Hegel’s Ethical Innovation

Terry Pinkard’s biography of Hegel shows him as primarily motivated by ethical and social concerns. The common image of Hegel as an extravagant metaphysician ignores his many highly critical remarks about metaphysics, and his stated desire to replace metaphysics with a “logic” concerned with the elaboration and refinement of meaningful content. Hegel remains very challenging to read.

In his third and final Woodbridge lecture, “History, Reason, and Reality”, Brandom distills and reconstructs Hegel’s principal philosophical objectives, and clarifies his relation to Kant.

Hegel is arguably the inventor of what later came to be called meta-ethics. Further, he promotes a version of meta-ethics that is normative all the way down — that is to say, it does not try to explain values in terms of something else. There is no sharp boundary between ethics in the small and this kind of meta-ethics, which ends up including everything.

Brandom suggests that discourse about values or normativity is in fact the one kind of discourse that is truly self-sufficient; that all other discourse implicitly depends on it; and that developing explanations that take this into account is one of Hegel’s great contributions.

According to Brandom, Hegel thinks that Kantian ethical autonomy as Kant himself developed it, though a huge improvement over some previous explanations, still did not eliminate the asymmetry or one-sidedness of responsibility typical of the authority-obedience model. Hegel sees the one-sidedness of the responsibility to obey in the authority-obedience model and the one-sidedness of presuming to judge everything for ourselves as a sort of mirror-image variants of the same basic failure to treat responsibility as two-sided. He also thinks Kant could not adequately explain how autonomy and a universality of values could coexist, though Kant clearly wanted them to.

The reciprocity of mutual recognition is Hegel’s answer to these difficulties. We freely choose particular commitments over others, but the content of those commitments is not just whatever we say it is. On the other hand, that content is not fully predetermined either, so we do play a role in its determination. (See Mutual Recognition; Mutual Recognition Revisited; Pippin on Mutual Recognition.)

“[T]he reciprocal recognition model requires that the authority of conceptual contents over the activities of practitioners (their responsibility to those contents) be balanced by a reciprocal authority of practitioners over those contents, a responsibility of those contents to the activities of the subjects of judgment and action who apply them.  And that is to say that Hegel is committed to understanding the practice of acknowledging commitments by rational integration as a process not only of applying conceptual contents, but also as the process by which they are determined” (Reason in Philosophy, p. 82; emphasis in original throughout).

What it is to be a concept for Kant and Hegel fundamentally involves playing a normative role. Hegel takes the further step of explaining the determination of concepts through concrete, historical, open-ended processes of mutual recognition. This has implications for the nature of determinateness itself.

“One of Hegel’s key ideas, as I read him, is that in order to understand how the historical process of applying determinately contentful concepts to undertake discursive commitments (taking responsibility for those commitments by rationally integrating them with others one has already undertaken) can also be the process of determining the contents of those concepts, we need a new notion of determinateness” (p. 88).

Here Brandom is highlighting a crucial aspect of Hegel’s deeper argument that runs counter to his frequent recourse to rhetoric about a “system” and related themes, which Fichte and the influential early Kant-interpreter Karl Reinhold before him had made very popular in German philosophy at the time. Hegel’s rhetoric often seems much easier to understand than his in-depth arguments, but it is a fatal mistake to assume that the apparent meaning of the rhetoric is a good guide to the meaning of the in-depth arguments. Hegel is far from the only philosopher to develop very nonstandard, idiosyncratic connotations for some common terms, but he may have done more of it than anyone else. This means it is better to interpret his rhetoric in light of an interpretation of his in-depth arguments than to take the rhetoric as authoritative.

The “new notion” of determinateness that Brandom attributes to Hegel is in effect what I would call an open, genuinely Aristotelian determinateness rather than a closed Stoic/Cartesian one. (See also Univocity; Equivocal Determination; Aristotelian Identity; Aristotelian Causes; Free Will and Determinism).

Brandom develops a detailed model of open-ended determination by mutual recognition, by dwelling at length on the kinds of things that happen in the evolution of common law and interpretations of case law in jurisprudence.

Unlike the way we think of the physical determination of events, which only “flows” in one direction, the determination of meanings and the meaning of talk about being is a reciprocal determination between forward application of concepts to situations and backward-looking interrogation of their meaning. Historical time understood as the time of the historical constitution of meaning inherently involves a reciprocal determination of forward- and backward-looking interpretation.

Brandom says that Hegel’s famous contrast between Understanding and Reason is one between a view that assumes conceptual determination is already complete and one that recognizes it as inherently subject to indefinite further development.

“[Hegel] is very much aware of the openness of the use of expressions that is the practice of at once applying concepts in judgment and determining the content of the concepts those locutions express.  This is the sense in which prior use does not close off future possibilities of development by settling in advance a unique correct answer to the question of whether a particular concept applies in a new set of circumstances.  The new circumstances will always resemble any prior, settled case in an infinite number of respects, and differ from it in an infinite number of respects.  There is genuine room for choice on the part of the current judge or judger, depending on which prior commitments are taken as precedential and which aspects of similiarity and difference are emphasized” (p. 89).

Prior uses have real weight, but nonetheless do not by themselves “determine the correctness of all possible future applications of a concept” (p.90). (See also Brandomian Choice.) According to Brandom, Hegel develops a new “recollective”, “genealogical” approach to justification that takes into account the continual reshaping of the interpretation of past experience in the light of new experience.

Hegel the man was not immune to some of the common prejudices of his own cultural milieu, but his philosophy provides a principled basis for challenging all such prejudices, in a careful way that avoids indiscriminately denying the value of past experience.