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  • Writer's pictureDaniel de la Torre

Feasible horizons

My interest in the disciplinary consequences of the apprehension of human conduct under the form of object, reification, comes from Pragmatism, not so much from so-called Critical Theory or Marxism. Pragmatism seemed like a middle ground that tried to solve the recurrent antinomies in the academic approach to philosophy, such as those between empiricism and rationalism, or those related to a style of writing, as it happens with the analytic vs. continental distinction.

Among the ideas that made Pragmatism look attractive were (1) that knowledge is developed in the course of those work processes in which it is useful (2) that philosophy must be informed by the abstractions made possible by other disciplines, (3) there are some practices and attitudes that contribute to inquiry by exposing ideas to scrutiny and (4) the accomplishment of ends or goals becomes the means for further projects.

Peirce's idea of a Community of Philosophical Inquiry instantiated a model for contributing to the enterprise of knowledge production as well as a distinct form of social interaction, focused on advancing the topic of research by subordinating of the particular intentions of the members of said research community.

A rather naïve reception of the political derives of this Peircean community made me fell under the trap of Discourse Ethics for about a year and a half. The interrogation on the pragmatic-transcendental presuppositions for argumentative discourse seemed like a way out of a relativism that renders discussions into mere eristic.

The material and cultural presuppositions needed for argumentative discourse were of course left aside, as K.-O. Apel considers the implementation of Discourse Ethics as a separate question that doesn't affect the validity of an Ideal Community of Communication as a regulative idea or horizon that permits the evaluation of actual communication.

Apel's version of Discourse Ethics, which is grounded on a transcendental-pragmatic point of view remains faithful to the metaphysical nature of Ethics, the only place where Freedom can be posited. On the other hand, Habermas own development of Discourse Ethics, founded on an Universalism that is soon condemned as a veil for Western institutional models, ends up serving as an addendum to the Social Systems tradition represented by Parsons and Luhmann, for whom the autopoietic character of society is founded on primogenital egoism that may elaborate mediations to guarantee the legitimacy of its decision making processes.

By this point the question of the relationship between individual agency and the structural limitations to the exercise of that agency were already at the center of my concerns.

Both an attention to those quotidian interactions that render dialogue as an ineffective tool to guide quotidian action, and a deepening on the question for the substantialization of sociability, have turned the focus into intersubjective recognition, which is needed for the establishment of a community of communication. Honneth's reading of early Jena Hegel is like a development on the Kantian nature of Discourse Ethics and its adaptation of Peirce's Community of Philosophical Inquiry into a regulative idea that serves for the evaluation of actual argumentative interactions. On the recognition frame, the social experience of appreciation or contempt precedes the possibility of discursively exposing one's own interests. Recognition allows the satisfaction of basic needs for subsistence through emotional dedication or love, then it allows the fulfillment of rights to be guaranteed through the generalizing abstraction of the formal figure of the citizen, and finally, it allows the experience of esteem of those particularities that distinguish personal identity.

Having witnessed the deployment of social contempt with a frequency comparable to that of recognition, it took little time for Sloterdijk's inverted reading of the theory of recognition to capture my attention. As he summarizes in ''The contempt for the masses. An essay on the Kulturkampf in modern society'':

''Wherever one has to choose, in relation to a group, between vertical communication (offense) and horizontal communication (flattery), something is at issue that we will necessarily call an objective problem of recognition. Certain traits conducive per se to holding recognition come together in the concept of mass. To deny recognition means to despise, in the same way that rejecting and dismissing possible contact means to feel disgust. If the modern world, as certain interpreters of Hegel have reasonably explained, is defined as a place of confrontation of generalized struggles for recognition, this must inevitably lead to a form of society in which contempt reaches epidemic levels. On the one hand, because recognition—like deference—is a resource whose value is correlative to its scarcity; On the other hand, because those seeking recognition, as they grow incessantly, have no choice but to impose excessive burdens on each other; and, ultimately, because the mass as such constitutes a pseudosubject with which it is not possible to maintain a possible relationship without introducing an element of contempt—in a context where, in my view, flattery also counts as inverted contempt''.

The derives of critical theory after the pragmatic and communicative turn, followed by the recognition approach, seemed at this point to ignore the role of social structure as expressed in those social objects that mediate interaction. The fact that identities can become an instrument for social negotiation within the recognition approach, when that approach lacks the tools for questioning wider processes of social rationalization, also gave place to an unsettling feeling regarding this whole paradigm of critical theory.

Honneth's attempt to appropriate Lukács concept of recognition for his own theory of intersubjective recognition seemed for many to show just how distant his critical theory was from its initial formulations. For Honneth, reification truly meant the opposite of recognition, identifying personal objectification in quotidian interaction as an appropriate case for his study.

The motivation to return to the direct reading of Lukács was largely due to the circumstance that I was able to listen to Andrew Feenberg in mid-2016. Feenberg considers that reification is instantiated in the design of social and technological frameworks when, for its same design, these are tending toward an asymmetric distribution of power among those individuals who are affected by their functioning.

The approach to reification by the social studies of science and technology focuses on the materialization of social valuations, not in the dramatic fight for prestige.

The focus of reification lies in the relation between the capacity for the exercise of personal agency and the social structure inside of which that agency is exercised. Social structure is expressed in the form of those social objects that permit to direct human intentionality towards the actualization of valued states of things. When the prescriptions of a system of social objects interferes with the exercise of personal agency, that subject finds itself reified.

Attention to the discussion to which the reification essay of 1922 showed that Lukács concern lies in the apprehension of social objects, when the form of that objects prescribes conducts that contradict the interests of those who mediate their action through them. Lukács was then formed in the school of Heidelberg Kantianism, for which the systematization of delimited parcels of experience represented the main model for scientific explanation.

The specificity of social objects lies in the value that is actualized through them. They permit the compliment of the functions of a group of subjects that shares coordinated answers to common problems. Dewey's Theory of Valuation actually has a better depiction than that of Heidelberg Kantianism when it comes to the guidance of practical action through the positing of valued goals that are recursively used as means to further ends. The latter's vantage lies in the fact that Heidelberg Kantianism's depiction of systematization as the paradigm for rationalization illuminates the way that practical prescriptions come to form a coherent unity related to the goals of the institutions that use them. Stafford Beer's own treatment of system in ''Cybernetics and Management'' can be read as a development of the Heidelberg treatment of rationalization.

The criticism that the first approach to reification neglects the interactions of the human being with nature was addressed by Lukács by restructuring his work through an ontological approach. In the posthumous Ontology of the Social Being, the relationship of the social being with the previous strata of the psychic being, organic life and physical entities, on which its survival occurs, is discussed. Here the early focus on the apprehension of social objects is replaced by the interrogation on those categories that condition their apparition.

The emergence of the social being, thanks to the updating of states of affairs that are valued for allowing the fulfillment of the functions of the individuals who coordinate their actions, makes it feasible to update degrees of freedom that were not contained as part of their physiognomic abilities.

To the extent that the forms of socialization, as well as knowledge about previous ontological strata, manage to reflect the real patterns that order the complexity of phenomena, this development gives rise to deanthropomorphization. However, in those cases in which the dependence of social phenomena on a collective intentionality that sustains them is forgotten, an alienating form of reification results.

To interrogate the exercise of agency after the computational turn, we must face the challenge of discerning the disciplinary consequences that emanate from social objects managed by non-human entities, as well as those decision-making processes to which the functioning of said entities responds.

I went to study philosophy with the aim to have something relevant to write beyond the formal exercises of people like Salvador Elizondo (who tried to adapt models of film montage in the literature of the 1960s) or the dirtbag cynicism of urban fanzines. These are some of the interests that have been forming in the process.


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