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The Repression Thesis - Honneth, Theunissen, Habermas

Michael Theunissen and Axel Honneth, as well as, to a certain extent, Jurgen Habermas, have an ontological (in sense (c)) objection to Hegel’s account of intersubjectivity.30 Michael Theunissen argues that intersubjectivity is indeed destroyed in the Phenomenology of Spirit at the point at which Hegel transfers self-consciousness from absolute spirit to objective spirit, as this destroys the basis on which the world can be intersubjectively constituted by those who live in it.31 If the universal law is not constituted by humans but exists already, this seems to support his argument. Theunissen argues that Hegel casts non-human entities in the role of the Other, particularly the state. In his discussion of tragedy, however, it seems to be the case that Hegel casts the universal law or ethical substance in this role. It is the demands that stem from the already-existing law that objectify, in this specific sense, the ethical actor. Indeed, Theunissen does argue that Hegel starts his analysis of ethical community with ethical substance rather than individuals, as he discusses in paragraph 156 of the Philosophy of Right. Ultimately, he claims, Hegel therefore reverts to a monological conception of the will and of subjectivity. His main point is not that Hegel is too individualistic, but too monological.

Axel Honneth has argued in a broadly similar vein in his 1994 work Struggle for Recognition.32 He argues that true recognition was only an important topic for the young Hegel of the Jena period, after which the original concept was subsumed into a monological conception of subjectivity, Intersubjectivity, the relationship between self-conscious subjects, is replaced by a concern with the relationships between the self or subject and various externalisations of this self. Honneth suggests that this amounts to no more than an updating of Spinoza’s account of the relationship between substance and accidents.

It is Habermas’ belief that the concept of recognition provides an alternative to subject-centred reason and a way of escaping the subject/object dichotomy. The key lies in being part of a tradition and solidarity group.33 This latter group could, perhaps, be identified with Hegel’s account of the corporations in the Philosophy of Right. This account accords very well with Robert Brandom’s later interpretation of Hegelian self-consciousness , If standards are generated by a community of which one is a part, this sublates the subject/object dichotomy and institutes in its place a form of recognition that takes place at the communal level. The self-representation that forms such an important part of self-consciousness becomes then a self-representation to an intersubjective community rather than something which stands genuinely outside the individual. As previously mentioned, however, it is Habermas’ view, just as it is the view of Michael Theunissen, that Hegel abandons this commitment to genuine intersubjectivity in favour of a monological concept of self-reflexivity, certainly by the time of the writing of the Philosophy of Right, and perhaps by the time of the Phe?nomenology,34 The discussion of ambiguity in Chapter Four of this work might demonstrate that this is not the case, although I do concede that the categories of subject and object are preserved on the interpersonal level.

Honneth develops Habermas’s account in a practical direction and suggests that there are three forms of recognition: primary relations such as love and friendship, legal relations and a community of value and solidarity. For him, love, self-confidence and self-esteem are closely linked. Love enables self-confidence, right enables self-respect, and social esteem develops self-esteem. The overall telos is clearly mutual recognition. In this way, relations are intersubjectively constituted. However, over the course of the development of Hegel’s thought after the Jena period, according to Honneth, Habermas and Theunissen, intersubjective relationships are replaced by relationships between the subject and the self-externalizations of that subject, as Honneth says ‘a monologically self-developing Spirit’.35 The fundamental objection, then, is that Hegel moves, in a retrograde fashion, back into the ‘philosophy of the subject’ which was the basis of so much of his criticism of Kant.

Honneth’s criticism of Hegel relies on Theunissen’s essay, which in turn focuses almost entirely on the concept of intersubjectivity in the Philosophy of Right, According to Theunissen, this concept is present in the text, but suppressed. He describes the role of intersubjectivity thus:

[T]here exists for the Hegel of the Philosophy of Right a relation to other individuals that co-constitutes the individual in its existence and sparks the living freedom of the individual for the first time, a relation that is neither banished nor exiled in idylls, but rather that exists only in the underground of the disfigurements of the human beings that his criticism reveals.36

Certainly, when considering Hegel’s account of tragedy, the point Honneth and Theunissen make about the Other not being the Other necessary for intersubjectivity and recognition but something else - the state, the universal law, objective spirit, representations of the self - seems valid if there is no unproblematic way to argue that this account would not apply in our modern, Christian world. Honneth’s point in particular seems to fit particularly well with Hegel’s discussion of tragedy, where there seem to be two selves, one having obeyed one part of the universal law and one having obeyed another, and the failure of the tragic hero to be both of these selves leads to their destruction.

What is required to answer this question with regard to the relations between the self, the Other and institutions, as well as the world in general, is a full explanation ofwhat a monistic ontology would actually look like. It is to this question that I turn in the next section.

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