What is Reification? A Critique of Axel Honneth

Abstract

In this paper I criticise Axel Honneth's reactualization of reification as a concept in critical theory in his 2005 Tanner Lectures and argue that he ultimately fails on his own terms. His account is based on two premises: (1) reification is to be taken literally rather than metaphorically, and (2) it is not conceived of as a moral injury but as a social pathology. Honneth concludes that reification is “forgetfulness of recognition”, more specifically, of antecedent recognition, an emphatic and engaged relationship with oneself, others and the world, which precedes any more concrete relationship both genetically and categorially. I argue against this conception of reification on two grounds. (1) The two premises of Honneth's account cannot be squared with one another. It is not possible to literally take a person as a thing without this being a recognisable moral injury, and, therefore, I suggest that there are no cases of literal reification. (2) Honneth's account is essentially ahistorical, because it is based on an anthropological model of recognition that tacitly equates reification with autism. In conclusion, I suggest that any successful account of reification must (i) take reification metaphorically and (ii) offer a social-historical account of the origin(s) of reification

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Timo Jütten
University of Essex

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