Dublin Annual Lecture

Axel Honneth: 'Work – A Short History of a Modern Concept'


The 2021 Royal Institute of Philosophy / University College Dublin Lecture took place on 14 July ans can be watched here.



Honneth argues that ‘work’ is a concept coterminous with the industrialization entailed by capitalist modernity. His lecture seeks briefly to reconstruct the history of conceptual disputes about the meaning of work from the beginning of capitalist industrialization. 


Initially, the only kind of activity that counts as work in the proper sense is the industrialized manufacture of goods (Locke, Smith, Hegel, Marx). Subsequently, this extremely narrow view of work is challenged by a succession of social actors who attempt to expand the definition by interpreting additional kinds of activity as work. 


At the present juncture, there is widespread acceptance of the view that caring and curative activities, be they in private households or in public facilities, should also count as work in the strict sense. However, this new, broader notion of work poses the problem of how to distinguish socially important work from activities performed for merely private ends. 


The lecture concludes with a proposal for resolving this conceptual difficulty.