Towards an Internormative Hermeneutics for Social Justice

Principles of Justice and Recognition in John Rawls and Axel Honneth

by Christiana Idika (Author)
©2018 Thesis 286 Pages


The author discusses to what extent a generally binding norm of social justice can be established in a modern, plural society. The book presents the difficulty associated with the preservation of plurality of different life forms. It also considers the plurality of the principles of social justice so as not to fall back to prioritization and the absolutization of their claims. This book argues for a more constructive way to search for criteria for complementarity, referring methodologically to Rawls’ and Honneth’s theories of justice. The author contents that the principles of social justice and their sources of normativity are plural.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • General Introduction
  • Chapter One: Political Philosophy and the Search for a Well-ordered Society
  • Introduction
  • 1.1. “Does Political Theory still exist?”
  • 1.2. Political Philosophy and the Search for Principles
  • 1.3. Well-ordered Society
  • 1.4. Principle and Well-ordered Society
  • 1.5. Pluralism, Problems and the need for Justice
  • 1.6. Justice and Well-ordered Society
  • Chapter Two: John Rawls and the Principles of Justice
  • Introduction
  • 2.1. The Background to ‘A Theory of Justice’
  • 2.2. The Concept of Justice
  • 2.3. The Principles of Justice
  • 2.4. Well-ordered Society and Justice as fairness
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Three: Axel Honneth and Recognition as a Theory of Justice
  • Introduction
  • 3.1. Critical Theorist’s – Background and the Struggle for Recognition
  • 3.2. Normative Reconstruction of Social Reality as basis for a Theory of Justice
  • 3.2.1. Honneth’s Take on Freedom and their Pathologies
  • 3.3. Social Freedom as a basis for a Theory of Justice
  • 3.4. Recognition as a basis of Social Freedom
  • 3.5. Three Principles of Recognition and the Spheres of Social Freedom
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Four: On the Issue of Plurality of Principles of Justice
  • Introduction
  • 4.1. On Possibility and Actuality of a Well-ordered Society: Between Rawls and Honneth
  • 4.1.1. Rawls on the Conditions of Possibility of Well-ordered Society
  • 4.1.2. Honneth and the Realisability of Recognition
  • 4.2. Distributive-enabling-conditions and Recognition-enabling-conditions
  • 4.3. Self-Realisation and Participatory Parity
  • 4.4. Search for Normative Justification
  • 4.4.1. Impartiality of Normative Reconstruction
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Five: Internormative Hermeneutics: a Hermeneutics of Plurality
  • Introduction
  • Part One
  • 5.1. Normativity and the Normative Question
  • 5.2. On Hermeneutics
  • 5.2.1 Gadamerian Philosophical Hermeneutics
  • 5.3. Relationship between Normativity and Hermeneutics
  • 5.3.1. The Primacy of Question as Central to Normativity
  • 5.3.2. Justification and Intelligibility
  • 5.4. Internormativity and Internormative Hermeneutics
  • 5.4.1. Reason and Reality: First case for internormativity
  • 5.4.2. Reason and Affectivity: Second case for internormativity
  • 5.4.3. Reason, Reality and Affectivity: Third case for internormativity
  • Part Two
  • 5.5. Internormative Hermeneutics – A Hermeneutics for Plurality
  • 5.5.1. The Possibility of the Interpretation of Values/Norms of Justice
  • 5.5.2. Individual and Society – A Relationship of Interdependence
  • Conclusion
  • General Conclusion: Towards an internormative Hermeneutics for Social Justice
  • Given Reality – A Necessary Point of Departure
  • On Intercultural non-consensual Political Discourse Ethics
  • Bibliography
  • Books and Book Articles
  • Journal Articles
  • Online Documents
  • Movie

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General Introduction

The search for the principles of a well-ordered society vis-vis social justice in the state of pluralism of well-being constituting element of a just social and political order and their sources of justification has been taken to be the task of political philosophy. Isaiah Berlin, among others, rightly observed that political philosophy assumes more responsibility in providing new approaches or understanding in the state of pluralism. Rawls also maintained that the practical task of political philosophy is to pay attention to deeply disputed questions in order to discover whether, despite appearances, some underlying basis for philosophical and moral agreement can be uncovered.1 It is within the parametres of these disputed questions of what normative standards or principles that can account for a well-ordered society and the methodological justification of those principles that this present work situates itself.

A well-ordered society is concerned with the arrangement of what Rawls identified as the basic structures of society. The basic structure includes the legal, economic, political and social institutions. The search for principles for a well-ordered society comprises of the question of norms that legitimise these institutions, justitifications of the norms and the relations among the various institutions and the norms guiding them in rendering social justice. Indeed, the question is whether the same principles could apply across these institutions considering the nature of relationships that exist among members of society within different institutional arrangements. Basically, the question of legitimacy of the principles for a well-ordered society occupies a central position among the problems in political philosophy. It is argued that legitimacy depends on decision procedure that should fulfill conditions of freedom and autonomy of the individual, equality and consensus. The procedure according to this line of thought justifies the principles. This is so because the consensus is reached through public reason protected from heterenomous influence of feelings, traditions, social-historical reality, religion, sentiments and every other consideration outside rationality. However, the line of argument has been criticised because it ends up disembodying or bifurcating the individual human subject who is a historically, religious and culturally affected consciousness, affective and thinking all at the same time. ← 13 | 14 →

The claim is that political philosophy’s task is not; one can say to eliminate, trim, sublimate, and assimilate etc., the plurality of persons, values, cultures or religions in order to achieve a point of agreement. Any effort in this direction would be an abstraction from social reality and may not be able to translate the paradox of freedom, equality, autonomy, right, individuality and society into platitudes, i.e. as something realisable; thereby bridging the gap between theory and practice. It is in the context of bridging this gap that both Rawls and Honneth approaches became significantly problematic because they resorted to priority.

Rawls advocates for the priority of formal rights assigned to freedom because of the inviolability of individual autonomy. He proposes a procedural constructive method that takes the individual human person as agent of construction, and here reason which is made co-existensive with autonomy and freedom is the source of normativity (i.e. authority and justification) of the principles and legitimacy of the institutions. However, to what extent does formal rights support social relationships and promote the autonomy to which it is directed? Formal rights are social possibility. Hence, how does the legally guaranteed rights relate to the social conditions that make rights possible? These seem to be the questions which Rawls’ ground breaking theory of a well-ordered society raises.

In contrast, Axel Honneth, argues for principles that go beyond formal rights but encompass social relations of recognition that invokes responsibility for the other or what is defended in this work as responds(a)bility towards the other. For Honneth, there is no need for constructing abstract principles because the ethical society is already saturated with norms of justice which can be immanently and normatively reconstructed to yield principles of justice. However, how does immanent reconstruction engage the individual’s reflective capacity, since the individual human person is not a passive participant within the ethical society? Besides, if individual autonomy and reason were the only source of normative authority of principles of social justice, Honneth’s principles of justice would not be justified because social and historical reality is not considered as valid source of authority. Additionally, Honneth’s argument from moral psychology and psychological argument would not be considered as credible source of normativity. The argument is that if the individual that acts on them is not the author it would entail acting on heteronomous conditions. Moreover, it is argued his psychological argument cannot stand the test of public justification because it has an element of subjectivity. Whereas, some of the criticisms of Honneth theory of recognition as a plural concept of justice can be mediated, his immanent normative reconstruction left some theoretical and methodological questions unanswered. ← 14 | 15 →

Therefore, in both cases there are theoretical and methodological questions that demand answers. Indeed, a well-ordered society should encompass formal rights and social relations that make rights possible.

To propose a methodological solution that will reconcile formal rights and the social relations that make rights possible is the central aim of this work. It examines the possibility of an internormative hermeneutics for social justice through an overview of the principles of justice and recognition as proposed by John Rawls and Axel Honneth respectively. The attempt will determine whether fixing the principles for a well-ordered and just society exclusively on procedural constructivism or normative reconstruction is adequate and sufficient in order to have a conception of social justice within the pluralistic circumstance of contemporary society.

The questions that set the stage for the work are: How can political philosophy, in view of the plurality of values and contemporary global social changes, deliver adequate approach towards conflicting and parallel ethical values for a conception of social justice for a well-ordered society? Is an interrelated interpretation of ethical standards possible without reductionism, assimilation and prioritisation? What role can interculturality and intercultural-oriented hermeneutics play in the treatment of interrelations of normative standards and concepts to yield an internormative hermeneutics for principles of social justice? These questions seem relevant and in fact significant because of the need to acknowledge plurality and at the same time create collective understanding on the ethical standards upon which an ethical conception of a just social and political order could be based.

This work hopes to defend that political philosophy needs a new orientation that is proposed in this work as ‘pluralitätsfähigkeit’ in order to deal with contemporary problems. It defends that ‘Pluralitätsfähigkeit’ is an acknowledgement of plurality in its radical form, including plurality of ethical standards that should not be confined to reason and autonomy alone for its justification. However, ‘pluralitätsfähigkeit’ does not imply a relativising subservience to whatever that claims privileged authority. Such an approach as will be seen in this work remains vulnerable to the realities of pluralism. Moreover, the tendency towards integration of the values in one form of it or the other, reduction of one or two into one, assimilation or prioritisation, also do not seem to be a viable option. Furthermore, acknowledging the crisis of plurality, questions whether political philosophy should engage with social, cultural and historical reality within which social actors experience their lives in order to respond adequately to the challenges of plurality. That means, in taking up its task, it should not limit itself to abstraction nor rest simply on the given. ← 15 | 16 →

Therefore, the answer to the guiding question that will be provided in this work is an internormative hermeneutical approach to plurality of normative standards or principles for a well-ordered society. This method has a strength that accords it an inevitable role in dealing with the stated problems of plurality of well-being constituting elements of social justice. The choice of the topic is based on the social and political constellations to which political philosophy should provide an answer.

Internormative approach to the fragmentation of normative practices is not a new concept; it has been applied in the legal system, particularly in international law.2 The way it is used in that context is significantly different from what we intend to achieve in this work. Although it shares basic notions such as: Internormative perspective as a consideration of the relation between different classes of norms in our case normative practices or different kinds of demands, expectations that can be represented as a form of demands for social justice.

Internormative hermeneutics could be seen as an orientation with plurality-ability towards value, cultural, ethical or religious pluralism. It presupposes that the normative is social since the “meaning-fulfilling existential relationships of the individual to things and to reality are always socially conditioned relationships within which the socially formed and socially determined personality acts.”3 In this regard, internormative hermeneutics advocates for an interpretation that preserves the independent merit of the normative standards, but at the same time seeks for their overlapping centre for a conception of social justice. The scope of the method proposed in this work is not exhaustive, but suffice to say that such a method could offer a paradigm for a common understanding of social justice without prioritising or reducing any of the normative concepts. This common conception will constitute an ethical paradigm for social cooperation in a society of plural values that give rise to normative claims that are parallel and in conflict.

Indeed, social justice is not just a problem within contemporary political thought, but the issue bothering on it has become more pressing in the last decades. Clearly, it appears that the central question of legitimacy and obligation no longer appears to be the primary issue. However, for a number of political theorists, the problem of legitimacy and obligation remains fundamental to political philosophy. Nevertheless, the present work agrees with many political theorists that the primary subject of social justice must change. By this, one meant that the purpose ← 16 | 17 → or necessity of the state on the one hand and its justification and conditions of obligation, on the other hand, while they remain relevant, they no longer seem to be a pressing concern. The point is that such political theories become more or less engaged with concepts’ analysis and justification of legitimacy that warrants the extreme emphasis on individualism. The prevailing contemporary challenges of pluralism in combination with the perennial insistence that the individual is socially, culturally and historically situated person demand a new orientation from political philosophy. This new orientation would be a response to these growing changes that substantially condition our understanding of a just social and political order.

Admittedly, the ordering of the normative standards as principles of justice for a well-ordered society have been to a greater or lesser degree articulated in one way or the other. These different articulations constitute competing theories of social justice. Nonetheless, in the prevailing theories these articulations have been done in abstraction while at the same time trivialising the moral significance of pluralism of the normative standards by which multi-layered groups and individuals understand their lives.

Consequently, such theories have conceded in trimming, subliming, reducing, prioritising or integrating these standards through theoretical and pragmatic methods that appear to ignore systemic injustice, exclude people and render some members invisible. Thus, one may say that the central problem in our understanding of normative standards and values as constitutive elements of principles of justice is not simply a matter of their universality or capacity to pass the test of reason or rational argumentation. It requires, one may say, a method of establishing how the stand to each other. This is a method of understanding the significant role of freedom’s right, equality, love, respect and solidarity in our conception of social justice. Clearly, the meaning of these concepts is multifarious and as such problematic. An aspect that has engaged political theorists has been to explain the meaning and scope of these concepts in relation to social justice. Another aspect has been an attempt to find in what their relationship consists.

This work belongs to the latter. This is not because of its priority to the former or importance but, because in dealing with the former, some political theorists tend to place them in opposition to one another or prioritise them. One may claim that finding their interdependence will as well unfold in what sense they are the concerns of social justice. An effort towards interpretation of these concepts while neglecting their interdependence seems to create conflict among them. This is precisely why Isaiah Berlin rightly maintained that the conflict among normative concepts is a matter of interpretation. From indication, this cripples the effort ← 17 | 18 → of political theorists to resolve the question of social justice in the circumstance of pluralism. It appears to be an imperative for political philosophy to possess a ‘pluralitätsfähigkeit’ in order to tackle the problem of pluralism since it is the task assigned to it. That is, the task of proposing an ethical conception of a well-ordered society in the circumstance of pluralism. Therefore, this work as the topic suggests, proposes a method, which can be both theoretical and practical in political deliberation. Hence, the structure takes the form of theoretical/thematical and pragmatic framework.

The first chapter focuses on the presupposed tasked assigned to political philosophy, which is the search for principles for a well-ordered society. The importance of this chapter is to investigate said task and thus situate the significance of the two authors chosen in this work. It is also diagnostic by which it lays bare the problem that it sets out to solve and uncover the need for political philosophy to see the concerns of pluralism not simply as its task but also as its challenge.

The second chapter will proceed with John Rawls’ conception of a well-ordered society and how he dealt with the problems of pluralism of values. Rawls’ primary claim is that principles of liberty and equality/difference are central to any conception of social justice. Consequently, in the state of pluralism or conflict, priority is given those standards or values which are relevant to individual liberty and as such institutions that protect those liberties. The relevance of these liberties cannot be overemphasised, but Rawls justified these principles that protect individual’s liberties at the cost of fragmenting the social subject, that is not only distinct but also plural. Consequently, Rawls’ theory of social justice undermined what Rainer Forst identified as the contexts of justice.4

The third chapter is an exposé on the work of Axel Honneth and his alternative response to the question of pluralism and social justice. Honneth did not see the need to fragment the social subject, or to construct an abstract principle. Rather, he advocated for a normative reconstruction with a potential of immanent criticism, by which recognition as an element of ethical life assumes a central category in our understanding of social justice. The claim that our conception of justice must have to analyse society may not be questioned, but Honneth appears to have over rated what people share and value within complex social reality. He seems also to trivialise the role assigned to individual’s capacity to reflect. ← 18 | 19 →

Chapter four brings both authors together to analyse their differences and common points of view; their strength and weakness. Thus, relying on them the chapter deducted that in a society characterised by pluralism, well-ordered making values for social justice have a plural character. It thus establishes that acknowledgement of the consequence of this as Rawls and Honneth did, do not seem to be enough, because both appear not to take seriously pluralism of values or principles or what people publicly share, accept and are ready to endorse. Chapter four thus proposes ‘pluralitätsfähigkeit’ and hermeneutics of plurality as a necessary orientation towards pluralism in any theory of social justice.

The fifth chapter draws insights from the preceding chapters to demonstrate the importance of an internormative hermeneutics in dealing with value pluralism in our understanding of social justice. It is sub-divided into two parts. The first part takes up the task of conceptual analysis and definition of scope of the two operative words – normativity and hermeneutics. The ‘normative’ has to do with the ethical standards that commands or obliges; normativity has to do with their sources of authority and as such the justification of their capacity to command or oblige. Therefore, one can say that Rawls’ principles of justice are those normative standards that apply to members of society and for them to oblige, their source of normativity is exclusively the human reason. In Honneth, the normative standards that constitute the principles are already given within the ethical society. Furthermore, hermeneutics is concerned with understanding and its correlate, interpretation.

Hence, internormative hermeneutical method builds on the assumption that sources of normativity are interdependent whereby we neither need to separate reason from social and historical reality nor bifurcate the human person in order to justify norms that apply to us. It also builds on the assumption of the primacy of question and answer in normative reconstruction of social reality. The second part examines internormative hermeneutics as a hermeneutics of plurality – a claim that defends that universality of norms of justice is not a matter simply left to the judgement of reason. Rather, it takes a form of a hermeneutical process that involves the human person as a hermeneutical being. Furthermore, it argues also that universality of principles of justice does not simply depend on the claim to the quest for consensual unanimity rather it is a hermeneutical task, meaning that the normative concepts or values are intelligible.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (June)
Political Philosophy Normative Justification Normativity Pluralism Interculturality
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2018. 286 p.

Biographical notes

Christiana Idika (Author)

Christiana Ngozi Calice Matris Idika received her PhD in Philosophy from the Graduate School of Humanities at the University of Würzburg, Germany. She is a member of the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy and a researcher at the Institute for Mission und Weltkirche at the Theologisch-Philosophische Hochschule Sankt Georgen Frankfurt am Main, Germany.


Title: Towards an Internormative Hermeneutics for Social Justice