Axel Honneth is Jack C. Weinstein Professor of Humanities at the Philosophy Department of Columbia University, New York, and former Director of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main. Axel Honneth is the key figure of the “third generation” Frankfurt School and contemporary Critical Theory. This unique tradition of thought, Critical Theory, has been evolving since the 1930s as an interdisciplinary attempt to respond to pressing social issues, such as the rise of fascism and its co-optation of the working class, and the fact that rapid technological advancement has resulted, not in human emancipation, but in ever-gerater barbarity and destruction exemplified by the the two world wars. Today, Critical Theory addresses questions such as the global crisis of democracy after the 2008 financial breakdown, the renewed process of the fascization of European and global societies in the post-crisis period, and the rise of right-wing populism. Critical Theory is an intrinsically engaged tradition of thought, and our own attempt, at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, to develop the field of Engagement Studies, which starts from an understanding of engagement as the “reflexion on the rules and norms of social action with the view of changing them”, is heavily indebted to Critical Theory, to its aim of “actualizing the potential of reason” that is inherent in the already institutionalized action-guiding principles of our societies.
Axel Honneth’s theoretical perspective, his comprehensive “theory of recognition”, represents Critical Theory as engaged theory in its most self-reflexive and nuanced incarnations. On the grounds of his foundational concept of “recognition”, Honneth has over the past two decades formulated a substantive critique of injustice and domination in contemporary capitalism, which provides social-theoretical insight into the deep-seated causes of persistent forms of injustice, but which is at the same time post-metaphysical, able to adequately respond to the charges of essentialism, particularism and perfectionism, and which overcomes the danger of epistemological authoritarianism through developing a particular sensitivity for the experiences of ordinary social actors. Honneth’s more recent works, such as Freedom’s Right (Das Recht der Freiheit), the Idea of Socialism (Die Idee des Sozialismus) and Reification (Verdinglichung) are also capable of deepening our understanding of the forms of social injustice and domination that characterize societies undergoing post-socialist transformation such as Serbia, thus enabling us to “engage” these phenomena more adequately.
But even beyond the profoundly engaged nature of Axel Honneth’s work, there is an additional reason why the Institute’s jury for the Miladin Životić Award has unanimously decided that Professor Honneth should be this year’s laureate. Although until now only Honeth’s groundbreaking book from 1992, Kampf um Anerkennung (Borba za priznanje, Albatros Plus, 2009) and the recent study Die Idee des Sozialismus (Ideja socijalizma, Akademska knjiga, 2019) have been translated into Serbian, there is a deep undercurrent of theoretical resonance between Honneth’s perspective and the legacy of engaged theory that exists in this region. One important wellspring of Axel Honneth’s thought, which is manifested in his early works such as Social Action and Human Nature (Soziales Handeln und Menschliche Natur) and The Critique of Power (Kritik der Macht), lies in the rich tradition of philosophical anthropology, among other in the philosophical-anthropological standpoint of the young Karl Marx, which at the same time represents the theoretical basis of the globally most influential social-scientific and humanities school of thought that has emerged from this region. This is, of course, the Yugoslav Praxis School, or Praxis Orientation, the school of thought that Miladin Životić himself belonged to, and which provided the theoretical foundation for his lifelong motivation to be engaged, throughout the changing political and ideological climates of the former Yugoslavia and the post-Yugoslav era.
Some of the most prominent authors of the Praxis School such as Milan Kangrga, Slobodan Žunjić and Gajo Petrović all articulated, in the 1960s and ’70s, a nuanced critique of the tradition of the Frankfurt School, which was based on juxtaposing the philosophical-anthropological concept of praxis in the works of young Marx to what they had perceived as the “petrified” (scientistic and positivist) thought of the first-generation Frankfurt School, but also to Habermas’s social-ontological dichotomy of “work” and “interaction”, which was the basis of his later theory of communicative action. With the same kind of theoretical sensitivity for the dangers of theoretical petrification of social reality, and thus also the potentials for human engagement and self-transcendence that are inherent in this reality, Axel Honneth would criticize Habermas’ perspective on societal dynamics and conflicts grounded in his discourse ethics, which, according to Honneth, “petrified” social reality at the level of the existing social movements and articulations of discontent. This critique would be undertaken from the position of a Critical Theory that is anthropologically grounded in the deep-seated human need for an “undistorted practical self-relation”, a Critical Theory that retains the connection to the moral experiences of ordinary social actors.