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Hoving, T.H.

Department of Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy

Religion in Recognition Theory

A critical reflection on the space for religious actors in Honneth’s Theory of Recognition

‘Liberalism’: a focus on freedom and rights, seems nowadays to be the norm in political theory. However, Liberalism has been criticised by Critical Theorists as a hegemonic ideology that ignores the deeply social and moral aspects of (public) life. Axel Honneth has formulated a Critical political theory based on recognition [Erkenning] and argues that there is a basic need for recognition in every person before one can flourish and develop oneself. Honneth argues that the recognition of human beings has morally improved throughout the centuries through emancipatory struggles. He deduces from this the thesis that people need love, respect and esteem to be able to realise themselves, and argues that these three relations should be safe-guarded by social institutions.

This thesis questions some assumptions of recognition theory by looking at anthropology and research on religious believers and piety. It investigates both ideas of (more or less universal) historical moral progress and the requirements for self-realisation underlying this theory. This thesis shows that the background assumptions of the theory: about ‘tradition’, ‘hierarchy’ and a historical development of the ‘self’, rely on a selective reading and analysis of (mostly) liberal discourse and research and thus cannot be assumed to be any more than conventionalism and ideology. Besides, this thesis shows that the theory of recognition seems not open to present day pluralism because indirectly, the notions of autonomy and moral progress in the theory judge non-liberal life-projects – such as religious ‘pious’ self-realisation - illegitmate.

Lastly, this thesis suggests some ways in which this conclusion might be averted and the ‘pious self’ might be integrated in recognition theory. Eventually, an approach to self-realisation, based on subservience and self-denial, might not preclude that an agent is autonomous autonomy and neither undermines a social system based on recognition. Self-denial and illiberal subservient self-realisation might be rightfully integrated in a system of recognition. Still, this form of self-realisation and the society it presupposes challenge the liberal, freedom and rights-based approach to society and (moral) political theory that prevail today.

Last modified:05 April 2016 12.35 p.m.