Normativity in Kant

Wikipedia actually has several decent articles on normativity (compare my own capsule account here). Under “Normative” it currently says “Normativity is the phenomenon in human societies of designating some actions or outcomes as good or desirable or permissible and others as bad or undesirable or impermissible. A norm in this normative sense means a standard for evaluating or making judgments about behavior or outcomes….  One of the major developments in analytic philosophy has seen the reach of normativity spread to virtually all corners of the field…. [I]t has become increasingly common to understand normative claims as claims about reasons“. “Normative ethics” is simply ethics as distinct from meta-ethics. Under “Norm (philosophy)” it says “Norms are concepts… of practical import, oriented to effecting an action, rather than conceptual abstractions that describe, explain, and express”.

Kant scholar Christine Korsgaard’s Tanner lectures were published as The Sources of Normativity (1996). Her first sentence says “It is the most striking fact about human life that we have values” (p. 1). She notes that “Plato and Aristotle came to believe that value was more real than experienced fact, indeed that the real world is, in a way, value itself”.

In Korsgaard’s account things begin to turn subtly in a modernist direction, broadly resembling the modernist sentiments in Brandom I occasionally have trouble with. “For Plato and Aristotle, being guided by value is a matter of being guided by the way things ultimately are…. The form of a thing is its perfection, but it is also what enables the thing to be what it is. So the endeavor to realize perfection is just the endeavor to be what you are — to be good at being what you are” (pp. 2-3).

While there is a big boulder of truth here, I think formulations of this sort carry the danger of greatly underestimating the extent to which — even though we grasp things well enough to act with practical confidence — the “way things ultimately are” becomes more problematic the more seriously we consider it, which I think Plato and Aristotle well recognized. Further, while talk about the singular form of a thing is not out of place in Plato, Aristotle’s versatile notion of form (especially in the Metaphysics and the biological works, and in sharp contrast to scholastic “substantial form”) overflows any such simple conception.

Korsgaard presents later emphasis on obligation as a “revolution” ultimately completed by Kant. This emphasis on obligation rather than value per se is what analytic philosophers call deontology, on which I’ve commented several times.

While I fully agree that normative force is real, for serious philosophical purposes it is an error to think it ever has completely univocal meaning. That is why Hegel thought every truth eventually has to make way for some further truth. I agree that Kantian obligation adds something to ethics and makes Kant the next great contributor to ethics after Aristotle, but I see it as a refinement or addition to a basically Aristotelian account along the the lines suggested by Paul Ricoeur, and not a revolution.

I’ve previously mentioned Nancy Sherman’s elaboration of implicit Aristotelian themes in Kantian ethics. Barbara Herman in The Practice of Moral Judgment (1993) argues forcefully against the highly contracted notion of judgment commonly attributed to Kant, and for a positive concept of values in Kant. I’ve referred several times to the outstanding book by Beatrice Longuenesse, Kant and the Capacity to Judge (French ed. 1993), which develops a very rich, multilayered concept of judgment out of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I think Brandom relates Kantian judgment to an entire unity of apperception and its ongoing repair of errors (see Autonomy, Normativity; Brandom on Postmodernity). Hannah Ginsborg in The Normativity of Nature (2015) finds a rich general concept of judgment in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, and concludes that “there is nothing intrinsically objectionable about regarding natural phenomena in normative terms” (p. 345; see Natural Ends; Kant’s Recovery of Ends).

Brandom comes close to identifying deontology with ethics tout court. Initially I found this very unattractive, but Brandom is no advocate of excessive univocity, as his favorable remarks about the “new” notion of determination in Hegel and truth as a process make clear. He uses the language of deontology and modality as a way of combating arbitrariness and indistinction.

In summary, though Kantian obligation is an undeniable contribution, I think a very strong case can be made that the most important element in normativity is really values and not obligation per se.

Incidentally, it is nice to see so many female philosophers at work in this area.

Kingdom of Ends

This title comes from Christine Korsgaard’s influential book of essays on Kantian ethics, Creating the Kingdom of Ends (1996). “When we enter into relations of reciprocity, and hold one another responsible, we enter together into the standpoint of practical reason, and create a Kingdom of Ends on earth”, she says in the final sentence of the title essay (p. 212).

She begins the same essay with a quote from Aristotle, “As the virtuous man is to himself, he is to his friend also, for his friend is another self” (p. 188). I have previously pointed out that Hegelian mutual recognition has roots in Aristotle’s notion of friendship and love as characterized by reciprocity.

Korsgaard makes the contrast that “to hold someone responsible is to adopt an attitude… rather than to have a belief” (ibid). I’ve previously noticed that Brandom’s use of the word “attitude” has rather different connotations from what I take to be its most common meaning (a kind of purely subjective stance that is irrefutable as such, but cannot properly justify any conclusion). Korsgaard’s usage of the term also diverges from this purely subjective sense. She explicitly refers to adopting an attitude as a kind of practical doing, and I imagine Brandom would say the same. This is helpful.

She notes that British empiricists such as Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith treated responsibility in terms of the approval or disapproval of others. She likes Kant’s contrasting emphasis on agents taking responsibility. While I ultimately prefer Hegel and Brandom’s idea that responsibility involves both of these, in context she makes a good point. Noting how Kant emphasizes that we finite beings can never perfectly know ourselves, she says Kant gives philosophical foundation to the Biblical “Judge not”.

But, she goes on to say, “in a broader sense it is not possible for us to avoid holding one another responsible. For holding one another responsible is the distinctive element in the relation of adult human beings. To hold someone responsible is to regard her as a person — that is to say, as a free and equal person, capable of acting both rationally and morally” (p. 189).

“When you hold someone responsible, you are prepared to exchange lawless individual activity for reciprocity in some or all of its forms. You are prepared to accept promises, offer confidences, exchange vows, cooperate on a project, enter a social contract, have a conversation, make love, be friends, or get married. You are willing to deal with her on the basis of the expectation that each of you will act from a certain view of the other: that you each have your reasons which are to be respected, and your ends which are to be valued. Abandoning the state of nature and so relinquishing force and guile, you are ready to share, to trust, and generally speaking to risk your happiness or success on the hope that she will turn out to be human” (pp. 189-190).

Korsgaard notes that both Aristotle and Kant regard the reciprocity of friendship as a kind of perfect ethical relation. She quotes Kant saying that friendship is “the most intimate union of love with respect” (p. 191), then continues “While love moves you to pursue the ends of another, respect reminds you that she must determine what those ends are; while love moves you to care for the happiness of another, respect demands that you care for her character too” (ibid).

She points out that for Aristotle justice is not needed between friends, because friendship already embodies the reciprocity characteristic of justice. She cites passages from Kant indicating that he would agree.

Friendship or mutual recognition is a higher ethical standard that goes beyond moral obligation. I note that Leibniz also emphasized that higher virtue involves doing more than is morally required of us. Korsgaard continues, “Anyone must tell the truth when the circumstances call for it, but between friends there is a presumption of intimacy, frankness, and confidence. Anyone must help another in need or emergency, but friends promote each other’s projects as routinely as they do their own. Anyone must refrain from leading others into temptation; but friends help each other to be good…. To become friends is to create a neighborhood where the Kingdom of Ends is real” (p. 194).

I think the ethical meaning of Hegelian mutual recognition in any particular case is no different from that of friendship in Aristotle and Kant. The difference is that Hegel applies it more broadly, and in his hands it becomes not just a higher ethical standard but also a meta-ethical explanation that ends up also explaining knowledge and being.

Reality of Ends

Are Aristotelian non-mental ends really compatible with Brandomian normativity in an account of the same things? I want to say yes.

Aristotelian ends have frequently been read as somehow pre-existing. Later commentators in the Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin traditions certainly most often took such a view, but in so doing they were more faithful to the values of neoplatonic or traditional monotheistic theology than to the Aristotelian text.

Aristotle pioneered the idea that ends come first in the general order of interpretation relevant to life. I see this as ancestral to Brandom’s idea that normativity comes first in the same context, even though Brandom himself does not really engage with pre-modern philosophy. Brandom’s main source for this is his reading of Kant and especially Hegel, but Hegel is also the modern author who began the restoration of Aristotle to his proper place in the history of philosophy.

To come first in the order of interpretation and explanation is not necessarily to pre-exist. Consideration of the order of explanation is after all only relevant to processes of explanation. Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom are all very process-oriented.

Brandom, drawing on Kant and Hegel, offers a broadly pragmatist account of the objectivity of values and reality, in terms of a counterfactual robustness of practical judgments ultimately grounded in mutual recognition and an ongoing commitment to the repair of errors. Such an account of a process of truth-and-error provides for everything involved in the normative sense of what we call objectivity, while making pre-existing truths superfluous.

In a much simpler but still very nuanced way, Aristotle often informally refers to existing realities. He usually starts with an optimistic and charitable approach to the deliverances of common sense in everyday life, only refining and superseding them as the need arises, but epistemic modesty prevents him from turning these into strong theoretical claims. Dialectic — i.e., exploratory discursive reasoning about concrete meanings in the absence of initial certainty — rather than demonstration from presumed truths is the main theoretical tool actually employed throughout Aristotle’s works.

On a more theoretical level, Aristotle provocatively suggests that something need not have actual existence in its own right in order to deeply affect the shape of reality (see The Importance of Potentiality). I take Aristotelian ends to be things of this sort.

Brandom on Postmodernity

Brandom’s third Brentano lecture offers a nice summary of his ethical vision of a Hegelian postmodernity, which has nothing to do with fashionable “postmodernism”, but did inspire the masthead here.

What might be called the traditional view of normativity treats normative statuses as just being what they are, and as simply given to us. According to this view, normative attitudes ought to simply respect pre-given values, and there is no place for inquiry into what is right. Actions are judged in a completely external way, with no regard for the actor’s intent. Hegel used the tragedies of Sophocles to illustrate this. Oedipus accepted full moral responsibility for consequences of which he was totally unaware. This is the stance of a tragic hero. Viewed charitably, it has the benefit of recognizing that everything is not up to us, and that values have a kind of objectivity.

The “modern” view — which I think appeared already among the Greek Sophists — is the polar opposite of the traditionalist view. In its pure form, it reduces all normative considerations to attitudes in the shallow sense, and denies any possible objectivity of values. The attitudes in question can be completely arbitrary. Depending on whether the attitudes that count are anyone’s or only those of the sovereign or of the privileged, the modern view can be anarchistic or authoritarian. But viewed charitably, it has the benefit of suggesting that intentions and personal conscience do matter, while avoiding reliance on a simple givenness of values.

These are both what Hegel called “one-sided” views, each asserting the complete independence of something. Neither statuses nor attitudes can really be completely independent of the other.

The “postmodern” view that Brandom develops out of Hegel recognizes that every thing has some dependence on other things, while also allowing for relative independence. In this view, everyone has both some responsibility and some authority, and responsibility for any given thing is ultimately shared by all of us. All normative statuses are instituted by normative attitudes, but only attitudes that have the structure of mutual recognition can institute genuine normative statuses. Hegel also spoke of confession and mutual forgiveness in this context.

“How can we both make the norms and be genuinely governed by them?”, Brandom asks (p. 76). We do both, but the same person does not do both with respect to the same thing at the same time. “The short answer, I think, is that our past attitudes institute norms that provide the normative standards of assessment for our current attitudes. Such a slogan conceals the rich fine-structure of [Hegel’s] account, however” (p. 77).

Norms are instituted through recollection of an expressively progressive trajectory, Brandom will say (see Hegelian Semantics). “It is in particular the recollective phase of diachronic recognitive processes that explains the attitude-transcendence of normative statuses, which provide standards for normative assessment of the correctness of attitudes” (p. 88).

At any given moment, we should aim “at acknowledging and attributing what we and others are really committed and entitled to, our actual responsibilities and authority” (p. 76). But what we are really committed to can only be seen retrospectively (see Hegel on Willing) and by taking into account the assessments of others. What we are really committed to may on this account be quite different from what we tell ourselves we are committed to.

“The challenge to the intelligibility of normative governance comes from the idea that the authority of norms over attitudes must be total in order to be genuine. It is a manifestation of the deformed conception of pure independence: the idea that authority (normative independence) is undercut by any sort of correlative responsibility to (dependence on) anything else. This is the practical normative conception Hegel criticizes allegorically under the rubric of ‘Mastery.'” (p. 93).

Just because something might be explained without reference to values does not mean that we should so explain it. That would be the cynical attitude that, e.g., people only do good in order to feel good about themselves. Where apparently virtuous actions also appear to have ulterior motives, it is not valid on that basis to assume that there is no genuine ethical motive in play.

“Taking recollective responsibility for another’s doing is practically acknowledging the obligation to tell and endorse a certain kind of retrospective story about that doing. That is the responsibility to rationally reconstruct it as norm-governed. The forgiving recollector must discern an implicit norm that governs the development of the deed.” (p. 98).

“Some things people have done (both ourselves and others), we want to say, are simply unforgivable. (The last century or so provides a host of notorious, alarmingly large-scale candidates.) In some cases, though we might try to mitigate the consequences of evil doings, we just have no idea at all how to go about discerning the emergence of a governing norm we could endorse ourselves. And this situation does not just arise in extraordinary or exceptional cases. Any actual recollective story will involve strains: elements, aspects, or descriptions of what is actually done, at every stage in the developing process, that cannot be smoothly, successfully, or convincingly given such a norm-responsive explanation” (p. 101).

“It might well be that one is in fact incapable of fulfilling that commitment, of carrying out that responsibility. If and insofar as that is so, it is a normative failure that the unsuccessful would-be forgiver should confess. To take proper recognitive recollective responsibility requires the forgiving agent to confess her own inadequacy to the recollective task. Your confession of a failure of your practical attitudes appropriately to acknowledge a norm is a petition for my recognition in the form of my forgiving taking of (co-)responsibility for your doing. My subsequent failure to adopt adequately forgiving recollective recognitive attitudes is something I am in turn responsible for confessing. That confession is itself an act of identification with you: ‘I am as you are.’ My attitudes, like yours, fail adequately to satisfy the norms that they nonetheless acknowledge as binding, as governing those attitudes” (p. 102).

“Paying one’s dues as a member of a recognitive community structured by trust is acknowledging that one is always already implicitly committed to forgiving, responsible for forgiving what one’s fellows do or have done” (ibid).

Referring to Hegel’s famous figure of the cynical valet, Brandom says “The Kammerdiener stands for a view that explains all attitudes in terms of other attitudes, without needing to appeal to governing norms or statuses that they are attitudes towards and acknowledgments of. Hegel does not deny that this sort of explanation in terms of attitudes alone can be done…. But we can ask: what sort of disagreement is it that divides the Kammerdiener and the ‘friend of the norms’ for whom some heroes really are heroes? Is it a cognitive, matter-of-factual disagreement about what there is in the objective world? After all, for Hegel, modernity was right that normative statuses are attitude-dependent. Hegel diagnoses the issue instead as a difference in meta-attitude. He denominates the norm-blind reductive naturalism of attitudes, for which the Kammerdiener stands, debasing: ‘niederträchtig’ (literally, something like “pulling down or under”). The contrasting, norm-sensitive, status-responsive, hero-acknowledging meta-attitude that takes some attitudes to be themselves genuinely norm-sensitive and norm-acknowledging he calls magnanimous: ‘edelmütig’ (literally: noble spirited)” (pp. 90-91).

“[T]he trusting conception is heroic, like the tragic conception, in that responsibility is total. Responsibility is taken for the whole deed. There is no aspect of intentional doings that overflows and falls outside the normative realm of responsibility—no specification of the deed for which no-one takes responsibility” (pp. 106-107).

“Agency as understood and practiced within the magnanimous recognitive structure of confession and forgiveness combines these two heroic aspects of the premodern conception: sittlich appreciation of the status-dependence of normative attitudes and acknowledging total responsibility for the deed as consequentially extended beyond the knowledge and control of the agent. It can maintain a heroic expanded conception of the deed for which responsibility is taken because it has an expanded conception of who is responsible for each doing” (p. 107).

“The neo-heroic postmodern form of practical normativity replaces fate with something we do. What happens is given the form of something done. Immediacy, contingency, particularity and their recalcitrance to conceptualization are not done away with. But they now take their proper place. For we appreciate the necessary role they play in the process of determining the contents of the norms we both institute by our recognitive attitudes and acknowledge as governing that experiential process. The burdens of tragic subjection to fate are replaced by the tasks of concrete magnanimous forgiveness. Where our normative conceptual digestion and domestication of immediacy, contingency, and particularity shows its limitations, when (as in each case, as the Kammerdiener reminds us, at some point they must) they outrun our recollective capacity to incorporate them into the mediated, normative conceptual form of governing universals, that failure of ours is properly acknowledged by confession, and trust in the forgiveness of that failure to fulfill our responsibilities, by more knowledgeable and capable future recollectors” (p. 108). (See also Brandomian Forgiveness; Rethinking Responsibility; Expansive Agency.)

Hegelian Semantics

Brandom begins his second Brentano lecture saying, “On the ground floor of Hegel’s intellectual edifice stands his non-psychological conception of the conceptual. This is the idea that to be conceptually contentful is to stand in relations of material incompatibility and consequence (his “determinate negation” and “mediation”) to other such contentful items. The relations of incompatibility and consequence are denominated “material” to indicate that they articulate the contents rather than form of what stands in those relations. This is his first and most basic semantic idea: an understanding of conceptual content in terms of modally robust relations of exclusion and inclusion” (p. 39).

I think Aristotle and even Plato would have agreed with all of this: both the nonpsychological nature of concepts and the fundamental role of modally robust relations of exclusion and inclusion in determining meaning. But the Latin medieval to European early modern mainstream was in this regard much more influenced by the Stoic explanation of meaning by representation, and by the “psychological” cast of Augustine’s thought.

Brandom goes on to characterize Hegel’s position as a “bimodal hylomorphic conceptual realism”, carefully unpacking each part of this dense formula. The two modalities in question are the two fundamental ways in which things have grip on us: the “bite” of reality and the moral “ought”. Brandom holds that there is a deep structural parallel or isomorphism between these two kinds of constraints that affect us. Further, the isomorphism is also a hylomorphism in the sense that the two modalities are not only structurally similar, but so deeply intertwined in practice as to be only analytically distinguishable. Concepts and normativity are interdependent. Finally, it is through concepts and normativity that all our notions of the solidity of reality are articulated.

This kind of conceptual realism in Hegel is complemented by what Brandom calls a conceptual idealism. “At the grossest level of structure, the objective realm of being is articulated by nomological relations, and the subjective realm of thought is articulated by norm-governed processes, activities or practices. It can be asked how things stand with the intentional nexus between these realms. Should it be construed in relational or practical-processual terms?” (p. 43). “Hegel takes there to be an explanatory asymmetry in that the semantic relations between those discursive practices and the objective relations they know about and exploit practically are instituted by the discursive practices that both articulate the subjective realm of thought and establish its relations to the objective realm of being. This asymmetry claim privileging specifically recollective discursive practices over semantic relations in understanding the intentional nexus between subjectivity and objectivity is the thesis of conceptual idealism.” (p. 44).

Plato had talked about recollection in a mythical or poetic way in relation to paradoxes of learning. Hegel’s more “historiographical” recollection is also related to a kind of learning, but Hegel specifically stresses the importance of error as the stimulus to learning. Brandom says there is both a “subjunctive sensitivity of thought to things” (ibid) and a “normative responsibility of thought to fact. What things are for consciousness ought to conform to what things are in themselves.” (p. 45). This translates into a central obligation to repair our errors, and for Hegel the specific way to do this is through a recollective account of what was right in our previous stance; how we came to realize that it went wrong; and what we did to fix it.

“The normative standard of success of intentional agency is set by how things objectively are after an action. The idea of action includes a background structural commitment to the effect that things ought to be as they are intended to be. Conceptual idealism focuses on the fact that all these alethic and normative modal relations are instituted by the recollective activity that is the final phase of the cycle of cognition and action” (ibid).

“Conceptual realism asserts the identity of conceptual content between facts and thoughts of those facts. (Compare Wittgenstein: ‘When we say, and mean, that such-and-such is the case, we—and our meaning—do not stop anywhere short of the fact; but we mean: this—is—so.’ [PI§95]) Conceptual idealism offers a pragmatic account of the practical process by which that semantic-intentional relation between what things are for consciousness and what they are in themselves is established. Pragmatics, as I am using the term, is the study of the use of concepts by subjects engaging in discursive practices. Conceptual idealism asserts a distinctive kind of explanatory priority (a kind of authority) of pragmatics over semantics. For this reason it is a pragmatist semantic explanatory strategy, and its idealism is a pragmatist idealism. The sui generis rational practical activity given pride of explanatory place by this sort of pragmatism is recollection” (pp. 45-46).

Brandom says that Hegel’s notion of experience has two levels, corresponding to two top-level kinds of concepts he distinguishes: ordinary practical and empirical concepts, and meta-level philosophical, categorial or “logical” concepts.

“The master-strategy animating this reading of Hegel (and of Kant) is semantic descent: the idea that the ultimate point of studying these metaconcepts is what their use can teach us about the semantic contentfulness of ground-level concepts, so the best way to understand the categorial metaconcepts is to use them to talk about the use and content of ordinary concepts… The pragmatic metaconcept of the process of experience is first put in play in the Introduction, at the very beginning of [Hegel’s Phenomenology], in the form of the experience of error. It is invoked to explain how the consciousness-constitutive distinction-and-relation between what things are for consciousness and what things are in themselves shows up to consciousness itself. Hegel assumes that, however vaguely understood it might be at the outset, it is a distinction-and-relation that can at least be a topic for us, the readers of the book” (pp. 47-48).

The most naive human awareness already implicitly recognizes a distinction between appearance and reality. “The question is how this crucial distinction already shows up practically for even the most metatheoretically naïve knowing subject. How are we to understand the basic fact that ‘…the difference between the in-itself and the for-itself is already present in the very fact that consciousness knows an object at all’… Hegel traces its origin to the experience of error” (p. 48).

“Hegel finds the roots of this sort of experience in our biological nature as desiring beings…. What a creature practically takes or treats as food, by eating it, can turn out not really to be food, if eating it does not satisfy the hunger that motivated it…. This sort of experience is the basis and practical form of learning” (p. 49). This is “the practical basis for the semantic distinction between representings and representeds, sense and referent” (pp, 49-50).

“[A]n essential part of the acknowledgment of error is practically taking or treating two commitments as incompatible. Such genuinely conceptual activity goes beyond what merely desiring beings engage in. The origins of Hegel’s idea here lie in Kant’s earlier broadly pragmatist account of what knowing subjects must do in order to count as apperceiving” (p. 50).

“Hegel breaks from the Kantian picture by adding a crucial constraint on what counts as successful repairs…. Successful repairs must explain and justify the changes made, in a special way” (p. 52). This takes the form of a historical recollection. “To be entitled to claim that things are as one now takes them to be, one must show how one found out that they are so. Doing that involves explaining what one’s earlier views got right, what they got wrong, and why…. This is the progressive emergence into explicitness, the ever more adequate expression, of what is retrospectively discerned as having been all along implicit as the norm governing and guiding the process by which its appearances arise and pass away” (p. 53). “Recollection… turns a past into a history” (p. 54).

All this serves as an explanation of how we come to have representations that actually refer to something, in terms of how we express our concerns. “In general Hegel thinks we can only understand what is implicit in terms of the expressive process by which it is made explicit. That is a recollective process. The underlying reality is construed as implicit in the sense of being a norm that all along governed the process of its gradual emergence into explicitness” (p. 56).

“Kant had the idea that representation is a normative concept. Something counts as a representing in virtue of being responsible to something else, which counts as represented by it in virtue of exercising authority over the representing by serving as a standard for assessments of its correctness as a representing. It is in precisely this sense that a recollective story treats the commitments it surveys as representings of the content currently treated as factual” (p. 58). Brandom says that Hegel reconstructs in expressive terms what the representationalists were right about, while strongly contrasting this way of thinking with representationalism.

“Hylomorphic conceptual realism then underwrites the idea of the categorial homogeneity of senses as graspable thoughts and their referents (what they represent) as correspondingly conceptually contentful, statable facts. This makes intelligible the idea that thoughts are the explicit expressions of facts. They make explicit… how the world is” (p. 60).

“The plight of finite knowing and acting subjects metaphysically guarantees liability to empirical error and practical failure. The experience of error is inescapable. What I earlier called the ‘false starts, wrong turns, and dead ends’ of inquiry can be retrospectively edited out of the sanitized, Whiggish vindicating recollective narrative, but they cannot be avoided going forward.

“Why not? In short because the rational, conceptual character of the world and its stubborn recalcitrance to mastery by knowledge and agency are equally fundamental primordial features of the way things are” (pp. 61-62).

“For Hegel, the experience of error requires not just the revision of beliefs… but also of meanings” (p. 62). “The manifestation of stubborn, residual immediacy in thought is the inevitability of the experience of error…. [T]he ineluctability of error and the realistic possibility of genuine knowledge [both] express valid perspectives on what is always at once both the experience of error and the way of truth. The important thing is not to seize exclusively—and so one-sidedly—on either aspect, but to understand the nature of the process as one that necessarily shows up from both perspectives” (p. 63).

“One of Hegel’s animating ideas is that the independence of immediacy (its distinctive authority over structures of mediation) is manifested in its role as a principle of instability, as providing a normative demand for change, for both rejection and further development of each constellation of determinate concepts and commitments articulated by them. The independence of mediation (its distinctive authority over immediacy) is manifested in all the retrospective recollective vindications of prior constellations of commitments as genuine knowledge, as resulting from the expressively progressive revelation of reality by prior claims to knowledge.” (pp. 64-65).

“The forward-looking obligation to repair acknowledged incompatibilities of commitment acknowledges error and the inadequacy of its conceptions. The backward-looking recollective obligation to rationalize as expressively progressive previous, now superseded, repairs and recollections institutes knowledge, truth, and determinate concepts whose incompatibilities and consequences track those articulating (in a different modal key) the objective world…. The recollective process is also what Hegel calls ‘giving contingency the form of necessity.'” (p. 65).

“The key in each case is to understand [truth and error] not as properties, states, or relations that can be instantiated at a single time, but as structural features of enduring experiential processes” (p.66).

This is to move from what Hegel calls Understanding to what he calls Reason. Understanding focuses on the fixity of concepts; Reason also has regard for their malleability. To think of experience as asymptotically approaching objective facts and relations belongs to the Understanding that disregards the mutation of meanings.

“The world as it is in itself as distinct from how it is for consciousness is not a brute other, but in that distinctive sense the product of its own recollective activity in experience” (p.72).

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.

Secondary Causes

One of the many things I like Aristotle for is his clear concern for what are sometimes called “secondary” causes. As usual with Aristotle, “cause” means any kind of explanation or determining reason; explanation is in general not univocal; and things are the way they are due to the combination of many causes. Secondary causes for Aristotle play an irreducible role in the overall determination of things. This is part of what I recently called the dignity of finite beings.

The way in which secondary causes operate is pluralistic; there is no single, seamless matrix of causality in the world. Instead we have a superabundance of meaning. Determination is always grounded in actuality, but actuality is never the whole story. We get a better grasp on things by taking counterfactual potentiality into account.

Secondary causes may be either “moved” or “unmoved”. If the form of an animal’s leg joint counts as an unmoved mover, the number of unmoved movers in the world is truly vast. There are also a vast number of moved movers.

Even though there is a great deal of practically meaningful determination in the world, neither God nor physics comes anywhere near completely determining human reality. The world has both real determination and real play in it. See also What and Why; Interpretation).

Infinity, Finitude

Here is another area where I find myself with mixed sympathies.

Plato seems to have regarded infinity — or what he called the Unlimited — as something bad. Aristotle argued that infinity exists only in potentiality and not in actuality, a view I find highly attractive. I think I encounter a world of seemingly infinite structure but only finite actualization.

Some time in the later Hellenistic period, notions of a radical spiritual infinity seem to have appeared in the West for the first time, associated with the rise of monotheism and the various trends now commonly called Gnostic. This kind of intensive rather than extensive infinity sometimes seems to be folded back on itself, evoking infinities of infinities and more. The most sophisticated development of a positive theological infinite in later Western antiquity occurred in the more religious rethinking of Greek philosophy by neoplatonists like Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius.

In 14th century CE Latin Europe, Duns Scotus developed an influential theology that made infinity the principal attribute of God, in contrast to the pure Being favored by Aquinas. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600, was a bombastic early defender of Copernican astronomy and notorious critic of established religion who espoused a curious hybrid of Lucretian atomistic materialism, neoplatonism, and magic. He proclaimed the physical existence of an infinity of worlds like our Earth.

Mathematical applications of infinity are a later development, mainly associated with Newton and Leibniz. Leibniz in particular enthusiastically endorsed a speculative reversal of Aristotle’s negative verdict on “actual infinity”. Nineteenth century mathematicians were embarrassed by this, and developed more rigorous reformulations of the calculus based on limits rather than actual infinity. The limit-based formulation is what is generally taught today. Cantor seemingly went in the opposite direction, developing infinities of infinities in pure mathematics. I believe there has been another reformulation of analysis using category theory that claims to equal the rigor of 19th century analysis while recovering an approach closer to that of Leibniz, which might be taken to refute an argument against infinity based solely on lack of rigor according to the standards of contemporary professional mathematicians. One might accept this and still prefer an Aristotelian interpretation of infinity as not applicable to actual things, though it is important to recall that for Aristotle, the actual is not all there is.

The philosophy of Spinoza and even more so Leibniz is permeated with a positive view of the infinite — both mathematical and theological — that in a more measured way was later also taken up by Hegel, who distinguished between a “bad” infinite that seems to have been an “actual” mathematical infinite having the form of an infinite regress, and a “good” infinite that I would gloss as having to do with the interpretation of life and all within it. Nietzsche’s Eternal Return seems to involve an infinite folding back on itself of a world of finite beings. (See also Bounty of Nature; Reason, Nature; Echoes of the Deed; Poetry and Mathematics.)

On the side of the finite, I am tremendously impressed with Aristotle’s affirmative development of what also in a more Kantian style might be termed a multi-faceted “dignity” of finite beings. While infinity may be inspiring or even intoxicating, I think we should be wary of the possibility that immoderate embrace of infinity may lead — even if unwittingly — to a devaluation of finite being, and ultimately of life. I also believe notions of infinite or unconditional power (see Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism; Arbitrariness, Inflation) are prone to abuse. In any case, ethics is mainly concerned with finite things.

Power and Act

I would say without hesitation that having a concept of power and act is better than not having one. Nonetheless, despite my tremendous admiration both for the work of Paul Ricoeur and for the classic developments of Leibniz and Spinoza, I think Ricoeur was mistaken to associate Spinoza, Leibniz, Freud, or Bergson with a properly Aristotelian notion of potentiality and actuality (see The Importance of Potentiality; Potentiality, Actuality). Ricoeur on several occasions in his late works identified Spinoza’s conatus, or the desire and effort of beings to continue being — as well as the appetite or desire of each monad in Leibniz, and desire in Freud — with potentiality in Aristotle.

I think Ricoeur was absolutely right to emphasize both the great value of potentiality and actuality in Aristotle and the generally salutary role of the other concepts mentioned, but I don’t think they are the same. Aristotelian actuality refers not just to a current state of things, but more profoundly to what is effectively operative in a process. In Aristotelian terms, I take notions like Platonic “power”, desire, or conatus to express aspects of this more profound, higher-order, and “dynamic” notion of actuality. This is all good as far as it goes, but such richer notions of actuality still do not give us true Aristotelian potentiality or its pairing with actuality, which I regard as an even greater treasure.

Potentiality consists in the concrete counterfactual conditions that give shape, generality, and a kind of substance or “thickness” to the determination of things in the present. It is always indexed to a specific actuality, supplementing and complementing it. It gives us an explicit way to talk about incomplete determination, multiple possibilities, and openness within that actuality, while still recognizing the reality of determination and concrete constraints. It helps us express real determination without overstating it. It is not itself a power, but rather what defines what our power can do.

Spinoza, in consistently following through his idea that there is only one substance, developed a fascinating relational perspective on things, but he strongly adhered to the early modern notion of a complete and univocal determination analogous to what is found in mathematics, which is ultimately incompatible with the Aristotelian notion of incomplete determination expressed in the idea of potentiality and actuality.

Leibniz’s notion of determination had a teleological as well as a mathematical component. He gave admirable consideration to variety, multiplicity, and alternate possibilities in the development of his thought. Nonetheless his notion of pre-established harmony seems to be a sophisticated variant of theological doctrines of predestination, according to which every tiny detail of the world’s unfolding follows from a divine plan.

A notion that each being has or is a kind of Platonic power is actually compatible with a notion of complete determination. For many years, this was the kind of answer I would have given as to how freedom and determination can be reconciled. In a view like this, the freedom of a being is explained in terms of its having a finite power and efficacy, and determination is explained in terms of how all the powers interact. (Leibniz of course denied real interaction, virtualizing it all into the pre-established harmony.)

In more recent years, I have wanted to stress instead that determination is real but incomplete. This is how I now read Aristotle and Hegel. Of all the major modern philosophers, it now seems to me to be Hegel who actually comes closest to recovering an Aristotelian notion of actuality and potentiality. Unlike Aristotle he does not explicitly talk about potentiality, but Hegel’s rich notion of actualization implicitly captures the nuances of the interaction of actuality and potentiality. (See also Aristotelian Actualization.)

Mediation Revisited

In my early article on mediation, I originally talked about it without adequately saying in a simple way what it is. Since I refer to it frequently, I wanted to fix this. Normally I don’t give notice of edits to older articles, but this one seemed to deserve it. Now added at the top:

“Mediation is any kind of dependency of things on other things. With such dependencies in mind, Euclid the geometer is famously reported to have said there is no royal road to science, but the point also applies more broadly to all kinds of meanings. Paul Ricoeur referred to mediation as the ‘long detour’ essential to understanding.”