Autonomy, Normativity

Brandom’s second Woodbridge lecture “Autonomy, Community, and Freedom” picks up where the first left off, invoking “the innovative normative conception of intentionality that lies at the heart of Kant’s thought about the mind” (p. 52; emphasis in original throughout).  “The practical activity one is obliging oneself to engage in by judging and acting is integrating those new commitments into a unified whole comprising all the other commitments one acknowledges….  Engaging in those integrative activities is synthesizing a self or subject, which shows up as what is responsible for the component commitments” (ibid).  

A self or subject in this usage is not something that just exists.  It is a guiding aim that is itself subject to development.  “[T]he synthetic-integrative process, with its aspects of critical and ampliative activity [rejecting incompatibilities and developing consequences] provides the basis for understanding both the subjective and the objective poles of the intentional nexus.  Subjects are what repel incompatible commitments in that they ought not to endorse them, and objects are what repel incompatible properties in that they cannot exhibit them” (p. 53).  

Brandom thinks Kant’s analogy between moral and natural necessity already begins to lead in a Hegelian direction.  On both sides of this analogy but especially on the moral side I am sympathetic to Ricoeur’s view and prefer to soften Kant’s talk about necessity, but I still find the analogy itself to be of great importance, and I very much want to support what I think is Brandom’s main point here.

(In general, I am almost as allergic to talk about necessity outside of mathematics as I am to talk about arbitrary free will, so I had to go through a somewhat lengthy process to convince myself that Brandom’s usage of Kantian necessity is at least sometimes explicitly nuanced enough that I can accept it with a mild caveat. Taken broadly, I am very sympathetic to Brandom’s emphasis on modality, independent of my more particular issues with standard presentations of necessity and possibility. There are many kinds of modality; necessity and possibility are actually atypical examples in that they are all-or-nothing, rather than coming in degrees. Modality in general is certainly not to be identified with the all-or-nothing character of necessity and possibility, but rather with any higher-order aspects of the ways of being of things. See also Potentiality, Actuality.)

Brandom recalls Kant’s meditations on Hume.  “Hume’s predicament” was that neither claims about what ought to be nor claims about what necessarily must be can be justified from claims about what is.  “Kant’s response to the proposed predicament is that we cannot be in the position Hume envisages: understanding matter-of-fact empirical claims and judgments perfectly well, but having no idea what is meant by modal or normative ones” (p. 54).  For Kant, the very possibility of empirical or common-sense understanding depends on concepts of normativity and modality.  

All inferences have what Brandom calls associated ranges of counterfactual robustness.  “So, for example, one must have such dispositions as to treat the cat’s being on the mat as compatible with a nearby tree being somewhat nearer, or the temperature a few degrees higher, but not with the sun’s being as close as the tree or the temperature being thousands of degrees higher.  One must know such things as that the cat might chase a mouse or flee from a dog, but that the mat can do neither, and that the mat would remain essentially the same as it is if one jumped up and down on it or beat it with a stick, while the cat would not” (pp. 54-55).  Here I think of the ancient Greeks’ notion of the importance of respecting proper proportionality.  Brandom says that a person who made no distinctions of this sort could not count as understanding what it means for the cat to be on the mat.  This I would wholeheartedly endorse.  Brandom adds that “Sellars puts this Kantian point well in the title of one of his essays: ‘Concepts as Involving Laws, and Inconceivable without Them’” (p. 55).

If this is right, Brandom continues, then knowing how to use concepts like “cat” and “mat” already involves knowing how to use modal concepts like possibility and necessity “albeit fallibly and imperfectly” (ibid).  Further, concepts expressing various kinds of “oughts” make it possible to express explicitly distinctions one already implicitly acknowledges in sorting practical inferences into materially good and bad ones.  A central observation of Kant’s is that practices of empirical description essentially involve elements that are not merely descriptive.  Brandom says he thinks the task of developing a satisfying way of talking about such questions is “still largely with us, well into the third century after Kant first posed them” (p. 57).  “[W]e need a way of talking about broadly empirical claims that are not in the narrow sense descriptive ones, codifying as they do explanatory relations” (p. 58).  Brandom identifies this as a central common concern of Kant, Hegel, Pierce, and Sellars.

Upstream from all of this, according to Brandom, is “Kant’s normative understanding of mental activity” (ibid).  This is closely bound up with what he calls Kant’s “radically original conception of freedom” (ibid).  In the Latin medieval and early modern traditions, questions about freedom were considered to be in a broad sense questions of fact about our power.  For Kant, all such questions of fact apply only to the domain of represented objects.  On the other hand, “Practical freedom is an aspect of the spontaneity of discursive activity on the subjective side” (pp. 58-59).  

“The positive freedom exhibited by exercises of our spontaneity is just this normative ability: the ability to commit ourselves, to become responsible.  It can be thought of as a kind of authority: the authority to bind oneself by conceptual norms” (p. 59).  Brandom recalls Kant’s example of a young person reaching legal adulthood.  “Suddenly, she has the authority to bind herself legally, for instance by entering into contracts.  That gives her a host of new abilities: to borrow money, take out a mortgage, start a business.  The new authority to bind oneself normatively… involves a huge increase in positive freedom” (ibid).

Rationality for Kant does not consist in having good reasons.  “It consists rather just in being in the space of reasons” (p. 60), in being liable to specific kinds of normative assessment.  “[F]reedom consists in a distinctive kind of constraint: constraint by norms.  This sounds paradoxical, but it is not” (ibid).  

“One of the permanent intellectual achievements and great philosophical legacies of the Enlightenment [I would say of Plato and Aristotle] is the development of secular conceptions of legal, political, and moral normativity [in place of] traditional appeals to authority derived ultimately from divine commands” (ibid).  I would note that Plato and Leibniz explicitly argued what is good can never be a matter of arbitrary will, and the better theologians have also recognized this.

This leads finally to Kant’s distinctive notion of autonomy.  Brandom’s account focuses directly on the autonomy of persons, whereas I put primary emphasis on the autonomy of the domain of ethical reason, and consider the autonomy of persons to be derived from their participation in it.  But I have no issue with Brandom’s statement that “The autonomy criterion says that it is in a certain sense up to us… whether we are bound” (p. 64) by any particular concept.  As Brandom notes – alluding to Wittgenstein — here we have to be careful not to let arbitrariness back in the door.  Our mere saying so does not make things so.  (If we recognize that it is primarily ethical reason that is autonomous, this difficulty largely goes away, because ethical reason by its very nature is all about non-arbitrariness. See also Kantian Freedom.)

“[O]ne must already have concepts in order to be aware of anything at all” (p. 65), and any use of concepts already commits us to a measure of non-arbitrariness.  As Brandom points out, pre-Kantian rationalists did not have a good explanation for where concepts come from.  Kant does have at least the beginning of an answer, and I think this is why he sometimes qualifies unity of apperception as “original”.  This does not mean that it comes from nowhere, but rather that its (ultimately still tentative) achieved results function as the ground of all concept-using activity.

At this point, Brandom begins to discuss Hegel’s response to Kant.  Hegel rather sharply objects to what I would call Kant’s incomplete resolution of the question where concepts and norms come from.  Kant could legitimately answer “from unity of apperception” or “from Reason”, but Hegel still wants to know more about where Reason comes from, and how unities of apperception get the specific shapes they have.  For him, Reason clearly cannot just be a “natural light” ultimately given to us by God.  Its emergence takes actual work on our part.  Further, this work is a social, historical achievement, not an adventure of Robinson Crusoe alone on an island.  We cannot just accept what society tells us, but neither can we pretend to originate everything for ourselves.  This is what makes the application of autonomy to individuals problematic.  Instead, Hegel wants to develop a notion of shared autonomy, as a cultural achievement grounded in a mutual recognition that does not have to be perfect in order to function.

Brandom credits Hegel especially with the idea of a normative symmetry of authority and responsibility.  The traditional authority-obedience model is inherently asymmetrical.  Authority is concentrated mainly on one side, and responsibility (to obey!) is lopsidedly concentrated on the other.  This is a huge step backwards from the attitude of Aristotle and the ancient Greeks generally that “with great power (or wealth) comes great responsibility”.  Mutual recognition on the other hand is a solid step forward, further generalizing the criteria Aristotle already built into his notion of friendship and how we should regard fellow citizens.