Heroism and Magnanimity

Robert Brandom is in my estimate the most important philosopher ever to write originally in English. His recently published lecture Heroism and Magnanimity recaps some of the argument of the monumental Spirit of Trust, which translates Hegel’s Phenomenology into analytic terms, partly via the development in his other monument, Making It Explicit.

Brandom is primarily a systematic thinker in his own right. He deliberately stands at arm’s length from historical texts, favoring high-level reconstructions in his own very illuminating idiom over fine-grained textual interpretation. To the limited extent that he engages in broader historical discussion, it is at an even much higher level of abstraction. Despite deep admiration for his systematic development and insights into particular figures, I find some of his historical schematizations to be problematic.

In the lecture, he presents a tripartite historical schema of a heroic age, a modern age, and Hegel’s own vision for the future, for which Brandom appropriates the term “postmodern”, thus giving that word a new meaning that inspired the “Postmodern” part of the title of this blog. To the extent that he develops this new concept of postmodernity — which has very little to do with fashionable “postmodernism” — in terms of Hegel’s vision for the future, I find it exemplary.

In tension with this, however, is his longstanding characterization of Hegel as a very strong advocate of the modernity embodied specifically by Descartes and the Enlightenment. This collapses the new distinction between Cartesian/Enlightenment modernity and Hegelian postmodernity. If we take into account the rich detail of actual history, it is impossible to periodize very meaningfully at this gross a level. But even if we do squint and cheat, what emerges from Hegel’s text is a different division.

While I have issues with Hegel’s treatment of Christianity, Hegel’s own broad summary of historical development in the Philosophy of History lectures suggest a different tripartite periodization, between the pre-Christian ancient world, historical Christianity, and his own vision for the future. In his explicit text, he actually seems more concerned to apologize or propagandize for Christianity as he reinterprets it than for his positive appropriation of Descartes and the Enlightenment. (That there is such a positive appropriation is clear, but Hegel positively appropriates every significant development of thought, even those he severely criticizes.) Hegel is dismissive of the middle ages and abhors Catholicism, but gives high praise to the Christianity of the gospels as a precursor to German idealism and his own vision. He retrospectively associates the decisive emergence of themes of subjectivity and freedom on a social scale all the way back to primitive Christianity, not to modernity as such.

Modernity did further develop these themes, and for Hegel as for Aristotle, results are of greater value than beginnings. But still, Hegel devotes a much more extensive apologetic to Christianity (and his own radical reinterpretation of it) than to Enlightenment modernity. His explicit discussions of Enlightenment in the Phenomenology mainly criticize what are presented as overly severe, uncharitable assessments of religion. (In the Encyclopedia Logic, he does make an important defense of the essential role of Understanding, which we can associate with Cartesian/Enlightenment styles of reasoning, as a moment in a larger process. But Understanding is standardly presented by Hegel as grossly deficient compared to what he calls Reason. According to Hegel, Plato and Aristotle reached the level of Reason, whereas the Enlightenment only reached the level of Understanding.)

I find Hegel’s treatment of Descartes in the History of Philosophy surprisingly charitable, given the profoundly non-Cartesian character of Hegel’s (and Kant’s) own thought. But it is Plato and Aristotle that Hegel says above all others deserve to be called educators of the human race.

I read Hegel as a highly original, genuinely Kantian recoverer of Aristotelian insights. I think both that Plato and Aristotle anticipate Kant more than is generally recognized, and that Kant has far more in common with Aristotle than Kant himself seems to have recognized. Aside from Hegel’s explicit praise for and recurring implicit use of the two, Aristotle and Kant are the two thinkers who get the longest treatment in the History of Philosophy.

Brandom characterizes the heroic or tragic age as one in which normative statuses were regarded as objective facts, and people were held responsible for objective outcomes, regardless of their intentions. This repeats Hegel’s own oversimplification, which is hard to reconcile with Hegel’s praise of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Brandom contrasts this with the modern age, in which people are responsible only because they have already at least implicitly taken responsibility. But taking responsibility is a Kantian concept, and even one that was little recognized until recently. (Brandom himself has been a contributor to this recognition.) It was hardly characteristic of the Enlightenment in general.

There is a much better case for attitude-dependence of normative statuses (which Brandom also cites) as typical of the Enlightenment, but the typical Enlightenment version of this was ultimately subjectivist. All of Hegel’s criticisms of subjectivism ought to have full force here (and to be applied to typical Enlightenment modernity).

While there is arguably something heroic about accepting one’s fate, in contrast to both Hegel and Brandom’s usage I would rather save the word heroism for something exceptional. I would say a hero in the ancient sense can be understood in a contemporary sense as someone who genuinely takes responsibility for more than what is in her power, as when I stay behind and fight against hopeless odds to save my friends when I could have turned and run.

“Magnanimity” is a word Brandom uses for an attitude of confession, forgiveness, and interpretive charity (a spirit of trust) that he associates with Hegel’s vision for the future. This is different in emphasis from the magnanimity discussed by Aristotle, but in line with Hegel’s positive treatment of Christian themes.

Magnanimity (literally “great-souledness”) in Aristotle is almost proto-Nietzschean rather than Christian (but scholarship has shown that Nietzsche was a good deal kinder and gentler than the crude stereotype). Aristotle’s great-souled man is proud and assertive, but his pride is entirely well-founded and never false. This is the kind of pride that leads to a generosity of spirit that is the opposite of arrogance. (I find it appalling and totally unhistorical that some people act as if generosity of spirit had never been recognized as a value before Christianity. Even less is there a special connection between generosity of spirit and the Enlightenment.)

Despite my reservations about the historical schema, I think the ethical message in Brandom’s work is deeply important. He is among the foremost exponents of recently developed concepts of normativity and its genesis in mutual recognition. His general reading of Kant and Hegel and his creative use of analytic philosophy to understand them have been groundbreaking. My friendly amendment is to find better historical antecedents for the new understanding of normativity in Plato and Aristotle than in the Enlightenment.

I see that in the introduction to the published version of Spirit of Trust, Brandom says “The transformation began with the ancient Greeks and proceeded at an accelerating pace.” This does give at least a nod to the point I am trying to make, but I still have an issue with the part about an accelerating pace.

I think that when we are recollectively reconstructing a historical teleological story, while it is expected that we will exercise some poetic license and will ignore many details we think are less significant, we should still try to do justice to the real nonlinear ebb and flow of things, and not just come out with a Whiggish monotonic ascent of man. While there is real progressive development, there is also real regress. Hegel thought that in various ways, Roman culture was a step back from Greek culture, and he thought the middle ages were an even bigger step back. (I actually think Hegel did not do justice to the middle ages, but he did not have access to many texts available today.)

In general, a new form of Geist will be more adequate in some ways than its predecessor, but may be less so in others. It is not guaranteed that the improvements will outweigh a decline in other respects every time. I think Hegel’s contention was that for the known data, each decline has eventually been or will be made up, so there is or will be an overall positive accumulation in spite of inevitable local declines. (See also The Ancients and the Moderns; Hegel on the Ancients; Enlightenment; Modernity Clarified; Alienation, Modernity; Modernity, Again.)

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