Hegelian mutual recognition puts ethical considerations of reciprocity with others to the fore. In part, it is a more sophisticated version of the idea behind the golden rule. It also suggests that anyone’s authority and responsibility for anything should always be evenly balanced. It is also a social, historical theory of the genesis of meaning, value, and identity. Hegel’s notion was partly anticipated by Fichte.
Brandom reads mutual recognition as central to Hegel’s ethics or practical philosophy, and Hegel’s practical philosophy as central to his philosophy as a whole. Prior to the publication of A Spirit of Trust (2019), what I take to be Brandom’s own deep ethical engagement was often not recognized. I hope the situation will soon improve.
Consistent with Brandom’s general approach, the ethics of A Spirit of Trust appears in a highly mediated form. Much of the work of ethics for Brandom comes down to the implementation and practice of normative pragmatics and inferential semantics, which he has been expounding at least since Making It Explicit (1994). So, I think he has been laying the groundwork for a long time.
One recent commentator (Lewis 2018) suggested that ethics proper was just missing from Brandom’s earlier accounts. His citations for this were to Robert Pippin and Terry Pinkard, whose readings of Hegel are often compared to Brandom’s. I cannot find the text of Pinkard’s 2007 article, but Pippin in the course of his searching but still very sympathetic review “Brandom’s Hegel” (2005) had suggested there was at that time an important gap in Brandom’s reading, related to Hegel’s lifelong concern with a critical treatment of positivity, i.e., received views and institutionalized claims.
Pippin cited what I agree to be a dubious argument from Making It Explicit in favor of the social legitimacy of a commitment to enlist in the Navy by a drunken sailor who was tricked into a contract by accepting a shilling for more beer. In Spirit of Trust terms, Brandom’s valid point in such a context would be to emphasize that the freedom associated with agency does not entail mastery, and in particular that we do not have mastery over the content of our own commitments. The issue for Pippin in 2005 was that Brandom seemed to put sole responsibility and authority for determining the content of commitments on the audience. Pippin found with respect to positivity “not so much a problem as a gap, a lacuna that Brandom obviously feels comfortable leaving unfilled” in Making It Explicit. I suspect Brandom’s lack of discomfort was directly tied to a deferral of such considerations to his 40-year magnum opus project, A Spirit of Trust.
For years, something like Pippin’s positivity issue was a main topic of discussion between my late father and me. For both of us, it was the big hurdle to overcome in fully recognizing Brandom as the world-historic giant we both thought he would probably turn out to be. I thought the positivity issue already began to be addressed in the early web draft of A Spirit of Trust, and I suspect it was a significant focus while Brandom was working on the final text.
In any event, I think it is clear that in the published Spirit of Trust, the determination of the content of commitments is envisioned not as stopping with an immediate audience, but as involving an indefinitely recursive expansion of mutually determining I-Thou relationships. On my reading, normative statuses that are both fully determinate and unconditionally deontically binding would only emerge from the projection of this expansion into infinity. But in practical contexts, we never deal with actual infinity, only with indefinite recursive expansions that have been cut off at some relatively early point. (See also Hegelian Genealogy.)
We always work with defeasible approximations — finite truncations of a recursive expansion through many relationships of reciprocal determination. This means in particular that judgments of deontic bindingness are defeasible approximations.
Further, the kind of approximation at issue here is not a statistical one, but a more Aristotelian sort of “probability”. It therefore cannot be assumed to monotonically improve as the expansion progresses, so it is not guaranteed that further expansion will not suddenly require a significant revision of previous commitments or concepts, as Brandom explicitly points out (see Error).
This means that the legitimacy of the queen’s shilling and any other received truth is actually open to dispute and therefore open to any rational argument, including those the sobered-up sailor might make. In Brandom’s favorite example, new case law — though of course subject to higher-level canons of determinate negation in its own future interpretation and evaluation — may significantly revise existing case law in unforeseeable ways.
I believe this gives us all the space we need for social criticism. We need have no fear that Brandom’s version of the mutual recognition principle will bind us to positivity. Nothing is out of bounds for the autonomy of reason. We only have to be honest about the conceptual content we encounter in the detail of the recursive expansion. I believe this is the answer to the lingering concerns I expressed in Robust Recognition and Genealogy. Even if Brandom himself were to turn out not to go quite this far, I think at worst this is a friendly amendment that does not disrupt the framework. (See also Edifying Semantics; Reasonableness.)
The recursive expansion of mutual recognition pushes it toward the kind of universality on which Kant based the categorical imperative. Practical outcomes from the two approaches ought to be similar. Hegel’s version is useful because it is grounded in social relationships rather than a pure metaphysics of morals, but still escapes empirical, “positive” constraints by indefinitely expanding the network toward the concrete universality of a universal community of rational beings.