work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

David A Borman Critiques Honneth’s Theory of Recognition

10.15.2010 · Posted in Uncategorized

David A Borman’s 2009 paper on ‘Labour, Exchange and Recognition’ gave me a bit of a shock as, at first, it looked like making the same points as my 2010 paper on ‘Reciprocity, Recognition and Labor Value’ … and thus robbing me of any claim to originality. For example when specifying the recognition function of commodity exchange:

‘Exchange of my products represents recognition of my fulfilment of a role in the social division of labour, in the satisfaction of the needs of my community as a whole. Inversely, it is also the condition on the community’s satisfying my needs. The social division of labour, in other words, refers to the at least potentially socially integrating mutual dependence of human beings for the satisfaction of their needs. The importance of labour is, as Marx and Hegel agree, more than mere consumption; but it is also, for Marx, more than the metabolism of “man” and nature understood as the dialectical praxis of private individuals. Yet, since quantity of abstract labour time and not use-value or need satisfaction is the standard of exchange in commodity regimes, changes in the conditions of production altering the productivity or efficiency of labour – inclement weather, poor harvests, technical innovations, overproduction – have the effect of determining the extent of this recognition for any given producer or class of producers.’ (Borman 2009: 937)

… which in the end means that misrecognition is built into the system. This is very much the point I try to make in my own paper – and my only excuse for not quoting Borman there is that when his article came out, mine was already in the publication queue. Despite having an excuse I was relieved to see that Borman takes his argument into a different direction… so our papers are complementary in a way. He concisely recounts Marx’s insights into the interlinking of capitalism and recognition to then proceed to a critique of Honneth’s theory of recognition – while I try to work out how this interlinking works in detail (using the labour theory of value as a blueprint). Put differently the difference is one of focus: Borman’s concern with exposing the shortcomings of Honneth’s idealistic approach, mine is what the recognition (and misrecognition) in what Honneth is happy to dismiss as the marginal field of the economic system consists in. So I don’t spend much time on a critiquing Honneth apart from pointing out one crucial error, namely the failure to see that only because it is instrumental and abstract it does not mean recognition through market exchange does not matter. Even though (and I would even say: because) it is not in any sense full, missing out any dimensions of human existence beyond the roles of producer and consumer, it is of central importance. What it lacks in depth and warmth it makes good for in existential relevance – it is inextricably tied in with the distribution of material wealth (and its opposite: poverty). Borman (2009: 947) fields this Marxian objection to Honneth’s emphasis on legitimacy that goes so far as to imply that symbolic recognition precedes material distribution, namely

‘that this conjuring trick would likely offer rather meagre solace to those who rely on today’s pay for tonight’s dinner’

Borman observes that, when acknowledging that the labour market does not just follow a meritocratic morality of achievement but is also regulated by law,

‘Honneth shrugs off the sense in which the meritocratic principle serves ideologically to mask this lack of legitimacy as though it were some kind of peripheral, historical accident’ (Borman 2009: 947)

What I tried to show was how this meritocratic principle indeed is not just an historic accident but is embedded and perpetuated as an ideology by the very practice of everyday commodity exchange through which we not only satisfy our consumerist desires but still also our basic needs for food and shelter. In a way, thus, the capitalist market frustrates expectations for recognition that it creates in the first place. I would propose that the key to understanding how this occurs lies in an examination of the moral consequences (and implied presumptions) of commodity exchange which implicates the exchange of abstract labour. It is for this reason that I believe that Borman is spot on with his statement that:

‘It is Marx, and so far, only Marx who enables us to see these injustices as failures of recognition’ (Borman 2009: 948)

Borman, David A. (2009): ‘Labour, Exchange and Recognition: Marx contra Honneth’, in: Philosophy and Social Criticism, Vol.35, No.8, pp.935-59

Varul, Matthias Zick (2010): ‘Reciprocity, Recognition and Labor Value: Marx’s Incidental Moral Anthropology of Capitalist Market Exchange’, in: Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol.41, No.1, pp.50-72

hat tip: Daniel Smith


For an application of my take on recognition and labour value to the ideology of  “human resource management” see my

‘Marx, Morality and Management: The Moral Implications of his Labour Value Theory and the Contradictions of HRM”, in:Philosophy of Management, Vol.5 (2005), No. 2, pp.47-62

here’s the abstract

By reading Marx’s theory of value not as an explanation of capitalist development but as anthropology of capitalism’s moral implications, certain ethical contradictions of HRM can be identified. The main areas of conflict are seen in HRM’s pretence to equitable exchange relations in the workplace, its propensity to replace material with symbolical recognition through corporate culture and ideology, and in its tendency to lay claim not only on the employee’s labour power but on his or her whole personality.

I see also implications for the motivation behind fair trade trade (and also behind some of its inner contradictions) – see in particular

Ethical Consumption: The Case of Fair Trade, Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, vol. Sonderheft 49, 2010, 366-385

Ethical Selving in Cultural Contexts: Fairtrade Consumption as an Everyday Ethical Practice in the UK and in Germany, International Journal of Consumer Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 2009, 183-189

and also the last third of my blogpost on fair trade and critical research

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