Jordan Bartol: Is Intercultural Critique Possible?

It 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 and resources. As Nancy Fraser (2001) explains, such approaches have “supplied the paradigm case for most theorizing about social justice for the past 150 years” (p. 21). There is, however, an alternative approach to social justice that departs from the largely economic focus of distribution theories: recognition theory. Recognition theory centres on adequate acknowledgement of the many unique groups that comprise the global village. 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 cannon of philosophy. Honneth has recently penned a response to two of his contemporaries – Arto Laitenen and Antti Kauppinen – in which he provides a valuable discussion of the role recognition theory can play in social critique. In doing so, however, he attempts to broaden the scope of his theory making it applicable to cross-cultural critiques. It is my contention that although recognition theory works well for internal critique, Honneth’s attempts to locate a universal ground for critical social theory may prove problematic upon application to scenarios of intercultural criticism.

Recognition Theory

Deriving from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the basic tenant of recognition theory is that individuals require independent validation of the subjective conceptions they form of 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 validated by another subject. That validation may come from either tacit acknowledgment – acting toward me in a way that indicates an acceptance of my autonomy – or explicit declaration on behalf of the other party.

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