Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Honneth on Moral Growth

  • Teemu Hanhela
  • Rauno Huttunen
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_421


Axel Honneth is the foremost representative of the so called third generation of the Frankfurt School. He started his academic career as a Habermasian Marxist influenced by Foucault’s philosophical and anthropological ideas. In his early writings, Honneth connected Foucault with the tradition of critical theory. Honneth launched his theory of recognition in 1994 and re-orientated the whole Frankfurt School research. Ever since there has been intensive discussion concerning the Honnethian theory of recognition.

Honneth’s project is distinctive and central to the third generation of critical theory including, first, the idea of society and history based on the struggle for recognition by social groups. Second, Honneth contextualises the normative foundations in the deep structures of subjective experiences such as disrespect and misrecognition. These ideas, struggles and subjective experiences, are elicited from Hegel’s philosophy. The first element, the idea of the struggle for recognition between groups aims to show that freedom occurs through conflicts between groups rather than through conflicts between individuals. For Honneth, social groups represent both the driving force of historical development and a vital condition for human flourishing. Honneth’s three forms of recognition, love, rights and social esteem are the basis for moral growth and denial of these forms causes struggles for recognition. Honneth connects Hegel’s three forms of recognition to the social psychological examinations of identity development. Moral growth flourishes only when the development of three psychological self-relations is guaranteed, self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem. For Honneth, the history of western countries provides the empirical support for his thesis that the spheres of family, market economy and will formation have developed towards more moral and democratic practises via struggles for recognition. The historical struggles in the spheres of social freedom enable individuals now to form more freely intersubjective relationships in love, rights and social esteem.

In recent writings Honneth has extended his influential work in the theory of recognition to address the question of public education. Honneth explores recent neoliberal tendencies towards privatisation and economic competitiveness in schooling. These tendencies are violating educational equality and emptying democratic virtues from public education, downgrading the role of public education in the reproduction of democratic societies. Secondly it empties democratic virtues from public education downgrading the role of public education in the reproduction of the democratic societies. Honneth introduces alternative educational policy by contending that democracy needs democratically oriented public education. Fulfilling this demand, it is necessary to revive the philosophical tradition of Kant, Durkheim and Dewey. Honneth contends that the revival of this tradition generates cogent ideas for democratic education.

Axel Honneth on Moral Growth

Honneth’s theory of struggle for recognition and moral growth relies on two writings the young Hegel: Natural Law (Hegel 1975) and System of Ethical Life (Hegel 1979). In Natural Law, Hegel criticizes natural law and social contract theories because they are unable to conceive society as an ethical totality (see Honneth 1995, p. 12): a community of morally mature persons who behave virtuously toward each other. According to theories of natural law, society is just a constellation of single egoistic subjects who have made a contract that they do not fight against each other in order to live peacefully and practice economic activity. In such a community, there is no prospect for moral growth. When Hegel speaks of ethical totality, he has in mind the polis of the Ancient Greek style (city-State) in which every citizen behaves virtuously enabling “universal and individual freedom” (Hegel according to Honneth 1995, p. 13). For this reason, Hegel intentionally uses the term Sitte (habits, customs). Sittlichkeit (virtuously behaving) grows from Sitte. In other words, the ethical totality grows from reciprocal good behavior. The ethical totality does not emerge from laws of the State (social contract theories) or moral conviction of atomic individuals (Kant’s moral theory). Moral growth is possible only in ethical totality. Morality comes from living customs and habits that are actually acted out in the community.

One might ask, what is the motivation behind sittliche (ethical) conduct or reciprocal good behavior? Why do individuals not stay at the immature moral state of civil society (market society) where everyone seeks only their own interests? Hegel provides the answer in his text System of Ethical Life (System der Sittlichkeit; Hegel 1979). The answer is that recognition is the basic motive for moral social action. On the other hand, recognition is also the basic source of social conflicts. Honneth uses Hegel’s quite unknown text as a foundation for his theory of the struggle for recognition. According to Honneth’s Hegel interpretation, relationships of mutual recognition are the source of a subject’s self-knowledge and basic striving for moral growth (Honneth 1995, pp. 16–17).

Hegel inherits the idea of struggle from Thomas Hobbes, although the purpose and outcome of the struggle is different in Hegel’s social theory. The struggle is not for self-preservation like in Hobbes’ social contract theory, but for recognition, and the outcome of the struggle is not a contract among individuals but a more mature level of ethical relations. “Instead of starting from a struggle of all against all, Hegel begins his philosophical account with elementary forms of interpersonal recognition, which he presents collectively under the heading ‘natural ethical life’” (Honneth 1995, p. 18). Natural ethical life (naturliche Sittlichkeit) includes both family relations and formal legal relations in the civil society. It might seem strange that Hegel places civil society (in the meaning of economic activity; a market society) under the label of natural ethical life. The family is somewhat natural in every society, but what is “natural” about the civil society (market society)? Perhaps Hegel thinks that the family and some sort of civil society will arise spontaneously in each complex social constellation. The thing that does not appear in a spontaneous way is absolute ethical life (sittliche State; fatherland). It requires major personal and sociohistorical moral development, which mature Hegel calls the phenomenology of the spirit. For Hegel, the absolute ethical life is a kind of final solution (Aufhebung) to all social conflicts and ethical dilemmas (e.g., Das Adam-Smith-Problem, see Huttunen 2011) in society. According to Honneth’s interpretation, Hegel’s theory includes three levels or social contexts in which the struggle for recognition happens: the family, the civil society, and the state. From these three instances follow three modes of recognition and three objects of recognition. These three modes of recognition are also states of moral growth:
  1. 1.

    The family for Hegel is “the universal reciprocal action and formative education of human beings” (Hegel according to Honneth 1995, p. 18). In the family, individuals recognize each other mutually as emotionally needy beings. In the family, the source of morality (Sittlichkeit) is not a cognitive concept (rights and duties) but the feelings of love and care (Honneth 2007, p. 153). The mode of recognition is an affective intuition (Anschauung), and the object of recognition is to meet the individual’s concrete needs (food, care, love, etc.). The denial of these needs (misrecognition) is the same as denying one’s humanity. Sittliche behavior on this level means loving and caring, i.e., affective intuition. The purpose of the family labor of raising children is to promote the child’s “inner negativity” or independency.

  2. 2.

    As the individual grows older, he or she begins to struggle for the recognition of his or her autonomy. On the level of the civil society (market society), persons reciprocally recognize each other’s right to ownership, i.e., the right to be a legal person. As a legal person, an individual has the right to say “yes” or “no” to all offered transactions. This is called negative freedom in Hegel’s terminology (Honneth 1995, p. 19). Robbery or other illegal action in the civil society (e.g., forming a cartel is a form of stealing) means that the wrongdoer is denying others the right to say “yes” or “no” as a legal person. The mode of recognition in civil society is the “cognitive concept” with which persons reflectively recognize each others as legal persons. The object of recognition is to satisfy a person’s need for formal legal autonomy. Sittliche behavior in this level means respect for the “abstract law” (cognitive concept). Hegel’s notion of abstractness of law means that the law “does not yet have its reality and support in something itself universal.” The abstract law does not contribute to the formation of the concrete ethical totality (sittliche State; value community). It contributes only to the formation of the abstract legal person and formal legal relations between persons.

  3. 3.

    Hegel claims that people seek and struggle for a more advanced form of personality and mode of recognition. The civil society is a constellation of abstract legal persons who do not affectively care for each other. It is a formally just society but it is not a decent society. I believe that this decent society is what Hegel means with the notion of “absolute Sittlichkeit.” The movement from natural ethical life (Sittlichkeit) to absolute ethical life (sittliche State) is a process of moral development or learning both on the social and the personal level (Honneth 1995, pp. 23–24). For Hegel, the sittliche State represents the true or absolute Sittlichkeit. The State is not a constellation of egoistic individuals but an organic whole which consists of “whole persons.” It is the highest phase of an individual’s moral development. Hegel believes that intellectual intuition (Anschauung) emerges in this future community. Hegel claims that the individual “intuits himself as himself in every other individual” (Hegel according to Honneth 1995, p. 24). Intellectual intuition is a kind of reflective family love between the “members of a whole.” Honneth thinks that the concept of solidarity depicts Hegel’s intention well. On the level of the state, the mode of recognition is intellectual intuition which is an “affect that has become rational.” The object of recognition is individual particularity or a person’s formation into a free subject who knows his own particular abilities and recognizes the particular abilities of others.


With his creative interpretation of Hegel’s System of Ethical Life (Hegel 1979), Honneth produces his own theory of identity formation which is at the same time a theory of an individual’s moral growth. Honneth thinks that recognition must be based on some of the person’s existing abilities and skills. By receiving recognition from others, one achieves one’s identity: one learns to know oneself and one’s special characteristics. When one receives positive recognition because of some particular ability, one starts to form a positive self-image. One becomes aware of one’s abilities and qualities. According to Honneth, humans require the intersubjective recognition of their abilities and achievements in order to develop a productive relationship with themselves (Honneth 1995, p. 257).

Honneth states that the recognition is given on three hierarchical levels. The person begins at the first level and gradually moves on to the higher levels. Accordingly, Honneth’s theory includes three so-called practical self-relations in the moral development of personality: (1) self-confidence, (2) self-respect, and (3) self-esteem. These practical self-relations are achieved at the three levels of the struggle for recognition, which are family (love), civil society (rights), and state (solidarity) (Honneth 1995, p. 126).

An individual’s self-confidence is established and reproduced in the relations of friendship and love. This is the first level of recognition. At this level, one seeks recognition of one’s existence, that is, recognition that one has the right to exist as the kind of person one is. This elementary form of recognition takes place in the primary socialization process within the family and within circles of other persons that one is close to. Through one’s very first contacts with one’s parents, one gradually achieves a basic level of trust. One learns to express one’s needs without the fear of abandonment. Love and friendship are the forms of recognition by which parents create basic trust. The experience of love and care is a precondition for the formation of an individual’s identity and morality (Sittlichkeit; Honneth 1995, p. 253). This first level of recognition and individual moral development does not have any similarities with Kohlberg’s preconventional moral consciousness. Actually Honneth comes close to Carol Gilligan’s notion of self-love as the first level of moral development (see Gilligan 1993, p. 73; Kakkori and Huttunen 2010).

At the second level of recognition, the individual strives for the practical self-relation called self-respect. Self-respect, in this context, means that a person in a community of rights gains recognition as a legally and morally mature person. Hegel refers to this community of rights with the term civil society. On this level, the individual either receives or does not receive basic legal rights. Recognition on this level also means that one is accepted as an autonomous person who has the right and the competence to take part in the discourses in which people reach consensus on political and theoretical issues. The issue is not just that the person has a right to ownership and a right to take part in contracts, but it is also the Kantian universal respect for the freedom of the will of the person. On this level, “the individual is recognized as a person who ascribes the same moral accountability as every other human being” (Honneth 1997, p. 30). To put it differently, this level of recognition entails regarding this individual a person who is responsible for his or her own actions. The opposite of this is a paternalizing attitude which denies the individual’s freedom of will, autonomy, and ability to work independently. Self-respect grows out of recognition of responsibility, which the individual gains on the level of the civil society (community of rights).

On the third level of recognition, the individual strives for self-esteem. Self-esteem is built through the respect one receives for one’s work. Here, it is essential that one is recognized for work through which one expresses oneself. Only through self-directed and autonomous work can one perform one’s freedom of will. And only when one begins to work out of one’s own free will for a common good can one become respected in a community (or the State, in Hegelian terminology). Self-esteem means that one sees one’s work being acknowledged and recognized. On this level, “the individual is recognized as a person whose capabilities are of constitutive value to a concrete community” (Honneth 1997, p. 27). This way, the individual really becomes recognized as a person who has something to give to the community. The reciprocal recognition of each other’s work creates a strong feeling of solidarity in the community.

Table 1 summarizes Honneth’s view of the various components of recognition. The forms of disrespect are also presented in the table. The first level of disrespect insults one’s physical integrity. Its most extreme form is physical abuse. The denial of physical integrity could lead to permanent psychological damage, which would then interfere with the development of practical self-relations. The denial of social integrity means that the individual is not considered a mature person. One is not treated as a person having freedom of will – that is, one is not considered a subject of one’s action, but rather an object that causally reacts to stimuli. This way, one’s moral responsibility is kept in an undeveloped stage. The disrespect that occurs on the third level of recognition implies that no recognition is given even though one’s work is worthy of such recognition. When one only receives feedback regarding one’s actions on making a mistake, one’s self-esteem does not develop (Honneth 2007). This kind of disrespect is directed to a person’s honor and dignity.
Honneth on Moral Growth, Table 1

Intersubjective relations of recognition (Modified from Honneth 1995, p. 129)

Dimension of personality

Needs and emotions

Moral responsibility

Traits and abilities

Forms of recognition

Primary relationships – love, friendship

Legal relations – rights

Community of value –solidarity

Practical relation to self

Basic self-confidence



Forms of disrespect

Abuse and rape

Denial of rights, exclusion

Denigration, insult

Threatened component of personality

Physical integrity

Social integrity

Honor and dignity

For Honneth, full moral maturity means that the person feels connected with other members of the value community (communitarian view), is able to give honest recognition to the work of other people, and, vice versa, is able to receive recognition from them. By his own action, he creates a possibility for good life for others and for himself. Only by working together people are able to achieve good self-esteem and full moral maturity which are sine qua non for good life.

In his recent writings, Axel Honneth (2012, 2013, 2015) has dealt with such themes as Bildung, educational policy and education for democracy. These writings elaborate Honneth’s view on individual’s moral growth through dialectic of recognition. According to Honneth, after defeating Nazism in Germany, it was natural to retrieve the unlearned practices of democratic decision-making through nationwide education. Nevertheless nowadays the important link between educational concepts and democracy has been broken. Honneth worries that contemporary political philosophy has lost sight of the educational processes which produce cultural and moral conditions vital for democracy and its existence. Honneth claims that the studies of educational processes should be at the center of political philosophy (Honneth 2012, pp. 430–431). Honneth asserts that democratic theory as political philosophy is unable to make a proper contribution to the normative function of preschool, general school, and adult education (Honneth 2012, p. 431).

Honneth illustrate the gap between theories of democracy and the theories of education with the so-called Böckenförde theorem. This theorem states that liberal democracy in its constitutional form, comprising the rule of law, the protection of fundamental rights, the separation of powers, and so on, possesses no secure foundation for its legitimacy and effectiveness. On the one hand, the liberal democratic State can function only when liberty, guaranteed for its citizens, is exercised and regulated from within the moral substance of the individual and by shared values in society. On the other hand, the liberal State is unable to command or enforce these inner regulative forces through authority or legal power without first giving up liberalism. The Böckenförde dictum highlights an inherent problem of democracy by suggesting how to defend the moral ground of democratic society without heading for totalitarianism. The general misinterpretation of Böckenförde theorem states that democracy has only minor possibilities to reproduce its own moral and cultural basis, and eventually this basis can only be justified by returning to something predemocratic or to premodern life-forms, tradition-oriented communities governed by substantive ethical or even religious conceptions (Böckenförde 1991; Honneth 2015, p. 22; also Hirvonen 2016).

Honneth argues misinterpretation of Böckenförde theorem leads to a conclusion that State-organized educational processes have no reason to teach democratic-promoting behaviors (Honneth 2012, pp. 432–433). This general misinterpretation of the Böckenförde theorem has created the illusion that democratic virtues like the moral attitudes of collaborative decision-making, abilities for tolerance, empathic skills, abilities to understand the perspective of the other, and the ideas of the common good are not the tasks of public education. These ideals necessary for the reproduction of a functioning democracy are widely thought to develop through a process of ethical socialization in pre-political communities. Because democracy itself has no means to reproduce its moral and cultural grounds, democratic education seems futile. Honneth claims that the tradition of Kant, Durkheim, and Dewey defends State-organized mandatory public education that cultivates democratic values, empathy, and communicative decision-making skills (Honneth 2012, pp. 433–434, 2015).

The danger in the misinterpretation of the Böckenförde theorem is that these ideas will effectively displace the democratic elements from State-administered education. Honneth refers to the term “civic minimum,” introduced by neoliberalism, as the new requirement for public schools. According to premises of civic minimum, the publicly mandated requirements to teach democratic virtues and civic knowledge in schools must be minimal. Thus parent responsibility is increasing in the cultivation of these values. Civic minimum is defended by the arguments that public decisions on the contents of the school subjects will be less time-consuming, bureaucratic, and quarrelsome. The civic minimalism is carried out with the school voucher system where the State gives parents a certificate of funding which parents are able to apply toward tuition of the school of their choice, public or private, secular or religious. The idea of civic minimalism is defended by arguing that the only way to solve the problem of achieving the consensus on civic education under the conditions of pluralism is to minimize the civic component of schooling and leave parents to decide what education would be best for their children. In this way, democratic disagreement over public schooling can be minimized. Following the idea of a civic minimalism, parents have constitutional rights to determine every feature of their children’s schooling except the civic minimum. It introduces itself as an alternative to democratic deliberation (Honneth 2012, pp. 433–435).


For Honneth, full moral maturity, i.e., self-esteem, is possible only in an ethical totality in which persons reciprocally recognize each other’s importance in the community. Honneth’s third phase in the development of individual’s self-relation and morality is pretty much the same as Robert William’s interpretation of Hegel’s universal consciousness (see Huttunen 2011). The difference is that Honneth prefers notions of the sittliche State (value community) and does not engage Hegelian philosophy of (universal) consciousness. In this sense, Honneth comes close to Gilligan, who also dislikes the philosophy of consciousness and who emphasizes the relational nature of morality. Nevertheless Honneth has some prejudices toward Gilligan’s view. Honneth presents an explicit criticism of Gilligan’s feministic ethics (Honneth 2007, p. 174): “If we follow Deigh’s presentation … we will quickly get the impression that he is seeking to rehabilitate Carol Gilligan’s thesis of two moralities (men’s moral against women’s moral) in a psychoanalytic fashion.” Honneth has an unjust interpretation of Gilligan’s view. Gilligan does not hold the notion of men’s and women’s separate moralities. She has done empirical research against this kind of feminist ethics (Kakkori and Huttunen 2010).

Gilligan’s critique of Kohlberg parallels Hegel’s critique of Kant’s ethics like all communitarian critiques of neo-Kantianism, and in this sense, Gilligan’s ethics has many similar features with Honneth’s ethics of recognition. In an Hegelian manner, Gilligan wants to take moral feelings seriously and put emphasis on the social nature of morality. Nevertheless Kohlberg’s Kantian moral theory should not be abandoned. It needs to be revised and improved but not abandoned. This actually is Gilligan’s intention. She does not want to reject Kohlberg’s theory but supplement it with the aspect of ethics of care and relational nature of morality (see Kakkori and Huttunen 2010).

Thus if we reconstruct Kohlberg’s view on moral maturity in Gilliganian fashion, we end up with Honneth’s Hegelian view on the third level of morality and self-relation. This mature level refers to the ethical social totality (Sittlichkeit) in which the other person is encountered (faced) in a reciprocal dialogical relationship of recognition. From Honneth’s ethics of recognition and social theory, we can learn that moral maturity has to include the aspects of love, virtues, communal moral habits (Sittlichkeit), and democratic virtues provided by proper public education.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OuluOuluFinland
  2. 2.University of TurkuTurkuFinland
  3. 3.University of JoensuuJoensuuFinland