Negativity in Experience

A first collection of critical responses to Brandom’s landmark work on Hegel has recently appeared (Reading Brandom: On A Spirit of Trust, Routledge 2020). Leading Hegel scholar Robert Pippin’s contribution takes issue with Brandom’s methodology of “semantic descent”, and argues that Brandom’s account of negation in Hegel is incomplete.

While Kant and Hegel both focused most of their explicit philosophical attention on very high-level concepts that help explain the meaning of other concepts, I think they nonetheless intended their thought to have practical relevance to life. (Pippin himself wrote a book I cannot recommend too highly, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy.) Brandom goes a step further than Kant and Hegel did, and explicitly claims that the same kinds of considerations they found relevant to the interpretation of what he calls expressive metaconcepts are always already involved in kinds of questions that a philosophically inclined person can see as implicitly arising in ordinary life. I find this thesis of the rich philosophical import of interpretations in ordinary life very appealing, and take it as expansive rather than reductive in intent.

Pippin quotes Brandom to this effect, but somehow still seems to think there is a reduction involved in Brandom’s semantic descent. In a related move, Pippin first commends Brandom’s analysis of Hegelian negation in terms of material inference and modality, but then goes on to argue that this still only addresses the concerns of the first of three parts of Hegel’s Logic — what Hegel called a logic of being, as distinguished from a logic of essence or a logic of the concept.

Very schematically, for Hegel, a logic of being addresses facts about presumed existing things, in this way resembling the approach of standard contemporary formal logic. This turns out to presuppose a logic of essence, which is concerned with higher-level judgments about the natures or ways of being of things, like the inquiries of Plato and Aristotle. This in turn implicitly presupposes a logic of the concept, which leads from something like Kantian synthesis to Hegel’s so-called “Absolute” as a sort of ultimate horizon, under which the context-dependence of the most objectively valid particular determinations is to eventually become explicit.

I think that Brandom’s modal realism already involves what Hegel would call a logic of essence, and that Brandom’s notions of forgiveness, magnanimity, and truth-as-process operate at the level of what Hegel would call a logic of the concept.

Part of the significance of modal realism is as a grounding for concepts of natural law employed by modern science, which do still belong to what Hegel would call a logic of being, as Pippin says. But for Brandom, modal realism also plays the even more important role of grounding Kantian moral necessity. Brandom does not use the term “essence” in his semantics, but I would say that judgments of Kantian moral necessity are concerned with essence rather than mere fact. While it is not quite the same thing, I also think that in a Hegelian context, they belong on the level of a logic of essence.

Whereas I have worried a little about passages in Brandom that exclusively associate truth with truth-as-process — which seems to me not to give enough weight to the positive value Hegel recognized in Understanding, alongside his famous criticism of its limitations — Pippin has an opposite worry, that Brandom ends up reducing Hegelian Reason to Understanding.

Pippin seems to construe what Brandom refers to as “ground-level empirical concepts” in an overly narrow way. Pippin glosses these as “cases of, largely, matters of fact known empirically”, and then refers to “empirical discovery” as the “engine generating incompatible commitments”. While he quotes Brandom’s reference to “ground-level empirical and practical concepts” [emphasis added], he ignores the “practical” part of Brandom’s formula, which presumably refers to concepts used in concrete ethical judgments. It is true that Brandom uses “red” as his canonical example of a ground-level empirical concept, but I think this choice is only meant to provide opportunities to point out the already inferential character of the use of such an apparently simple perceptual term, rather than in any way to undo his explicit inclusion of ground-level practical concepts.

Surprisingly, Pippin also seems to blur together talk about Kantian empirical concepts; talk about Kantian empirical intuition, to which Brandom attributes a key “negative” role providing occasions for recognition of error; and talk about matters of empirical fact. This results in what I think is an unfair characterization of Brandom’s interpretation as reducing Hegelian good negativity to matters of empirical discovery, external to Reason.

To say, as Brandom effectively does, that the main role of the element of immediacy or Kantian intuition in experience is “negative” rather than “positive”, while also in a different context saying that ground-level empirical and practical concepts always already involve the kinds of complexity and nuance associated with expressive metaconcepts, does not imply that Brandom’s strategy of semantic descent reduces Hegelian negativity to anything empirical. I strongly believe that for Brandom, critical thought and dialogue provide additional sources for the good kind of “negativity” of Reason that Hegel thematized in contrast to the “positivity” of things merely taken as given.

Pippin wants to emphasize that Hegelian negativity is an internal feature of Hegelian Reason, not something that comes to it only from an external empirical source. So far, I agree, and I think Brandom would as well. But then, to my surprise, Pippin seems to take up an old-school, very literal reading of Hegel’s metonymies of logical “motion” and an associated “life” of the negative. To me, the better reading is to take these rather obvious metonymies as metonymies. Logic in itself does not move, and negativity in itself is not a form of life. It is we who move and are alive. (Who we are is another complicated story; see under Subjectivity in the menu.)