In Itself, For Itself

Robert Brandom’s Brentano lectures highlight key themes of his innovative reading of Hegel in A Spirit of Trust (2019). Despite a few disagreements on matters of historical interpretation, I think Brandom is probably the most important philosopher yet to write in English. In the first lecture, he explores the development of the notion of practical valuational doing and normative force from Kant to Hegel. He interprets Hegel’s abstract language about the “for itself” and the “in itself” in terms of the interplay between normative attitudes (the “for itself”) and normative statuses (the “in itself”) in concrete processes of valuation in human life.

Hegel thought that Kant almost got things right with his twin notions of ethical autonomy and respect for others. Brandom diagnoses two main flaws in Kant’s account from Hegel’s point of view. Both Kant and Hegel were working to reconcile the modern notion that normative statuses depend on normative attitudes with a genuine bindingness and objectivity of normativity. For Kant, respect for others was the counterweight to the individualist implications of autonomy, and Brandom traces its development into the Hegelian notion of mutual recognition. Kant’s notion of autonomy was a great contribution in the history of ethics, perhaps the most significant since Aristotle. (See also Autonomy, Normativity.) Nonetheless, the first flaw in Kant’s account has to do with autonomy.

“Kant’s construal of normativity in terms of autonomy is at base the idea that rational beings can make themselves responsible (institute a normative status) by taking themselves to be responsible (adopting an attitude)” (p. 7, emphasis in original throughout). While elsewhere showing great admiration for the broad thrust of this Kantian idea of normative “taking”, Brandom here goes on to ask more specifically, “What is it for an attitude of claiming or acknowledging responsibility to be constitutive of the status of responsibility it claims or acknowledges—that it immediately (that is, all by itself, apart from any other attitudes) institutes that status?” (p. 8). “For the idea of individual attitudes of attributing statuses that suffice, all by themselves, just in virtue of the kind of attitudes they are, to institute the statuses they attribute, is the idea of Mastery, or pure independence. (What it is purified of is all hint of dependence, that is, responsibility correlative with that authority.)” (p.10). Hegel will go on to reject the idea of Mastery in all its forms, even the seemingly benign Kantian one of attributing the autonomy characteristic of ethical reason directly to acts of individuals. (See also Hegel on Willing.)

“The idea that some attitudes can immediately institute the normative statuses that are their objects, that in their case, taking someone to be authoritative or responsible can by itself make them have that authority or responsibility, is, on Hegel’s view a characteristic deformation of the modern insight into the attitude-dependence of normative statuses. It is the idea allegorized as Mastery. Hegel sees modernity as shot through with this conception of the relations between normative attitudes and normative statuses, and it is precisely this aspect of modernity that he thinks eventually needs to be overcome. In the end, he thinks even Kant’s symmetric, reflexive, self*-directed version of the idea in the form of the autonomy model of normativity is a form of Mastery. In Hegel’s rationally reconstructed recollection of the tradition, which identifies and highlights an expressively progressive trajectory through it, Kant’s is the final, most enlightened modern form, the one that shows the way forward—but it is nonetheless a form of the structural misunderstanding of normativity in terms of Mastery” (p. 11).

Mastery understands itself as pure independence, “exercising authority unmixed and unmediated by any correlative responsibility…. The Master cannot acknowledge that moment of dependence-as-responsibility” (p. 12). Hegel considers this to be an incoherent conception, in that it is incompatible with the moment of responsibility necessarily involved in any and all commitment. Secondly, it cannot acknowledge the genuine insight that there is dependence of normative attitudes on normative statuses as well as vice versa. “[T]he Master must understand his attitudes as answering to (responsible to, dependent on) nothing” (p. 13). Finally, Brandom argues that no intelligible semantics — or account of conceptual content with any bite — could possibly be compatible with this kind of pragmatics. (See also Arbitrariness, Inflation.)

The second flaw diagnosed by Hegel is that Kant’s twin principles of autonomy and deservingness of respect on Kant’s account turn out to be exceptional kinds of normative status that are not instituted by a kind of taking. Instead, they are presented as a kind of ontological facts independent of any process of valuation. Brandom says Hegel thought Kant was on this meta-level still beholden to the traditional idea of pre-given normative statuses. Nonetheless, the Kantian criterion of respect already suggests that our normative takings take place in a mediating social context. With autonomy and respect, Kant “had all the crucial conceptual elements, just not arranged properly” (p. 17).

Through his account of mutual recognition, Hegel will go on to recover the values that are at stake in the Kantian notions of autonomy and respect, without treating them as pre-given. “Robust general recognition” of others is attributing to them “the authority to attribute authority (and responsibility)” (p. 19). Hegel wants to say that as individual rational beings we cannot ethically and cognitively lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but together we can and do.

As Brandom puts it, “recognitive statuses are not immediately instituted by recognitive attitudes, but they are instituted by suitably socially complemented recognitive attitudes” (p. 21).

He quotes Hegel saying, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself, because and by virtue of its existing in and for itself for an other; which is to say, it exists only as recognized…. Each is for the other the middle term, through which each mediates itself with itself and unites with itself; and each is for itself, and for the other, an immediate being on its own account, which at the same time is such only through this mediation. They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another…. Thus the movement is simply the double movement of the two self-consciousnesses. Each sees the other do the same as it does; each does itself what it demands of the other, and therefore also does what it does only in so far as the other does the same. Action by one side only would be useless because what is to happen can only be brought about by both.” (pp. 22-23). This is the genesis of Hegelian Spirit.

We can only be responsible for what we acknowledge responsibility for, but every commitment to anything at all is implicit acknowledgement of a responsibility. Commitment is meaningless unless we also implicitly license someone to hold us responsible to it.