Purpose, Contingency

In chapter 11 of Spirit of Trust, Brandom begins to talk about the interweaving of purpose and contingency. I may repeatedly revise a plan of action to realize the same intention. I may even redefine my intention along the way.

Only retrospectively, after this incorporation of contingency, can the intention be viewed as fully determinate. I look back and discover what I have turned out to have actually intended all along.

As Pippin and Pinkard have noted, this kind of Hegelian thought is also very Aristotelian. For Aristotle, it is only in this way — retrospectively — that we can make judgments about someone’s “happiness” or success in living a good life. Aristotle’s biological works are full of concrete examples of the worked out interweaving of purpose and contingency, but there are few other precedents for this kind of thinking.

Historically, thinking about purpose in the world was usually remapped to very un-Aristotelian notions of particular providence, and as a result considerations of contingency were suppressed. Explicit thinking about human purposes has usually occurred in unrealistically voluntaristic contexts, again resulting in the suppression of considerations of contingency. Early modern mechanism banished purpose to a supernatural realm, and attempted to reduce contingency away. Recovering this Aristotelian insight of the interweaving of contingency and purpose in a modern context was one of Hegel’s great achievements, and recovering that Hegelian insight is another great achievement.

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