Alienation, Modernity

The positively connotated (and actually not anti-naturalist) “alienation” of Spirit from nature noted earlier did turn out to be an exception. Hegel’s more usual, negatively connotated talk about alienation is explained by Brandom as picking out any asymmetry between authority claimed and responsibility acknowledged. On this reading, traditional Sittlichkeit that takes responsibility for too much would be just as alienated as the modernity that takes responsibility for too little.

The model of a positively connotated alienation is still interesting, though, and may possibly shed further light on the vexed question of how modernity is to be picked out and assessed. Perhaps the thought is not only that any move in any direction away from the unquestioned governance of tradition is ultimately progressive, even if only through its eventual consequences, but also that a given degree of asymmetry on the modern side is therefore less bad than an equivalent asymmetry on the traditional side, because the modern one starts a dynamic that (normatively, not causally) leads to something better, while the traditional one just preserves the status quo.

Karl Mannheim in his 1925 essay on the sociology of knowledge adopted a vaguely Hegelian notion of modernity as the progressive self-relativization of thought. (He was at pains to argue that this did not lead to the “relativism” decried by some of his contemporaries.) I was fascinated by this in my youth. Here is a modernity with a Hegelian pedigree that bears no trace of Cartesianism. Mannheim’s version is more practical-epistemological than normative, and merely programmatic rather than really developed, where Brandom has a very thorough account of recognition-based normativity in many different circumstances. But it does seem to correlate with the move away from tradition that Brandom talks about. It focuses more on the notion of progress itself, and less on a particular achieved status.

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