Brandom and Hermeneutics

It’s been a while since I said much about Robert Brandom, though his work — along with my own nonstandard reading of Aristotle — continues to be one of the main inspirations behind everything I write here.

Lately I’ve been devoting a lot of energy to belatedly catching up on the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. To my knowledge, Ricoeur never commented on Brandom during his lifetime, and Brandom has not specifically commented on Ricoeur.

Brandom has, however, in Tales of the Mighty Dead explicitly endorsed some of the broad perspectives of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics, and he has devoted much attention to a “hermeneutics of magnanimity” in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Brandom’s mentor Richard Rorty concluded his famous work Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by recommending a general turn from foundational epistemology to nonfoundationalist hermeneutics, and I have previously suggested that Brandom’s work as a whole could be viewed as a novel sort of hermeneutics developed within the analytic tradition.

Brandom’s fundamental concept of the priority of material inference over formal inference puts meaning — and therefore the interpretation of meaning — in the driver’s seat for reasoning, so to speak. This allows for the recovery of a more historic concept of Reason, which ever since Descartes has been mostly replaced by a mathematically based kind of rationality that is more precise and invaluable in technical realms, but also much more rigid, and in fact far more limited in its applicability to general human concerns (see Kinds of Reason).

Even prior to Descartes, Latin medieval logic already moved increasingly toward formalism. Since Frege and Russell, the rigorous mathematization of logic has yielded such impressive technical results that most philosophers seem to have forgotten there is any other way to view logic.

In the 1950s Wilfrid Sellars took the first steps toward initiating a counter-trend, reaching back to the pre-Cartesian tradition to formulate the notion of material inference later taken up by Brandom.

Modern complaints against Reason strongly and wrongly presuppose that it inevitably follows or approximates a formal path. Material inference provides the basis for a fundamentally hermeneutic view not only of Reason but also of logic and logical truth.

I have further stressed the fundamentally ethical or meta-ethical character of material inference, leading to a concept of ethical reason as the most fundamental form of Reason overall in a view that puts material inference before formal logic. As I put it not too long ago, ethical reason may optionally use the more technical forms of reason as tools. Ethical reason, I want to say, has a genuinely active character, but technical reason does not. Ethical reason is fundamentally oriented toward the concrete, like Aristotle’s practical judgment.

I want to say that there is such a thing as logical or semantic reference — saying something about something is not in vain — but a prior hermeneutic inquiry is necessary to ground and explain reference. Moreover, both Aristotle and Kant recognized something like this. Such a perspective is compatible with science, while putting ethical and meta-ethical inquiry first.

A hermeneutic concept of Reason saves us from a false dilemma between formalism on the one hand and question-begging appeals to intuition, authority, or irrational “decision” on the other. (See also Dialogue.)