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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

The ideal of self-development: personal or political?

Catherine Audard


Ideal politique ayant domine la pensée sociale du 19e et du début du 20e siècles, présent tant chez Marx que chez Mill, le ≪ developpement de soi ≫ ou la ≪ réalisation de soi ≫, ainsi que la quête d’un ≪ soi authentique ≫ qui l’accompagne, sont des idéaux qui ont subi une dégradation et un appauvrissement considérables comme l’a montré Honneth. Cet article examine les conditions qui permettraient de redonner un contenu politique a cet ideal. Si l’on peut partager le constat fait par Honneth d’un détournement de l’ideal de developpement de soi, on peut par contre contester l’étiologie qu’il en propose. Il nous semble que l’ideal a été perverti parce que, d’emblée, il était porteur de contradictions, et non seulement en raison des nouvelles conditions sociales. Le propos est ici de montrer que, si le concept de ≪ developpement de soi ≫ doit demeurer un concept essentiel de la pensée démocratique, une première étape pourrait consister en une réflexion sur la temporalité du developpement de soi, sur les conditions qui permettent la transformation d’opportunités en véritables ’capabilités’ pour tous.

Texte intégral

1Since the 19th century, the ideal of self-development has dominated social and political thought, reformulating the emancipation programme of the Enlightenment and its vision of individual liberties and rights in more dynamic and social terms. It finds its fullest expression in John Stuart Mill’s conception of ”the free development of individuality as one of the leading essentials of well-being” and as ”the chief ingredient of individual and social progress” (Mill 1992: 124). It is also present, of course, in the young Marx where it appears as a collective as well as a personal task in a way that is still deeply influential. However, the quest for ’self-realization’ or for ’individuality’ and ’authenticity’ has become an impoverished project, alienated from any political vision. The verdict is that a powerful social and political ideal has been distorted and ’reified’ (Honneth 2007: 119-123).

2The aim of this paper is to explore the various ways in which the ideal of self-development could be re-politicized, that is, re-conceptualized in political, not only personal terms. Whereas self-development can be seen as a selfish liberal and individualistic ideal (think of the claim that we could have a right to self-development), it is important to insist on how much it relies on the effective functioning of the political institutions of justice and solidarity. This ’proper’ functioning I would define, in the last section, not simply as providing public goods for immediate consumption, but as fostering a temporal horizon for self-development, as stimulating ’capabilities’, the individual and collective capacity to transform opportunities in utilities.

The loss of a powerful political ideal

3In 1840, Tocqueville was already forecasting the dangers inherent in the new democratic individualism, characterized by the quest for ”little and mediocre pleasures”, dominated by self-interest and leading to the loss of any sense of community and solidarity. Honneth expresses similar concerns about liberal individualism, in the 21st century, as a victim of ’new’ capitalism, having endured a triple process of ’psychologization’, social control and instrumentalization.

4The most obvious feature of the contemporary ideal of self-development and self-realization, for Honneth, is that it has become a purely personal project. Its social and collective dimensions are widely ignored. The current mantra is that when we succeed in developing our potentialities, it is only due to our own personality or ’character’ and innate abilities, whereas, when we fail, it is due to social and economic conditions. The external context has become widely ignored and self-development is a carbon copy of physical training: you work on yourself, on your abilities and talents in the same way as a top athlete would work to transform her body. If you fail to develop, it is because you did not get the right trainer or you did not invest the right kind of efforts.

5Social control is at its most effective when the individual is promised self-development as a product or a merchandise and the problematic dimension of selfhood is erased from the process. In order to sell oneself, one has to develop certain qualities or to pretend to possess them. For what I would call the dominant ’productivist’ model, self-development is no longer a natural, but an artificial process. It can lead to the demand for artificial self-enhancement procedures. It creates an instrumental relation to oneself, one’s body and one’s mind and to the others, excluding an awareness of both one’s ’true’ needs and of social reality. The individualism of self-fulfilment and self-help techniques is fed with a deep distrust of social and political institutions and, in the end, creates the new forms of dependency and conformity that Tocqueville had foreseen.

6We see examples of this not only in the workplace, but also in education policies. In order to produce a satisfactory number of graduates, it is crucial to develop some qualities and talents in preference to other less useful ones. The problem, for Honneth, is: who sets the criteria, the aims to be achieved? Self-development is shaped by the demands of work and the market, not by the needs of the individual or, rather, her needs are interpreted and validated mostly by the workplace. For Honneth, this creates what he calls ’social pathologies’ and suffering , not solely injustices, both at work and in the family.

7For the 19th century liberal thinkers who first expressed it, in contrast, the ideal of self-development had strong normative dimensions. They saw it as an ideal which was inseparable from its dual political conditions of equal freedom and justice. For both the young Marx and John Stuart Mill, self-development, the fulfilment of individual aspirations and potentialities, was impossible without social development. A good example of that kind of view is the ’Solidarist’ movement in France and the ’new’ liberalism in Britain, which tried to combine respect for individual development and social solidarity. Individuals can only develop their potential and ’become themselves’ if they meet favourable social conditions: opportunities in education, family structures, housing, health, etc. The role of the State is to provide these essential public goods without which individuals cannot flourish. Social liberalism is based on such an assumption which has been erased and, in that sense, the ideal of self-development has not only been psychologized, but mostly de-politicized.

8The question that I am raising is whether it is possible to re-politicize it and how. There is no straightforward answer. My claim is that the shortcomings of both liberal and socialist theories are clear as soon as one tries to understand what they mean by self-development. In particular, any effort at reviving a social liberal theory needs at its foundation an analysis of what it means to set individual self-development and self-realisation as its main value.

Equal opportunities for self-development

9I would like to turn to a conceptual analysis that will show both the ambiguities of the notion and the conditions for successfully re-politicizing it. The culprit is not only external, historical, social et economic conditions, as argued by Honneth, but also tensions between the core elements that constitute the idea. As a political concept, self-development is an ”essentially contested concept” (Gallie 1955: 167-98). This means that there is no one ’true’ interpretation, as Honneth seems to suggest. In order to make sense of it and to debunk illusions, it is not enough to uncover economic and social factors, but it is essential to become aware of its non-democratic features. I will focus on one such difficulty, the question of fair opportunities for self-development for all and the conception of temporality it involves, which can work for or against this democratic principle.

10First, one core component of the concept of self-development is a distinction between its means and aims. For instance, in what I call the ’productivist’ model, the self’s talents, abilities, qualities, are seen mostly as means to an end, as a potential to achieve certain aims, in the way in which a tool is shaped to produce certain results. If the individual has no part in deciding the objectives which remain external to her own ’plan of life’, to use Rawls’s expression, Honneth is right to talk of a de-humanizing effect, of ’reification’. The ’productivist’ metaphor does not treat individual potentialities as part of a personal or a collective agreed project.

11In a democratic context, in contrast, individuals should have a right to question these aims and to be treated as ends in themselves, not simply as means. This is where the temporality of self-development and, more precisely, the distinction that Sen draws between ’capabilities’ and opportunities, is crucial. Opportunities cannot be used by individual agents and foster development if they are not seen as part of their aims or their ’plans of life’. The capacity to order and rank one’s objectives determines in great part the capacity to transform opportunities in utilities, in well-being and flourishing. This capacity needs a future, a temporal self-projection. This is a very important political condition that differentiates privileged and less privileged individuals in society and the politics and institutions of fair equality of opportunity should include it in their agenda.

12Then, a conflict exists concerning the ’scope’ of development, its frontiers, the possibility or the impossibility of radical innovation or of simply actualizing pre-given potentialities. How much in the developed result is already implicit from the very start? In what I call the ’poetic’ model, the claim is that ’authentic’ or ’true’ self-development is, in fact, a creation free from the constraints of the labour market, of production, as in a work of art. This is a ’romantic’ model of self-development, which is present in Honneth’s conception of self-realization, but also in the young Marx as well as in Humboldt and Mill. The focus is on the role of innovation, originality and emancipation from the external conditions and pressures.

13Again, this romantic vision is incompatible with a democratic context as it is an unachievable goal, except for a minority. Only the ’hyperself’, the superior being, is capable of creating herself without any outside help. In Nietzschean terms, to shape oneself freely like a work of art, ignoring the pressures of of society and the demands of moral norms, to be the creator of one’s means of development as well as one’s aims, is claimed to be the ’true’ meaning of freedom. In contrast, a sub-humanity remains the mere recipient of means for survival. Self-affirmation is the privilege of the strong against the herd. There is obviously an anti-democratic, elitist and utopian dimension in the ideal of self-development to the extent that it presupposes sole individual responsibility for both the means and objectives of the process. This is an ideal that cannot be realised unless the needs and rights of the others are not respected. In contrast, self-development, in a democratic context, would seem to be dependent on respect for the rights of others and on a moral capacity for ranking one’s aims accordingly, not for ’creating’ them. If, instead, self-development does not make space for social responsibility, it is a-political in a dangerous way.

14Finally, there is the distinction between the ’natural’ dimension of the process and the ’artificial’ one. Supporters of what I call the ’naturalistic’ view will insist that self-development is an autonomous process that should not be interfered with. The self is defined as possessing both actual and potential properties. These potential properties are innate and apparently dormant, but develop according to a natural process, comparable to ”the growth of a tree” says Mill. This autonomous process demands only maximum freedom and minimal interference. As a consequence, abilities are seen as naturally or genetically distributed among human beings and only an authoritarian arbitrary power would be able to redress the natural distribution. This is why the privileged always claim to have been successful on their own merits: talents, character, courage, etc., whereas social justice is the necessary recourse for the less naturally gifted.

15It is obvious that such an interpretation is not only riddled with inconsistencies, the major one being the Non-identity problem (Hurley 2003: 118-123), but it is also incompatible with a democratic process, which presupposes fair and just conditions for the development of each individual. These include both respect for what is unique in each person concerned and also the awareness of one's debt to the rest of society, be one gifted or less well endowed.

16I would like to suggest that one preliminary, yet overlooked, step consists in revisiting the temporality of self-development. The ’naturalistic’ vision presupposes that the self can be detached from its environment and that self-development is the actualisation of a pre-given. It is as de-politicized a vision of self-development as the ’poetic’ model, which presupposes that anything can be done out of the human ’matter’, putty in the hands of the supreme architect or creator. Equally defective is the ’productivist’ model which claims that talents can be developed in any pre-determined direction. These views never question the way in which social and political measures can successfully foster self-development for all. They exclude, in the end, a democratic understanding of self-development.

Rethinking the temporality of self-development

17I would like to conclude in arguing, as I have done before, that liberal individualism is not incompatible with social justice (Audard 2009: 255- 335), provided that individual self-development be understood neither as an autonomous natural fact, as in Mill, nor as a mere creation or production, as in the young Marx, nor as a means to a pre-given end as in the dominant ’productivist’ model. External circumstances and factors may interact and create opportunities that will or not be transformed in life-changing prospects. Development cannot, then, be understood simply in terms of a natural gradual process if opportunities as events or ’turning points’ in the process are to be available to all. Opportunities only become such if there exists prior to them a set of values and motivations to which they can correspond, to which the individual can relate and on which she can base her development. The central notion here is, of course, the idea of ’capabilities’: the capacity to transform opportunities in utilities is relying on the pre-existence of sets of preferences, themselves only available if the individual can project herself unto an open horizon. Bernard Williams has famously analyzed the distinction between external and internal reasons, arguing that external reasons do not exist (Williams 1981: 101-113). This can be applied to the very notion of opportunities as events that must be rooted in prior understandings. External interventions such as social measures, in order to be democratic and non authoritarian, have to be respectful of preexisting sets of preferences, of what makes an individual unique and allows her to project herself unto an horizon. I would call this new vision a humanization or a de-naturalization of temporality.

18Let me illustrate this with an example drawn from a recent book by the French sociologist Eric Maurin. The book is an analysis of a widespread social pathology, fear in the face of losing one’s social status and security through joblessness. For 48% of the French population, fear of joblessness, homelessness, etc. is real whereas the chances of losing one’s job are minimal in one of the best countries in the world for job protection (Maurin 2009: 5- 10). The paradox has its explanation in the temporality of self-development. For French children and students, their fate seems to be sealed between ages 18 and 18 1/2, when they take their final school exam. If they are selected for further education in prestigious universities, they know that they have a future, a meal ticket for life. If not, they feel insecure and unsuccessful for the rest of their lives. The vision, here, is that there is no place for self-development, that the horizon is closed at a very young age with no second chance. Such an ideology produces levels of anxiety and depression, of what Honneth calls ’social pathologies’, not simply injustices, that remain incomprehensible in a rich and prosperous democracy. As Maurin says, it is not so much the loss of status which is a problem, it is the fear of the loss and the lack of projects and alternative solutions. This shows how important the temporality of self-development as an open prospect for all during the course of their lives is, in order to promote a free and democratic society. Self-development as a purely individual quest remains at best an illusion, at worse a dangerous source of suffering and social pathologies.



AUDARD, C. (2009), Quest-ce que le liberalisme?, Paris: Gallimard.

GALLIE, W.B. (1955-6), 'Essentially Contested Concepts', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56: 167-98.

HONNETH, A. (2007), La reification, Paris: Gallimard.

HURLEY, S. (2003), Justice, Luck and Knowledge, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

MAURIN, E. (2009), La peur du declassement, Paris: Le Seuil.

MILL, J.S., (1992 [1859]), On Liberty, H.B. Acton (ed.), London & New York: Everyman’s Library.

WILLIAMS, B. (1981), Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Catherine Audard is a Visiting Fellow at the Department of Philosophy of the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is the Chair and co-founder of the Forum for European Philosophy. Her main interests rest with moral and political philosophy, theories of justice, utilitarianism, liberalism and the critique of multiculturalism. Her most recent books include John Rawls, (Acumen, 2007) and Quest-ce que le libéralisme? (Gallimard, 2009).

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011

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