Brandom says Kant understands all empirical activity as consisting in subjects binding themselves by conceptual norms. All empirical activity is thus implicitly embedded in an outer frame that has a value-oriented character. Brandom immediately acknowledges that the nature of normative binding in Kant is obscure and deeply entwined with some of the most problematic aspects of Kant’s work, “such as the distinction between the activities of noumenal and phenomenal selves“.

Brandom thinks Hegel better explained this binding, and that Hegel would approve of John Haugeland’s slogan “transcendental constitution is social institution”. Crucially, though, the social dimension is here conceived not as a putatively immediate communitarian identity of “we” but in an extensively mediated way, through reciprocal determination of attitudes and statuses over time by constellations of mutually recognitive I-Thou dyads.

I prefer to speak of a responsibility to differences and gradients rather than a binding. “Binding” sounds a bit too univocal to my ear to be a preferred usage. Responsibility can be materially real without being subject to univocal determination. It has the character of a material tendency rather than a law.

I’m not proposing to ban talk about bindingness. I’m just recommending that it be reinterpreted in this less obvious material sense that still allows for a bit of play in the determination, rather than that it be understood in the more apparent formal and strict sense.

In my view, all the processes of reciprocal determination result in very real material tendencies sufficient to ground all needed talk about responsibility, but we need not and should not claim that these real material tendencies have the absolute force of formal law. That is the difference between law and what is right. Law is to what is right as Hegelian Understanding is to Hegelian Reason.

Some abstract, higher-order principles do have the force of formal law, but their interpretation and applicability in actual cases can never be self-evident (nothing contentful ever is).

So that which is genuinely normatively binding is either only a real material tendency of responsibility, and interpretive work is required to discern it; or it is an open-formula higher-order principle, and interpretive work is required to apply it. If we intend to be ethical, we need to focus on that interpretive work. I believe the reciprocity of authority and responsibility and the reciprocity of mutual recognition both also point to a similar openness and a similar need for work. (See also Necessity in Normativity; Mutual Recognition; Making It Explicit.)

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