Genealogy

Aside from the critique of immediacy, one of the things that initially attracted me to the first web draft of Spirit of Trust was the discussion of edelmütig (noble-spirited) and niederträchtig (denigrating) attitudes, now concentrated in chapter 15. Though moderately acquainted with earlier sections, I had not yet grasped much of this part of Hegel’s Phenomenology in the original, so it was all new to me. I then read the view Brandom attributed to Hegel as an interesting anticipation of Nietzsche’s critique of ressentiment. The published version, however, has a significant negative mention of Nietzsche (along with Marx, Freud, and Foucault).

The sense, especially of Hegel’s contrasting pole, is superficially quite different from Nietzsche’s, stressing what Hegel and Brandom call “Forgiveness” and I call interpretive charity, whereas Nietzsche starts from what he takes to be a sort of ideal type of an ancient aristocrat, and notoriously portrays this character as in a sense more hard-hearted than sympathetic. I never liked that particular aspect of Nietzsche, or the way he assimilates Plato to later religious attitudes I see as quite different. But there is a huge literature dispelling all the crude stereotypes of the hard-hearted Nietzsche that are abetted by some of his surface rhetoric. And even if Nietzsche avoided the Christian-sounding word “forgiveness” in favor of something like active forgetting, the essence of the ressentiment he is concerned to reject is holding grudges. Not holding grudges seems a lot like forgiveness. And referentially, Niederträchtigkeit overall still seems to me to pick out about the same characters as ressentiment.

Brandom is especially concerned to pick out the reductive naturalism of a preoccupation with causes of behavior at the expense of considering reasons for it as niederträchtig. This is a much more specialized focus. But reductive naturalism does unfortunately still carry a lot of weight today, and it does characterize numerous elements of Hegel’s account of the valet’s attitude.

In a passing remark, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Foucault are all said to share the niederträchtig attitude. Here I must part company. This sounds like the old “masters of suspicion” stereotype, which I have never considered well-founded. I don’t believe any of them intended to denigrate persons or to circumvent rational argument. They developed new forms of understanding (in the ordinary not the Hegelian sense). Especially in the case of Nietzsche, the great critic of ressentiment, and really for any such intellectual pioneer, the burden of proof for attributing Niederträchtigkeit should be quite high. (See Interpretive Charity; Honesty, Kindness; Intellectual Virtue, Love; Robust Recognition.)

As much as I also want to defend the rights and place of reason more strongly than Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, or Foucault did, I don’t see any of them as wanting to simply replace explanation by reasons with explanation by causes the way Brandom says. (Spinoza in his account of human behavior and emotions seems to me closer to actually doing this, but still gets positive treatment in Tales of the Mighty Dead, as he should.)

Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Foucault challenged not Reason but rather the claims of what Hegel called Mastery, the nonrelation of which to Reason Brandom has done so much to make explicit. I don’t think any of them stand philosophically on the level of Aristotle or Hegel or Brandom, but they all had important things to say, deserving of far more than one-line dismissals. Marx and Freud did talk about causes, but they both also put a strong value on rationality. Nietzsche especially stresses what Aristotle would call character as a conditioning factor on reason. Foucault talks a lot about historical forms of rationality. Though analyzable in terms of determinate negation, his metaphorical “archaeology” was light-years away from an expressive recollection. But real history is not Whiggish, and at some point we need to address it.

I can recognize Brandom’s description of Whiggish recollective expressive genealogy in my own various attempts at intellectual autobiography. Brandom points out that Hegel’s lectures on philosophy of history, art, and religion also practice this kind of genealogy. (Bad histories of science do too, but I am not sure that is a recommendation.) I cannot guess what if any consequences Brandom sees for general historiography, or even the history of philosophy. But I think we also need to attempt unfiltered, non-Whiggish accounts.

He does clearly say that something that got filtered out in one Whiggish account may become relevant again in another. This would also suggest that attempting to work at the unfiltered level has some importance. (See also Mutual Recognition; Immediacy, Presence; Structuralism; Difference; Affirmation.)

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