizens of lifeworld-x also
demonstrate tacit adherence to the norm: ‘workers with high-seniority
workers with little or no seniority however they please.’ There is no
of adjudicating between the implicit norms of recognition and the
of seniority. The
norms of recognition
work against the norm of seniority and the norm of seniority works
norms of recognition. This
has led some
to wonder why the norms of recognition ought to take priority over
(Kauppinen, 2002, pp. 493). On
of thought, recognition is itself an intersubjectively defined and
norm implicit in our lifeworld. As
recognition appears to have no ontological superiority to other moral
and must compete with other lifeworld-contingent norms.
to Honneth, the moral
injuries suffered from failed recognition are far greater than any
moral concerns and that we ought to give recognition norms priority
concerns. For Honneth (2002),
recognition is not simply
a sign of the times, it is indicative of a fundamental human need:
self-realization or autonomy (pp. 515).
He makes no attempts to mask this bold assertion,
explaining: “I do
indeed assume that we should understand autonomy or self-realization as
overarching telos of our human
of life” (2002, pp. 516). In
achieve full autonomy or maximize self-realization, we require
recognition. To be
(2002) does not want to say that recognition is a pre-requisite for
self-realization; rather, they develop together (pp. 516). In order for the process of
to be maximally effective, we require a relation-to-self that can only
provided by mutual recognition. That
mutual recognition supplies us with a sufficiently robust account of
to facilitate attempts at the full realization of that self.
claim thus far is that recognition serves as a
valuable means by which we may extract the norms implicit in society
for use in
social critique. Given
his previous work
– in which he argued for the fundamental human need for recognition as
mediator of self-realization – we may take provisionally that the norms
recognition deserve priority over other norms in any given lifeworld. Honneth’s account thus
provides a compelling
case for recognition theory in internal critique.
His theory runs into problems, however, when
he tries to use the universal goal of self-realization as a ground in
is a universal
ground for Honneth (2002), since it is a qualitative necessity for any
life (pp. 492). In
any culture, at any
time and for any people, self-realization is required to live a good
life. However, as
Kauppinen points out, the goal of
self-realization may well be widely held while nevertheless not being
the goal of self-realization may be a product of our
disagrees with this claim, arguing that while the specific type of
self-realization we have come to expect in this lifeworld is
lifeworlds seek some type of self-realization.
In each lifeworld, there lies an implicit conception that
indicates precisely of what autonomy or self-realization would consist. In this lifeworld, for
understand self-realization and autonomy to require, primarily, access
government and social programs like education and healthcare.
Honneth’s solution may
point to a universal ground which links varying lifeworld norms; but
not translate into actual effective inter-lifeworld critique. For, as Honneth (2002)
specific token of autonomy and self-realization maintained by each
contingent and thus not a basis for
effective cross-boundary criticism (pp. 517). Suppose
we were to attempt to criticise the
exclusion of women from government in early Canadian society. Although 19th
like present day Canada,
to the implicit goal of self-realization, the two lifeworlds
disagree as to of what self-realization ought to consist and to whom it must apply.
A criticism appealing to the notion of
self-realization would fail to be useful because it would necessary
the brand of self-realization to which modern Canada
culture applies but to which 19th century Canada
did not. The
differing tokenings of self-realization
make it a poor choice for effective inter-lifeworld critique.
at the Expense of Transcultural
order to maintain the transhistorical
validity of social criticism, Honneth (2002) concedes
that he must assume the norms of a given lifeworld possess “normative
superiority” over the norms by which they were preceded (pp. 517). He maintains that moral
norms develop in a way
that evidences an overall trend of progress.
On this account, our current norms are a further
development of older
norms and are normatively superior to them.
Less evolved norms can thus be criticised using our
because our norms are implicitly contained within the other,
prior norms being criticised.
admits that this notion of
inherent progress is, as of yet, underdeveloped.
He (2002) has thus far claimed that that each
of the new and the ever-expanding value norms implicit in society “must
viewed as a progressive step in the historical process of cultural
transformation” (pp. 511). As
(or a lifeworld) develops new norms, we must view this process as
progression, not merely as a changing of the tides.
This is only a brief sketch of what Honneth
hopes will develop into a more robust account of progress. Because Honneth’s
formulation of the concept
of progress is still under development, I will refrain from criticising
justification of this principle and instead focus on the implications
a notion of progress to justify inter-lifeworld critique.
I am more
than willing to grant
that, presupposing Honneth’s theory of progress, social critique can
transhistorical validity. If
we are to
understand diachronically primary norms as less-developed versions of
current norms or as in some way containing the current norms, critique
of a lifeworld
that adheres to the earlier norms may well be both justified and
example, it is
generally agreed upon that the practice of slave ownership in the
South was wrong. Slavery
impeded the self-realization of millions of African Americans and
peoples for hundreds of years. Invoking
the notion of progress, we can say that the implicit norms governing
and personal/legal recognition had not yet evolved or progressed to
persons – as, presumably, that notion includes today.
We can make this argument of transhistorical
validity because the old norms in question can be historically shown to
developed into our current norms – arguably, the passing of the 13th
Amendment represents the gradual evolution or expansion of the value of
Americans as deserving of personal and legal recognition. Using the notion of
progress, we can advance
effective, non-relativistic critiques of older normative systems. In this situation, it is
easy to determine
which set of norms is prior and which is latter because the difference
the two lifeworlds in question is time.
arises, however, when
it is more difficult to determine which of a set of competing set of
prior and which is latter. We
this problem when making intercultural criticisms during the same time
when moral criticism
is directed at a culture or group external to the criticiser, the
cultural relativism is brought forth.
G1 is to criticize G2, there must be some common ground between G1 and
the basis of which G1 can make its criticism, lest G1 be charged with
of progress, we would have to argue that the G1 norm to which we are
is implicit, in some way, in G2’s norm-set.
On this account, the norm of G1 is more progressive or
than that of G2. This
that we can independently determine which of the two groups – G1 or G2
more evolved norms. It
is my contention
that this is a faulty supposition.
illustrate this problem further, I will make use of a well-worn
example, let us
look at Western criticisms of female genital cutting (FGC) practiced in
For our purposes,
allow me to suppose
that we are dealing with cases of FGC that are voluntary; not cases of
child-abuse, rape or torture. For
sometime, the topic of FGC was a hot topic in Western media. I can recall distinctly
watching media reports
of the practice denouncing it as inhumane and outright immoral. The hype surrounding FGC
has died out
somewhat since its ‘discovery’ in the late nineties, but it still
time to time when we need reminding that we, the modern West, are the
by which morality is judged. Generally,
criticisms of FGC involve a variant on Honneth’s thesis: that FGC
self-realization and/or women’s autonomy, to which respondents forward
of ethical absolutism. Proponents
often argue that the practice liberates women from overpowering sexual
or that it symbolizes the transition to adulthood thus increasing
women’s relation-to-self (Mhórdha, 2007).
Even if we grant that both groups in this
dialectic strive toward self-realization, we must acknowledge that the
particular values associated with self-realization in each case differ
greatly. Thus, on
Honneth’s account, we
must resort to the notion of progress to provide the common ground
invoke the notion of progress here, we would effectively be arguing
conception of self-realization to which we adhere and on the grounds of
we are criticising FGC is implicit in FGC practicing group’s conception
self-realization in an underdeveloped form.
The implications of this claim are surprising. To make this claim is to
assert that the
western conception of self-realization is a developed form of the
conception of self-realization. The
degree of cultural superiority that must be assumed to make this claim
deplorable. It may
be equally plausible,
on this account, that the African conception of self-realization is the
progressively superior account. Perhaps
the values attached to their conception of self-realization allow women
control over their bodies. Women
control the amount of gratification they receive from sex, they can
frequency that they feel sexual urges and they can control the amount
gratification that their sexual partners receive from intercourse. We might even go so far as
to mention the
Western infatuation with plastic surgery.
It could be argued that plastic surgery seems to show that
norms of self-realization are implicit in the less-evolved American
norms. Since many
Africans voluntarily undergo FGC
to altar themselves both aesthetically and physiologically for sexual
it is not entirely implausible to argue that the Western practices of
augmentation and liposuction or the Japanese practice of feet wrapping
If we are
to stick with the
progress hypothesis, it appears as though each culture has a plausible
the title of progressively latter moral norms.
There seems to be no process by which we may determine
which norms are
antecedent and which are consequent.
is tempting to argue that the norms that better allow for
progressively superior. Though
process, too, would be relativistic.
would require an appeal to a conception of self-realization that is not
contingent on either culture; but there exists no such absolute
sides would argue that, on their construal of self-realization, their
practices better facilitate autonomy.
Appeals to objectively superior self-realization are of
instead argue that we must
assume the criticizing culture is the more morally evolved culture –
argue that this is how westerners generally conceive of themselves –
commits the naturalistic fallacy.
every culture’s standpoint, intercultural criticisms that do not rely
illustrating contradiction within the criticised group always evidence
normative superiority of their own culture; otherwise they would not
criticism in the first place. Theories
of progress fail to solve these problems.
Honneth’s theory works well
for internal critique based on extrapolated norms.
The errors in his account only surface once
he attempted to broaden the scope of his theory.
By arguing that assumed historical normative
progress will allow for better intercultural critiques, Honneth will
encounter problems adjudicating between competing lifeworld-contingent
providing an additional
account of the method by which we are to determine which norms are
and which are consequent, Honneth may have to abandon the notion of
and restrict recognition theory to internal critique – for which it
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