Sapience, Sentience

20 years ago, I worried a lot about Brandom’s sharp distinction of sapience or reason from mere sentience or bare organic awareness. It was not until the Woodbridge lectures reprinted in Reason and Philosophy (2009) that I began to develop a more favorable view of Kant that helped make this more comfortable. Thanks to Brandom and others I read later, I now have a very different way of understanding Kant’s dualistic-sounding moments. (See What Is “I”; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)

Sapience is an emergent second nature resulting from an accumulation of practical doings and dialogue that is not just arithmetical but somewhat tending toward coherence and improvement. We are thus reunited with Aristotle. (See also Rational/Talking Animal.) On such a basis, a very sharp distinction is fine.

(I am intrigued by the fact that the very first sentence of chapter 1 of Brandom’s Making It Explicit gives Aristotle a nod: “‘We’ is said in many ways.” Also, he clearly refers to an ancient point of view emphasizing discursive rationality as preceding Enlightenment representationalism. Discursive-rational inquiring and explaining is older than modern abstractly referential pointing. Discursive rationality, I want to say, is a decisive move away from unthinking traditionalism that long preceded modernity as usually understood. As soon as we begin to inquire about reasons, the door is open.)

Like most people probably do, I used to implicitly assume an empirical meaning for “I”. Wishing not to dwell on Subject or self, I therefore used to carefully avoid first-person references in serious writing. The Kantian notion of an explicitly empty I as mobile index of a unity of apperception — composed with Brandom’s notion of unity of apperception as an ethical task — has freed me from such scruples. The I that speaks can rise above circumstance.