Ferrarin’s Brandom

Alfredo Ferrarin’s Hegel and Aristotle was an interesting and provocative book, but his 2012 essay “What Must We Recognize? Brandom’s Kant and Hegel” is unfortunately nowhere near doing justice to its subject.

Ferrarin’s first word concerning Brandom’s approach is “reductionism.” But Brandom is clear that he is being highly selective for a particular purpose, and that other productive readings are possible. At one point Ferrarin seems to suggest Brandom would reduce Hegel’s whole enterprise to what Brandom calls propositionalism: the idea that concepts get their meaning from their use in judgments. Brandom does believe Hegel would be sympathetic to that primarily Fregean idea, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Then we learn that Brandom’s real “object of attack” is the notion of a prelinguistic given, and of intuition as evidence. Ferrarin turns out to be quite hostile to Brandom’s thesis of the priority of inference (Hegelian mediation) over immediacy.

The critique of immediacy is not some weird analytic fetish. If anything is a weird fetish, immediacy is. Influential continental thinkers would agree. And intuition is not knowledge. It may yield truth by the correspondence theory, but the defining characteristic of knowledge is its ability to explain itself. Knowledge is not just true belief.

Ferrarin wants to maintain that recognition cannot do all the work Brandom wants it to, and justifies this by arguing for a much narrower and more impoverished concept of recognition. Mutual recognition is hardly mentioned, and the rich dialectical development of the mutual aspect by Brandom is completely ignored. It is precisely the open dialectic of mutual recognition that provides a nonsubjective grounding for normativity, creating a third “postmodern” alternative (in the new, Hegelian sense suggested by Brandom) to traditionalist rigidity and modern subjectivist alienation.

One of the things that initially attracted me in Brandom’s discussions of Hegel is the absence of a lot of nonsense about consciousness and self-consciousness. Brandom discusses consciousness mainly in terms of meaning and normativity. Consciousness and self-consciousness are ways of doing — nominalized adverbial descriptions conditioning and informing agency, not some kind of mental stuff or container, not direct exercisers of agency either. Kant and Hegel hinted at this, but Brandom explained it much more clearly. (See also What Is “I”?)

To me, the most important lesson about self-consciousness in Hegel is that it is anything but consciousness of an immediately given thing called “self”. (Hegel’s actual concept might be better called other-consciousness or normative awareness.) Ferrarin, however, calls Brandom’s approach theoretical and abstract, and even claims Brandom “misses so obviously the practical origin of self-consciousness” (emphasis in original).

Ferrarin correctly points out that judgment cannot be adequately conceived as merely applying rules. I agree, but despite my own reservations about Brandom’s preference for deontological modes of expression, I think Brandom’s concept of judgment is much richer than that.

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