Rethinking Responsibility

Until very recently, I took something like what Brandom calls the alienated “contractive” view of responsibility more or less for granted. Aristotle and Kant agree that responsibility should be “contracted” so as not to apply to unintended consequences of actions. What could be wrong with that?

Actually, it’s not so much that something is wrong as that there is a better alternative no one seems to have thought of before. Brandom’s ingenious reversal of common wisdom on this subject is but one product of a monumental labor. He spent 40 years writing A Spirit of Trust, devoted to Hegel’s Phenomenology. Around a quarter of the final version’s 800 pages are devoted to a comprehensive exposition of the concluding eleven ultra-dense paragraphs of the Phenomenology’s chapter on Spirit, involving a hard-hearted judge, confession, forgiveness, and the breaking of the hard heart, which Brandom considers to be the climax of Hegel’s book.

He seems to have found/made something there that to my knowledge no one else saw before — an ethical way to complete the overcoming of the subject-object dichotomy, and thus an ethically grounded approach to an actually attainable Hegelian Absolute. As an added bonus, the recommended approach is itself compelling in purely ethical terms, independent of all of that.

To abbreviate in the extreme, the solution is to return to taking responsibility for unintended consequences, with the difference that everyone shares responsibility for all of them. Since unintended consequences were the last missing piece, everything whatsoever thus ends up included in the field of overlapping responsibilities, leading to what I have started to call normative monism. All determination can then be uniformly located at the historicized transcendental level. Brandom is the most thorough philosophical writer I have ever encountered; his argument is as large and many-faceted as those of Kant and Hegel, and a good deal more perspicuous. (See also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness.)


People concerned with formal transformations distinguish “bookkeeping” operations from more substantive ones. On reflection, I think something like this is all that is needed to resolve the difficulty I created for myself with apparently conflicting requirements to preserve distinctions between empirical and transcendental subjectivity on the one hand, while implementing the normative monism I have attributed to Brandom on the other.

For each distinguished lump of empirical subjectivity initially kept separate alongside a transcendental synthesis, there should be some isolable correlate expressible in terms of further transcendental content not included in the synthesis. So although this further content is separate from the particular synthesis in question, unlike the starting lumps of empirical subjectivity, it will be transcendental in character. Thus the initial empirical residue can be “lifted” into the transcendental context by some appropriate process, leaving no remainder. Thus monism can be restored.

I’m metaphorically applying a functional programming concept here. When the specification of a program is fully separated from its execution, it becomes possible to do things like construct or transform a complete, possibly side-effecting program inside another program, without executing the first program or incurring the side effect when the second program is executed. This makes it possible to write a higher-order program that has no side effects (“transcendental”), but returns a value that is itself executable and that will cause side effects when executed (“empirical”).

Expansive Agency

[F]orgiveness and trust embody an expansion strategy, by which self-conscious individuals identify with actual goings-on over which they exert some real, but always only partial authority, identify themselves as the seats of responsibilities that outrun their own capacity to fulfill.

A Spirit of Trust, p. 623

I have said that to be an agent is to be subject to a certain kind of interpretation, independent of any consideration of causal power in the modern sense. The expansive approach to agency that Brandom recommends accordingly involves an expansive interpretation. Characteristically, he expresses this in terms of identification, authority and responsibility.

When they implement practices of what Brandom calls “postmodern” forgiveness and trust, “self-conscious individuals” (metonymically substituted for the applicable transcendental syntheses that actually include identification; see Substance Also Subject) are said to identify with actual goings-on. Consistent with Brandom’s expansive strategy, this should mean they identify with actual goings-on tout court, i.e., everything that happens. This in turn helps with the implementation of normative monism.

The syntheses in question are said to have real partial authority over these same goings-on. Since what is important in an action (as distinct from, say, an event) is its normative status, how that will be evaluated, and what other normative consequences that will have — not first-nature causal efficacy — real but partial authority is all that is required of an agent. As with what was said about identification above, that real but partial authority also extends to everything that happens. A postmodern ethical being functions as a co-steward of the world.

Brandom compares this expansive approach with Leibnizian optimism that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. For Brandom, realization of this world as the best of all possible worlds is the task postmodern ethical beings set for themselves. Postmodern ethical beings accept co-responsibility for all things, and remain light of heart in doing so.

In the spirit of postmodern heroism, commitment knowingly and happily takes on responsibilities are greater than it could possibly fulfill, then does the best it can, freely confesses where it fell short, and rests confident in the knowledge that it deserves to be forgiven for those shortcomings. That is its essential dignity.

Having a History

Having established that there is a non-absurd interpretation of talk about “essentially self-conscious” entities, we can go on to specify that these will be the entities we will say have a history and not just a past, where “history” refers to progressive changes in the entity’s self-constituting normative stance, attitude, identification, commitment. (Once again, “self-constituting” implies no magic bootstrapping from nothing, just that what the self-conscious entity takes to be the case contributes to its constitution; and “entity” is just an anaphoric reference to a previous mention.)

Brandom does not use second-nature talk, so he speaks of these entities as having a history instead of a nature. In a general context, I find it helpful to speak of second-natured things as having second nature as well as first nature; and of second nature as the sort of thing that intrinsically has a history, whereas a composite of first and second nature derivatively has a history.

This creates a nuancial difference in the identity of the entities Brandom and I respectively may be mentioning in this sort of context — his entities that have a history seem to be entirely constituted by what I am calling second nature, which would be a nonempirical normative status, whereas mine at least could also be the larger wholes that include a first-nature empirical “me” with factual characteristics as well as a transcendental “I” indexing second-nature commitments in a unity of apperception.

An entity that has a history and no first nature would be just whatever entity we associate with the second-nature commitments in question, whereas an entity that has a history and a first nature would be associated with both a “historical” second nature and an “unhistorical” first nature. In any given case, I think it is important to be clear which of these is at issue.

My preferred variant — based on a strong concern to avoid implicit too-easy identification of empirical and transcendental subjectivity — imposes or brings to light additional burdens on the normative monism I have attributed to Brandom, which would aim to explain everything that needs to be preserved about the empirical, in terms of the transcendental. I believe this can be resolved in principle with a bit of added bookkeeping. (See also One, Many; Individuation; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)

Also, “history” is said in many ways. Aside from the transcendental-only sense discussed above, there is another in which I would want to say that nature too has a history (think of things like historical geology, evolution, and ecological succession); and that non-Whiggish history of human culture also has its place. See Aristotelian Matter; Historiography; Archaeology of Knowledge.)

Essentially Self-Conscious?

The idea of an essentially self-conscious entity sounds like an oxymoron. Once we even begin to understand what Hegel meant by self-consciousness — that it is anything but automatic immediate “consciousness” of a “self”, but rather the hard-won awareness of real-world limitations, nuances, complications, and ambiguities — there could hardly be anything more absurd than the idea that an entity could just have such awareness essentially.

Luckily, there is another, completely different interpretation, highlighted by Brandom, that does not involve any super powers. An “essentially self-conscious entity” is actually just an entity whose essence depends on the higher-order shape of her commitments, including whatever awareness of limitations, nuances, and what-not that the entity does or does not have.

Nonempirical But Historical?

What I have been calling the transcendental field and Brandom just calls the transcendental is supposed to be social, historical, and linguistic in its constitution, but nonempirical in its manner of subsisting. Its content would be like a vast implicit structure that is continually being implicitly replaced by new versions incorporating further historical experience. Brandom does not use terms like “field” or “structure” in this context, but the point I currently want to consider is just the nonempirical but historical character of the transcendental, which might seem paradoxical.

There is a related issue with the associated universal “community” of rational beings that I have invoked. This would be larger than any empirical community. It also would not exist at a moment in time, but rather would include an extension across the span of a history, including a past that may need to be reinterpreted, and a future that is not yet determined. But in principle, each participant in the rational community should have some empirical correlate in an actual rational animal existing at some time.

The answers lie, I believe, in the delicate way empirical and transcendental subjectivity are related. Without ever directly intermingling or even existing in the same way, they are each indirectly affected by the other. I have previously begun to sketch how this could be possible (see What Is “I”; Subject; Psyche, Subjectivity; Individuation). (See also Geist; Hegelian Genealogy; Rational/Talking Animal; Ethos, Hexis.)

Echoes of the Deed

“The kinds of doings [Hegel] is principally interested in are processes rather than events: writing a book, building a house, learning a trade, diagnosing or treating a disease” (A Spirit of Trust, p. 733). Not only that, such doings implicitly include future consequences that are not yet determined. Because of this, their evaluation and place in a normative synthesis may change over time. (The “echo” metaphor of this post’s title should not be taken too literally. I mean something related but relatively independent that happens later, may not have been expected, and possibly could not have been expected.)

Unlike mathematical provability or statically definable structures, what not only looks but (as a result of an enormous process of mutual recognition) genuinely is normatively correct or incorrect or good or bad as of one moment is not guaranteed to remain so as further consequences play out. In this sense, as long as there is a future, no deed and no story will ever be complete, or even necessarily have a predictable ending.

The future may move us to reinterpret the past, and this is as it should be. It gives cause for hope that situations beyond our control can always be better, and that we can play a role in making them so — that how we respond to them matters.