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1 In History and Class Consciousness, Lukács asserts at the beginning of his essay that reification means nothing more than the fact that “a relation between people takes on the character of a thing” (Honneth 2008a, 21). [1] In this elementary form, the concept designates the cognitive and attitudinal process by which a being that does not embody any particular property of things, for example a human being, is nevertheless perceived and treated as a thing by others as well as, possibly, by itself. For Lukács, the fundamental social cause of the appearance of reifying attitudes must be sought in the rationalized and mechanized structure of the exchange of commodities that has become the dominant form of all social activity in capitalist societies. This economistic attitude tends to take over all social spheres, not only in the various objects and practices subjected to the logic of commodification but also in the conception that individuals have of each other and of their mutual interactions. According to Lukács, reification is expressed through the principle of the neutralization of emotional investment, with the rationalization of abstract labor, the mechanization of production, the expansion of commodity transactions, and the calculability of any human operation, all of which tend to disengage individuals from any emotional investment in their own environment. As a result, they become merely contemplative and neutral observers of their exchange partners and even of their own capabilities, which are understood as simple capital to be valorized, detached from the “organic unity of the person.” [2] Thus understood, reification is the expression of the atrophy or utilitarian distortion of an original attitude in which people maintained a committed relationship not only with each other or with themselves but also with the world (Honneth 2008a, 37). However, it is an inadequate and intrinsically false practice since it attempts to subject all human qualities and capacities to the law of utility, to which they cannot be reduced. For Lukács, reification is therefore an essentially contemporary phenomenon linked to the economic structure of capitalist societies, which is the only explanatory factor.

2 According to Honneth, this explanation of reification suffers from at least four limitations. Taken together, these limitations call this single explanatory principle into question. First, it is inevitable that we should view any explanation of social phenomena as including a moment of abstraction, objectivization, and calculability. However, this scientific attitude is in itself in no way synonymous with reification. To assimilate the objectivization to reification without any further specification amounts to giving up any objective explanation of the social world (Honneth 2008a). Second, the reciprocal instrumentalization of labor or exchange partners characteristic of commodity relations cannot be taken for reification because on the one hand, it is precisely their human capacities that make people capable of becoming instruments for one another, in which case they do not conceive of themselves as things (Honneth 2008b), and on the other, in agreement with Hegel and Simmel’s thesis, because these partners reciprocally recognize each other as legal persons in the context of their contractual economic relations, in which case they are not treated as things (Hegel 1821/1967 §71). [3] Reifying conceptions and practices are involved only in the case of economic slavery. Third, reifying attitudes are far from being reduced to the consequences of the expansion of the exchange of commodities. Different forms of social violence, such as racism, anti-semitism, sexism, war, genocide, or interethnic conflicts are explained by other factors (Honneth 2008a, 2008b). Finally, in Lukács’s analysis, the object of reification itself turns out to be problematic. What exactly is reified, and what types of original inter-human relations do the reified relations of the capitalist economy replace? [4]

3 Honneth shows the possibility that these four limitations to Lukács’s theses can be overcome by the theory of recognition if reification is understood as the “forgetting” of an original interpersonal relation and self-relation, both based on recognition, and not as reification of a vague “manifestation of life.” To this effect, Honneth begins by deepening the concept of recognition he had attempted to construct in earlier work. This allows him to define reification as the “forgetting” of recognition under two aspects: recognition of the other, and of the self. Two forms of reification correspond to these: reification of the other, and self-reification. At the same time, this definition is an opportunity to expand the explanation of how the processes of reification are generated, an explanation that notably differs from Lukács’s, even if it includes his viewpoint.

4 In the following pages, we propose to: 1) examine this deepening of the concept of original recognition by discussing some difficulties; 2) analyze the concept of reification by showing which of its possible definitions turns out to be the most appropriate for the theory of recognition, and 3) offer a clearer perspective than Honneth does on the analysis of the social processes that lead to reifying attitudes. Such a discussion does not aim to demonstrate that the theory of recognition fails to conceptualize the phenomenon of reification. Rather, it seeks to refine, if possible, its analytical framework so as to better show how it conceptualizes that phenomenon. We will show that a more detailed examination of the relations between recognition, empathy, and reification leads to a more fine-grained analysis of the processes and practices of reification than the one offered by Honneth. On the basis of such an analysis, we will maintain, contrary to Honneth, who links “authentic” reification with actually conceiving and treating individuals as things, that reification is always realized only in the form of “as if,” in the sense that it reveals only an extreme form of disrespect, that is, encouraging those who are subjected to it to experience a feeling of devaluation, connected to insensitivity to their situation. On this basis, we will demonstrate that Honneth’s approach to the factors involved in reification can also be amended by specifically emphasizing the importance of the factor of social categorization, which is pointed out but probably undervalued by Honneth.

I. The Concept of Original Recognition

5 If we consider reification as the purely cognitive attitude of an emotionally disengaged spectator with regard to his environment, and if we assume that a fundamental dimension of the social connection lies in recognition, then we can oppose the first to the second only if the latter includes an emotional dimension deprived it by the first. The novelty of Honneth’s recent position in relation to what he earlier maintained is that he clearly endows the concept of recognition with an emotional dimension that was only outlined in a relatively narrow manner in the earlier form of recognition characteristic of primary sociality, namely love (Honneth 1996, 2003). The deepening of the concept no longer consists of examining the consequences of this particular emotion, which lie in the reciprocal confirmation of the value of each partner’s needs in this relationship. Rather, it is now a question of examining one of the fundamental conditions for accessing the experience of others, which influences any recognition of the value of that experience. Such a recognition, which concerns the emotional states of others and is based on identification with these states, defines “an elementary form of intersubjectivity” and thus acquires the status of “original,” “primary,” or “totally elementary” recognition. Further, we can say that it is a “transcendental condition” of other forms of recognition (such as love, respect, or esteem) that presuppose its existence so that they are then able to emerge as determinations of the former in various social spheres (Honneth 2008b).

6 In order to describe this original recognition correctly, we must first define two concepts that exist in practical form in Honneth’s text without being formally constructed but which nevertheless make his approach intelligible: the concepts of “empathy” and “sympathy.”

7 Generally speaking, although there are numerous debates on this topic, what is meant by empathy, which is based on the ante-predicative perception of similarity between two human individuals, is the consciousness that X has of the mental states of Y, that is, of his or her perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions in both their generic and individual aspects without X ceasing to be an individual distinct from Y. Such a projection or simulation (the choice of which depends on the theoretical model selected) allows X to identify with Y’s point of view on the state of the world (including Y’s viewpoint of X) and on Y’s own mental states, and can moreover allow X to experience the same emotions (or similar ones) as Y, even if there is nothing automatic in this emotional sharing. Adopting Y’s viewpoint does not amount to mechanically experiencing the same emotions as Y, even if one “understands” them. What we are dealing with here is a process of cognitive and affective identification between X and Y of varying extent and intensity.

8 Meanwhile, by sympathy (as the simple operation of imitation), we mean the immediate imitation (also called “emotional contagion”) of Y’s emotions by X’s that, because of an affective identification, does not include any perception of distinction between X and Y. That is, the emotion of the latter is immediately that of the former. [5] In fact, empathy and sympathy are relatively independent from one another since the first does not inevitably engender the second while the second does not inevitably need the first to express itself. However, it is clear that empathy as perspective taking can involve understanding the emotions of others even if they are not experienced only if the imitation of those emotions in general is experienced. How can we “understand” a particular emotion of Y through identification if we did not first experience it as part of different social interactions so as to know what it is and what type of behavior characterizes it? In this sense, sympathy is a prior condition for empathy in its emotional dimension. Moreover, we could hypothesize, as Frans de Waal does, that it is the “kernel” of all imitative phenomena onto which the more complex forms of empathy subsequently come to be grafted (de Waal 2010).

9 Given this, according to Honneth, it is clear that original recognition is expressed in the young child through emotional identification with a significant other that leads the child to value the importance of the other’s emotions being imitated, a valuation that is also applied to the other’s person. This “existential sympathy” (Honneth 2008a, 152) with the other’s emotional states is not primarily cognitive and is not based on a theory of the “mental simulation” of the partner’s emotional states. Following Sartre and Cavell’s analyses, we must instead maintain that access to such states is based on a direct and immediate emotional participation through which those states are known because one is affected by them. This is an inescapable means of gaining such knowledge. Recognition of the other’s value on this purely emotional basis means that Y’s emotional state is important for X because it is X’s emotional state through identification, because the emotional state under consideration is endowed with this importance because of X’s tendency to react to it in one way or another, or because of a request to do so. Yet this recognition, which merges with an “elementary form of intersubjectivity,” can only attribute to Y an indeterminate value because it is based only on the value of Y’s emotional states for X. It therefore remains the case that this form of recognition “provides a foundation for all other, more substantial forms of recognition in which the affirmation of other persons’ specific characteristics is at issue” (Honneth 2008a, 90).

10 This affective participation through identification introduces children to the possibility of an empathetic relation with significant others whose perspective on the world is adopted in general. But because this perspective is a privileged one, children can succeed at distancing their own relationship with the world and learn to objectivize it under the effect of another viewpoint that corrects their own by causing them to perceive the different meanings others attach to things (Honneth 2008a). Furthermore, this empathetic relation allows children to take in others’ self-perspective and understand the content and value of others’ beliefs, which are fundamental objectives of self-realization (such as autonomy, for example) and of their own self-preferences. In brief, this experience allows children to access the way in which others achieve self-recognition (we will return to this concept later). In this case, recognition (of intersubjectivity) is primary over knowledge of the natural and social world (or objectivity), and sympathy is primary over empathy (Honneth 2008a). [6]

11 When it reaches the experience of the “generalized other,” to use Mead’s expression, this experience of emotional recognition includes a dimension of universality and, according to Honneth, results in the possibility of a normative perspective regarding the other in that this original recognition seems to provide an “affirmation of the other person’s human personality” (Honneth 2008a, 51) by recognizing it as an alter ego and thus testifying to the existence of “moral consciousness.” We are therefore dealing with a form of elementary morality of an immanent affective nature in this original intersubjective relation. [7]

12 Nevertheless, Honneth uses this concept of emotional recognition to explain, somewhat ambiguously, two types of phenomena. The first refers to the existence of a new dimension in the analysis of recognition that appears in his book on reification (Honneth 2008a), specifically “self-recognition,” and its converse, “self-reification,” while the second refers to the determination of reification as negation, or the “forgetting” of original recognition. It is important to clarify this two-fold analysis before proceeding to an overall discussion of his approach.

13 1) The concept of self-recognition Honneth proposes can be understood on the basis of a conception of our mental states in which the decision to express those states testifies to a kind of commitment to them that rests on recognition of their value. That is, these states are worth the pain of being expressed (Honneth 2004). However, in order for them to be endowed with a presumption of value, their bearer must “be able to accept himself to the point of considering that his own psychological experiences deserve to be actively envisaged and formulated” (Honneth 2004, 102). The individual must manifest a kind of emotional self-recognition, and this recognition is nothing other than “self-love.” Without this emotional recognition, we contemplate our mental states only as facts without value, or we produce states conforming to an external demand, which amounts to producing them in a purely instrumental way.

14 The difficulty that arises with such a conception of self-recognition is that it oscillates between two perspectives. On the one hand, it seems to be based on a naturalist conception of self-love that proves to be not very consistent and rather naive. It explicitly claims to follow Harry Frankfurt’s analyses in his book on love (2006). However, for Frankfurt, self-love is simply a natural given. That is, it is a feeling that is “deeply entrenched in our nature” (Frankfurt 2006, 82) and as such does not rest on any social interaction likely to produce it, even if it is behind many social interactions. Such a “naturalist” thesis will give rise to the objection that it confuses the natural tendency to well-being, which includes the effort to affirm one’s individual being over time, with the representation of a precise object on which desire is focused, that is, the self. The self is an object intersubjectively constructed based on a form of reflexiveness linked to social interactions. It is formed as an object only under the effect of a designation by the second person the first person endorses in return. Furthermore, if we accept the importance of the identification processes by which we imitate the emotions of others that have the self as object, affective identification appears to be a condition for emotional recognition of the value of the self. In short, the self is both socially defined as an object and as an object of value for its own sake, consistent with the preceding conception of emotional recognition. In this sense, rather than appearing as a kind of given, emotional self-recognition is the result of a process of identification with the emotions of others, which can, moreover, fail.

15 However, Honneth states in a note that “[t]he extent to which the ability to affirm oneself is dependent upon being recognized by others has been dealt with in a recent work by Ernst Tugendhat Egocentrizität und Mystik: Eine anthropologische Studie (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2003), chap. 2” (Honneth 2008a, 92). In this case, far from Frankfurt’s naturalism, self-recognition is reincorporated into its intersubjective dimension, and we must accept that the possibility of self-recognition is only the consequence of a process of successful recognition. Thus, if Honneth wants to remain consistent with his intersubjective conception of identity constitution, he must choose the second meaning of the concept of self-recognition. That said, the confusion persists, this time concerning the causes of reification, because the introduction of this concept includes an important issue for his analysis if attention is paid to the fact that, just as recognition of others can be substituted for an attitude of reification toward them, self-recognition can be substituted for an attitude of self-reification (Honneth 2008a, 63–75). Now, Honneth maintains that self-reification does not result from a reification socially produced on the intersubjective plane, that is, from a suspension of recognition, but from a number of more or less institutionalized practices linked to the “self-presentation of subjects” in the context of a new wage relation characteristic of late capitalism. These practices lead the subject to “present itself,” that is, they enjoin the subject to set objectives and to experience the required instrumental and artificial feelings, not only, for example, in work situations governed by the principles of neo-management (we will stay with this example in what follows), but in others also. These arrangements, “which latently compel individuals merely to pretend to have certain feelings or to give them a self-contained and clearly contoured character, will promote the development of self-reifying attitudes” (Honneth 2008a, 83). Consequently, subjects who are encouraged to describe their future feelings within a company context might perceive and develop their own desires under the form of “things manipulated to the heart’s content.” In this sense (and here, we have an asymmetrical thesis), while self-recognition presupposes recognition, self-reification does not presuppose reification by others, from which it is independent, any more than self-reification entails reification of others or reification of others entails self-reification (Honneth 2008a). These phenomena are distinct, as if they belong to different principles. Thus, although the ambiguity is displaced, it remains, and we must question whether there is a unitary interpretative framework for conceptualizing all of these phenomena, or whether like Honneth, we must resort to a plurality of factors to account for them.

16 2) Given that reification and recognition are opposed to one another, the second ambiguity stems from the fact that there are several inconsistent definitions of the concept of reification in Honneth’s work, which correspond to variations in the definition of the concept of recognition. In fact, Honneth recently offered a definition of reification that is the opposite of the definition of recognition linked to empathy. Under this definition, empathy refers to the ability to take on the viewpoint of others based on the ante-predicative perception of a similarity in nature and attitude between the partners. [8] What we recognize in this context is not at first the autonomy of the partner but one of its conditions, specifically, the ability to self-recognize. This process is based on understanding that the partner attributes a value to his or her mental states—including emotional states—even if we do not experience them ourselves. In this case, reification can only be understood as a deactivation of any empathetic projection due to the perception that the other is deprived of sensitivity and therefore of any capacity to experience that of which he or she is supposed to recognize the value. [9] The other cannot therefore be thought of as an alter ego because the presupposition of similarity is discarded due to the absence of projection resulting from the idea of the other’s insensitivity. Individuals self-reify when they assimilate an external viewpoint into their own mental states and do not experience—or no longer experience—emotions.

17 However, in the same sentence in which he defines the absence of the other’s sensitivity, Honneth outlines another definition of reification that presupposes another definition of recognition: “We may indeed be capable in a cognitive sense of perceiving the full expression of human expressions, but we lack, so to speak, the feeling of connection that would be necessary for us to be affected by the expressions we perceive.” [10] In other words, emotional recognition depends on an identification through “affective participation” (or sympathy), which makes it possible to experience emotions and define their value. In this case, reification proceeds in the opposite way from the preceding situation. We can take on the other’s viewpoint (empathy) and understand the emotions the other experiences without however experiencing them ourselves because what is deactivated here is the operator of affective imitation. Everything happens as if we abstractly perceived the content of the other’s emotions without being able to re-experience them and respond with the appropriate reaction that is entailed when we imitate them. Not all of empathetic projection is suspended but only its emotional aspect. We are then transformed into a mere spectator, or an indifferent observer, lacking any reaction with respect to these emotions. Applied to self-reification, this definition implies that individuals self-reify when they seek to express artificial and instrumentalized emotions whose only value is strategic in response to external injunctions or appeals. That is, the individual remains a detached spectator with respect to these circumstantial emotions.

18 These definitions of reification are clearly quite distinct because they are independent of one another and do not define reification in the same way, even if both are for the moment candidates for definition of the concept. We will examine later the reasons that might allow us to decide between them. However, to complete the analysis, we must add to one or the other of these definitions the following property: for an attitude to be described as reifying, indifference toward the other must be expressed so that the latter is considered to be a thing and can be treated as such as a consequence.

19 To emphasize the radical nature of this attitude, Honneth proposes to distinguish between what he calls “authentic” forms of reification (such as genocide, war, or economic slavery) and “fictitious” forms of reification (such as the instrumental presentation of self, prostitution, or interpersonal cruelty). Fictitious forms of reification are characterized by the fact that “under the surface of these types of reification, the ontological difference that exists between the person and the thing is still present in consciousness.” By contrast, “in the case of authentic cases of ‘reification,’ this difference is erased from consciousness,” and individuals are treated purely and simply as things (Honneth 2008b, 106). Are we then dealing with two variants of the same concept of reification, or should we understand reification only in a metaphorical sense in the first case, reserving the strict sense of the term for the second? Here again, we will have to decide between these two possibilities later.

20 We can now begin evaluating Honneth’s proposed theoretical framework by discussing the following questions: 1) Is there a unitary theoretical framework for conceptualizing the phenomena of reification and self-reification, or must we resort to distinct explanatory factors? and 2) What is the correct definition of reification?

II. Reification of Others and Self-Reification

21 To start with, let us answer the first question by showing the limitations of Honneth’s thesis whereby there are independent processes of reification and self-reification. To do this, we will examine the example of the fictitious form of reification represented by the presentation of self in a context of enhancing employability.

22 We are institutionally encouraged to set professional objectives and demonstrate a type of emotional investment by describing the arrangements in which we will find ourselves once recruited. New management theories, which can be correlated with the theory of human capital, are behind this practice. According to this theory, individuals have a set of natural or acquired competencies, including genetic inheritance, investment in education, development of social skills, and reproduction of physical and psychological capital, in which emotions are participants. These competencies are individual resources that are available to be mobilized and developed through investments that increase the value of this “portfolio of behaviors” (Feher 2007) in the context of the competitive practice of employability (Périlleux 2005, Reynaud 2001). Such a conception of managing the “supply of individual competencies” and the possibility of rationally choosing between competencies to develop depends on an instrumental distinction between the individual and all of the resources of which that individual is both owner and manager. Some of these resources, such as emotions, are given particular attention by new management, not only because they can be mobilized in face-to-face relations with the client in the service sector but also because they contribute to optimizing cooperation within the company, both in interaction with other employees and in showing allegiance to company hierarchy. These emotions, which are required resources in labor relations and in the usable portions of personal capital, are supposed to make the following compatible: an ideal of self-accomplishment in work, a growing integration into the company, and an increase in the productivity of labor (Aubert and de Gaulejac 2007). From this perspective, if as Durkheim thought, there are social rules that govern the production of emotions by causing, stimulating, or controlling them in order to adapt them to specific social situations (Durkheim 1912/1995; Mauss 1969), why not attempt to mobilize them to produce the emotions required by various professional situations? [11] And if this is the case, do the consequences of such an undertaking validate Honneth’s interpretation of reification?

23 In fact, a command to produce emotions will produce, at most, what Hochschild (2003a, 82; 2003b, 35) calls an “emotional display” that clearly differs from a real emotion. What we obtain here is a mere acting out of a role in which the required artificial feelings are used and kept at a distance, like conventional and expected expressions attached to any social role. However, if we define self-reification as all artificial emotions linked to the social interactions that depend on “presentation of self” in every situation where there is encouragement (or a command) to do so, the concept would lose all specificity and would simply describe the distinction historically made by the classical theoreticians of morality between “being” and “appearance.” For Honneth, Rousseau is a central figure in this tradition as the first philosopher of alienation, though not of reification (Honneth 2007). [12] But in this case, a very large part of social life, which extends well beyond the effects that can be imputed to the practices of late capitalism, would take place under the regime of self-reification.

24 However, it is difficult to resort to this concept in such a way since the artificiality of the exhibited emotions, whatever pathologies they might entail, are not accompanied by an objectivizing distancing of all the emotional states of the self or even of the self itself. Therefore, if we wish to use the concept of self-reification properly, its use has to be narrowed and applied only to exceptional situations encountered, for example, in the world of concentration camps or in all social situations that could produce equally radical desubjectifying effects (if such situations existed). In such a context, the radical symbolic degradations and material hardships suffered by detainees lead the most vulnerable among them to consider themselves to be distant and profoundly indifferent spectators, deactivating their affective investment in themselves either to avoid assessing the extent of the degradation inflicted on them or as a result of their psychological disintegration (Bettelheim 1961). As Bruno Bettelheim (1961), Robert Antelme (1957), and Primo Levi (1986) have shown, the implementation of such a process corresponded to entering into a structure of profound apathy in which interactions with the social environment became increasingly weak. As a result, the combination of internal indifference and indifference with respect to the external world testify to the fact that the desire to live has been nearly defeated, with the prisoners then allowing themselves to wither away more or less rapidly (Bettelheim 1961). [13] Thus we are dealing here with a self-reification that concerns the totality of the individual. [14]

25 In short, self-reification is drastic, or it does not exist. Moreover, the immediate consequence of this situation is that this emotional “blindness” with regard to oneself no longer makes it possible to have, via one’s own emotions, access by imitation to others’ emotions. In this sense therefore, we are dealing with a reification of others, although it is only an unintentional effect of self-reification. In these conditions, attention should be paid not only to the “forgetting of primary recognition” through reifying attitudes (Honneth 2008b) but also to their effects since there is no self-reification without the process of reification by others, [15] even if there is an unintentional possibility for reification of others as a consequence of self-reification. Thus, Honneth’s thesis whereby there is a possibility for these processes to occur independently is difficult to defend. [16] The way in which reifying attitudes are produced remains to be examined, which introduces the second question concerning the definition of reification to the discussion. In response, we show in the following discussion that Honneth’s distinction between fictitious reification and authentic reification must be abandoned in favor of retaining fictitious reification alone.

26 According to Honneth’s thesis, reification of others is produced when a human being is treated as a thing. The result is that the original recognition is suspended by deactivation of any identification with others and thus of any capacity for affective participation. How do we characterize this reifying attitude? To do that, we must return to the two competing definitions of reification examined above in order to assess their validity.

27 From the viewpoint of empathy, it is in fact impossible (recall the first definition of reification above) to perceive people as things by thinking that they lack sensitivity. Even if we deny that there is any value—whether intellectual or emotional—to their viewpoint, we cannot avoid projecting ourselves onto them, if only—in situations of oppression—to predict their reactions and adjust our actions accordingly. In other words, the torturer must know how the victim suffers if only to carry out his activity correctly (Sironi 2004). Empathy as mere perspective taking is therefore never deactivated. While in these circumstances the other is not considered an alter ego, he nevertheless cannot be considered devoid of emotions, and thus reification cannot be defined in this way.

28 There remains the other possible definition (recall the second definition of reification above), which, while it retains empathy, suspends any affective participation through imitation (sympathy). In this case, everything happens as if we abstractly perceive the content of others’ emotions without being able to replicate them, and we are transformed into a purely indifferent spectator, lacking any reaction to those emotions. This type of reification occurs in two ways. First, when affective imitation is deactivated, treating a person as a thing does not mean that we think that this person is a thing but that we are seeking to make the person understand that he or she is being treated as if he or she had no more value than a thing. The self-view that this person is encouraged to take on must eliminate any sense of self-value. The person is never a thing in his or her own eyes since he or she is supposed to suffer from being reduced to a thing, and the perpetrator obviously knows that the victim knows it. As Sartre noted, “no one can treat a man ‘like a dog’ if he is not first held to be a man” (1964a, 64; 1976). [17] From this perspective, reification is only a form of complete disrespect that aims to humiliate. It does not consider people to be things, but treats them as if they had as little value as things, resulting in a form of degradation that opens the door to more drastic treatment, as we will see. In this context, we “understand” (empathy) the emotional consequences for others that result from this attitude, but we do not experience them, and this indifference (absence of sympathy) makes such treatment possible.

29 This absence of emotional recognition makes certain forms of killing easier, from the bureaucratic decision based on physical and psychological distance from the victim along a chain of hierarchical mediations that makes the victim invisible right up to execution, which itself is made possible only by the existence of an often impermeable boundary between executioner and victim. [18] This affective deactivation also makes various types of economic slavery possible. As we have seen, Honneth considers these different types of reification to be authentic, while others, such as commands for self-presentation, interpersonal cruelties in general, or sexual violence in particular, are purely fictitious because they are a matter of “as if” (Honneth 2008b). However, this distinction is difficult to defend. Are we to understand that killing or economic slavery are authentic forms of reification only because the victims are truly treated as things that could be gotten rid of with indifference, unlike their fictitious treatment in other relations of power? We can regard the execution of victims or enemies, for example, in no way resembles the destruction of objects. It includes a specific characteristic that lies without fail in their prior degradation, whatever the motive, whether it be the need to break their resistance, intensify their otherness, conform to a social or political categorization, be satisfied with their humiliation, or assess the extent of our power over others. [19] Likewise, those who practice economic slavery cannot be unaware that this type of instrumentalization is inextricably linked to forms of humiliation. Here, indifference does not imply being unaware or looking past, but rather an insensitivity concerning the emotions of victims that is compatible in reality with hostility toward them. In this context, we should speak not of indifferent spectators but of actors who are indifferent because they are hostile.

30 In all these forms of domination, including exceptional situations, the victims are no more perceived as things than they are treated as such. We must admit therefore that in all the scenarios under consideration (humiliation, economic slavery, interpersonal cruelty, or killing), reification is in fact a matter of “as if,” not its authentic version. That is, it represents only an extreme form of disrespect that must lead those subject to it if they are to understand, by means of measures well adapted to the purpose, that they have no more value than things that can be gotten rid of (and are gotten rid of), these measures being accompanied by an insensitivity to the harm done, regardless of its intensity. If this analysis is correct, there would be only one concept of reification, which would occur only under the conditions just defined. We can now take up the last part of the discussion, which deals with the explanation of reifying behaviors.

III. The Social Sources of Reification

31 Honneth considers practices of reification to be “social pathologies,” which refers to situations that are incompatible with the necessary conditions for a good life. These constitute hindrances to the possibility for a positive relation to self, the only way for the individual to produce a condition for the construction of autonomy and identity (Honneth 2007, 2010). How should we account for such practices? Honneth puts forward several explanatory factors, though without much development. The first is the reifying categorization (or “typification”) that refuses, as in racism or anti-semitism, to grant “specifically human qualities” to individuals and thus causes the “forgetting” of emotional recognition. Yet in this situation, it is not clear how “human beings could be led by purely intellectual paths to insistently deny the personal characteristics of members of other social groups” (Honneth 2008a, 81; 2008b 105).

32 Hence, a second factor must be invoked, namely the “autonomization of the goal,” or the primary and exclusive consideration of a defined goal that diverts attention away from perceiving the harm done to individuals who are part of realizing this goal. This is a radical form of instrumentalization (Honneth 2008a). Such autonomization of the goal is clearly expressed, for example, in economic exploitation in a non-legal context. This practice is strengthened by a reifying categorization that acts as a motivational resource for it (Honneth 2008a).

33 Finally, repetition is an important factor. Insensitivity in the treatment of victims is greatly strengthened by the “routine” of its implementation, in which fixed procedures are followed as purely technical operations (Honneth 2008a). Reification then becomes over-determined through familiarity and repetition.

34 While it is clear that these different factors mutually reinforce each other, it must be acknowledged that several questions remain unresolved. First, we must test the hypothesis that social categorization cannot by itself produce the effects of reification. Second, beyond the combination of these factors, it is important to identify the respective weight of each one in the genesis of reifying attitudes. Third, the response to these two questions will allow us to describe more precisely the social pathology in question, which begins, as we saw, with processes of categorization.

35 Classical philosophers and contemporary theoreticians of empathy have taught us that imitation and identification can be hindered by particular social situations, such as the existence of social or cultural distance (Hoffman 2001), spatial or temporal distance (Slote 2007), emotional screens, or phenomena of social categorization likely to give rise to boundaries of counter-identification effectively separating “us” from “them.” If, for reasons of limitations of space, we consider only the last two of these phenomena, we note that Spinoza and Adam Smith, for example, provided an illustration of the first by demonstrating that emotional screens linked to the superiority of the power of one or the other of the protagonists could momentarily (Smith) or permanently (Spinoza) block any process of emotional imitation (Lazzeri 2010). However, we can also point to the intervention of ego defense mechanisms that aim to protect it against the harmful effects that can result from, among others, imitation of the victims’ negative emotions, whose intensity proves to be too strong. The “splitting of the ego” (Freud 1938/1964), the act of denial (Freud 1937/1964), “retroactive annulment” (Freud 1915/1957), or “compassion fatigue” (Hoffman 2001) are all defenses that can be expressed by a deactivation of emotional recognition to avoid an attack on the integrity of the self when we express reifying attitudes that turn out to be difficult to accept. It can however be shown that prior to this, such attitudes are demanded—and this is the second phenomenon—by activities of social classification or categorization. [20]

36 Contrary to the argument of cognitivist psychologists, categorization is not only a matter of what is called “cognitive miserliness,” which consists of conceptualizing natural as well as social phenomena by means of classifying perceptions. These perceptions select common features of the perceived phenomena and transform them into necessary categories that would be available for their re-cognition, thereby economizing on the cognitive process of re-identification (Pendry, Macrae, and Hewstone 2004). Now, phenomena of categorization also face social challenges. We know that social identities are differentiated and that their affirmation occurs through the action of distinction. Social classification is a practice of identification that selects certain properties of the agents or social groups at the same time as it evaluates them, thus making it possible to assign them to a place of varying value in a hierarchical social world. Classification is therefore incorporated into a process of social competition, and it allows social agents to take advantage of it by assigning to others a negative identity, the very counterpart of the former’s positive one. Classification takes place through reduction as the agent or social group in question is reduced to one of its properties, which is held to be important. Consequently, the reductionism of this kind of judgment is expressed most often as: “you are only...,” [21] the result being an essentialist conception of the behavior of others through the tendency to naturalize the negative property in question and to homogenize (or make denser) the class that bears such a property, that is, that makes them individually indiscernible, which facilitates the perception of reification. [22] Moreover, the effectiveness of this perception is increased by the belief that the validity of other points of view on the identity of the agent are neutralized and strengthened when the perception receives certification from political and administrative institutions. The objectifying reduction thus creates a mirror effect because the person who classifies is classified by classifying and escapes this property of exclusion by reclassifying himself or herself globally through his or her own judgment. [23] Thus, we can say that the “activated” identity boundary, to use Tilly and Tarrow’s (2006) expression, becomes particularly clear, which means that the difference between the person who classifies and the person thus classified emerges from the perception and affirmation of different identities and social memberships, which can even be incommensurable.

37 This way of making distinctions and of distinguishing oneself affects emotional recognition since devaluing the emotional experience of the other through categorization requires the absence of emotional identification with that other as well as the absence of the resulting emotional recognition, thus encouraging the processes of reification and ensuing acts of violence. As Welzer rightly observes, “all known processes of annihilation are preceded by a definition of the threatening group, and this definition entails a rapid downgrade in status—social, psychological, material, and legal—which changes the otherness, which is at first only assumed, of the group to be excluded into an experienced reality implemented by contemporaries” (Welzer 2008, 69). [24] Thus it appears that while emotional recognition is a transcendental condition of all others forms of recognition, it can be suspended only by retracing the path in the opposite direction. That is, the insensitivity characteristic of the reifying attitude occurs only through a negative classification that strikes the agent in every social sphere where he or she can obtain recognition. It is above all in depriving this agent of recognition in the social domain (esteem), the political domain (respect), and the interpersonal (love) domain that we succeed in depriving that person or group of emotional recognition, which makes it subjectively possible to resort to violence.

38 Given this, Honneth’s doubts about the effects of categorization can be overcome if it is acknowledged that such a practice is not in reality a purely intellectual operation, but consists in fact of recourse to stereotypes required in general by hostile motivations in a context of contentious social distinctions (Yzerbit and Schadron 1996). Further, it must be acknowledged—which raises no difficulties—that emotions partly depend on beliefs that have a propositional content, such as believing, for example, that the members of a particular social group are a danger to the whole society (Frijda 1993), and that these beliefs have the magical effect of making something true by naming it (since we see what we believe).

39 If this analysis is correct, we can conclude from it that these practices of categorization are the inaugural acts of various forms of the reifying of social violence. However, the routinization of such violence is only an additional, not a decisive factor. When the reifying transgression occurs because of the categorization in a hostile social context, this creates a situation of oppression and irreversible harm (whereby we enter a different social relationship), and the oppressors can claim responsibility for it only if they intensify their belief in the classification that justifies their violence and encourages them to continue with it. From this is derived the pressure the group inevitably places on individuals to join in and continue the violence because collective violence makes all members of the group complicit and strengthens the belief of each one in the validity of the motivations causing this violence. [25] As a particular case of the “autonomization of a goal,” economic slavery can be generated only on the basis of an act of categorization that creates a sufficient social and emotional distance from exploitable labor.

40 Given this, although we can clearly conclude that reification is a social pathology in the sense defined above, we may not perceive that it is part of a global process that has its source in a group of interdependent negative actions consistently carried out one after the other, that is, in a hostile competitive situation between social groups accompanied by exploitation, public and repeated acts of negative categorization, the political certification that guarantees and legitimizes these acts, the social exclusion and authoritarian downgrading of status that creates numerous forms of discrimination, the expression of open collective hostility against the group or individuals, the deprivation of basic rights and status, and the exercise of periodic violence that is intensified into ultimate violence.

41 The extreme suppression or domination of a social group is therefore the result of an increasingly intense social devaluation that begins with a reification resulting from classifying objectivization and ends in open violence. Although it is uncommon to observe the entire process except in periods of intense crisis in which it unfolds to its ultimate end, all phases of social life contain sequences of variable length of this process. These sequences follow a consistent pattern, with some inevitably leading to others, above all from the moment when the artificial social boundaries of categorization begin their work. In this sense, if there is a social pathology, we can say that it is expressed very early through the discriminating negative perception some social agents have of others.


  • [1]
    The U.S. edition of Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) includes commentaries by Judith Butler, Raymond Geuss, and Jonathan Lear. See Georg Lukács (1967/1971), especially the chapter on “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” (83–222).
  • [2]
    Lukács (1967/1971, 100). This process is reinforced by the bureaucratically rationalized division of labor that Lukács borrowed from Weber (98–100). In fact, Lukács discusses only the contemplation of their “objectified and reified faculties” (100) or the reification of all “aspects” (83). However, that obviously includes emotional life.
  • [3]
    See also Sartre (1960/1976), Simmel (1907/2011), and Honneth (2008a).
  • [4]
    Recall that this was already the problem Sartre posed in Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960/1976).
  • [5]
    See Hoffman (2001), Wispé (1986), and Rimé (2005).
  • [6]
    This thesis is confirmed in work in developmental psychology. Beyond the work of Hobson and Tomasiello cited by Honneth, see Rochat (2001, 2002).
  • [7]
    This relation refers to the thesis on moral affectivity as complement of universal justice that Honneth proposed in his paper “Between Justice and Affection” (Honneth 2004), reprinted in Disrespect: The Normative Foundation of Critical Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007).
  • [8]
    See Honneth (2008a, 2008b).
  • [9]
    Honneth (2008a, 58) “...we lose the ability to immediately understand the behavioral expressions of other persons.” (My emphasis.)
  • [10]
    Honneth (2008a, 58). (My emphasis.) In fact, sympathy is prior to empathy since it is the condition for it.
  • [11]
    See Hochschild (2003a, 2003b), Jeantet (2003), and Illouz (2007).
  • [12]
    On this “false recognition” in the classics, see E. Pulcini (2009).
  • [13]
    See also Levi (1986) and Pollak (2000). Here, we are dealing with the phenomenon of “apathetic retreat” defining the muselmänner. See B. Bettelheim (1961).
  • [14]
    In his paper in the journal Esprit (2008b), Honneth insists above all, and rightly so, on these exceptional situations of reification in comparison to the vaguer reading he made of it in Reification.
  • [15]
    Obviously, we are leaving aside here any deactivation of emotional self-investment due to accidental traumas or pathologies linked to organic deficiencies.
  • [16]
    Moreover, Honneth is quite careful on this point since he maintains that we cannot respond immediately to the question of the necessary (or not) involvement between intersubjective reification and self-reification. (See Reification, 2008a.) However, he nevertheless decides they are independent by arguing that “wholly different causes” (79) might be responsible.
  • [17]
    We could describe this as “incomplete social recognition,” as does Conein (2009), following Margalit. See also Margalit (1998), who maintains, quite rightly, that it is impossible not to see people as people, even when we perceive them as sub-human since “[h]umiliation typically presupposes the humanity of the humiliated” (109). However, Honneth seemed to see the problem more clearly in “A Society without Humiliation?” (1997).
  • [18]
    See Bauman (2001), Kelman (1973), Browning (1998), Chaumont (1997), Moczarski (1979), and Welzer (2007). This thesis clearly conflicts with the one supported by W. Sofsky in his Traité de la violence (1998), in which such violence depends on close proximity between executioner and victim.
  • [19]
    See Sartre (1952/1964) and Browning (1998). For the Rwandan genocide, see Hatzfeld (2005, 2006).
  • [20]
    Welzer (2007), Sironi (2004), Kelman (1973), and Bauman (2001). For the exact opposite hypothesis, see Sofsky (1998, 62).
  • [21]
    See Bourdieu (1987). On conflicts of categorization, see also Sartre (1964b).
  • [22]
    This tendency toward homogenizing classification is characteristic of social groups of high status and prestige. See F. Lorenzi-Cioldi (2009) and Cohen (2010). However, these groups do not have a monopoly over such conduct.
  • [23]
    See Bourdieu (1984) and Yzerbit and Schadron (1996).
  • [24]
    Also see Chaumont (1997) and Hatzfeld (2006).
  • [25]
    See Browning (1998), who strongly emphasizes this aspect, and Hatzfeld (2005).

This paper reconsiders the question of reification as presented by Axel Honneth in his recent reformulation of the theory of recognition. It first discusses the deepening of the concept of recognition and some of its limitations. The analysis then turns to possible definitions of reification and shows which one seems best with respect to a theory of recognition. Finally, it presents a more fine-grained perspective for the analysis of reifying social processes by combining the concepts of recognition, empathy, and reification.


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