I-Thou, I-We

Brandom has long insisted on the more fundamental role of I-Thou relations as compared with I-We relations. This means that a community is not a pre-given whole or an immediate belonging, but rather something that emerges out of concrete relationships. This seems to me like a good Aristotelian or Hegelian approach. Truth is concrete, as Hegel put it. There are also grounds for saying that face-to-face relations (literal or metaphorical) are more primary for ethics than any alleged immediacy of a community as an abstract entity. Even more than other things, our notions of actual unity of collectivities like communities are products of complex Kantian synthesis.

Martin Buber famously contrasted I-Thou relations with I-It relations. For Buber, I-It relations refer to objects viewed as separate from us and are typical of sensation, whereas I-Thou relations involve others we recognize as like us, and have an intrinsically ethical character.

Though we metaphorically speak of the spirit of a community, a community as a unity is not a person but an abstraction. In this way, it is more like an object. Kantian respect applies to persons — to concrete others.

It is only in Brandom’s interpretation of Hegelian mutual recognition in his later work that his emphasis on I-Thou relations reaches its full flowering. Earlier, I think he had wanted to achieve the same delicate balance as in the later work. Social norms are instituted from the normative attitudes of people, but nonetheless also acquire a kind of emergent objectivity, so that something is not right just because I or my empirically existing community say it is, but because of a whole complex of criteria that have acquired relative independence. On the other hand, the last word is never said, so even what emerges as objective and relatively independent can also be questioned and change. But his earlier work was mainly framed as an ambitious technical contribution to the philosophy of language, even though normativity played a central role in it. One reviewer characterized Brandom’s “normative pragmatics” as the first comprehensive attempt to ground the whole philosophy of language in Wittgenstein’s dictum that meaning is use.

Brandom’s mentor Richard Rorty already characterized Making It Explicit as taking analytic philosophy into a new Hegelian phase, but at this stage Brandom was still very circumspect about the ultimately Hegelian character of his views, engaging mainly with the work of other analytic philosophers. Without his later detailed argument about mutual recognition, his assertion that normativity also has a kind of objectivity derived from intersubjectivity seemed to many readers not to be adequately supported or developed.

Brandom spent decades carefully laying the ground for the idea that there really could be a unification of analytic philosophy with key aspects of Hegel’s thought that would be meaningful and convincing in analytic terms. Only after that long preparatory work did he begin to publicly focus on Hegel. Only then did his longstanding emphasis on I-Thou relations flower into a groundbreaking account of mutual recognition, and only then did its ethical significance become more clear.

A number of reviewers have suggested that he changed his mind on this issue, from a more one-sided emphasis on attitudes to his current view that emphasizes a kind of two-sided interaction. I have tended to see more continuity, but Making It Explicit did briefly flirt with applying the term “phenomenalism” to Brandom’s view of norms. The way I understand phenomenalism, such a term better applies to a one-sided emphasis on attitude-dependence of norms than to the two-sided, intersubjective view that I think is already implicit in his I-Thou emphasis. I have not seen this odd usage of “phenomenalism” recur in his later work. That term gets zero references in the index to A Spirit of Trust.

Brandom associates one-sided attitude-dependence with modernity, and the two-sided view with what he now calls Hegelian postmodernity. As I have mentioned too many times already, I do find it odd that he has chosen to valorize the one-sided view as historically progressive, when his own view is two-sided. For me, the subjectivist or voluntarist error is at least as bad as naive traditionalist acceptance of values as pre-given. I want to emphasize the two-sided view across the board.

It is worth noting that Ricoeur has rehabilitated the third person from Buber’s negative association with an “It” by connecting it with notions of justice, which he sees as involving as an additional mediation of ethical second-person relations through Kantian universality in the third person. But Ricoeur’s notion of justice has nothing to do with Buber’s I-It model; indeed, one of the two “axes” around which it revolves is an implicitly I-Thou based “dialogical” constitution of self that ends up being close to Brandom’s. (See Ricoeur on Justice; Ricoeurian Ethics.) An important strand of the argument of his late work Memory, History, Forgetting converges with Brandom’s critique of a focus on I-We: “It is, therefore, not with the single hypothesis of the polarity between individual memory and collective memory that we enter into the field of history, but with the hypothesis of the threefold attribution of memory: to oneself, to one’s close relations, and to others” (p. 132).