Category : Habermas


At the center of Jurgen Habermas’s account of the development of self-iden­tity is the capacity to question and criticize conventions. This requires a capac­ity to conceptually abstract from given contexts through an appeal to principles. And this capacity is learned through the internalization of social and linguistic norms. For Habermas, the development of self-identity is pred­icated on the development of moral identity.

Habermas draws on the work of George Herbert Mead to articulate a theory of the development of self-identity through linguistically mediated interaction. For Mead, “The fact that all selves are constituted by the social process… is not in the least incompatible with, or destructive of, the fact that every individual self has its own peculiar individuality.”14 In fact, it is only through “the social process” that a “peculiar individuality” can be realized. From Mead, Habermas draws a description of how socialization, the learn­ing and internalizing of linguistic and social norms, produces not simple conformity to those norms, but true individuation. I shall take up this descrip­tion at the ontogenetic level—at the level of individual development.

The crux of the interpretation Habermas draws from Mead, and what takes it beyond Freud, and beyond the thesis of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, is the concept of the perspective of the “generalized other”: the idea that through linguistic interactions a human child develops an under­standing of social norms not simply as expressions of arbitrary choice or self – interest, but as subject to demands for and tests of validity.15

For Mead, the child’s self-identity, in both its epistemic and its practical dimensions, develops through the mechanism of taking the perspective of another, who, in an interactive relationship, takes up a performative attitude toward the self.

In the first stages of taking the attitude of the other, the child understands its interaction with its parents as a reciprocal satisfaction of interests expressed as imperatives. Once the child comes to recognize that the parents’ expression of imperatives is connected with the parent’s provision of care, the child responds to the threat of withdrawal of care by internalizing the parents’ attitude toward herself.16 At first the internalized attitudes are still tied to the concrete roles of a particular self and other. The attitudes or roles become detached from specific persons, and the transition to the perspective of the generalized other begins, with the introduction of a third-person or objective perspective. Thus far, the description of development applies as much to Freud as to Mead.

Freud and Mead realized that these patterns of behavior become detached from the context-bound intentions and speech acts of individual persons, and take on the external shape of social norms insofar as the sanctions connected with them are internalized through taking the attitude of the other, that is to say, to the degree that they are taken into the personality and thereby rendered independent of the sanctioning power of concrete reference persons.17

At first, the objective or generalized norm of action is understood only in terms of an imperative which rests on choice—in this case, on the generalized choice, or arbitrary will, of the group. It is only with the transition to what Mead calls the perspective of the generalized other—and here we move beyond Freud—that the child comes to understand group norms not in terms of arbitrary will or choice and self-interest, but in terms of claims to validity: in terms of mutual obligations and expectations. The mechanism of internal­ization is essential to the development of this understanding.

The authority of the “generalized other” differs from authority based only on disposition over means of sanction, in that it rests on assent. When A regards the group sanctions as his own, as sanctions he directs at himself, he has to presuppose his assent to the norm whose violation he punishes in this way. Unlike socially generalized imperatives, institutions claim a validity that rests on intersubjective recognition, on the consent of those affected by it: “Over against the protection of our lives or property, we assume the attitude of assent of all members in the community. We take the role of what may be called ‘the generalized other.’”18

In other words, through internalizing the attitude of the generalized other, the child comes to recognize “objective” social norms as her own. Thus, I come to recognize or constitute myself as a member or participant in the “we.” This connection between the self and the “we” is internalized, both in the sense of the development of understanding, and in the sense of the setting up of a motivational structure. In learning to orient her behavior to norms and take part in normatively regulated interactions, the child understands her self as a participant in a “we,” and comprehend the meaning of a valid norm—i. e., that it rests, ideally, on the assent of each and all and as such is subject to criticism on the grounds that there are good reasons for my not assenting. The child makes a transition from a motivational structure based on interests and imperatives to a motivational structure based on an orienta­tion to validity claims—on a recognition of shared expectations and obliga­tions. Thus, internalization is the mechanism of both a comprehension of the meaning of social norms as, in principle, valid norms and an anchoring of those norms in a motivational structure.

It must be stressed that this account of the development of self-identity only works if we stipulate that the generalized other represents not an actual community consensus, but an ideal, a standard against which any norm must be measured. Contrary to what Habermas, and Mead, often seem to suggest, there is in modern societies no given social world of conventional norms that the child simply takes over and internalize. Rather, a child internalizes many different and conflicting normative positions. In order to participate effec­tively in interactions with primary others, and with institutions, a child may take the attitude of her mother’s appeal to an “ethic of care,” her father’s appeal to an ethic of rights, her grandfather’s appeal to an ethic of particular traditional conventions, and the ethic of strategic rationality in the pursuit of self-interest upheld by her favorite TV show. (More likely, each of her refer­ence persons will represent a mixture of these attitudes and others.) She will have to deal with the differences between her mother who thinks homosexu­ality is sick and her aunt who’s a lesbian and a gay rights activist, a black teacher who teaches the principles of universal equality and black pride and white friends who are racists. There is no actual given perspective of a unified conventional “we” which is the generalized other. What is internalized is a capacity to appeal to principles, to standards of normative validity. The child is forced to individuate through taking positions with respect to given conflicts. Ideally, she learns to do so through abstracting from her particular loyalties to each of her different reference persons, to appeal to principles.19

The crucial point here is that for Habermas, Mead’s concept of taking the attitude of the other, which Mead understands as calling forth a response in oneself that one also calls out in the other, cannot be understood on the model of a simple response to a stimulus, but must be understood through a model of linguistic interaction. The response, can be understood “in the full dialogical

sense as an ‘answer’”; hence, what is internalized is not simply assent, taking the attitude of the other demands “internalizing yes/no responses to statements or imperatives.”20 Habermas takes this idea from Tugendhat, who notes that “consent only has significance against the background of the possibility of refusal.”21 What is internalized is a capacity for critique.

For Habermas, the capacity for critique grounded in linguistic communi­cation underlies the development of both moral identity and more general personal identity. In analyzing the structure of role perspectives inherent in linguistic communication, Habermas follows Mead, who systematically connects “the role-taking effective in socialization with the speech situations in which speakers and hearers enter into interpersonal situations as members of a social group.”22 One takes oyer a reflected sense of self or “me” by adopting the other’s perspective or expectations toward oneself. But the struc­ture of linguistic interaction is such that the other, in recognizing you as a participant in interaction, expects you to take a position in response to her speech act. Thus, as a participant in the interaction, one must accept the free­dom and responsibility of taking a position in response to the other’s speech act. It is this freedom—and this responsibility—demanded of participants in linguistically mediated social interaction, which is the source of individuation.

The performative attitude that ego and alter adopt when they act commu­nicatively with one another is bound up with the presupposition that the other can take a “yes” or “no” position on the offer contained in one’s own speech act. Ego cannot relinquish this scope for freedom even when he is, so to speak, obeying social roles; for the linguistic structure of a rela­tion between responsible actors is built into the internalized pattern of behavior itself.23

The demand that one “take a position” is not restricted to questions of moral principle and the justification of norms; this is a demand found in any commu­nicative interaction. In my response to another’s speech act I am necessarily taking a position. Thus, individuation is an ongoing process: the development of a sense of self-identity (of a “me”) takes place through a continual process of reflection on and assimilation of the actual positions taken, in practice, in my responses to other’s speech acts. The element of spontaneity and unpredictabil­ity is introduced by the “I” which acts, in response to the acts of others.

Thus in the socialization process an “I” emerges equiprimordially with the “me,” and the individuating effect of socialization processes results from this double structure. The model for the relation between the two agencies is the “answer” of a participant in communication who takes a “yes” or “no” position. Which answer ego will give in any instance, what position he will take, cannot be known in advance—either by him or by anyone else.24

For Habermas the development of self-identity is a response to the demands inherent in the structure of linguistic communication.

The individuation effected by the linguistically mediated process of social­ization is explained by the linguistic medium itself. It belongs to the logic of the use of the personal pronouns, and especially to the perspective of a speaker who orients himself to a second person, that this speaker cannot in actu rid himself of his irreplaceability, cannot take refuge in the anonymity of a third person, but must lay claim to recognition as an indi­viduated being

Among the universal and unavoidable presuppositions of action oriented to reaching understanding is the presupposition that the speaker qua actor lays claim to recognition both as an autonomous will and as an individuated being.25

In linguistic communication, the speaker is required to recognize and take responsibility for herself as a “me,” and to take positions in response to others as an “I.” The demand made of participants in linguistically mediated inter­action, that they accept the freedom and responsibility of taking an affirma­tive or negative position in response to an other’s speech act, is what underlies the development of moral identity as a critical relation to social norms, and of personal identity as a critical relation to oneself.

Moral identity is based on the recognition “that a norm deserves to be valid only insofar as… it takes into account the interests of everyone involved, and only insofar as it embodies the will that all could form in common, each in his own interest, as the will of the generalized other.”26 It is this orientation to the validity of a norm that provides the individual with the basis for critique: if anyone’s interests are being excluded, then the norm is not valid. If anyone presents reasons for not consenting, then the validity of the norm is called into question. And this is what makes it possible for the individual to abstract from particular norms to universal principles, to move from simple conformity to or deviance from given norms to a capacity to rela- tivize and criticize given norms in the name of universal principles, but to do so as a participant in a social world.

For Habermas, this capacity for critique which is built into linguistic inter­action, and built into the internalization of norms, is essential to not only moral but more general personal identity.

The identity of the ego can… be stabilized only through the abstract abil­ity to satisfy the requirements of consistency, and thereby the conditions of recognition, in the face of incompatible role expectations and in pass­ing through a succession of contradictory role systems. The ego-identity of the adult proves its worth in the ability to build up new identities from

shattered or superseded identities, and to integrate them with old identi­ties in such a way that the fabric of one’s interactions is organized into the unity of a life history that is both unmistakable and accountable.27

The self-identity of the adult depends on the ability to “take over and be responsible” for integrating all of the different, often conflicting, positions one takes, into a narrative that is meaningful to others and to oneself. This requires a cognitive ability to resolve conflicts among particular positions by abstracting to more complex meanings, and by reflecting on practices in a process of self-critique: by asking the questions, what kind of person am I, and is this the person I want to be? For Habermas, this cognitive process of self-evaluation calls for an “appropriative form of understanding.”28

But if the capacity for critique is essential, it is not a sufficient condition of the development of a meaningful and recognizable self-identity. There also has to be an existential commitment to the meanings you produce through your practices, and through which you critically judge and guide your practices.

What Habermas’s developmental model doesn’t answer is how we come to be able to make that commitment to a recognizable, integrated, and mean­ingful self-identity and keep it relatively open, flexible, and nondefensive. It is unable to account for varying levels of identity-competence; to account for why many—probably most—of us fail to successfully develop coherent and meaningful self-identities and typically err either on the side of rigidity and defensiveness—a failure to question and criticize—or on the side of mushy indistinctness—a failure to abstract from particulars and resolve contradic­tions. Nor can it account for why this failure often takes the form of a spir­ited resistance to identity, abstraction, resolution, and integration. To fill in this gap, I draw on the work of Julia Kristeva.


Kristeva’s work is characterized by a profound ambivalence with regard to the nature of society, and hence of language and individuation. There are two different models in Kristeva’s work of the development of identity through the internalization of linguistic and social norms. On one hand, Kristeva could be described as a Derridean poststructuralist with a stoic individualist twist. In this guise, Kristeva sees the “sociosymbolic order” as a closed structure that is essentially repressive and essentially patriarchal. To this extent she agrees with Derrideans, but she differs from them insofar as she insists that the struc­tures of language and individuation are essential for human social interaction and participation. Thus, the only solution is to stoically accept the closed, repressive, patriarchal order of language as the only means of participation in social interaction, while at the same time constantly subverting it. Self-iden-

tity is a constant oscillation between stoic acceptance and subversion of the Law:

A constant alternation between time and its ‘truth’, identity and its loss, history and that which produces it: that which remains extra-phenomenal, outside the sign, beyond time. An impossible dialectic of two terms, a permanent alternation: never the one without the other.29

But there is another track in Kristeva’s work: in many of her writings, Kristeva understands individuation in terms of a not-impossible dialectic between system and practice, as a constant process of investment in and inter­nalization of a language system that is constantly transformed through indi­vidual and social practices. Kristeva’s “subject-in-process” is a subject who develops and changes through taking up positions, or identities, through an investment in a sociosymbolic order and thereby realizing and expressing her own heterogeneity (and in turn transforming language and society).

Against Derrida’s invocation of a constant negativity in resistance to any identity, Kristeva argues that the refusal of identity renders negativity merely positive, leaving us in a space in which difference no longer exists. In its relentless subversion of Identity, Derrida’s “trace” “marks anteriority to every entity and thus to every position:… the trace dissolves every thesis—mater­ial, natural, social, substantial, and logical—in order to free itself from any dependence on the Logos.”30 The effect of this resistance position, to any thesis, or identity is a theory which “gives up on the subject, and must remain ignorant [of the subject’s] functioning as social practice… .”31 For Kristeva, the subject constitutes itself only through positing, through taking positions or identities within a social world and a symbolic order—only by engaging in a world of shared or identical meanings, through which one can realize one’s own meaning.

Like Habermas, Kristeva focuses on the need to take positions in everyday social interactions as central to the constitution of self-identity. Both Habermas and Kristeva argue that the capacity to take positions requires the development of a capacity to identify oneself with a social “we,” in a shared symbolic meaning-system. But whereas for Habermas the need to take a posi­tion means the need to relate to norms in a critical and questioning manner, for Kristeva taking a position tends to mean taking a position of identity within the symbolic order, which will allow “nonidentity” or difference to emerge—to be realized or expressed—thereby producing a new position. Whereas for Habermas the pressure to individuate inheres in the freedom and responsibility to take an affirmative or negative position in response to others’ speech acts, Kristeva analyzes the pressure to individuate in terms of the tension between unconscious drives and socio-linguistic systems, and analyzes the positing of identity as a condition for the expression or articulation of

desires—and hence, the realization of a self and its meaning—in language. Kristeva provides no mechanism for moving from a conventional to a post – conventional, critical, moral identity, because she does not recognize a connection between identity of meaning and intersubjective validity. What she does offer is an analysis of the constitution of identity in terms of the expres­sion or articulation of a self, through the expression of bodily heterogeneity and of affects, in language which is meaningful to oneself and to others. She provides an account of the development of a practical self-identity—of an identity which is postconventional insofar as it is an ability to relate mean­ingfully to differences within oneself and between self and others. At her best, Kristeva understands the tension between drives and language—both, forces beyond the individual’s control—not as barriers to, but, as Axel Honneth has put it, as “enabling conditions” of the development of self-identity.32 For the development of individual identity, or individual meaning, is only possible through the expression or realization of one’s specificity in language—in a system of shared meanings, through interaction with others.

Kristeva’s psychoanalytic analysis of the development of identity in terms of expression, rather than repression, produces some surprising results: against Lacan and Freud, who tend to argue that learning symbolic and social systems entails the repression of aggressive and pleasure-seeking drives, Kristeva argues that the development of a capacity for signification, or linguis­tic competence, emerges out of a deployment or expression of those drives. In the Freudian-Lacanian scenario:

The symbolic function is… dissociated from all pleasure, made to oppose it, and is set up as the paternal place, the place of the superego. According to this view, the only way to react against the consequences of repression imposed by the compulsion of the pleasure principle is to renounce plea­sure through symbolization by setting up the sign through the absence of the object, which is expelled and forever lost.

What this interpretation seems to rule out is the pleasure underlying the symbolic function 33

For Kristeva, the move into language and a social world—into linguisti­cally mediated interaction—is not a fall, not a renunciation of pleasure. Rather it is “a separation which is not a lack but a discharge and which… arouses pleasure.”34 The pleasure Kristeva describes here is associated with what she calls abjection: an aggressive drive (corresponding to Freud’s anal drive) for expulsion, destruction, separation, which underlies the rejection of dependence on the power of others, the separation of self and other, and the distinction between subject and predicate in language. Abjection interacts with the (oral) drive for incorporation: a drive toward both having and being, possession of and identification with others, and investment in language.

Kristeva describes the development of a capacity for signification—for linguis­tic competence and an orientation to meaning—in terms of the pleasures of abjection and incorporation.35 And it is these experiences of pleasure which, for Kristeva, motivate the internalization of symbolic and social norms.

Thus, whereas Habermas argues that norms are initially internalized only in response to a threat and initially represent only the arbitrary dictates of authority, Kristeva argues that the development of linguistic competence and the development of self-identity through the internalization of sociosymbolic norms is a pleasurable process.36 Moreover, she argues that these processes represent for the child a deliverance from utter dependence, from helplessness in the face of authority, to a means of signification—a means of participation in a social world through an orientation to meaning.

While Kristeva often advocates the “constant alternation” between iden­tity and nonidentity as the “impossible dialectic” of the self, in many of her writings Kristeva upholds a normative ideal of an integrated self—a complex self-identity based on a reflexive and affective recognition and acceptance of the difference and nonidentity within the self. It is only through the cognitive recognition and affective acceptance of the complexity or internal differenti­ation of the other that the child comes to recognize and accept both the sepa­rateness of her self from others with whom she interacts, and the internal differentiation of her own self.

The developmental condition for this recognition and acceptance is the transition from prelinguistic or drive-based, to linguistically mediated inter­action with others, and hence, the opening up of a social world. Central to this process is the internalization of social and linguistic norms. This inter­nalization is mediated by experiences of pleasure, by affective relations, and by cognitive development.

According to Kristeva, the child moves from a relation to the primary care­taker based on satisfaction of needs to a relation based on a shared orienta­tion to meaning. Too often, Kristeva describes this path of development in the terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis, as a transition from a relationship of immediacy or merging with the mother to an acceptance of the paternal Law of the symbolic order. Kristeva’s twist to this story is that the investment in the phallic symbolic order is mediated by an identification with an idealized father and that the motivation for investment in the symbolic order is the recovery of the mother (the primary object) in language, and meaning.37

But Kristeva also tells the story in another way. In this other version, the child moves from a need-based relationship with the first caretaker (who is, typically, the mother) to a recognition that the mother’s needs are not wholly satisfied by the child, that she has an other meaning in her life beyond the child. The child has to recognize, in some rudimentary way, that the mother is complex and internally differentiated. And the child is forced to recognize

this through the mother’s failure to satisfy all of her demands. In the process she learns that there is a realm of meaning that can satisfy desires, and she is able to identify with the mother’s desire for and investment in that meaning. It is this identification with the mother’s desire—with the mother’s means of participation in a social world, with her investment in a shared social mean­ing—which mediates, ideally, the child’s internalization of linguistic and social norms.38

The motivation for this internalization is not simply the threat of punish­ment but the promise of the gift of meaning—of a means for mediating rela­tionships with primary others and for participating in a larger social world where desires can be satisfied.

It is this affective investment in social meaning which underlies the capac­ity to affectively accept one’s own differentiation from others and the differ­entiation within oneself. It also underlies the capacity to develop an integrated sense of self, which will not dissolve into differences. One is able to realize one’s self through expression of one’s “nonidentity” in terms of shared mean­ings and this expression is mediated through affective investment in discourse with others.

Kristeva argues that the transference relationship—i. e., the relationship of identification with a loved other—

is a true process of self-organization. This means that once the accidents, aggressions, and errors of my discourse (of my life), have been inserted into the transference dynamic, they are no longer those failures of a final – istic linear process that anguished me before. To the contrary, in transfer­ence love, “errors” are overcompensated; they produce the libidinal self-organization that has the effect of making me more complex and autonomous. Why? Because, as they are introduced by means of discourse into transference (into love…), the death drive, or the “negative” in Freud’s sense of the term, enters the service of symbolic apprenticeship,

autonomization, and greater complexity of the individual.39


The failure to develop an integrated sense of self-identity, is characterized by Kristeva as the development of linguistic competence through the learning of linguistic norms in the relative absence of any affective investment in those norms. One is able to address oneself to a universal other, but not to a partic­ular other. Or, as Kristeva puts it, you get the “kit of representation but with­out the caboodle of drive. The caboodle remained in the emptiness of maternal fusion and/or maternal absence.”40 This happens when social and linguistic norms are experienced as primarily repressive and are only adopted in response to threat. And this happens in a social world in which too many given norms are oppressive—where, in particular, mothers, or primary care­givers, too often do not fully experience themselves as participants.

In this case, meaning comes to be understood only on the level of the universal and is nonparticularized. To affectively invest in general or univer­sal meanings one needs to be able to make meaning for another—for, in particular, a loved other. The use of language without an addressee of discourse—without someone who is spoken to—leaves it empty of significa­tion for the speaker.41

The strength of Kristeva’s account, for feminism, is her insistence that the affective relationship cannot serve as an end in itself, as a means of produc­ing individual or particular meanings. Rather, it serves as a means of invest­ing in a world of shared meanings, of constituting and experiencing oneself as a participant in that world and of making those meanings constantly open to diversity and change.

The account of the development of self-identity that I presented here is, of course, far from complete. I show only that any understanding of the devel­opment of self-identity must take both of these constitutive elements into account: both the capacity to relate to norms in a critical way and the capac­ity to express or realize one’s own meaning through affective investment in discourse with others. Both of these capacities entail the internalization of social and linguistic norms, an internalization of shared or identical meanings through relationships of identification with others. Both provide a way to unlock the paradoxes of the self: of individual identity versus social identity, of drives versus language, autonomy versus relationship to others.

In closing, I call attention to some unresolved problems in Habermas’s and Kristeva’s theories, which I have been unable to deal with adequately here. Both Habermas and Kristeva tend to conflate the learning of social norms with the learning of linguistic norms: for Kristeva, the two are conceptually conflated in the concept of a sociosymbolic order; Habermas differentiates conceptually between them, but the differentiation is not always evident in his analysis. Perhaps that’s why neither provides much of an understanding of the ways in which particular, as opposed to general or universal collective identities and affiliations, influence and interact with the development of self – identity. I tried to redress the latter omission to some extent in this paper; the former problem proves more resistant.

Toward a Developmental Theory of Self-Identity

For the early Frankfurt School theorists, the capacity for critique was the essential achievement of individuation. But in the melancholy story of the “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” the development of the individual’s capacity for critique entails the internalization of authority which, paradoxically, oblit­erates all motives for critique, and inhibits any capacity for genuinely inde­pendent thought.10 Jessica Benjamin argues that Adorno’s problem was that he was unable to shake his liberal bourgeois faith in reason and the autonomous individual, abstracted from contexts and relationships, and thus was unable to imagine any process of self-development besides the internal­ization of dominating reason.11 Benjamin argues that the way to get out of the circle of internalizing domination for the development of reason is to reject both internalization and reason—to reject both internalization of social norms as the means, and autonomous rationality as the goal, of self-develop­ment. Benjamin’s solution is to shift to a different model of self-development, focusing on spontaneous self-assertion and affective identification with partic­ular others. But Benjamin’s model of a spontaneous and embedded self provides the self with no capacity for abstraction from or critique of given contexts, and thus no capacity for participation in a social world. As a result, she is left advocating that we accept the paradox between spontaneous prac­tices of self-assertion, on the one hand, and experiences of attunement with others, on the other.12 This is a variation on the old opposition between the individual and society, the paradox of social identity and self identity, identity with and difference from others, which is a false paradox.13 Like Adorno, Benjamin is unable to mediate the paradox of the self, because like Adorno, she equates the development of independent and critical reason with the development of domination.

In what follows, I propose that Jurgen Habermas’s model of the develop­ment of self-identity as the development of a capacity for critique will serve feminism better than models of the self which reject resolution and abstrac­tion, and hence, participation and critique. I shall supplement Habermas’s model with Julia Kristeva’s model of the development of self-identity through practices of affective identification and expression. Both Habermas and Kristeva, I shall argue, theorize the identity of the self in relation to both the identity of meaning in language and the identification with, or relationship to, others. But where Habermas focuses on the interaction of identity of mean­ing in language with intersubjective recognition, which underlies the devel­opment of moral identity through an orientation to normative validity, Kristeva focuses on the interaction of identity of meaning in language with affective relations with others, which underlies the realization of a self through a capacity for expression.

Both Habermas and Kristeva propose models of individuation as a capac­ity for participation in a social world, and both presuppose that this capacity depends on a capacity for mutual understanding through the internalization of linguistic and social norms. Both develop theories of internalization which are very different from Adorno’s, and from Benjamin’s. For Habermas, what is internalized is not simply authority but an experience of mutuality and a capacity for critique. For Kristeva, internalization is not simply a response to threat (as it is, still, for Habermas), but a source of pleasure.

Toward a Model of Self-Identity: Habermas and Kristeva

Allison Weir

One of the most important tasks facing contemporary feminist theorists is the task of reformulating and reconstructing our concepts of the self. We need new models of identity, of individuation, of agency and autonomy which will take account of the important critiques of these concepts generated by feminist theorists. In this paper I will work toward a model of self-identity which can address some of the concerns of both relational feminism, which argues that the ideal of self-identity too often conceals a defense against connection with others, and postmodern and poststructuralist feminism, which argues that the concept of self-identity can be understood only in terms of the system of mean­ing which produces it: a system predicated on a logic of exclusion of noniden­tity or difference. My attempt to clarify a normative ideal of self-identity comes out of a conviction that we need to uphold a commitment to women’s strug­gles for identity and autonomy in the context of feminist critiques of defensive atomistic individualism and critiques of the concept of the disembedded subject as the free and unfettered author of his destiny. We need to make a space for an understanding of self-identity and autonomy which will not clash with our conviction that individuals must be understood as embedded, embod­ied, localized, constituted, and fragmented, as well as subject to forces beyond our control. We need to understand ourselves clearly as actors capable of learn­ing, of changing, of making the world and ourselves, better.

So it is important that I begin by saying what a defensible ideal of self – identity is not. It is not some sort of essentialist ontology, not an idealist

conception of an original pregiven authentic self. It is not an alienated indi­vidualism severed from connections and solidarities, severed from collective struggles, immune to systems of power and oppression. It is not an attempt to repress or deny the embodiment, fragmentation, dividedness, and multi­plicity of human selves, or the constitution of subjects in and through language and power.

The concept of self-identity I defend can be defined as the capacity to expe­rience oneself as an active and relatively coherent participant in a social world. Essential to self-identity, then, is “the ability of a person to relate to him or herself and to be able to relate to others in a meaningful way, to act and react self-consciously.”1 This emphasis on a capacity for meaningful interaction with self and others takes us in two directions, for it introduces both reflexivity and intersubjectivity as essential components of self-identity. Reflexivity, for the meanings of my relationships to myself and to others come down to me: I am the one faced with the question of who I am and who I want to be. I am the one who must invest my existence with meaning for me; this meaning can be generated only through my participation in social mean­ings, which are intersubjectively constituted. The very concept of a self, of an I, of a me, is something which is constructed only through intersubjective interactions, which take place always in contexts of shared meanings. Similarly, my identity as this specific individual is constructed through my participation in communities, institutions, and systems of meaning, which organize my interactions with, and through which I interpret my interactions with, the world, my self, and others. My identity is produced through a complex process through which I am identified, and identify myself, in terms of intersubjective contexts of meaning.

The capacity, and the responsibility, to problematize and define one’s own meaning (one’s own identity) is both the burden and the privilege of modern subjects. As a subject who is no longer defined by a fixed position in a social system, I am (relatively) free (or, at the least, I aspire to a normative ideal of freedom) to determine, through my practices, who I am and who I am going to be. The flip side of this freedom is the burden of self-definition: every action, every decision becomes self-defining; every action, every position is open to question.2 This freedom and this responsibility are absolutely inescapable in our daily lives. At the same time, along with the increasing need for self-definition goes an increasing production and differentiation of identity-attributes: of possible roles, attachments and affiliations, values, beliefs and commitments, needs and desires, styles and modes of expression. We are exposed to more and more frameworks for reflection on and demys­tification of the constitutive influences which shape our identities (such as family and relationship dynamics, unconscious processes, collective identities, economic, social, and linguistic systems, systems of power and oppression…).

Central to self-identity, then, is the capacity to sustain and in some sense reconcile multiple and often conflicting identities and to understand, criticize, and reconcile multiple and often conflicting interpretations of those identities, not to mention the capacity to live with and somehow reconcile all of the ambiguity and complexity of our lives that does not (and never will) readily lend itself to this identity-work. Ideally, these reconciliations are achieved not through the imposition of an identity which excludes or represses difference and nonidentity (the concern of post-modernists), but through a capacity to reflexively and practically accept, live with, and make sense of differences and complexity. This capacity is based not on a denial of connections with others (the concern of relational theorists), but on a cognitive and affective acceptance of intersubjectivity and autonomy and of the dependence on and independence from others, which underlies a capacity to recognize when my meaning differs from the meaning of others, and when my identity is bound up with the iden­tity of a partial or general “we.”

This is, of course, an enormously demanding project, the difficulty of which is increased as various identities are recognized as bound to systems of oppression, and with communities and institutions that define themselves through exclusions. This is acutely expressed by Gloria Anzaldua who writes of her ongoing attempts to make some sense out of the conflicts among her various identities as a Catholic-raised, lesbian Chicana (Mexican, Anglo – American): “I have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel like one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one.”3

The experience of lack of self is the familiar dark side of a culture charac­terized by a growing pressure for self-identity under conditions of increasing fragmentation. But the other side of this pressure and this fragmentation is a freedom of conscious self-determination and a capacity for analysis: Anzaldua describes her conscious choice to live her life as a lesbian and describes her struggle for self-analysis and self-making as a “path of knowledge” which opens up a process of analysis and critique of social and cultural institutions governing race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Essential to an individual’s capacity to problematize and define her own identity are cognitive and practical capacities for self-knowledge, self-realiza­tion, and self-direction,4 which involve cognitive capacities for learning, for critique, and for organization, and practical capacities for expression, engage­ment, commitment, and flexibility. The development of self-identity requires the learning of social and linguistic norms, through which the expression or realization of one’s specificity, and the development of a capacity for the critique of norms, becomes possible. (I also want to say that it is through these practices of expression and critique that social and linguistic norms change and are kept open and diverse.) The development of self-identity requires the cognitive capacity to reflect on who I am and what matters to me, and to organize diverse identities and identity-attributes, into some sort of meaning­ful narrative or constellation. It also requires the practical, existential capac­ity to discover and define and commit to what matters to me, to my meaning, while remaining flexible and open to change. To some extent, all of this depends on an ability to resolve particular differences and conflicts into more general meanings.

This notion of self-identity as a capacity to resolve differences and conflicts has not been popular among feminist theorists. Iris Young, for example, argues that “any individual subject is a play of differences that cannot be comprehended” and that the struggle for self-identity (and the struggle for reciprocal recognition with others) is necessarily based on a logic of identity which necessarily denies differences.5 For Young, identity and difference are mutually exclusive; thus, she argues for an ideal of “unassimilated other­ness.”6 Similarly, Luce Irigaray, Diana Fuss, and Jessica Benjamin all argue that the attempt to resolve contradictions is an act of domination, and it is better to leave contradictions and paradoxes unresolved.7 All of these theo­rists make these arguments in the name of a model of the self as an open process of constant change.

But the struggle to resolve conflicts through an openness to difference is essential to the practice of change and the generation of new meaning. It is impossible to understand the developments in the self-understanding of femi­nists, and the feminist movement, without acknowledging the role played by individual and collective struggles to understand differences and make sense of and resolve conflicts. To take just one example, the “Sex Wars” debates were provoked by some women’s struggles to explore sexuality, pleasure, violence, and desire past the boundaries set by anti-porn feminism. At the individual level, the struggle of a particular woman to analyze, articulate, and make sense of the relationships between her sexual desires, fantasies, and practices and her feminist values requires a struggle to reconceptualize the relationship between her feminist values and her experiences of pleasure and desire. In the process, both the understanding of feminism and the under­standing of desire—and, in turn, her own self-understanding—undergo change, a change that could not have happened if she had simply accepted paradox and had made no attempt to resolve it; if, that is, she had not taken either her desires or her commitment to feminist values seriously enough to attempt to resolve the apparent conflict between them. It is such individual and collective struggles to resolve conflicts which fueled the opening up of feminist discourses about pleasure and desire and radically changed the land­scape of feminist theory and practice.

The struggle to make meaning through attempting to resolve apparent contradictions is essential to the ongoing constitution of self-identity. Since it is impossible to make meaning in abstraction from the practical activity of

making meaning for and with other people, the development of self-identity is possible only through the development of a capacity for mutual under­standing, within intersubjective relationships. But this means that we have to be able to conceptually abstract from the relationships themselves to the inter­subjective meanings which mediate relationships.

To put this another way, the problem of the identity of the self is bound up with the problem of the identity of meaning, and with the problem of the identification with, or the relationship to, others. It seems to me that attempts by feminist theorists to formulate a positive conception of self-identity often founder because one or the other of these elements is left out. Relational theo­ries like Nancy Chodorow’s focus on the relationship between self-identity and identification with others, but leave out any consideration of identity of meaning. Because they lack any concept of mediation through identity of meaning in language, they see the identity of the self and identification with others as locked in eternal opposition or merged into one. On the other hand, post-structuralist theories tend to focus on the structural homology between the identity of the self and the identity of meaning in language, but leave out any conception of mediation through social relations with others. Thus, they see the identity of the self and the identity of meaning in language as united in a logic or structure of totalizing repressive identity. The effect is that each is unable to abstract, either from concrete relationships or from the system of language, to a concept of the individual as a participant in the intersubjective constitution of meaning.

It is crucially important that feminist theorists reconsider a common tendency to see abstraction as the enemy. For example, Judith Butler argues that we need to reject any conception of agency as a capacity for reflexive mediation, because such a conception falsely “separates [the] subject from its cultural predicates,” abstracts from the subject’s color, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and the “illimitable et cetera,” and abstracts from the process of signi­fication or the linguistic constitution of the subject. Furthermore, the postu­lation of a capacity for reflection upholds a false “epistemological” conception of a subject who is separated from and opposed to its object/other.8 This argument is surprisingly similar to the arguments of rela­tional theorists like Evelyn Fox Keller, Susan Bordo, and Sandra Harding, among others, who criticize a characteristically masculine emphasis on abstraction, which they associate with the separation of subject and object, the denial of connections to others, and the domination of the other/object.9 What is common to these otherwise disparate arguments is an association of abstraction and separation with domination or repression.

While there is much to be learned from feminist critiques of the abstrac­tion of the individual from the intersubjective relationships and the contexts of power; language, and meaning that constitute us, there is also a danger here

of sliding into absurdity. Once we get to the point where we reject any abstraction of the individual from contexts and any postulation of the indi­vidual’s capacity for reflection on contexts, we effectively deny any capacity of agents to participate in, criticize, and change those contexts. In rejecting abstraction, feminist theorists forget that the capacity to abstract from partic­ular relationships, from linguistic systems and social norms, is essential to a capacity to criticize those relationships, systems, and norms. The challenge, then, is not to reject abstraction for embeddedness, but to theorize a capacity for abstraction for detachment, for critique, which is not opposed to but continuous with, and in fact constitutive of, participation.

Aesthetic Change

Suppose we take our interpretive and evaluative differences seriously with regard to the question of the normative legitimacy of contract pregnancy or surrogate motherhood. Might we look, then, for a resolution of the issue not by relying on the force of the better argument but rather by looking towards the sorts of discus­sions in which we consider and explore our interpretive and evaluative differ­ences? In particular, might we not look to the domain of art and literature in which interpretive and evaluative differences seem to be at home? The first impor­tant point to be made about these differences in aesthetic discussions is that we expect them. We expect that different interpreters will understand and evaluate the same text or work of art in different ways and even that the same interpreter will understand and evaluate the same text or art work in different ways at differ­ent times and in different contexts. Indeed, such differences are a large part of the vitality of literary and artistic criticism. We dismiss certain interpretations of a text or work of art as unworkable because they ignore significant parts of the text, fail to translate its language correctly, or make a shambles of its plot lines or charac­terizations. Yet, even if certain interpretations of a text or work of art can be wrong, we do not assume that only one interpretation of a text can be right.

A second point to be made about our interpretive differences in the realm of art and literature is that they are not ones that we simply tolerate. We take them seriously, though not as differences we must necessarily resolve. We read alternative interpretations of the texts and works in which we are interested as a way of checking and expanding our own interpretations, as a way of discovering whether we have overlooked important aspects of the texts or works or whether looking at them in a different way, with a different set of concerns and interests or within a different context, might reveal new dimen­sions of them. In discussing a text or work of art we can be convinced of the general adequacy and intelligence of our own interpretation, yet open both to the adequacy and intelligence of different interpretations and to the way we might use them to develop and enrich our own. This sort of openness to the interpretations and evaluations of others is less interested in their faults than in what they may see in the text or work that we have not and how we might integrate into our own interpretation the insights we find in it.

How are these two features of interpretive discussion relevant to the moral domain with which discourse ethics is concerned? In my view, they suggest the possibility of a similar sort of openness. If our normative differences are not always ones that can be resolved through the force of the better argument and if even what counts for us as the better argument involves our values, sensibilities, cultural traditions, and conceptions of the good, then we acknowledge that our moral and political differences are not always differ­ences over right and wrong. Rather, they are simply differences in the way we understand our norms and integrate them with one another, differences, moreover, from which we can learn. Habermas admits the “one-to-one rela­tionship” that he establishes between “the prescriptive validity of a norm” and the normative validity claim raised by a speech act offer is “not a proper model for the relation between the potential for truth of works of art and the transformed relations between self and world stimulated by aesthetic experi­ence.” Instead, an aesthetic experience can reach into and transform “the totality in which these moments are related to each other.”25 Habermas does not draw all the possible consequences from this situation. If we assume that our normative differences are connected to evaluative and interpretive ones, then, only by discussing and comparing our different interpretations can we provide a balance to our possible moral and political insensitivities or blind­nesses. Moreover, we can check, expand, and improve our own conceptions of the principles we share. As in the aesthetic domain, the fruitfulness of our discussions are less dependent on the force of the better argument than on the insights into meaning we gain from one another.

Nor do our discussions lead necessarily to consensus. Because our norma­tive assessments remain linked to our evaluative and interpretive ones, more than one set of such assessments can be “right.” As in the domain of art and literature, we dismiss certain normative interpretations as simply unsustain­able. Racist evaluations based on untenable empirical assumptions serve as an example. Still, the point of discussion remains that of examining, enrich­ing, and developing our own evaluative and interpretive views, and not neces­sarily learning to agree with one another.

The idea of this sort of interpretive pluralism, a pluralism not only with regard to our differing values and conceptions of the good, but a pluralism with regard to the way we understand moral and political norms of action and principles of justice is suggested by some recent developments in political philosophy.26 These developments reject the notion that moral or political philosophy begins from neutral premises in such conditions as those of ideal speech. Rather, they claim that it must begin with an ongoing form of life and its pre-existing moral and ethical content. The task of moral and political philosophy cannot be to take a god’s-eye view of this content and evaluate it according to standards independent of it because as moral and political philosophers we are already immersed in it. But this circumstance means that political philosophy must make an interpretive turn. We cannot simply suspend or reformulate the ethical content of an ongoing form of life because it already forms the substance of the history of which we are a part and the context of the norms through which we suspend or reformulate it. The norms of our moral and political life are ones we must interpret rather than create. If we can interpret them differently given different hermeneutic perspectives, we are involved in a pluralistic logic in the moral and political domain simi­lar to that which we expect in the domain of art and literature.

This conception of normative pluralism presupposes the non-exclusive and non-discriminatory character of our moral and political discussions. If we are to develop our own interpretations by engaging those that differ, we need to assure universal participation in our discussions without obstacles deriving from power, wealth, race, or gender. To this extent, the parameters of our discussions remain those of ideal speech. If we are to learn from our inter­pretive and evaluative differences, then we must encourage those differences. We must question any interpretation or evaluation that restricts in advance, whether through racist or sexist ideologies, or direct intimidation, the voices that can be part of our discussions. Still, such discussions no longer depend on the separation of norms and values nor do they necessarily end in rational consensus. Having excluded direct or implicit force, the effects of relations of power, fear, or the threat of sanctions, we might still have as many interpre­tations of the meaning of our norms of action and principles of justice as we have of our art and literature.

But how, then, does this notion of a critical pluralism allow for either a feminist perspective on social and political issues or for a feminist political practice? The discussion of surrogacy in feminist circles highlights differences

among different groups of women who may understand the norms of equal­ity and liberty differently and have different ideas ofthe meaning of mother­hood and parental responsibility. As such, these differences support feminist worries about the false universalism implied by the attempt to specify a common feminist program or political orientation. At the same time, however; they emphasize the dilemmas of difference with which we began. If we emphasize our normative-evaluative differences as women, must we not give up on a coherent and unified feminist theory and practice? Conversely, if we give up on a specifically feminist normative perspective, do we not give up one of the vantage points from which difference becomes visible? The dilemma is that if we allow for a critical pluralism, for a pluralism that allows for different interpretations of our norms and principles, we acknowledge possible differences in our understanding of feminist norms and principles, and we must reject any undifferentiated feminist theory. But, if we allow for differences within feminism, we undermine the possibility of feminism itself as a coherent standpoint from which insight into difference is available. Is there a way out of this impasse?

In my view, normative and evaluative differences between different groups of women lead to the self-destruction of feminism only if they are assessed in terms of a practical discourse in which consensus is the goal and the point of articulating differences is to overcome or transcend them. But it remains one of the major contributions of feminism to have allowed us to recognize new and different normative perspectives, first those of women in opposition to those of men and subsequently those of different groups of women. If we attend to and allow for these differences within the limits set by the attention to pluralism itself, then we also require a new political ideal to that of consen­sus: namely that of differentiation in which we recognize the legitimacy of many different voices. This sort of pluralistic feminism relies on Habermasian standards to the extent that it precludes those differences that themselves preclude difference. If we are to recognize the legitimacy of different voices, then we cannot allow any to retain a monopoly on the discussion or to exclude the possibility of listening to others. These standards arise out of a critical pluralism itself, for if we are to learn from interpretations and evalu­ations other than our own, we must provide the conditions under which they can flourish in the communities to which we belong. This project also requires that as feminists we look for programs, policies, and solutions to our contro­versies that embody differentiation without cutting off possibilities for change.

Suppose we look again at the issues raised by contract pregnancy and try to allow for the plausibility of, at minimum, two different interpretations of the meaning of the principles of freedom and equality. According to one of those interpretations, freedom and equality mean the freedom of women to enter into contracts on an equal basis with men, with the same supposition of their rationality as contracting parties, of their understanding of their own interests and of their responsibilities under contract. According to the other interpreta­tion, freedom and equality are the freedom and equality of different groups of women and children who must be assured of the social and economic condi­tions under which the possibilities of their exploitation can be eliminated.

As we have seen, each of these interpretations of the principles at issue is entwined with evaluative assessments of the importance of contract, the signif­icance of motherhood, and even the good of social association. Hence, neither interpretation can be dismissed under the constraints of consensus without elevating one set of values or conceptions of the good above others. We allow for the validity of each interpretation as a plausible and illuminating under­standing of principles we share, and look for solutions to our controversy over the enforceability of surrogacy contracts that are differentiated in the sense that they attempt to accommodate both or all the non-exclusionary interpretations of the principles we think are involved. Hence, we allow for the enforceability of surrogacy contracts under certain conditions. We work for the social and economic conditions that ensure that surrogate mothers and contractual parents enter into contracts on equal footing; we also try to establish grounds upon which the sanctity of the infant-mother bond can be recognized—and therefore develop new and more flexible forms of adoption and family relations. Whatever specific solutions we decide most adequately reflect the diversity of our legitimate normative difference, we can work for those solutions in a united and consensual way.

What allows for the unity of a feminist perspective under this conception is that we simply compromise our real views for the lowest common denom­inator in our diverse opinions. We agree to disagree on certain interpretations of the meaning of our norms and principles and focus on those concrete poli­cies on which we can agree. Still, if we adopt this view of what a pluralist feminism is, we need to acknowledge that our compromises are a result neither of giving in to one another nor of trading off various interests for the sake of those to which we are more committed. Rather, our common work arises out of a recognition of the legitimacy of our differences. We acknowl­edge the adequacy of each others’ interpretations and work together to develop a differentiated solution in which the diversity of our interpretive concerns can, as far as possible, be represented. The areas on which we do agree, then, issue from our recognition of our differences which in turn changes the goals towards which we work together.

Moreover, where the legitimate, non-exclusionary views of some groups cannot be represented, we at least work together to keep the discussion, reevaluations, and development of our perspectives open. In this way, we can follow through on both sides of the dilemmas of feminism; we can remain committed to criticizing the false universalism of traditional political and moral theories while insisting on the legitimacy of a unified feminist practice, the fundamental assumption of which is the possible legitimacy of a diversity of interpretive and evaluative-normative perspectives within the limits Habermas specifies with the notion of an ideal speech situation.

Habermas’s Discourse Ethics

Habermas’s discourse ethics is meant to follow from an analysis of the communicative interactions in which “participants coordinate their plans of action consensually.”9 Habermas argues that competent speakers can them­selves tell the difference between their strategic attempts to influence a hearer’s actions causally and their communicative attempts to come to an under­standing with him or her over a course of action, normative principle, or empirical fact.10 In the first case, the speaker tries to influence the hearer’s behavior by whatever means possible, including deceit, fear, manipulation and force. In the second case, a speaker seeks to motivate the behavior of a hearer rationally and therefore must be prepared to justify or give reasons for the claims involved in the speech act offer if challenged. “That a speaker can rationally motivate a hearer to accept such an offer is due not to the validity of what he says but by the speaker’s guarantee that he will, if necessary, make efforts to redeem the claim that the hearer has accepted”11

Habermas specifies three dimensions in which hearers might challenge validity claims. A hearer can challenge a speaker to show the sincerity of a claim or; in other words, that the speaker is accurately representing his or her intentions. In this case, the speaker can redeem the claim only through actions that are consistent with the intentions he or she has expressed. But hearers can also challenge speakers to demonstrate either the truth of the existential judg­ments contained in their speech act offers, or the rightness of the actions or norms of action they propose. In both these instances, the redemption of the validity claims is discursively achieved insofar as speakers must offer reasons for the truth of existential judgments, or the rightness of actions and norms of action that hearers can accept.

What are the conditions of this acceptance? To the extent that rationally motivated assent is distinguished from its strategic counterpart, the discursive redemption of validity claims involves certain ideal conditions that Habermas sometimes refers to as an “ideal speech situation.” The idea here is that in engaging in communication oriented to understanding, participants must make certain presuppositions about the structure of their communication. They must suppose that it excludes all constraints that would produce a forced agreement: constraints such as the threat of sanctions or unequal power relations among the parties to the agreement. Moreover, they must suppose that all participants in the discourse are equally situated with regard to it, that they are free from constraints of fear and force, that they have equal opportunities to contribute to it, that they are motivated only by the concern to come to an agreement over the disputed claims, and that they are open only to the force of the better argu­ment. As Habermas writes, they must assume that “in principle, all those affected participate as free and equal members in a cooperative search for truth in which only the force of the better argument may hold sway.”12

To be sure, actual agreements over claims to truth or to the rightness of actions or norms of action at best approximate these ideal conditions and reflect some of the constraints the ideal speech situation excludes. Still, Habermas insists that the structure of communication oriented to under­standing contains or anticipates an ideal of reason insofar as speakers cannot engage in communicative understanding without assuming the possibility of unforced agreement to their validity claims. Indeed, following Karl-Otto Apel, Habermas argues that if one were to deny that argumentation has this prag­matic structure—if one were to claim that a rational consensus does not depend upon the exclusion of force, the constraint only of reason or the free­dom and equality of participants—one would still have to rely precisely upon this structure in order to argue for one’s denial. One would have to suppose that the denial was itself one that could motivate agreement within a commu­nication community of free and equal participants engaged in a cooperative search for truth and motivated only by the force of the better argument.

As the principle of a discourse ethics, this analysis means that “only those norms may claim to be valid which could meet with the assent of all concerned in their role as participants in a practical discourse,”13 or, in other words, in their role as participants in an ideal speech situation. On this basis,

Habermas introduces a principle of universalization or “U” as a procedure of moral-practical justification: “For a norm to be valid, the consequences and side effects of its general observance for the satisfaction of each person’s particular interests must be acceptable to all.”14 This procedure is not a mech­anism for generating norms or principles of action but is meant to adjudicate the validity of norms that are under dispute. The point is that where disputed norms could not be agreed upon in a practical discourse involving all concerned, then we have to acknowledge what Habermas calls the suppres­sion of generalizable interests.

But what norms could be justified as the possible product of agreement in practical discourse? Does the ideal of universal consensus not ignore the importance of differences in the way different groups within a society or among societies might foresee consequences, understand their interests or, indeed, interpret the meaning of the norms under dispute? In other words, does the ideal of universal consensus not represent precisely the sort of false universalism feminism attacks in both others and itself? Must we assume that there are interests that are generalizable or that only one sort of atten­tion to consequences or one way of understanding our interests or our norms can be rationally justified?

Suppose we explore the current controversy in the United States over the morality of surrogate motherhood or contract pregnancy. If we argue against the enforceability of surrogacy contracts on the grounds that they allow for the sale of babies, we understand the norm at issue to be one that involves the invi­olability and dignity of human beings, the sanctity of the infant-mother bond, and so on. Surrogacy contracts, on this view, violate both the interests of the babies and the interests of those who might be pressured to sell their babies because of poverty, welfare policies, or the like. But we might also argue for the enforceability of surrogacy contracts on the grounds that human beings are free to do what they want with their bodies and that surrogacy contracts promote the equality of women. Prohibiting contract pregnancies, on this view, violates the interests of both childless couples and the surrogate mothers who would like to help them for whatever monetary or altruistic reasons they might have. Is there a generalizable interest here that would tell us whether surrogacy contracts are legitimate or not? And if there is a generalizable interest, with which group does it originate?

On a Habermasian view, this example misidentifies the range of disputes over which a discourse ethics can have dominion in a modem pluralistic soci­ety. “As interests and value orientations become more differentiated in modern societies,” Habermas argues, “the morally justified norms that control the individual’s scope of action in the interest of the whole become ever more general and abstract.”15 The norms under consideration in practical discourse, then, are not specific norms governing legitimate reproductive practices, for example. Rather, they are more general and abstract principles such as those of human rights or the freedom and equality of persons. On the one hand, these are less specific than the idea of contract pregnancy. On the other hand, however, Habermas insists that they are embodied in the legal systems at least of Western societies. For this reason, he argues, they cannot be deemed “irrelevant for the ethics (Sittlichkeit) of modern life”16 even if the sort of discursive consensus under ideal conditions that justifies them is not also applicable to more specific disputes.

But what are the general and abstract norms to which Habermas refers? If we focus on the principles of freedom and equality, it seems obvious that different groups can interpret these principles differently depending on their concerns and interests as well as on their cultural traditions, values, upbring­ing, and the like. For those who support the legitimacy and enforceability of surrogacy contracts, for instance, the meaning of liberty seems to include the right of women to enter into such contracts, while the meaning of equality includes their full social and economic equality with men. Since the right of men to enter into reproductive contracts for the sale of sperm is not ques­tioned, questioning the right of women to enter into similar and enforceable contracts not only denies their freedom and equality, but assumes that they are less rational than men, more likely to change their minds about the terms of the contract, and less capable of either calculating their own interests in an autonomous manner or pursuing them.17 For those who oppose the enforce­ability of surrogacy contracts, however, the meaning of liberty includes a woman’s right to change her mind about as momentous a decision as giving up her child, while the meaning of equality includes the rights of poor women not to be exploited by childless middle-class couples.

Such differences in the way in which we understand the norms of liberty and equality do not seem to be differences that can be transcended through argumentation in practical discourse. Rather they seem to involve differences in sensibility and concern, differences in the aspects of contract pregnancy on which we focus, for example, differences in our understanding of both the value of motherhood or parenting and the characteristics in which we take it to consist, differences in our visions of a good society and differences in the context within which we understand the interests at stake. These, in turn, seem to have more to do with our cultural heritage, experience, and orientation than with the force of reason. Surely we can give arguments for or against our understanding of the norms of liberty and equality that are involved in the issue of surrogacy, but the ability of our arguments to persuade others does not seem to be independent of their values, traditions, and conceptions of the good.

The Habermasian response to observations of this kind is to distinguish between the justification of norms and their application. The assent of all concerned under ideal conditions is meant to determine the legitimacy of norms; it is not meant to contain prescriptions for their application to concrete situations.18 Thus, if the norms at issue in the debate over surrogacy contracts are those of liberty and equality, these norms are legitimate because all concerned could assent to them as participants in a practical discourse, not because all concerned could assent to the way in which they were applied to the surrogacy case. Moreover, Habermas insists that questions of application themselves must ultimately be resolved in terms of well-justified normative principles, “for instance, the principles that all relevant aspects of a case must be considered … and that means should be proportionate to ends.”19

But it is not clear that issues of justification can be so neatly separated from those of application. In the first place, suppose we were to understand our different evaluations of surrogacy contracts as a problem limited to applica­tion, as a difference in the way we think abstract and general principles, on the validity of which we do agree, are to be used to settle the question of the legit­imacy of a practice. Still, what Habermas means by a well-justified applicative principle remains unclear. While we might agree on a norm that stipulates that all relevant aspects of a case must be considered in its adjudication, this norm would itself seem to be meaningless unless we can give some content to the notion of relevance. But precisely here we might disagree. Those who support the enforceability of surrogacy contracts might think that male fears of female autonomy are relevant as well as the motivations behind old adultery laws that were meant to protect men’s interests in establishing paternity. In contrast, those who reject the enforceability of surrogacy contracts might think that they should be understood in terms of the meaning and significance of motherhood and the social consequences of bringing it into the realm of contract and busi­ness interests.

Similar disagreements over the considerations and contexts that are thought to be important would seem to arise in our efforts to decide on the means proportionate to a given end. We can give arguments for why a certain means is proportionate to the end, but assent to such arguments presupposes shared values and a shared understanding of the issues. Habermas claims that the history of a norm’s application moves in a rela­tively stable direction in which we gradually eliminate extraneous consider­ations and come to agree on the way the norm is to be applied. This agreement and directionality, in his view, indicate that “learning processes” are possible in the dimension of application as well as in the dimension of normative justification.20 But if we now apply the norm of equality, for example, so that it no longer supports practices that exclude human beings on the basis of their race or gender, do we do so because we have all learned in the same direction or because, among the multidirectional ways in which we have learned, certain ways have dropped out for complex, value-laden, and cultural reasons?

It may be difficult to separate justification from application, because of considerations similar to those we have already considered. If we are to accept the principle of equality as binding on our actions, we must first understand it. But how can we understand it unless we know what sort of disputes it is supposed to adjudicate and how? In fact, present court decisions (as well as feminist discussions) on the enforceability of surrogacy contracts appear to be attempts at determining meaning. The issue is not simply how we are to apply the principles of equality, liberty, and parental responsibility to the case of surrogacy. It is also how we are to understand these principles themselves or, in other words, what principles of equality, liberty, and responsibility are justified. Are they those that center on freedom of contract, contractual responsibility and contractual relations between independent agents? Or alternatively, are they those that center on the protection and promotion of non-contractual relationships and responsibilities? If our understanding of a norm is not independent of our understanding of how to apply it and if our understanding of how to apply it is not independent of our values and conceptions of the good, then it is not clear that our understanding of the principles of freedom and equality can be easily separated from our interpre­tations and evaluations or from the differences we have about them.

For Habermas, the procedure of universalization in discourse ethics is meant to act “like a knife that makes razor-sharp cuts between evaluative state­ments and strictly normative ones, between the good and the just.”21 Evaluative statements refer to a person’s or group’s interpretations of its desires, feelings, and needs, and these, he insists, are tied to its identity, cultural heritage, and conception of the good. As opposed to normative statements, evaluative statements do not lend themselves to, nor can they be suspended by, the requirements of a consensus that is meant to be universally binding for we cannot simply be argued out of the traditions, forms of life, and personal histo­ries that have made us who we are. In contrast, Habermas thinks that we can take up a hypothetical or distanced attitude towards our norms. But, if any discourse over norms must specify what they are or mean, we seem to be already involved in questions of application that, in turn, engage our evalua­tive sensibilities.

At times Habermas himself undercuts the razor-sharp distinction he estab­lishes by suggesting that our values must themselves be submitted to the universalization procedure of practical discourse. Thus, he argues that idio­syncratic evaluative claims, claims that fail to meet wider community stan­dards, can be simply irrational.22 And he writes that “even the interpretations in which the individual identifies the needs that are most peculiarly his own are open to a revision process in which all participate.”23 As he explains in another context, “Needs are interpreted in the light of cultural values and since these are always components of an intersubjectively shared tradition, the revision of need-interpreting values cannot be a matter over which the individual monologically disposes.”24

But if the revision of our need-interpreting values cannot be a matter over which the individual monologically disposes, why should it be open to a “revision process in which all participate?” Why should all those affected by a proposed norm also participate in the process by which I might learn to understand my own need-interpreting values differently and how can this be matter for rational argumentation? Why not simply admit that normative questions cannot be settled independently of evaluative ones and that norma­tive justification must include an exploration and articulation of our possibly differing values?

If our values are bound up with our cultural heritage and personal life history and if we cannot be simply argued out of this heritage and history and, moreover, if we cannot debate the legitimacy of our norms without engaging the questions of our values, how can we settle questions of the legitimacy of norms? Is the question of whether enforcing surrogacy contracts can be justi­fied a matter of our particular evaluations of the meaning of liberty, equality, and parental responsibility and is any decision on the matter therefore destined to violate the interest and values of some group? It seems to me that if we take our interpretive and evaluative differences seriously and if we reject the idea that the only way of dealing with them is to transcend them through the force of argumentation, then we might allow for a kind of difference that will also help us make sense of what I call a critical and pluralistic feminism.

Discourse Ethics and Feminist Dilemmas of Difference

Georgia Warnke

Since its beginnings, feminist theory has been involved in what Christine Di Stefano has called “dilemmas of difference.”1 Liberal feminists have stressed the equality of men and women and, hence, the unimportance of differences based on gender. But liberal feminists have also assumed that women hold certain interests in common. For this reason, they have presumed both the difference between men and women as political subjects and the importance of a separate feminist political practice. To this extent, as Deborah L. Rhode points out, “liberal feminism assumes the very sense of shared identity it seeks in large measure to transcend.”2

Other theorists no longer attempt to transcend this shared identity, but instead stress both the importance of differences based on gender and the “false universalism” at the base of traditional moral, social, and political theories. The claim made by “relational feminists” such as Carol Gilligan, and by postmodern feminists such as Linda Nicholson and Nancy Fraser, is that these theories simply generalize the concerns and interests of men. They cannot be corrected either by merely expanding the conception of a human being to include women or by removing the most egregiously demeaning of their references to women’s moral and intellectual capacities. Rather, proper attention to women’s concrete lives and to the moral and intellectual capaci­ties they actually have necessarily leads to radically different moral theories, conceptions of social relations, and political ideals. Thus, Gilligan points to an ethics of care that is based on women’s particular form of socialization and

emphasizes the maintenance of interpersonal connections rather than simply the protection of individual rights.3 Fraser questions traditional divisions between public and private domains because of the way these seem to be entwined in women’s lives4 and others point to a new form of community in which work, welfare, and political contexts are radically restructured to allow for the incorporation of caretaking values.5

But these “difference feminists” seem to have it no easier than liberal femi­nists. In the first place, if the stress on difference is meant to point up women’s nurturing capacities and orientation to maintaining relationships then, whether these are meant to be biologically or socially induced, this emphasis seems to lead to just those restrictions on employment and opportunity that allowed for the original exclusion of women from public life.6 The dilemma of difference here is that the sense of shared identity that difference feminism seeks to defend seems to be precisely that which traditional sexism has enforced.

In the second place, the emphasis by difference feminists on the way in which traditional theories falsely generalize the concerns and interests of men seems to apply to their own accounts of women’s gender difference. Feminists have themselves questioned whether the theories of socialization and women’s psychology on which they have relied simply generalize the experiences of a certain group of American and European, white, middle-class women. Does the object-relations psychology, for example, on which Gilligan and others depend simply extrapolate from a peculiarly modern and Western form of the family? Do distinctions between public and private spheres or between differ­ent sorts of labor simply over-generalize historical circumstances such as women’s greater responsibility for child care and the devaluation of the domestic sphere?7

The logic that difference feminism pursues seems to be one of self-destruc­tion. If we begin by emphasizing women’s gender difference, we must also recognize differences between different groups of women, between rich and poor, European and non-European, heterosexual and lesbian. But once we recognize these differences, we are led to still further differences between rich European women and poor European women or between middle-class American women and middle-class Argentinean women and so on. Fraser and Nicholson point out that many feminists have given up on the project of “grand social theory”8 in favor of particular investigations into varieties of social identity, forms of sexism, and the different permutations that relations between gender, race, class, ethnicity, and age can take. But these investiga­tions do not resolve the dilemma that arises here. For if gender difference is no longer considered fundamental, can there be any identity to the category of woman so that women as a group can form the locus of feminist interests and political practice? If there are only rich and poor women, European and non-European women, and if these groups themselves break down into smaller groups depending on race, class, ethnicity, and age, what happens to a specifically feminist or women’s perspective? Does the logic difference femi­nism takes up not lead, in the end, to the critique of all theory, including femi­nist theory, as the imposition of a false universalism on social experiences that are radically individual?

In this paper I want to assess the dilemmas of difference I have sketched by way of an examination of Jurgen Habermas’s discourse ethics. This theory is of interest here, I think, for two reasons. First, it tries to resolve at least some differences within a universal and rationally motivated consensus. Second, it tries to separate this sort of normative consensus from evaluative and inter­pretive dichotomies that arise from gender differences or differences in race, class, and ethnicity. But, if feminism can not transcend gender difference nor emphasize it without losing both the subject of its theory and the motor of its practice, the question we raise with regard to a discourse ethics is whether it takes difference seriously enough. Can evaluative and interpretive differences be separated from normative ones and, if not, how can we think of a norma­tive theory, that, as feminism does, tries to acknowledge difference without undermining the possibility of political and ethical theory itself? I shall first sketch those aspects of Habermas’s discourse ethics that are relevant to my concerns and then consider the extent to which the problems it raises might suggest a solution to feminist dilemmas of difference.


It is precisely Habermas’s recognition of the fundamentally intersubjective nature of subjectivity, coupled with his normative ideal of noncoercive discourse, that makes his work attractive, and I would argue that his position remains attractive even if we accept Benjamin’s critique of patriarchy and autonomy. Habermas’s appreciation for the intersubjective constitution of identity is expressed in his belief that we become selves through social inter­action; we are not first individuals and then social agents who relate to each other; personal identity essentially involves social identity and the constitu­tion of the self is concomitant with the establishment of relationships in the context of a shared lifeworld. This requires us not only to take up the perspec­tive of the other participants in interaction, but also to recognize the norms which shape these relationships.

While Habermas’s work for the last twenty years has been to reclaim the normative structures of practical reason which structure identity formation and social roles, he has never really offered a reflective reconstruction of self/other identity formation though he has acknowledged that becoming a moral subject requires relationships of the sort Benjamin describes. In a recent essay for instance, Habermas argues that the moral intuitions recon­structed in his discourse ethics, are available to “anyone who has grown up in a reasonably functional family, who has formed his identity in relations of mutual recognition.”17 While Habermas recognizes that the ability to adopt the perspective of the generalized other can only arise in the context of an ego developed in affective relationships of mutual recognition he does not examine the connection of that affective ability to the developmentally later ability to construct a non-dominated other. He shares with George Herbert Mead a notion of a self constituted intersubjectively all the way down, both

focus on the child’s ability to rationally construct itself relationally to others. They assume that the ego-development Benjamin describes is a distinct prior stage necessary to, but not essentially tied up in, the abilities required for adopting “the moral point of view.” Indeed, Habermas, in the earlier context of the Gilligan/Kohlberg debate, argued that ego development should not be confused with moral development, thus splitting off the formation of self- identity from the acquisition of the abilities to recognize and use moral concepts.18 But the force of Benjamin’s argument, lies precisely in her contention that one becomes a subject only through relations where one is encountered as a subject, where one learns to construct self and other in rela­tionships free from domination. This suggests that the individual and the other it generalizes can be constructed in a dialectic of domination long before its ability to decipher, offer, and defend the norms which structure moral arguments and social practices. I would argue that our construction of certain social others—women, specific racial groups, homosexuals, and others—involve a dynamic of dominative affective identity formation which precedes and determine, the normative considerations relevant to these others.

Clearly, the psychic construction of one’s own subjectivity and that of others points to the inherent vulnerability of the social interactions in which we constitute our identity and that of others, a vulnerability which Habermas has argued motivates and sustains the moral character of our social engagements. This vulnerability extends deeper than the relationships between different subjects, for not only am I vulnerable to the mistreatment of others, but my very identity as a subject and my continued sense of self – worth rests on my being recognized as such—and on my recognizing others as I am recognized. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and personal relations of failed recognition are to be decried first because they threaten the conditions for mutual recognition necessary to the constitution of our identities as subjects, and then because they violate social and moral norms.

Benjamin’s concept of mutual recognition suggests the need for an account of the psychological conditions necessary for the constitution of a subject capable of a truly moral rational construction of the other. The polit­ical thrust of her argument is directed at revealing the degree to which the patriarchal sex/gender system makes dominative relationships the rule rather than the exception. She describes an alternatively structured relationship where the normatively structured psychological relationship of infant and caregiver constitutes a child able to escape the self/other construction of Hegel’s master and slave. Similar critiques of domination can and have been made vis-a-vis racial groups. While the need for such critiques might suggest that Habermas’s confidence in the postmodern intuition of the claims of practical reason might be misplaced, I wish to make a different point here.

In his essay “Justice and Solidarity,” Habermas made the following distinction:

Justice concerns the equal freedoms of unique and self-determining indi­viduals, while solidarity concerns the welfare of consociates who are inti­mately linked in an intersubjectively shared form of life—and thus also to the maintenance of the integrity of this form of life itself. Moral norms cannot protect one without the other: they cannot protect the welfare of one’s fellow man and of the community to which the individuals belong.19

I take Habermas to be acknowledging that justice is only possible in the context of the social bonds constituted in my recognition of myself and all others as members of my community as equally worthy of respect. But in order to experience this solidarity, I must be able to constitute the identity of all others in developmentally significant relationships of mutual recognition. The importance of these early relational experiences for individuals’ later recognition of moral norms requires that much greater attention be paid to the dynamics of this development than Habermas or most other moral theo­rists, with the exception of Axel Honneth, have done.

In a recent article Honneth recognizes this need, and in the course of reflecting on the origins and nature of respect, implies that its roots must be traced back to infant/caregiver relationships. Respect, he argues, is a precon­dition for moral subjectivity. But if respect is a precondition for moral subjec­tivity, which I believe it is, then primary attachments marked by mutual recognition are the preconditions for respect. Honneth’s account of respect can function as a preliminary bridge between an account of the constitution of a non-dominative subjectivity and Habermas’s account of the ability to recognize and justify moral claims.

Honneth argues that moral theory ought to include a normative ideal of respect because:

… the experience of disrespect poses the risk of an injury that can cause the identity of the entire person to collapse.20

His analysis of respect derives from a consideration of the nature of disre­spect. In our everyday language, he argues, we use the term “disrespect,” to describe roughly three kinds of violations to the integrity of other persons, two of which are significant for this discussion. One involves violations to the physical integrity of others; the paradigms instances of such violations are torture and rape. The other involves exclusions of subjects from membership in a social or moral community. Violations of the first sort deprive a person of their bodily integrity by infringing on the right to relate autonomously to their own body. Violations of the second sort affect a person’s normative understanding of self because they are “structurally excluded from the possession of certain rights within a given society”21 and thus are denied the “ability to relate to (themselves) as a partner to interaction in possession of equal rights on par with all other individuals.”22

One learns to recognize, to offer, and to demand respect in the context of emotional attachments to primary caretakers. Infants bring the possibility of a subjectivity to the world that can be “confirmed,” that is, recognized or in some sense supported through emotional approval or encouragement—what Sara Rudick calls a preservative love, which cares for a child’s body as well as a child’s developing self.23 This kind of recognition makes possible a kind of confidence in being a relational self:

I am referring to the underlaying layer of an emotional, body-related sense of security in expressing one’s own needs and feelings, a layer which forms the psychological prerequisite for the development of all further attitudes of self-respect.24

Torture and rape constitute violations to the body that tear at this confi­dence in self, constructed from the loving interactions of a caregiver who fosters and preserves the body by administering to its needs and recognizing its vulnerability and its sovereignty. As attacks on this core sense of the phys­ical integrity of self, they attack bodily boundaries, the most primary of self- other boundaries and necessary for the establishment of the self. One can establish these boundaries and maintain them only if those who care for the child’s body establish and maintain them in relationships of trust. Recent liter­ature on incest survivors indicates that these (for the most part) women, share two somewhat common experiences. One is the sense that they lack a self— these women report difficulty in feeling that they have a continuous underly­ing personal identity and experience their subjectivity as disturbingly discontinuous and empty. They also report a deep sense of a split between self and body such that their own bodies seem no more related to them that the body of any one else. There is also evidence that such childhood sexual abuse can lead to a pattern of promiscuous adolescent sexuality that could in this context be seen, at least in part, as springing from a sense that one’s own body is not worthy of respect.25 These experiences of violation to bodily integrity can produce an adult whose relational capacities are potentially impaired in two ways: first, insofar as she may be unable to develop a trust in an other which normally arises from the other’s recognition and respect for the infant’s body, and second, insofar as she is unable to construct her subjectivity as equally worthy of the respect accorded to others.

The second form of disrespect Honneth identifies arises when some people are excluded from the legal and moral community. It has the effect of depriv­ing these individuals “the status of full-fledged partners to interaction who

possess the same moral rights (as others).” Such a person is simultaneously denied rights and denied the respect of others, and, in being denied this respect, and to the extent that respect is an intersubjectively realized project, is denied the grounds to self-respect. The other’s failure to respect me denies me the socially constituted grounds for finding myself worthy of esteem. In his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Derrick Bell suggests that this is one of the most vicious costs of racism.26 In The Alchemy of Race and Rights, Patricia Williams describes how her sense of herself was radically thrown into question by her childhood discovery that her black skin meant that she was included in a group whose full subjectivity was radically limited by the racist construction of African-American identity.

The capacity to respect others which leads to an ability to conceive of all people as fully equal members of the moral and social community is in part rooted in childhood. For while the child’s subjectivity needs to be recognized in order to be realized, the child must also be taught to accord the same recogni­tion to other subjects. When the fabric of a child’s relationship to self and to other is woven in threads of domination, the seeds of disrespect and domina­tion are sown, and children may grow to be adults whose very construction of others undercuts the possibility of respect. Racism is one instance of this kind of moral failure; sexism is another. Williams and Bell describe the social and psychological dynamics of the former, and Benjamin describes the dynamic between the child and a mother whose subjectivity is limited by distorted and inegalitarian gender relations as an instance of the latter kind of failure.

Seyla Benhabib also traces the capacities necessary for instantiating a discursive ethical theory for reciprocal moral relations and for raising and redeeming claims to recognition which arise through the moral lessons of childhood:

Discourse ethics projects such moral conversations, in which reciprocal recognition is exercised, onto a utopian community of humankind. But the ability and the willingness of individuals to do so begins with the admoni­tion of the parent to the child: “What if others threw sand in your face or pushed you into the pool, how would you feel then?”27

Only when I am a subject, and only with those whose otherness I identify as properly that of a subject, can I join in relations of solidarity.

The violations which threaten subjectivity all involve denying some a subjectivity claimed by others. This denial can produce emancipatory move­ments which reflect the demands of the morally and politically disenfran­chised. Political movements are, as Honneth puts it, “born in the struggle for recognition.”28 The need and ability to achieve recognition involves not only the ability to rationally construct and defend norms, but in addition a concep­tion of self and of the other constituted in relationships marked by respect.

Moral progress may be motivated by the demands for recognition, but the ability to recognize the other is a precondition for this progress.

Ultimately the real force of Benjamin’s argument lies in her understanding that patriarchally structured gender relationships which idealize autonomy— the construction of self and other as subject and non-subject—are built into the very identity of the participants in that relationship. Thus, not only does the ideal of emancipation require, as Habermas has claimed, the normative reconstruction of our notions of justice and the good life, but of the very constitution of psychic identity as well. While Benjamin fails to acknowledge the extent to which relationships marked by recognition are structured by abstract moral norms of reciprocity and symmetry, Habermas fails to explore the extent to which social norms depend on a relationally and affectively constituted ego. Ego-identity formation cannot be decisively separated from moral development as cognitive and affective development are entwined in the process of the constitution of the infant’s subjectivity. Respect entails constructing the other as a subject worthy of the recognition accorded to all subjects; it precedes the normative consideration of the forms that recogni­tion should take. Thus, I would argue not only is respect a precondition for normative engagement with others not identical to the norms that guide that engagement, but in addition it can only arise in the context of non – dominative relationships of primary attachment, or perhaps through radical reflection and self-reconstruction.

Benjamin’s Argument

Freudian pyschoanalytic theory views the acquisition of ego identity as a project which is initiated at birth and realized in the context of a never completely resolved conflict between the needs for attachment to and separa­tion from the original and compelling power of the infant-mother bond. Freud’s account posits an infant whose self-identity is initially merged with that of its primary caregiver, assumed by Freud to be the child’s biological mother. In this intrapsychic narrative, the focus is on the child’s dawning sense of his/her separateness from the physical, and then from the psychic identity of the caregiver. The infant is seen to be advancing along a course from an original oneness to a state of separateness.

Benjamin argues that we should reject this, what we might call “trajec­tory” model of development, and replace it with an account that fully appre­ciates the relational aspects of the developmental project. Self-identity cannot be achieved by a development of the infant by itself, for self-identity is founded on the mutual recognition of subjects. The intrapsychic view of the infant subject must, Benjamin claims, be exchanged for a intersubjective perspective. Since the infant’s sense of self emerges from the context of rela­tionship with the primary caregiver, the process of differentiation from others must be seen on a continuum of relatedness:

The intersubjective view maintains that the individual grows in and through the relationship to other subjects. Most important, this perspec­tive observes that the other whom the self meets is also a self, a subject in his or her own right. It assumes that we are able and need to recognize that other subject as different and yet alike, as an other who is capable of shar­ing similar mental experience. Thus the idea of intersubjectivity reorients the conception of the psychic world from a subject’s relation to its object toward a subject meeting another subject.1

From birth, the relationship of child to primary caregiver and of primary caregiver to child, is a relationship which necessitates a recognition which in turn points to an original distinction of self and other, acknowledged and bridged by both child and mother in the act of recognition.

Recent studies of newborns indicate that the extent to which they recog­nize the mother and/or other primary caregivers is much greater than was previously thought; this recognition, different from mere reaction, is only possible between subjects who also recognize a distinction from and between others. In even very early infant/mother interactions, Benjamin argues, there is empirical evidence that, the mother can already identify the first signs of mutual recognition in the interactions between she and her infant.

The psychoanalytic literature has failed to adequately acknowledge the mutuality of mother/infant relationships this research suggests, though it has long been recognized as crucially important in infant development theory, where it has been referred to it as emotional attunement, affective mutuality, sharing states of mind, etc.2 Despite this ego, psychologists have continued to adopt the “trajectory” model of development deriving:

the idea of separation from oneness: which contains the implicit assump­tion that we grow out of relationships rather than becoming more active and sovereign within them, that we start in a state of dual oneness and wind up in the state of singular oneness.3

Benjamin argues that the assumption of an original symbiotic unity is as problematic as the assumption that the telos of the ego trajectory is the achieve­ment of an identity defined in complete separation from the other.

She advances her argument on several different fronts. First, she argues that evidence of the newborn’s recognition of the mother undercuts the claim that the infant experiences the symbiosis with the mother ascribed by the Freudian psychoanalytic model.4 In Freud’s account, child and mother both experience the merging of self and other. He describes the child’s experience of this unity in terms of a primary narcissism. The mother’s unity with the child on the other hand, is described as a blissfully satisfying regression achieved in part by recreating the bond she had with her own mother, and achieving psychic wholeness through the child which functions as a phallic substitute. In identifying the experience of mother and child, Freud does not recognize the distinction between mother and child, and thus forecloses the conception of two selves meeting in relationship.

Benjamin also questions the psychological telos to which Freud’s perception of the infant-mother bond leads him. Because he does not view the mother as a subject, in relationship to whom the child becomes a subject, Freud cannot construct a narrative of the mother-child relationship as one of ever more mutual recognition. Instead, ego formation is seen as a desperate struggle to assert difference in the face of an always threatening maternal sameness. The Freudian child must establish autonomy by denying the subjectivity of the mother by establishing his5 identity over and against hers. While needing to assert himself in a dynamic which necessitates his domination of the mother; the child cannot completely obliterate her, for that would destroy the very source of the recognition he is attempting to compel. In destroying her, he destroys himself; in allowing her a subjectivity, his own is threatened. “Mutual” recognition is impossible in this Freudian frame as it is in the Hegelian one which it echoes; any balance is temporary and only tenuously maintained.

In this psychoanalytic narrative, the infant is the developing male self and the mother is the “other” who must be made to recognize this nascent male subject whose self-identity rests precisely on his denial of the subjectivity of the other. Thus, the denial of the other’s subjectivity becomes a necessary moment and gives rise to the fiction of the bourgeois autonomous subject giving birth to itself, a fiction the psychoanalytic tradition shares with the philosophical one. The concept of autonomy which these narratives reflect identifies self-determination with freedom from the control, the manipulation or the determination of others. Benjamin, like Adorno and Horkheimer before her, argues that with this ideal of autonomy we merely reverse relationships of domination rather than escaping them. In seeking to conceptualize free­dom, the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition again like the philosophical one, has seen relationship itself as a threat to the realization of freely constituted subjectivity. In its account of autonomy, self-identity, and agency are only achieved by denying the significance of and the dependence upon the other.

The thrust of Benjamin’s critique of autonomy is directed at the patriar – chally constructed and maintained gender system the psychoanalytic narra­tive reflects, which casts men as subjects, women as objects, and objects as mothers. Benjamin argues that in this narrative of the dynamics of self/other/male/female relationships, the ideal of male autonomy recreates a version of the Hegelian master/slave dialectic, where the infant male, the nascent subject, plays Hegel’s master, necessarily resulting in the casting of the mother both actual and internalized, as the slave. The female child, in turn, internalizes the father as the master and constructs femaleness, her own and that of the maternal caregiver, as lack.

Benjamin concludes that the process of ego identity formation must be reconceptualized by replacing the ideal of “autonomy” with that of “mutual recognition.” Mutual recognition, unlike autonomy, requires sustaining connection to another as one individuates in the process of ego identity formation. Full mutual recognition is achieved when both selves in a rela­tionship maintain a balance between assertion of self/other and denial of other/self. The establishment of self-identity does and should involve the recognition of the other as other, and the recognition of the dependence of the self’s identity on the other’s recognition of it. Ideal subjecthood requires a rela­tional dynamic whose ideal expression involves this fully mutual recognition which is possible only if the dependence and independence of both members of the relationship are recognized. As Benjamin puts it. “The need for recog­nition entails this fundamental paradox: at the very moment of recognizing our own independence, we are dependent upon the other to recognize it.”6 The subject’s subjectivity involves another subject who must be recognized if the nascent self is to fully constitute itself as a self.

Benjamin’s arguments, while complex, are clear and to my mind are up to this point quite convincing. She expounds a normative critique of our ideal­ization of autonomy and argues that its attainment involves a gender struc­ture especially costly to women. At this juncture however, she moves in a direction which strikes me as somewhat unfortunate.7 She abandons her clearly normative claims about what we ought to adopt as the ideal of ego achievement, and moves, through an assessment of the empirical evidence, to the claim that ego development not only ought to proceed along a course of normative development, but that it does in fact do so. While moving from to ought is not necessarily problematic, Benjamin loses sight of the distinction between the normative and the empirical and in so doing fails to recognize the role that norms play in structuring and maintaining relations marked by mutual recognition. This failure, in turn, explains her otherwise surprising dismissal of Jurgen Habermas’s moral theory.

Benjamin’s failure to recognize the role norms play in interaction can be clearly seen in her discussion of the empirical literature on infant-mother rela­tionships. Her condemnation of current notions of autonomy as implicitly idealizing relationships marked by inadequate ideals of recognition, is followed by an analysis of work on the dynamics of infant-mother play. Describing films made of mothers interacting with their three – and four – month old babies, she argues that what is depicted are complex self-other interactions where mothers do not merely mimic their babies facial and hand movements, but introduce changes which the babies then mimic, respond to, adapt, and change, whereupon the “attuned” mother then responds to the baby’s responsive adaptation. Good primary caregivers use the interpretations of the movements and expressions of the babies in their care in order to adapt their play so that it is pleasing to the child. In the infant-caregiver relation­ship, the onus of the work of mutual engagement falls heavily on the caregiver and the engagement is not mutual in the fullest sense, since it is many years before the child can learn to return the recognition of the caregiver’s gaze. The ideal of caregiver-maintained attunement can perhaps be best understood, Benjamin suggests, in light of filmed instances where this attunement is not achieved:

We also observe how mutual regulation breaks down and attunement fails: when baby is tired and fussy, when mother is bored and depressed, or when baby is unresponsive and this makes mother anxious. Then we will see not just the absence of play, but a kind of anti-play in which the frus­tration of the search for recognition is painfully apparent. The unsuccess­ful interaction is sometimes almost as finely tuned as the pleasurable one.

With each effort of the baby to withdraw from the mother’s stimulation, to avert his gaze, turn his head, pull his body away, the mother responds by “chasing” after the baby. It is as if the mother anticipates her baby’s withdrawal with split-second accuracy and can only read his messages to give space as a frustration of her own efforts to be recognized…. Here in the earliest social interaction we can see how the search for recognition can become a power struggle: how assertion becomes aggression.8

True attunement, in contrast, is not this chase, not this power struggle, but rather involves a “recognition” of the infant’s subjectivity, needs, and preferences by a caregiver who structures interaction on the basis of this recognition.

One could take Benjamin’s point here to be a clarification of how mutual recognition functions in an infant-adult relationship, thus providing a model of the realization of recognition; or one could take Benjamin to be pointing to some natural impulse of caregivers which primes them to adopt recogni­tion as the telos of infant-caregiver relationships. While I think Benjamin uses the films to depict worse, better, and ideal interaction, I don’t think she intends to suggest that there is a natural impulse or ability involved in realiz­ing fully mutual recognition. Alison Weir, however, reads Benjamin as making precisely this latter point, and she vigorously objects to it:

Benjamin makes the mistake of assuming that… human beings are born ready-made subjects with the capacity to recognize themselves and others as subjects…. But the assumption that to recognize the other is a social need or a normative ideal in no way entails the assumption that we are born with the ability to do so.9

While I think Weir is right to see a confusion in Benjamin’s argument and while I share her rejection of any claim that the ability to engage in relation­ships of mutual recognition is natural, I think Benjamin only inadvertently suggests such a claim, unlike Weir, I do not believe that rejecting this entails rejecting Benjamin’s claim that the notion of autonomy operative in the clas­sic psychoanalytic narrative involves an identity that is constituitively deter­mined in relation to a dominated other.

One motivation for Benjamin’s appeal to these filmed studies of children and their caregivers is to argue that mutual recognition is, in fact, a normative ideal of infant-development literature that has been eclipsed by the ideal of autonomy in the psychoanalytic literature. The normative model of maternal engagement which infant-development theorists adopt, reflects an evaluation of the sensitivity of caregivers to self-other boundaries that determine the teaching and learning of the early lessons of mutuality. In normatively evalu­ating relationships in terms of the caregiver’s ability to recognize and sustain self-other distinctions and boundaries in their relationships with children, these theorists challenge the accuracy and desirability of the Freudian view of the mother-infant relationships as completely symbiotic. Infant researcher Daniel Stem, for example, argues against the Freudian vision of the merging of mother and child, claiming that while the very young infant is never completely undifferentiated from the mother, it is “primed from the beginning to be interested in and to distinguish itself from the world of others.”10

Benjamin points out that in the Freudian account, the symbiotic unity of a mother-infant must be disrupted to allow for the child’s individuation. This logically leads to Freud’s claim that separation is the essential moment of the child’s establishment of autonomy. In contrast, a psychological model which adopts as its normative ideal a simultaneous responsiveness to the connect­edness as well as to the distinctness of the infant from the start, opens up the possibility of recognizing the achievement and significance of attachment as well as of separation:

Once we accept the idea that infants do not begin life as part of an undif­ferentiated unity, the issue is not only how we become free of the other, but how we actively engage and make ourselves known in relationship to the other.11

Though much infant-development literature implicity at least, adopts as its normative standard a relational ideal of mutual recognition, it does not provide a critique of social roles generally or of gender roles specifically. Benjamin uses the achievement of the capacity and opportunity to engage in relationships marked by mutual recognition as a measure to assess the unhappy role the gender-system plays in setting up sexual relationships of failed recognition, relationships characterized by domination, and not by reciprocity. Problems arise when Benjamin expands her argument and claims that the binary logic involved in the production of the gendered subject does not merely determine the structure of the individual psyche but:

… has its analogue in other long-standing dualisms of western culture: rationality and irrationality, subject and object, autonomy and depen­dency.12

These oppositions, so constitutive of gender, are “replicated in intellectual and social life.. .(eliminating) the possibilities of mutual recognition in soci­ety as a whole.”13 In identifying rationality with domination and maleness, Benjamin is forced to discount the role rationally articulated and justifiable norms play in establishing and evaluating relationships of mutual recognition. It is just this association of rationality with domination that prompts Weir to dismiss Benjamin’s reconstruction of subjectivity, pointing to the problems inherent in her account of the genesis of failures of mutual recognition located in the establishment of male identity:

So, male identity is established through separation from the mother, which produces objectification and the development of rationality, all of which are equated with domination.14

Identifying rationality with domination implies that mutual recognition does not or should not involve rationally mediated relationships. The process of ego formation thus becomes a directly affective process where one’s subjec­tivity is constituted in an immediate identification or disidentification with the other. Weir rejects this account on two grounds. First, because it fails to recog­nize the extent to which ego identity is socially and symbolically mediated and thus fails to acknowledge the role that rationality plays in the understanding and taking up of the roles constitutive of identity. And second, because it fails to recognize the role social norms play in the demand for and the creation of relationships based on recognition.

In conceptualizing recognition as a purely affective relationship and by identifying rationality with an objectification of the other involving domina­tion, Benjamin cannot account for the role that norms play in identity forma­tion and dismisses Habermasian theory as merely reinscribing a patriarchal view of rationality in the moral and social domain. This unfortunate move springs from her oscillation between an empirical and normative analysis, which leads to her failure to examine the normative structure of the relation­ships crucial to identity formation. I would also argue, however, that Habermas’s normative account of relationships presumes an adult whose subjectivity has originally been constructed in the crucible of the relationships of mutual recognition Benjamin describes, or at least one whose subjectivity has been radically reconstructed in light of an understanding of the failures of those relationships.

Habermas’s account of the intersubjectively acquired ability to navigate in a post-conventional world of norms assumes an autonomous human being whose ego-development is complete, though its moral development may not be. Benjamin’s, argument, however suggests that the concept of self embed­ded in psychoanalytic and moral theory relies on a model of autonomy that establishes relationships of domination as essentially entangled in identity formation. Since one’s ego identity is intersubjectively constituted all the way down, human beings are subject to distortion, to psychic blightings which can be reflected in even our ideals of moral engagement. Benjamin argues that Habermas’s account of moral judgment and justification reflects just this kind of problem, insofar as the over-valuing of the rational and the universal springs from the over-valuation of separation over attachment and hence the domination of women by men:

(Habermas) merely displaces the problem of rationalism—the inability to recognize the other—to the area of symbolic interaction and moral discourse. And there, the same issue arises as in science: only formal proce­dures and abstraction allow a universal form of recognition, but these negate the recognition of the other’s particular subjectivity.15

If this is the case, those engaged in supposedly ideal discourse, by virtue of the constitution of their identities, are incapable of relationships with others not shot through by domination: gender domination, race domination, ethnic domination. Any and every kind of domination does in fact occur and could have been expected to occur. The norms which guide interaction and serve to arbitrate conflicting moral claims arrive, in a sense, after the moment of self/other engagement. My constitution of my self and the other, while not fixed, lies below the ground of disputed norms. My subjectivity must allow for the mutual recognition of the other, or I inevitably construct the other as master or slave, limiting the extent to which truly ideal discourse is possible. Subjectivity, constituted in the context of mutual respect, makes possible the self’s recognition of the other and is therefore a precondition for normative engagement with others. Affective recognition is as Weir puts it, a “necessary though not sufficient criteria for intersubjectivity.”16

Autonomy, Recognition, and Respect: Habermas, Benjamin, and Honneth

Johanna Meehan

In his work on moral development, Jurgen Habermas focuses on the cognitive steps which make it possible for a child to move from a conventional under­standing of right and wrong to a post-conventional stage where norms require discursive justification. His account, influenced by Lawrence Kohlberg’s, details the cognitive skills required in recognizing, raising, and redeeming moral claims. This child navigates from conventional to post-conventional morality by learning to problematize normative claims and generate and offer arguments in support of them in discourses with others. The child Habermas describes, is a child whose ego-identity is essentially intact even at the earliest moral stage charted, though its moral development may be far from complete. Habermas assumes the development of this identity, though he has never explored the process of its constitution and distinguishes sharply between the acquisition of ego-identity, the skills involved in social-role-taking, and those involved in moral reasoning. I will argue in what follows that Habermas’s focus on the cognitive aspect of moral development can be traced to this sharp distinction between cognitive development and the establishment of ego-iden­tity, which like his “knife-sharp” distinction between norms and values, cannot be sustained. Because children establish their identities in relationships with others, the nature of these relationships structures the formation of their own identities and their projected construction of the other. These phenomena are captured to some extent in Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus, which illuminates how self/other understanding, is embedded in a way of being with

others which is not added to our self-understanding, or to our understanding of others, but is instead constitutive of them. If the habitus in which one becomes a self is one where identity is valenced by disparate power relation­ships, then those social relationships inscribe themselves upon its inhabitants long before disputes about norms arise and skew those disputes in a way that remains opaque to some or even to all the participants in the discourse. While I believe this kind of skewing does occur and is seen in the politics of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, for example, I do not claim that we are so hopelessly embedded in our identities or lifeworld to the extent that it is useless to engage in the discursive negotiation and redemption of norms. I think Habermas is right to locate justice in the institutionalization of reflective, public discourse, but I argue that it is a goal made distressingly elusive when the full extent of the intersubjective constitution of ego-identity is recognized. Such a recognition also points to the significance of normatively guided rela­tionships between caregivers and children and the social structuring of those relationships, and raises questions as to what constitutes recognition, what constitutes mutual recognition, and about the role recognition plays in social relationships.

Since the publication of Carol Gilligan’s, In A Different Voice, the identi­fication of moral maturity with the achievement of ego independence by deontological theories like Habermas’s have been called into question. In her recent book, The Bonds of Love, Jessica Benjamin argues that this ideal of ego maturity arises from a psychoanalytic model which identifies autonomy with domination and associates maleness with autonomy and difference, and femaleness with dependence and sameness. Benjamin traces the psychosexual construct of gender in the context of patriarchy calling into question the model of autonomy that underlies current psychoanalytic and psychological models, including those used by moral development theorists. In condemning the notion of autonomy, Benjamin, by implication, dismisses Habermas’s moral theory. While agreeing that his account of moral development is incom­plete, her dismissal of his position is wrongheaded and reflects her failure to recognize the significance of the norms which structure non-dominative rela­tionships. Habermas’s move to redefine moral autonomy in terms of commu­nicative rationality leads him to a conception of autonomy much closer to Benjamin’s own than to the more traditional psychoanalytic models she rejects. In actuality, their analyses complement each other, and Axel Honneth’s notion of respect, which describes the capacity to relate to one’s self and to others in relationships of mutual recognition, a capacity that orig­inates in an ego constituted in the psychological context of such relationships, serves as at least an initial reflection on the psychologically and normatively structured conditions that make relationships of recognition possible. This concept of respect, or one like it, could thus provide a bridge between

Benjamin’s and Habermas’s positions by clarifying the structure and precon­ditions for realizing noncoercive relationships of mutual recognition in the inter-psychic, intersubjective, and social/political worlds.