Hopes Dashed

The Dash — The Other Side of Absolute Knowing (2018), by Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda, advertised itself as a tour de force vindication of absolute knowing in Hegel, but hardly even mentions absolute knowing. Thick rhetoric rehearsing common Žižekian themes introduces more rhetoric and a few bits of Hegelian trivia. This little book is organizationally reminiscent of middle-period Derrida’s focus on obscure “minor” points, but lacks the redeeming grace of Derrida’s literary sparkle and prolonged thoughtfulness. I am terribly disappointed, and must beg forgiveness from my readers for another defensive response to what come across as very unfair comments about the kindly Brandom, who may be as misunderstood as Hegel himself.

According to the authors, “self-avowed Hegelian pragmatism — undoubtedly the most influential form of Hegelianism today” constrains us to remain within an allegedly preestablished “space of reasons” (scare quotes in original) “legitimized within a restricted sphere” that “cannot be fundamentally changed” (emphasis in original) “with all exits and entrances sealed” so that “the terms of rational agency are already determined such that alternate forms of practical rationality are ruled out from the outset”. I’m really sorry, but I don’t know what planet these people live on. They make something beautiful sound like a source of oppressive conformism.

The “space of reasons” introduced by Sellars and promoted by Brandom simply names the abstract possibility of ethical reasoning and dialogue. It is the wide open space of all possible Socratic questioning (see What and Why; Context). It is not the shared beliefs of some empirically existing community. Existing unjust practices are an affront to reason.

Because the space of reasons is not an empirically existing thing to begin with, talk about changing it or opting out reflects a complete misunderstanding. We could opt out from the established practices of an existing community, or change them. But it doesn’t make any sense to talk about “opting out” from an abstract possibility of questioning. In fact, those who want to opt out from the possibility of questioning are those who want to claim special privilege or to abuse others. (See also Stubborn Refusal.)

By the same token, “alternate forms” of rationality are automatically ruled in to the space of reasons. The autonomy of reason means that no one gets to dictate. Ethically speaking, there is an implied, rather minimal standard of reasonableness and good faith. However, as an abstract thing, the space of reasons can’t enforce anything at all. The social danger is not that reason could possibly oppress us, but that it is too often ignored. (See also Recognition; Fragility of the Good.)