Conceptual, Representational

In passing, Brandom glosses Hegel’s famous contrast of Reason and Understanding as conceptual versus representational thinking. This seems worthy of a pause.

As we have seen in previous posts, Brandom argues that Hegel sees conceptual content in terms close to Brandom’s own inferentialism, particularly stressing the dual role of material incompatibility and material consequence in the constitution of meaning on the one hand, and in the proprieties of normative judgment on the other.

Brandom relates material incompatibility to Aristotelian contrariety. I have also related it to Aristotelian difference, which functions as a sort of n-ary contrariety. (Aristotle talks much more about difference than about identity, and this is no accident. He happily lacks later identitarian obsessions.) Meaning comes primarily from distinctions of form, not referential pointing. Aristotelian form — at least in one very important sense — is constituted by distinctions. The kinds of distinctions that are particularly relevant are those that impact reasoning. If you follow out enough of the consequences of materially incompatible things, for both Aristotle and Hegel you will eventually get a logical contradiction. Brandom’s Hegel is more interested in understanding how we end up at a point of contradiction and do something about it, than in using contradiction to allegedly explain historical change.

I also think that with the conceptual, there is always at least implicitly something normative or value-oriented. Brandom call this “Kant’s second master idea”. By contrast, representation seems to be purportedly value-independent. (Brandom tells us that Kant’s alternative to the representationalist view of representation is to treat it in terms of claims to normative validity.) Representation also tends to privilege identity over difference.

Most of what Hegel explicitly says about Understanding treats it as an overly narrow style of reasoning typical of, say, Descartes or Locke. Descartes and Locke are in fact the arch-representationalists of early modernity, but an association of Understanding to representation or representationalism is not in the foreground in Hegel’s text, so Brandom’s gloss of Understanding as representational thinking represents a significant nonobvious insight.

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