Tolerance and recognition

  • Hans Marius Hansteen


Even though “toleration” and “recognition” designate opposing attitudes (to tolerate something, implies a negative stance towards it, whereas recognition seems to imply a positive one), the concepts do not constitute mutually exclusive alternatives. However, “toleration” is often associated with liberal universalism, focusing on individual rights, whereas “recognition” often connotes communitarian perspectives, focusing on relations and identity. This paper argues that toleration may be founded on recognition, and that recognition may imply toleration. In outlining a differentiated understanding of the relationship between toleration and recognition, it seems apt to avoid an all-to-general dichotomy between universalism and particularism or, in other words, to reach beyond the debate between liberalism and communitarianism in political philosophy.
The paper takes as its starting point the view that the discussion on toleration and diversity in intercultural communication is one of the contexts where it seems important to get beyond the liberal/communitarian dichotomy. Some basic features of Rainer Forst’s theory of toleration and Axel Honneth’s theory of the struggle for recognition are presented, in order to develop a more substantial understanding of the relationship between the concepts of toleration and recognition. One lesson from Forst is that toleration is a normatively dependent concept, i.e., that it is impossible to deduce principles for toleration and its limits from a theory of toleration as such. A central lesson from Honneth is that recognition – understood as a basic human need – is always conflictual and therefore dynamic.
Accordingly, a main point in the paper is that the theory of struggles for and about recognition (where struggles for designates struggles within an established order of recognition, and struggles about designates struggles that challenge established orders of recognition) may clarify what is at stake in conflicts concerning toleration and its limits. At the same time, Honneth’s theory of the need for recognition seems to be a source for the kind of argumentative justifications that a just toleration are dependent on, according to Forst.
Another important point in the paper is that toleration (pace Forst) is a practice or attitude that implies taking a stance, but in a differentiated way, and that this presuppose a reflective distance towards one’s own positions. To be tolerant means saying “yes” to something (the beliefs and practices that one endorses), saying “no” to something (the intolerable), but also being able to say “no, but…” to something (that which is tolerated). Intolerance means saying “no” without justifiable reasons, whereas misguided tolerance means accepting something without justifiable reasons – both attitudes may be taken to indicate that one lacks proper understanding of the reasons for holding the viewpoints that one actively endorses.
In discussing of Honneth’s theory of recognition, I argue that an ability to take a stance in a differentiated way is seminal, if struggles for and about recognition are to unfold productively. In all spheres of mutual recognition (primary, secondary and tertial groups), the potential for conflicts seems to rely on an unavoidable tension between identification with the other and identification of the other as another. This is the reason why recognition – in Honneth’s sense – seems to imply toleration, or at least is reliant on the same kind of self-reflective distance and ability to differentiate that is constitutive of toleration according to Forst.
Finally, I argue that the concept of “communal values” that Honneth refers to in the context of “solidarity” cannot be taken to designate a set of substantial values that are constitutive of community, but rather that important forms of recognition take place in a social space and shape cultural codes that are both the results of and the subjects of conflict. Thus while “culture” is conflictual and complex, “value pluralism” – including diversity of beliefs and practices – may be productive. In this context, toleration is not about avoiding or resolving conflict, but about establishing the conditions for productive conflicts, enabling an ongoing creation and reappraisal of values.
How to Cite
Hansteen, H. M. (2014). Tolerance and recognition. FLEKS - Scandinavian Journal of Intercultural Theory and Practice, 1(1).
English summaries