While relatively unknown in education circles, the work of Axel Honneth, Director of the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt (site of the famous Frankfurt School), is starting to gain prominence in Sociology, Political Science and Philosophy. The interest in his work revolves primarily around his theory of recognition, and how it situates itself in comparison to other theorists such as Charles Taylor and Nancy Fraser. In summary, these theorists argue that the drive towards personal autonomy can only be achieved intersubjectively – through the process of recognition from significant others.
This shift away from the atomistic tradition in philosophy allows Honneth to explore traditional Frankfurt School themes like individual freedom within a relational context, leading him to develop an elaborate theory of social justice and conflict. Most importantly it provides him with a normative grounding upon which to build a distinctive version of critical theory, one which connects everyday human concerns about identity and respect to broader struggles over exclusion.
The purpose of the current paper is to explore how such an expansive social theory could be applied to the field of education. In particular, the paper will examine the significance for teaching and learning of his core ideas on identity formation – self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem. The argument will draw on two key works: The struggle for recognition: the moral grammar of social conflicts (1995); and Disrespect: the normative foundations of critical theory (2007).