Obstacles to Synthesis

Brandom’s reading of the Kantian synthesis of unities of apperception as an ethical task or end has enormously impressed me. One could largely identify the Kantian transcendental with the commitment part of what Aristotle called ethos, and with what Brandom and other contemporary writers call normativity. This seems to bring many things into sharper focus. I am also inclined to identify Hegelian self-consciousness with the result of what Kant spoke of in terms of synthesis, which leads me to want to speak of something like “synthesis or self-consciousness” as an ethical task. The Kantian and Hegelian characterizations take quite different paths, but (in part because of this) can be mutually illuminating. But I actually want to focus on the ethical task part.

As I said, I find this enormously inspiring. Nonetheless, I am still struggling with the fact that some people whom I want to call good, including one very dear to me, are largely prevented by past traumatic events and/or some organic disturbance from ever achieving much synthesis or self-consciousness of this sort, so that they are largely unable to participate in what in this context it feels a bit insensitive to call higher ethical considerations. A well-meaning person thus afflicted may have unstable responses to things and show what would look to us like deep inconsistency, basically dealing with very partial views one at a time in exclusion from one another, rather than reconciled or meaningfully related to one another. For the person experiencing in this way, just going through ordinary life is confusing, and can easily provoke high anxiety. Where thoughts and feelings form no coherent community and just atomistically bump against one another, ability to fully participate in the mutuality of social relationships will suffer. Such a person needs all the kindness and patience we can offer.

Subjectivity is a complex and multi-leveled affair. In terms of the development underway here, we at least need to distinguish transcendental, psychological, and organic levels in the scenario just described. Synthesis and self-consciousness are transcendental; the aforementioned obstacles are organic or psychological. One’s local bit of the transcendental is supposed to be independent of the empirical in one way, but in another way, in lack of the right empirical conditions, it will not grow and flourish. Still, I want to emphasize, there is a human being there deserving of respectful consideration. This last kind of insight is, I think, what is behind Kant’s insistence on the dignity of all human beings, simply as such. (See also Aphasia; Coherence; Honesty, Kindness.)