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Freedom's Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life

Freedom's Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life

Axel Honneth

ISBN: 978-0-745-68006-4

Mar 2014, Polity

450 pages

Select type: E-Book



The theory of justice is one of the most intensely debated areas of contemporary philosophy. Most theories of justice, however, have only attained their high level of justification at great cost. By focusing on purely normative, abstract principles, they become detached from the sphere that constitutes their “field of application” - namely, social reality.

Axel Honneth proposes a different approach. He seeks to derive the currently definitive criteria of social justice directly from the normative claims that have developed within Western liberal democratic societies. These criteria and these claims together make up what he terms “democratic ethical life”: a system of morally legitimate norms that are not only legally anchored, but also institutionally established.

Honneth justifies this far-reaching endeavour by demonstrating that all essential spheres of action in Western societies share a single feature, as they all claim to realize a specific aspect of individual freedom. In the spirit of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and guided by the theory of recognition, Honneth shows how principles of individual freedom are generated which constitute the standard of justice in various concrete social spheres: personal relationships, economic activity in the market, and the political public sphere. Honneth seeks thereby to realize a very ambitious aim: to renew the theory of justice as an analysis of society.

Introduction: A Theory of Justice as an Analysis of Society
A. Historical Background: The Right to Freedom
1. Negative Freedom and the Social Contract
2. Reflexive Freedom and Its Conception of Justice
3. Social Freedom and the Doctrine of Ethical Life
Transition: The Idea of Democratic Ethical Life
B. The Possibility of Freedom
1. Legal Freedom
2. Moral Freedom
C. The Reality of Freedom
3. Social Freedom
"A stunningly ambitious exploration of the ways in which the major institutions of Western society promote freedom and at the same time present obstacles to its realization. Honneth defends a compelling conception of social freedom grounded in mutual recognition, which he employs both to comprehend contemporary social reality and to reveal its deficiencies. Characterized by an extraordinary richness of detail, the book's aim is a provocative mix of reconciliation and critique. No social philosopher has attempted a project of this scope since Hegel composed the Philosophy of Right almost two hundred years ago."
Frederick Neuhouser, Barnard College

"Breaking with the dominant style of contemporary political philosophy, Axel Honneth demonstrates how fruitful it can be to develop a theory of social justice, not simply by appeal to common beliefs and intuitions, but more fundamentally on the basis of an understanding of the characteristic institutions of modern society. Freedom's Right is a brilliant work by one of today's leading philosophers."
Charles Larmore, Brown University

"On a historical and ideological level, Freedom's Right is a bold effort to rescue the Philosophy of Right from the Heglian Right."
Political Studies Review
  • This is a major new book by one of the leading social philosophers of our time
  • The book deals with the theory of justice Ð one of the most widely-discussed areas of contemporary philosophy
  • Honneth argues that existing theories of justice, by focusing on abstract normative principles, become detached from social reality
  • To overcome this limitation, he seeks to derive criteria of social justice from the normative claims that have emerged in Western democratic societies, showing that they realize a specific aspect of individual freedom
  • This book thereby offers a very original and ambitious theory of justice as an analysis of society
  • This book will be of great interest to students and scholars in philosophy, sociology, politics and the humanities and social sciences generally