Modernity, Voluntarism

A draft chapter on pre-Hegelian stages in the history of normativity that Brandom removed from the published Spirit of Trust is now separately available on the internet. Parts or aspects of this historical narrative are the main source of issues I’ve had with Brandom in recent times. I take his removal of the chapter as confirmation that this historical argument should be viewed as an independent, optional supplement to the main philosophical argument of this truly great work. But Brandom still implicitly relies on it in summarily characterizing what he calls the single most important transformation in history — having to do with the status of normativity in the Enlightenment — and I have issues with those statements as well.

He begins by recalling a number of core themes I would wholeheartedly endorse.  Hegel “fully appreciated, as many of Kant’s readers have not” that Kant fundamentally rethought notions of self, self-consciousness, apperception, and “consciousness in the sense of apperception” in normative terms.  This is a vitally important point.

“Judgment is the minimal form of apperceptive awareness because judgments are the smallest units one can commit oneself to, make oneself responsible for”.  The “I” in “I think” that Kant called the “emptiest of all representations” is a kind of formal mark of taking responsibility for the judging.  What is represented in the judgment is what one makes oneself responsible to, and the “I” in turn only acquires determinate reference from what we implicitly or explicitly take responsibility for.  What Brandom following popular usage still calls “conscious selves”, he glosses with precision as “apperceptively unified constellations of commitments”.

Concepts are “rules that determine what commitments are reasons for and against”, and as such govern the synthesis of apperceptive unities, but they should not be thought of as pre-existing.  “Judgeable contents take methodological pride of place because of their role in Kant’s normative account of judging”.  Concepts used in judgments acquire their content from the activity of judging, from what one does in applying them.  Brandom thinks Hegel sees Kant as a “semantic pragmatist” not just in the Fichtean sense of the primacy of practical philosophy over theoretical philosophy, but in the more radical sense that for Kant, a normative account of discursive activity has methodological explanatory authority over the determination of discursive content in both theoretical and practical philosophy.

Brandom identifies Hegel’s Geist or Spirit with discursive normativity, and says Hegel sees earlier moral theorists as offering important insights not just about morality, but about normativity as such.  Hegel himself starts from conceptual norms expressed in language, rather than from moral norms.  He says that “language is the Dasein [“being there”] of Geist”.  “In another (completely unprecedented) move, Hegel historicizes his social metaphysics of normativity”.  Normativity is for the first time explicitly recognized as having a history.  

“The traditional metaphysics of normativity that Hegel sees all subsequent forms of understanding as developing from the rejection of is the subordination-obedience model.”  On this model, obligation is instituted by the command of a superior.  Brandom notes that Hegel initially discussed it under the famous figure of the relation of Master and Servant.

Protestant natural-law theorists – including Grotius, Cumberland, Hobbes, Pufendorf, Thomasius, and Locke — secularized and naturalized the voluntarism of medieval Catholic theologians like Scotus and Occam, tracing the binding force of law from “the antecedent existence of a superior-subordinate relationship”.  For the theological voluntarists, Brandom says, such relations of subordination were not only matters of objective fact, but “in some sense the fundamental objective metaphysical structure of reality”, embodied in Arthur Lovejoy’s figure of a broadly neoplatonic “Great Chain of Being”.  The natural-law theorists explained relations of subordination among humans in terms of different theories of God’s dominion over humans.  Brandom notes that on the obedience model, the status of being a superior is itself a normatively significant status entailing a right to legislate and command, but having that status relative to other humans is reduced to a non-normative matter of presumed objective fact.  (We should not rely on presumption in such important matters, and all attempts to reduce normativity to something non-normative stand in opposition to the autonomy of ethical reason championed by Kant.)

Brandom says the natural-law theorists began to question the subordination-obedience model in two ways – first by attaching some normative criteria to the status of being a superior, and second by suggesting that the right of a human to command might depend on some kind of implicit consent or attitude of the affected subordinates.  I would emphasize that any such move is already a move away from voluntarism.  As Brandom says, the subordination-obedience model is incapable of being extended to explain a normative status of being entitled to command.  The invocation of the consent of subordinates, he says, is an “even more momentous” step forward.  It is distinctive of Brandomian modernity to take normative statuses to be instituted by attitudes of acknowledgement.  Ultimately, modernity for Brandom is thus related to the emergence of democratic politics.

Brandom says that for Hegel, the modern model of attitude-dependence of normative statuses expresses a genuine and important truth, but like the subordination-obedience model, it is ultimately one-sided.  Hegel’s own view will make room for both an objectivity and an attititude-dependence of norms and normative statuses, by deriving objectivity itself from a vast ensemble of processes of normative mutual recognition over time.  Brandom translates Hegel’s vocabulary of “independence” and “dependence” into authority and responsibility, and says that for Hegel, what self-conscious beings are “in themselves” depends on what they are “for themselves”, on what they take themselves to be, as well as on what others take them to be.  What is “in itself” or “for itself” is thus a matter of normative interpretation, rather than of metaphysics in the traditional sense.

All of this seems both fine and important.  Things begin to become much more problematic, however, when he briefly discusses the contrast between voluntarist and “intellectualist” views of the will in medieval Latin theology.  He ends up valorizing the voluntarism of Occam at the expense of the so-called intellectualism of Aquinas, on the ground that voluntarism can be taken as grounding normativity in attitudes attributed to God.  Even though he notes that Occam’s nominalism makes all universals – including normativity — the product of “brute arbitrariness”, while recognizing that for Aquinas normativity is always grounded in reasons, he is more impressed by the fact that in Aquinas, those reasons are traceable to objective statuses.  Brandom’s language suggests that any reliance whatseoever on attitudes — even if they are arbitrary and do not involve any kind of recognition of an other — is ethically preferable to reliance on objective statuses.  

I on the contrary much prefer Aquinas’ appeal to reasons – in spite of the fact that Aquinas ultimately relies on assumed objective statuses – to Occam’s appeal to arbitrariness, even though the latter can be argued to implicitly involve attitudes.  It is a rather common motif of shallow accounts of the prehistory of modern science to valorize Occam and nominalism generally as anticipating modern developments, while overlooking both the negative ethical consequences of Occam’s voluntarism and the positive value of the ethically “intellectualist” emphasis on reason.

I want to put greater stress on the contrast between arbitrariness and reasons than on that between relying on assumed objective statuses and relying on attitudes.  Of course I agree that objective normative statuses should not be simply assumed.  But I see nothing at all progressive in arbitrariness glossed as the product of an arbitrary attitude.  The result is still arbitrariness.  So, I cannot at all agree that theological voluntarism is “the thin leading edge of the wedge of modernity”, if modernity is supposed to be anything good.  I think a transition to relying on attitudes for the constitution of normativity only becomes progressive when those attitudes are non-arbitrary.

The other odd thing in Brandom’s account is the complete absence of any mention of Plato and Aristotle.  Unlike most authors of the Enlightenment, Plato and Aristotle put no limits on the free use of reason.  They explicitly treated reason as bound up with normativity.  And even though they did not question existing distinctions of social status as much as we might, nothing in their ethics actually presupposes the subordination-obedience model.  Thus I locate the single greatest historical break with Plato and Aristotle’s invention of rational ethics, rather than with the Enlightenment’s appeal to attitudes.  

However one takes the ethical “intellectualism” of Aquinas, it combines Plato and Aristotle’s merger of normativity and reason with doctrinal concerns.  The assumptions about objective statuses that Brandom objects to belong to the doctrinal component of his synthesis rather than its Platonic-Aristotelian component.  If we are looking for historical antecedents of the ethically good aspects of modernity, we should look to Plato and Aristotle.

Voluntarism’s endorsement of arbitrariness over reasons is quite simply the short path to evil.  It is the bad attitude of the Master discussed by Hegel, raised to a sort of anti-philosophical principle.  Brandom is a great champion of the importance of reasons, and presents an exemplary reading of Mastery as an evolutionary dead end with no progressive role to play, so I think it would be more consistent for him to avoid any historical valorization of voluntarist positions.