Pinkard on Brandom on Hegel

Leading Hegel scholar Terry Pinkard, who has written several outstanding books, recently reviewed Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust. Pinkard, whose approach to Hegel is broadly related to Brandom’s but not the same, has worked rather closer to the Hegelian text than Brandom, who is principally an original philosopher in his own right. Two things Pinkard questions are Brandom’s thesis about the unparalleled significance of the transition to modernity, and his emphasis on ethical naturalism as the main thing wrong with the morality of the valet. I have some sympathy with both these points (see Brandom and Hegel on Modernity; Genealogy).

In passing, Pinkard contrasts Brandom’s normative-pragmatic reading with “neo-Platonist, neo-Aristotelian and neo-Spinozist interpretations”. While at a certain level this is uncontroversial and there are many conventional readings of Hegel that I think go wrong in one or more of these directions, I also still think that even from a broadly Brandomian viewpoint, something can be salvaged from each of these categories, provided we go beyond old clichés. Plotinus made something like Aristotelian unmoved movers the model for all determination, thus partially anticipating 1960s notions of structural causality, while later neoplatonists like Proclus and Damascius also hinted at more dynamic mutual determination. I have developed connections between Aristotle and Brandom at some length, and Pinkard himself has elsewhere noted significant Aristotelian elements in Hegel. Spinoza pioneered modern thinking in terms of relations before things, which was further advanced by Kant and Hegel. He was celebrated as a proto-inferentialist in Brandom’s Tales of the Mighty Dead.

Pinkard seems to think Brandom dwells too much on the Hegelian critique of mastery, seeing instances of it everywhere. To my mind, this emphasis is salutary, and of vital importance as a corrective to previous claims about the “totalizing” nature of Hegelian thought.

Pinkard argues that the end of the Spirit chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology has more to do with a critique of a Kantian claim that free moral action involves a special kind of causality not available in experience than with a critique of mastery. Kant did inconsistently suggest such a thing, but I think the charitable reading is that this was infelicitous phrasing that is not at all essential. But whether or not one attributes such voluntarist thoughts to Kant, voluntarism basically just is the assertion that the will has mastery, so a critique of voluntarism would also be a critique of mastery.

He has doubts about the bottom-up nature of Brandom’s expanded account of mutual recognition in A Spirit of Trust, even suggesting that it ends up being more Fichtean than Hegelian, and implies starting with an “I”. He objects to a passing phrase of Brandom’s about experience incorporating recognition of error as a “two-stroke engine”, suggesting that it leads to something like a Fichtean opposition of I and not-I.

Passing phrases notwithstanding, I think Hegel and Brandom both go below the level of an “I” to ground the sapient dimension of subjectivity in shareable thought contents and their interconnection. What is below the level of an “I” in this way is thus already social.

Pinkard has a nice phrase about Hegelian phenomenological thinking being in “the middle, as opposed to the active or passive, voice”.

He suggests that Brandom goes too far in reading the Phenomenology as an allegory, assimilating to this Brandom’s comments about applying a methodology that differs from Hegel’s own. I don’t see any allegorical reading of the whole, even though Brandom does give extreme weight to what obviously is an allegory at the end of the Spirit chapter (see Brandomian Forgiveness).

Pinkard does not see why Brandom dwells so extensively on forgiveness. I don’t think Brandomian forgiveness is supposed to yield new ground-level ethical conclusions, only sound ones. What is novel in this area is Brandom’s rethinking of meta-level concepts of responsibility and agency, which provides an ethical path to overcoming the subject-object dichotomy by means of what I have called normative monism.

Brandom is not principally a contributor to the rich literature on the historical Hegel in the way that Pinkard and Robert Pippin are. He reads somewhat selectively, interprets into different vocabulary that has its own complex associations, and makes many points of his own. A highly original philosophical account like Brandom’s should not be taken as competing with the historically oriented literature. They serve complementary purposes.