- Recognition or Disagreement: A Critical Encounter on the Politics of Freedom, Equality, and Identity by Jacques Rancière and Axel Honneth
Germans have not forgotten the years of poverty when they compared their society unfavorably to that of the French, even though the riches of France were so ill distributed that it was a humiliation for the poor and even though one result of German poverty was that many in Germany strove to obtain dignity for the common people. The indignities of the poor in France were only worsened by the harebrained schemes of the elites, on whose provision of social order they were dependent for a solution to their woes. Because the middle class in France rebelled against their national elites, revolution has had, since the late eighteenth [End Page 111] century, a certain prestige among a large proportion of the French, whereas, because those revolutionaries then sought to conquer Germany, revolution and even social change have been met with distrust among middle-and working-class Germans.
Recognition or Disagreement offers an opportunity to compare French and German social theory today, as seen through the work of two representative and influential practitioners. Rancière adores equality, but perhaps more as a tool to tear down the rich and powerful than to enable the poor. Honneth adores freedom, but only such freedom as is compatible with duty and is watered down by social conformity. Both are right when it comes to developing what in effect is a theory of human dignity—“recognition,” they call it—yet Rancière and Honneth seem to talk past each other without meeting at any common point. Rancière writes: “Taking injustice as a starting point is not the same as starting from suffering. What is at the core of politics and emancipation is the invention of other ways of being, including even other ways of suffering.” This insight leads to his praise of nineteenth-century French worker-poets for writing not proletarian poetry but “high poetic feeling expressed in noble forms.” He believes that thinking like an artist improves one’s character—to which, Honneth replies: “I think the reference to suffering is more necessary in my own view because of the need for explanations, not for normative justifications, that is, in order to explain why specific groups do dissent or do start to rebel.” The two agree, then, not on a common pragmatic endeavor but on the need to be virtuous. In the last section of the book (“The Method of Critical Theory: Propositions”), the two justify their divergent approaches, aesthetic and moralistic, and, while agreeing to disagree, show their empathy for the downtrodden. Ultimately, however, the reader of their book will learn more about critical theory than about the suffering of people that such critical theorists theorize.
Jerome Braun is the author of The Humanized Workplace and Democratic Culture and Moral Character.