Many Hegels?

It is common etiquette among contemporary philosophers to preface sharp criticism with kind remarks. I try to do this myself — to find something positive I can say with full sincerity. I hope that my own practice never gives anyone the kind of feeling of insincerity I sometimes get when the subsequent criticism seems to actually undermine the previous praise, rather than rounding it out.

Gilles Bouché’s introduction to Reading Brandom: On A Spirit of Trust moves from weak praise to a valid elementary point about the difficulties of evaluating interpretations of Hegel, but his rhetoric quickly reveals an undercurrent of global hostility that makes me doubt the appearance of an unprejudiced beginning. For some unspecified reason, Brandom is singled out as “bringing his very own criteria to the bench”, as if every serious interpreter did not do just that. The question of the hermeneutic value of Brandom’s work is then shelved.

Bouché correctly notes that A Spirit of Trust is also a major presentation of Brandom’s own philosophy. He then claims that Brandom’s other major work Making It Explicit only discussed assertions and commitments “against the background of a firmament of fixed concepts”. I am aware of no textual evidence that Brandom ever presupposed such a background of fixed concepts — to me, this seems antithetical to his whole approach, which centers on a fine-grained though abstract analysis of open-ended processes of interpretation and evaluation, in contexts framed by dialogue and social relations.

Like some others, Bouché affects surprise that Brandom would “want to present us with an ethics at all”, even though questions related to normativity were already central to Making It Explicit. He claims this can only be understood in terms of a “constitutive limitation” of Brandom’s philosophy. His brief expansion of this presents Brandom’s sharp distinction of human “sapience” from organic “sentience” in extremely unsympathetic light without explaining it at all, and tries to support this by artificially tying it to a claim that Making It Explicit had nothing to offer to a wider circle of readers who expect philosophy to help them with cultural, existential, and political issues.

Twenty years ago, I struggled with the sapience/sentience distinction myself. Now I would emphasize that it is just a distinction between different concerns, one of which Brandom chooses to focus on. (In articles under Subjectivity in the menu, I have elaborated somewhat on both sides of this distinction.) It is true that Making It Explicit is a highly technical work, clearly addressed to professional analytic philosophers, rather than to that wider circle of readers. Analytic philosophy in general is technical, and has little to say directly to that wider circle. But Making It Explicit is an epic reorientation of analytic philosophy, in a direction that ultimately reconnects it with concerns that I trace back to Plato and Aristotle, who did address that wider circle.

Bouché correctly points out that for Brandom, the practices described in Making It Explicit already imply a commitment to realize the kind of community based on mutual recognition and trust that is advocated in A Spirit of Trust. He goes a little too far in identifying Brandom’s philosophy as “exactly what he ascribes to Hegel”, and then characterizes the essays he is introducing as “defend[ing] Hegel” against Brandom’s “supposedly magnanimous” reading.

Brandom makes it very clear that A Spirit of Trust is a selective and highly synthetic reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, and that he does not intend it to exclude other approaches, even though he does contradict many particular old-school claims about Hegel. I take him at his word on this, and myself find complementary value in, for example, H. R. Harris’ monumental Hegel’s Ladder, which is a line-by-line literal commentary on the Phenomenology that does an amazing job of clarifying the fine grain of Hegel’s argument. Harris’ approach could hardly be more different from Brandom’s very high-level reconstruction, but I find both to be invaluable. I have also been impressed by, e.g., Michael John Petry’s exegesis of Hegel’s Encyclopedia, in spite of the fact that Petry is quite disparaging of the Phenomenology. Despite their many differences, Brandom, Harris, and Petry all contribute to a view of a basically very reasonable Hegel, far from from the old stereotype.

In my own modest efforts here, connections with Aristotle — about whom Brandom says nothing at all — are very important. Aristotle helps me understand Hegel and Brandom, and Hegel and Brandom help me understand Aristotle. I am very interested in what I call “historiographical” questions, which directly address the kind of more concrete cultural concerns that Bouché misses in Brandom. I am also very interested in broader questions about the nature of subjectivity, and about ground-level ethics as well as meta-ethics. I don’t think it makes me any less Brandomian to have additional interests that Brandom does not pursue himself. Nor would I dream of faulting Brandom for not devoting his time to my other interests. In one lifetime, it is not possible to do everything. To accomplish something significant, one must have focus.

I believe one of the marks of a truly great philosopher is to be the subject of many different readings that are both interesting and have some plausibility. Some will be better than others and it is appropriate to critically demarcate this, but there will be something to gain from many of them. (See also Why Brandom’s Hegel.)