Hegel on Willing

Chapters 5 and 6 of Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy address psychological and social dimensions of willing. Hegel is generally close to Aristotle on these matters. Pippin also makes the interesting remark in the introduction that among philosophers, it is actually Spinoza whose approach to freedom most resembles Hegel’s. (For notes on earlier chapters, see Naturalness, Mindedness; Self-Legislation?; Actualization of Freedom.)

He quotes Hegel’s remark that “the will is a particular way of thinking — thinking translating itself into existence — thinking as the drive to give itself existence” (p. 129). “He seems to be saying that the right way to understand the subject’s basic relation to her deeds… is a matter primarily of comprehension or an experiential understanding, and not at all the experience of a power successfully executed” (p. 130).

Pippin says that for Hegel, “the picture of being simply assailed by unmotivated desires and seeking only to satisfy them, is as false as is the picture of the pure contemplator-of-the-good, necessarily and unavoidably moved to act by such contemplation alone” (p. 136). Freedom will involve not some kind of freeing of ourselves from desire, but rather a desire manifested in a form that is also one of reason.

Hegel wants to reconnect the inner and the outer. In particular, the relation between inner state and outer deed will be interpreted as one of continuity, or what he will call speculative “identity”, rather than any kind of causality. What is actually expressed in our actions is according to Hegel the best guide to understanding what we truly wanted.

Self-knowledge for Hegel therefore cannot be separated from knowledge of the world. Moreover, “my relation to myself is mediated by my relation to others” (p. 149). Hegel thinks one deliberates “qua ‘ethical being’ (Sittliches Wesen), not qua rational agent, full stop” (p. 150). He does not accept the “standard picture of individuals exercising an exclusively and uniquely first-personal and self-certifying intra-mental deliberative faculty” (p. 150). “[S]elf-ascriptions of intentions are not to be understood as based on observation; they are not reports of mental items…. When I express an intention, even to myself, I am avowing a pledge to act, the content and credibility of which remains (even for me), in a way, suspended until I begin to fulfill the pledge” (p. 151; emphasis in original).

Hegel “makes clear that he is quite opposed to the most widespread understanding, …the subjective sense that nothing will happen until I resolve to act, understood as something like engaging the gears of action and propelling oneself forward into action” (p. 129). He thinks there is a “defect at the core of a modern notion of agency based on ontologically distinct individual centers of unique intra-mental causal powers” (p. 155).

Instead, he “is asking that we in effect widen our focus when considering what a rational and thereby free agent looks like, widening it so as to include in the picture of agency itself a contextual and temporal field stretching out ‘backwards’ from… the familiar resolving and acting subject, and stretching ‘forward’… such that the unfolding of the deed and the reception and reaction to it are considered a constitutive element of the deed, of what fixes ultimately what was done and what turned out to be a subject’s intention” (p. 152; emphasis in original).

“The proper act-description partly depends on the established context of deliberation and action (what having this or that practical reason for doing this or that could mean in such a context) and partly on what intention and what act-description are attributed to you by others. If that is so, then no trumping priority can be given to the agent’s own expression of intention” (p. 153). (I would prefer to just say “context” rather than “established context”.) This also makes all such assessments “provisional and temporally fluid, unstable across time and experience” (ibid).

The “unfolding of a deed in time and for others, after an agent has begun to act, is as essential a dimension of what makes agency agency as what precedes the putative moment of decision” (p. 156). Hegel is quoted saying “Ethical Self-consciousness now learns from its deed the developed nature of what it actually did” (p. 157; emphasis in original).

“Knowing one’s mind, then, turns out to be ‘having a mind of one’s own’, which, in turn, must be wrested from others and protected in ways neither indifferent to nor submissive to the demands and interpretations of others, and it means a form of mindedness that one must also be able to express and act out, successfully ‘realize’ in the world” (p. 178). (For my notes on Brandom’s coverage of this same Hegelian territory, see Brandomian Forgiveness; Rethinking Responsibility; Expansive Agency.)

Actualization of Freedom

Chapter 4 of Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy is concerned with the actualization of freedom.  Hegel makes abundant use of the Aristotelian concepts of actuality and actualization.  To begin with, Pippin wants to resolve worries that Hegel’s emphasis on the actuality of Spirit submerges the agency of individuals, and that it gives too strong a “providential” sanction to existing states of affairs.  Hegel indeed had little use for the narrow “self-will” of individuals, and in his semi-popular lectures on the philosophy of history applied potentially misleading metaphors of providence and theodicy to history.  As Pippin observes, the meaning especially of some of Hegel’s more rhetorical statements is sometimes “profoundly unclear”, and apparently at odds with his more careful articulations.

If we step back and consider what actuality is in both Aristotle and Hegel, individualization is one of its fundamental characteristics.  Actual things are specific, concretely embodied, and indeed particular.  The actuality of spirit is not some ghostly presence over and above things, but lies rather in the concrete actions of individual people as ethical agents.  And actuality, as Pippin notes, “is not merely a question about whether a concept does or does not have instances corresponding to it in the real world” (p. 95).  

Hegel distinguished “ideas” from mere concepts precisely as taking into account their actuality and embodiment.  In language that could very easily be misunderstood, he also spoke of the concept giving itself its own actuality.  Pippin begins to explain this by noting that concepts for Hegel always involve an “ought”.  They are “rules telling us how to make categorical distinctions, principles that govern material inferences, that prescribe what ought or ought not to be done” (p. 97), and “the Concept” with a capital “C” just is normativity.  All concept use is involved with considerations of rightness.  “By virtue of what is one inferential move legitimate, another not?” (ibid).  To be able to judge what anything is, we must be able to distinguish it from what it is not.  

Hegel gives unqualified praise to Kant’s thesis that the unity of the concept is none other than the unity of apperception.  Pippin says this gives the concept a non-empirical origin that ties it to self-legislation.  “[A]ll judgment rests on excluding and inferring relations [Brandom’s material incompatibility and material consequence] that constrain what we can intelligibly think and articulate by normatively constraining ‘what we ought to think’, not by being psychological propensities or limits” (p. 99).  This all has to do with the determination of what is right, not with any causing of things to exist in a certain way.  

Pippin says the whole third part of Hegel’s Logic – the “logic of the concept” – is concerned with these Kantian considerations related to self-legislation.  He concludes that actuality for Hegel especially refers to the objective validity of a normative status, not simple existence.  This is what is behind Hegel’s famous and tremendously misunderstood phrase “the rational is the real, and the real is the rational”.  Both reason and actuality or reality for Hegel are normative concepts.  

Here we have an answer to the worries about a conservative providential seal on factual existence.  What is metaphorically said to be governed by something like rational providence is not factual existence but normative validity.  “The Science of Logic’s argument suggests that… such a responsiveness to reason… is neither an imposition nor an unreflective subordination to the ‘practically given’” (p. 102). 

In talk about self-legislation “The point being made is about the autonomy of the normative domain, in both theoretical and practical contexts.  It is because of this claim that Hegel is completely untroubled by the threat of scientific or any other form of determinism….  This is not a claim about the theoretical requirement of an uncaused spontaneity of thought, as Kant flirted with…, but a claim about the space of reasons itself and what could and could not in the Hegelian sense be ‘logically’ relevant to it” (p. 103).  

For Hegel, conceptual determinacy is not separable from conceptual legitimacy.  Normative authority is “constructed we might even say, not discovered” (p. 104).  Pippin says Hegel’s notion that the concept should be understood as a “free” structure only makes sense in these terms.  “Conceptual legitimacy is not secured by being shown to be hooked onto the world in a certain way, but by virtue of its being instituted and sustained in the right way” (p. 105).

Hegel is concerned to develop “a theory of the possibility of content in general – how concepts in their judgmental use and claims to normative authority, might successfully pick out and re-identify an aspect of reality” (p. 107).  For both Kant and Hegel, objectivity is no longer a matter of representation, but rather a matter of a kind of legality.  “[W]e will not be searching about in the metaphysical or empirical world for the existent truth-makers of such claims” (p. 109).

“Whereas Kant held out some hope for a deductive demonstration of a notion’s or a norm’s actuality, or objectivity or bindingness, Hegel’s procedures in all his books and lectures are developmental, not deductive….  The proof procedure shifts from attention to conceptually necessary conditions and logical presuppositions to demonstrations of the partiality of some prior attempt… and the subsequent developments and reformulations necessary to overcome such partiality” (pp. 109-110).

“I am only subject to laws I in some sense author and subject myself to.  But the legislation of such a law does not consist in some paradoxical single moment of election….  The formation of and self-subjection to such constraints is gradual and actually historical” (p. 117).

Self-Legislation?

In chapter 3 of Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, Robert Pippin develops a contrast between Kantian and Hegelian approaches to “self-legislation”. “What spirit legislates for itself are laws, not cultural preferences and so the binding and non-arbitrary nature of such self-legislating must find a place in any account” (p. 65). Another important consideration related to this was mentioned in the introduction. “[I]t can fail, go dead, lose its grip, and a very great deal of what interests Hegel is simply what such shared practical meaningfulness must be that it could fail, and how we should integrate our account of action into a fuller theory of the realization of such a condition and its failure” (p. 6).

In Kant’s original version, self-legislation is practiced separately by each individual, but under strict conditions of universality that ideally should make it valid for all. In Hegel’s version, “spirit” is said to do the legislating. Spirit is metaphorically said to be the product of successive historical self-modifications, but it is still people who are the concrete agents in the vast ensemble of relations of mutual recognition that gives form to spirit.

It should be noted that the way Kant talks about universality is very different from the way that Aristotle talks about “universals”. The key feature of Kantian universality is that it is supposed to be unconditional. Also, it mainly applies to people, with the aim of rooting out privilege, discrimination, and special pleadings or excuses. Aristotle and Hegel, on the other hand, are mainly concerned with universals in the sense of intermediate abstractions on the model of ordinary words or concepts, which are “said of many things” but not of all. Insofar as we take ourselves seriously and are committed to our abstractions, these are also binding, precisely because we have bound ourselves to them.

Kant’s approach has the merit of putting “democratic” considerations first, while emphasizing something like the rule of law in a way that staves off Plato’s objections to a “democracy” that might better be called unprincipled populism. As many — starting with Aristotle — have noted, though, in the real world it is very hard to move back and forth directly between single individuals and unconditional generalizations, if we take ourselves seriously. Intermediate abstractions smooth the path.

Aristotle’s emphasis on constitutional government — in which all both participate in some way in the process of government, and are governed — is incipiently democratic while emphasizing the rule of law, but has historically sometimes been distorted and abused by ruling minorities. With intermediate abstractions, there is always a similar risk that some prejudice will be incorporated. Aristotle preferred to dwell on more optimistic scenarios, so he only deals with prejudice in a very general way. Hegel’s explicit concern with the possibility of failure in spirit’s self-legislation effectively combines Aristotelian and Kantian insights.

As Pippin points out, Hegel is commonly said to have a social role theory of right human conduct, but this immediately raises problems. Putative entitlements associated with social roles must be able to survive a full “reflective endorsement” that does not presuppose the roles in question. Merely “being in a social role could never of itself count as a reason to do anything” (p. 67; emphasis in original). This kind of consideration leads back to a Kantian position on obligation. Pippin says that for Hegel, though, any complete abstraction from our ongoing ways of life, attachments, and dependencies results in an artificial construct amounting to a philosophical fantasy world. Also, to understand one another as merely passively shaped by social roles is to fail to accord appropriate respect to one another. For Hegel too, Pippin says there must be a reflective endorsement, but such endorsements are not simply made by individuals. Rather, they stem from broader concrete practices of giving and asking for reasons.

“Kant’s solution to the problem of obligation descended from the dead ends created by the divine command and natural law traditions” (p. 69) had been to ground an unconditional obligation in one’s own first-person reflective endorsement, under requirements of strong self-consistency and deep honesty with oneself. For Hegel, this is still too Cartesian. None of our reasoning takes place in true isolation, but he very much wants to hold on to Kant’s emphasis on actual reasoning and the autonomy of reason in the determination of what is right.

Pippin quotes the eminent Kant scholar Christine Korsgaard saying that for Kant, reflective endorsement is not a way of justifying morality; rather, reflective endorsement is morality itself. (I think Plato and Aristotle would agree.) But Pippin goes on to note that Kant’s talk about self-legislation is clearly metaphorical. If we literally legislated everything for ourselves as individuals, it would be paradoxically up to a kind of lawless selves to inaugurate the process. As Pippin points out, this sounds more like Kierkegaard or Sartre than Kant. According to Pippin, Hegel here aims in a way to be more Kantian than Kant, by avoiding this kind of dilemma. Holding on to the essential point about reflective endorsement, Hegel deepens Kant’s move away from the atomistic and overly simplistic Cartesian model of subjectivity.

Pippin notes that Kant says uncritically accepting the authority of a command negates our very status as agents. He quotes Korsgaard’s maxim that soldiers should obey orders, but humans should not massacre people. Pippin says that for Kant, the mere act of obedience involves taking responsibility. Responsibility and respect for others morally take precedence over obedience, even to duly constituted authority. Laws state principles, but commands are particular. Even principles can conflict with one another, though this can to some extent be resolved with higher-order rules, such as that one’s responsibilities as a human in at least in some circumstances take precedence over one’s responsibilities as a soldier.

“[W]hile this picture of self-legislation has the appearance of something radical and potentially paradoxical, it is not crazy. It does not suggest: ‘I am only bound because I bound myself, so I hereby unbind myself’…. [If] someone playing chess… moved his rook diagonally…. The point is not that he is violating what everyone sees is this ideal object, ‘Chess’, but that he is contradicting himself, his own agreement to play chess and all that that commits him to” (p. 74; emphasis in original).

On Hegel’s account, once practices are instituted, people often “see” what to do without deliberation, and certainly without having to invent everything for themselves. However, norms also change, and they change because we change them. Pippin says that Hegel saw a coming major breakdown in the modern attempt to found morality on a purely individualist basis.

Pippin goes on to criticize part of the detail of Korsgaard’s argument about what happens when we fail to do what is right. For Korsgaard, this will be fundamentally a failure of our reason, but Pippin suggests that her description of a case involving fear sounds more like an instance of disease or outside interference than a failure of our reason that would make us cease to be rational agents in that moment. He is unsatisfied with Korsgaard’s Kantian appeal to weakness. Instead, he suggests, “Someone simply finds out that she wasn’t who she thought she was; all these years firmly convinced that she was seeking A; it turns out she wasn’t…. It seems more appropriate… to concentrate on what her actions reveal about the ends she really does care about. That is just what we shall see Hegel doing in his reflections on the ‘self-legislated’ view of normative authority” (p. 85). I would add that it is also in accordance with what Aristotle says about assessing a life.

“This makes it unlikely that there could be any deductive account of someone’s core moral or practical identity… whatever legitimating account there might be will probably be developmental, not deductive, and whatever self-legislation is going on it will be collective and specific to some stage or other of this development, and never from the ground up” (p. 90). Hegel “focuses our attention on the experience of normative insufficiency, on a breakdown in a form of life… and thereby, through such a via negativa [negative path], tries to provide a general theory of re-constituted positive normative authority out of such breakdowns” (p. 91; emphasis in original). (See also Naturalness, Mindedness.)

Naturalness, Mindedness

I’ll be devoting several posts to Robert Pippin’s important book Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life (2008). Pippin suggests we translate “philosophy of Geist (Spirit)” in a non-metaphysical way as “practical philosophy”, taking “practical” in the ethical sense. He will be centrally concerned to elaborate Hegel’s notion of freedom — which avoids any kind of dualism or voluntarism — and to explore the significance of Hegel’s claims that freedom is the most important thing in ethics. He calls Hegel’s account of the real possibility of freedom the most ambitious in the history of philosophy.

Pippin says he wants to suggest with Hegel that we are free when we can recognize our deeds and projects as expressing our own meaningful agency. According to Hegel, even organic life already involves purposes as distinct from causal relations, but freedom in the sense of arbitrary choice is a delusion. Rather, freedom for Hegel involves “a certain sort of self-relation and a certain sort of relation to others; it is constituted by being in a certain self-regarding and a certain sort of mutually recognizing state” (p. 39). Hegel’s name for these normative relations is Spirit.

For Hegel, things like spirit and individual soul are distinguished from simple nature “logically” rather than ontologically or metaphysically. They are not separate “substances” in the traditional sense, but “way[s] of being” (pp. 39-40). Freedom — said to be the essence of spirit — does not involve “having a special causal origin or being undertaken by a causally exempt being” (p. 40).

Pippin suggests that when Hegel talks about “the concept”, he effectively means normativity. Freedom involves a kind of normative self-determination. “[T]he truth that will set spirit free will not be a revelation or a discovery but its coming to act as fully what it is, a being constrained and guided by self-imposed norms” (ibid). He quotes Hegel saying it is freedom that makes spirit true, and that the philosophy of spirit can be neither empirical nor metaphysical.

Kant’s dualism was ethical rather than metaphysical, Pippin says, but it was strict. Hegel develops a continuity between nature and spirit, while enthusiastically embracing Kant’s critique of so-called rational psychology and his conclusion that the soul is not a thing, but rather to be identified with the “I” and with freedom. Hegelian Spirit is a form of activity .

Hegel says in freedom we are “with self in another” (p. 43). Pippin says this means “an achievement in practices wherein justificatory reasons can be successfully shared” (ibid). What could count as free action depends on this achievement of shareability of reasons.

Spirit’s self-legislation — in which we participate — can be identified with “the unconditioned”. Spirit as realized freedom is a historical achievement, related to the extension of freedom from a few to all. Spirit’s “production of itself”, while not reducible to natural terms, occurs as a result of the agency of natural beings. This must be distinguished from all empirical or philosophical psychologies. Hegel is quoted saying reason constitutes the substantial nature of spirit.

Nature is not a manifestation of cosmic spirit, or a mere appearance or illusion. Hegel’s complex view of teleology is not as a sort of providence or any kind of neoplatonic unfolding. Hegelian Spirit always presupposes nature. “Natural beings begin to understand themselves in ways not explicable as self-sentiment or mere self-monitoring because the form of their reflexive self-relation is an aspect of what is to be represented, not a separable, quasi-observational position” (p. 46). Once we begin talking about what a being takes itself to be, we have moved beyond simple nature. Wilfrid Sellars is quoted saying to think of someone as a person is not to “classify or explain, but to rehearse an intention” (p. 61).

Hegel vindicates “the oldest and original premise of ancient rationalism, that to be is to be intelligible” (p. 49; emphasis in original). Pippin characterizes his reading as “clearly neo-Aristotelian”. He concludes that there is no “missing ontology” in a position like this. Moreover, “the issues that dominate so much of the modern post-Cartesian, post-Kantian discussion about nature and mentality do not ever arise for Hegel: subjective self-certainty, raw feels, intentional states, mental objects, … and the problem of spontaneous causation in action” (p. 57).

Middle Part of the Soul

Paul Ricoeur’s 1960 work Fallible Man (see Fallible Humanity) adopted Plato’s metaphor of a “middle part” of the soul that is an essentially mixed form influenced by both desire and reason. It’s not really a part, but more like what Hegel would call a moment of the whole, in this case the unique moment of combination that makes us us. Thinking of its mixed nature, Ricoeur recalls Kant’s saying that “understanding without intuition is empty, intuition without concepts is blind”, along with the Kantian imagination that linked the two.

“The riddle of the slave-will, that is, of a free will which is bound and always finds itself already bound, is the ultimate theme that the symbol gives to thought” (p. xxiii; emphasis in original). “Today it is no longer possible to keep an empirics of the slave will within the confines of a Treatise of the Passions in Thomist, Cartesian, or Spinozist fashion” (p. xxii) . One ought to consider psychoanalysis, politics, justice.

Striking a somewhat Augustinian note, he goes on “In joining together the temporal ‘ecstasies’ of the past and the future in the core of freedom, the consciousness of fault also manifests the total and undivided causality of the self over and above its individual acts. The consciousness of fault shows me my causality as contracted or bounded, so to speak, in an act which evinces my whole self. In return, the act which I did not want to commit bespeaks an evil causality which is behind all determined acts and without bounds. Where it is a question of a reflection attentive to projects alone, this causality divides itself in bits and fritters itself away in a disjunctive inventing of myself; but in penitent retrospection I root my acts in the undivided causality of the self. Certainly we have no access to the self outside of its specific acts, but the consciousness of fault makes manifest in them and beyond them the demand for wholeness which constitutes us” (p. xxvii). (See also Brandomian Forgiveness.)

The Dreaded Humanist Debate

In 1960s France, there was a huge controversy among philosophers and others over so-called “humanism”. Rhetoric was excessive and overheated on both sides of the debate, promoting unhealthy and shallow polarization, but the topics dealt with were of great importance.

To begin to understand the various positions on this, it is necessary to realize that connotations of the word “humanism” in this context were quite different from what is usual in English. The third meaning listed in Google’s dictionary result, attributed to “some contemporary writers”, does at least have the virtue of expressing a position in philosophical anthropology, which is what was at issue in the French debate (in contrast both to Renaissance literary humanism and to explicitly nonreligious approaches to values).

Europe has an old tradition of self-identified Christian humanism. After the publication of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in the 1930s, non-Stalinist Marxists began talking about a Marxist humanism. In France after World War II, even the Stalinists wanted to claim the title of humanist. In his famous 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, the notoriously anti-religious and individualistic writer Jean-Paul Sartre surprised some people by placing his existentialism under a common “humanist” banner with Christians and Stalinists. What they all wanted to assert under the name of humanism was a particular view of what it is to be a human, emphasizing the centrality of free will and consciousness, and identifying humanness with being a Subject.

In the 1960s, these views were sharply criticized by people loosely associated with so-called “structuralism”, including Foucault, Althusser, and Lacan. The “structuralist” views denied strong claims of a unitary Subject of knowledge and action; rejected any unconditional free will; and took a deflationary approach to consciousness. Sartre and others launched vehement counter-attacks, and the debate degenerated into little better than name-calling on both sides.

In my youth, I was exposed first to views from the “humanist” side, and accepted them. Then I became aware of the “structuralist” alternative, and for a while became its zealous partisan.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus had to navigate between the twin hazards of Scylla and Charybdis. Since the millenium, I have emphasized a sort of middle way between “humanism” and “structuralism” — inspired especially by Aristotle and Brandom, and now with added support from Ricoeur.

Now I want to say, there is no Subject with a capital “S”, but I am highly interested in the details of subjectivity. There is no unconditional free will (and I even doubt the existence of a separate faculty of “will” distinct from reason and desire), but I am highly interested in voluntary action as discussed, e.g., by Aristotle and Ricoeur. I prefer to sharply distinguish apparently immediate “consciousness” from other-oriented, mediate, reflexive “self-consciousness”, putting most of the philosophical weight on the latter.

Modernity, Voluntarism

A draft chapter on pre-Hegelian stages in the history of normativity that Brandom removed from the published Spirit of Trust is now separately available on the internet. Parts or aspects of this historical narrative are the main source of issues I’ve had with Brandom in recent times. I take his removal of the chapter as confirmation that this historical argument should be viewed as an independent, optional supplement to the main philosophical argument of this truly great work. But Brandom still implicitly relies on it in summarily characterizing what he calls the single most important transformation in history — having to do with the status of normativity in the Enlightenment — and I have issues with those statements as well.

He begins by recalling a number of core themes I would wholeheartedly endorse.  Hegel “fully appreciated, as many of Kant’s readers have not” that Kant fundamentally rethought notions of self, self-consciousness, apperception, and “consciousness in the sense of apperception” in normative terms.  This is a vitally important point.

“Judgment is the minimal form of apperceptive awareness because judgments are the smallest units one can commit oneself to, make oneself responsible for”.  The “I” in “I think” that Kant called the “emptiest of all representations” is a kind of formal mark of taking responsibility for the judging.  What is represented in the judgment is what one makes oneself responsible to, and the “I” in turn only acquires determinate reference from what we implicitly or explicitly take responsibility for.  What Brandom following popular usage still calls “conscious selves”, he glosses with precision as “apperceptively unified constellations of commitments”.

Concepts are “rules that determine what commitments are reasons for and against”, and as such govern the synthesis of apperceptive unities, but they should not be thought of as pre-existing.  “Judgeable contents take methodological pride of place because of their role in Kant’s normative account of judging”.  Concepts used in judgments acquire their content from the activity of judging, from what one does in applying them.  Brandom thinks Hegel sees Kant as a “semantic pragmatist” not just in the Fichtean sense of the primacy of practical philosophy over theoretical philosophy, but in the more radical sense that for Kant, a normative account of discursive activity has methodological explanatory authority over the determination of discursive content in both theoretical and practical philosophy.

Brandom identifies Hegel’s Geist or Spirit with discursive normativity, and says Hegel sees earlier moral theorists as offering important insights not just about morality, but about normativity as such.  Hegel himself starts from conceptual norms expressed in language, rather than from moral norms.  He says that “language is the Dasein [“being there”] of Geist”.  “In another (completely unprecedented) move, Hegel historicizes his social metaphysics of normativity”.  Normativity is for the first time explicitly recognized as having a history.  

“The traditional metaphysics of normativity that Hegel sees all subsequent forms of understanding as developing from the rejection of is the subordination-obedience model.”  On this model, obligation is instituted by the command of a superior.  Brandom notes that Hegel initially discussed it under the famous figure of the relation of Master and Servant.

Protestant natural-law theorists – including Grotius, Cumberland, Hobbes, Pufendorf, Thomasius, and Locke — secularized and naturalized the voluntarism of medieval Catholic theologians like Scotus and Occam, tracing the binding force of law from “the antecedent existence of a superior-subordinate relationship”.  For the theological voluntarists, Brandom says, such relations of subordination were not only matters of objective fact, but “in some sense the fundamental objective metaphysical structure of reality”, embodied in Arthur Lovejoy’s figure of a broadly neoplatonic “Great Chain of Being”.  The natural-law theorists explained relations of subordination among humans in terms of different theories of God’s dominion over humans.  Brandom notes that on the obedience model, the status of being a superior is itself a normatively significant status entailing a right to legislate and command, but having that status relative to other humans is reduced to a non-normative matter of presumed objective fact.  (We should not rely on presumption in such important matters, and all attempts to reduce normativity to something non-normative stand in opposition to the autonomy of ethical reason championed by Kant.)

Brandom says the natural-law theorists began to question the subordination-obedience model in two ways – first by attaching some normative criteria to the status of being a superior, and second by suggesting that the right of a human to command might depend on some kind of implicit consent or attitude of the affected subordinates.  I would emphasize that any such move is already a move away from voluntarism.  As Brandom says, the subordination-obedience model is incapable of being extended to explain a normative status of being entitled to command.  The invocation of the consent of subordinates, he says, is an “even more momentous” step forward.  It is distinctive of Brandomian modernity to take normative statuses to be instituted by attitudes of acknowledgement.  Ultimately, modernity for Brandom is thus related to the emergence of democratic politics.

Brandom says that for Hegel, the modern model of attitude-dependence of normative statuses expresses a genuine and important truth, but like the subordination-obedience model, it is ultimately one-sided.  Hegel’s own view will make room for both an objectivity and an attititude-dependence of norms and normative statuses, by deriving objectivity itself from a vast ensemble of processes of normative mutual recognition over time.  Brandom translates Hegel’s vocabulary of “independence” and “dependence” into authority and responsibility, and says that for Hegel, what self-conscious beings are “in themselves” depends on what they are “for themselves”, on what they take themselves to be, as well as on what others take them to be.  What is “in itself” or “for itself” is thus a matter of normative interpretation, rather than of metaphysics in the traditional sense.

All of this seems both fine and important.  Things begin to become much more problematic, however, when he briefly discusses the contrast between voluntarist and “intellectualist” views of the will in medieval Latin theology.  He ends up valorizing the voluntarism of Occam at the expense of the so-called intellectualism of Aquinas, on the ground that voluntarism can be taken as grounding normativity in attitudes attributed to God.  Even though he notes that Occam’s nominalism makes all universals – including normativity — the product of “brute arbitrariness”, while recognizing that for Aquinas normativity is always grounded in reasons, he is more impressed by the fact that in Aquinas, those reasons are traceable to objective statuses.  Brandom’s language suggests that any reliance whatseoever on attitudes — even if they are arbitrary and do not involve any kind of recognition of an other — is ethically preferable to reliance on objective statuses.  

I on the contrary much prefer Aquinas’ appeal to reasons – in spite of the fact that Aquinas ultimately relies on assumed objective statuses – to Occam’s appeal to arbitrariness, even though the latter can be argued to implicitly involve attitudes.  It is a rather common motif of shallow accounts of the prehistory of modern science to valorize Occam and nominalism generally as anticipating modern developments, while overlooking both the negative ethical consequences of voluntarism and the positive value of the ethically “intellectualist” emphasis on reason.

I want to put greater stress on the contrast between arbitrariness and reasons than on that between relying on assumed objective statuses and relying on attitudes.  Of course I agree that objective normative statuses should not be simply assumed.  But I see nothing at all progressive in arbitrariness glossed as the product of an arbitrary attitude.  The result is still arbitrariness.  So, I cannot at all agree that theological voluntarism is “the thin leading edge of the wedge of modernity”, if modernity is supposed to be anything good.  I think a transition to relying on attitudes for the constitution of normativity only becomes progressive when those attitudes are non-arbitrary.

The other odd thing in Brandom’s account is the complete absence of any mention of Plato and Aristotle.  Unlike most authors of the Enlightenment, Plato and Aristotle put no limits on the free use of reason.  They explicitly treated reason as bound up with normativity.  And even though they did not question existing distinctions of social status as much as we might, nothing in their ethics actually presupposes the subordination-obedience model.  Thus I locate the single greatest historical break with Plato and Aristotle’s invention of rational ethics, rather than with the Enlightenment’s appeal to attitudes.  

However one takes the ethical “intellectualism” of Aquinas, it combines Plato and Aristotle’s merger of normativity and reason with doctrinal concerns.  The assumptions about objective statuses that Brandom objects to belong to the doctrinal component of his synthesis rather than its Platonic-Aristotelian component.  If we are looking for historical antecedents of the ethically good aspects of modernity, we should look to Plato and Aristotle.

Voluntarism’s endorsement of arbitrariness over reasons is quite simply the short path to evil.  It is the bad attitude of the Master discussed by Hegel, raised to a sort of anti-philosophical principle.  Brandom is a great champion of the importance of reasons, and presents an exemplary reading of Mastery as an evolutionary dead end with no progressive role to play, so I think it would be more consistent for him to avoid any historical valorization of voluntarist positions.

Reason, Feeling

Reason is grounded not in the false start of the apparent immediacy of Consciousness and its objects, but in the “long detour” of mediated reflexivity. It can begin anywhere, and finds its own stability in the course of its development. Nonetheless (I want to say), it never loses touch with something grounded in feeling that I have called reasonableness. Both Reason and feeling involve meaning, which involves mediation.

Openness of Reason

In life, we most often do not really know what we are doing, but still, most of the time we find our way. This involves many small “leaps”, or actions on based on assumptions that we don’t actually know are true. These are unavoidable, they are “reasonable”, and most of the time they are harmless.

In forming views of the world, we need the maturity to distrust systematic unity or strong coherence as a supposed accomplishment, while still pursuing it as a goal. (See also One, Many; Unity of Apperception; Error; Foundations?; Interpretation.)

If we have a concept of Reason as something well distinguished but still fundamentally open in the last instance — which I find especially clear and well developed in Aristotle, Brandom, and Ricoeur — then we have no need ever for Kierkegaardian irrational “great leaps” or arbitrary founding decisions in the style of Badiou.

Ricoeur on Practical Reason

I just found a nice essay on practical reason in Ricoeur’s From Text to Action (French ed. 1986). An account of practical reason must confront “the two great classical problematics of ‘meaningful action’, those of Kant and of Hegel” (p. 189). As Ricoeur himself notes, though, his account has a “greater affinity” (p. 191) with Aristotle’s accounts of choice and practical wisdom than with Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Like Aristotle, Ricoeur wants to assert “no break between desire and reason” (ibid).

Practical reason for Ricoeur “must deserve the name of reason, but it must maintain certain features irreducible to scientifico-technical rationality” (p. 188). (I think design in engineering — while it must have a strong technical basis — already goes beyond purely technical concerns, insofar as key criteria of its “goodness” lie in the broad pragmatics of use of its products in real-world contexts.) What Ricoeur has in mind here is that practical reason inherently involves concrete judgments of value that cannot be reduced to calculation.

He adds that practical reason is critical rather than speculative. I would also add that common sense, practical reason, and Reason with a capital “R” all work mainly by material inference, which is concerned with meaning and values from the ground up.

There is a syntactic ordering of reasons-for-acting as relative ends and means, but Ricoeur dislikes Aristotle’s talk of “practical syllogisms” as sharing the same formal structure with theoretical ones. I think Aristotle is right about the formal structure, but Aristotle would agree with Ricoeur that this much narrower kind of reasoning is very far from encompassing practical reason as a whole. Practical reason or wisdom in Aristotle crucially includes processes of judgment behind the formation of the propositions used in syllogisms (and canonical Aristotelian propositions codify material inferences).

Ricoeur emphasizes that practical reason involves interpretation, normativity, and resolution of “opposing normative claims” (p. 195). He commends Aristotle’s definition of virtue for joining together psychological, logical, normative, and personal components. Aristotelian practical wisdom “joins together a true calculus and an upright desire under a principle — a logos — that, in its turn, always includes personal initiative and discernment” (p. 197). There is an “epistemological break between practical reasoning and practical reason” (p. 198).

In the Critique of Practical Reason “Kant, it seems to me, hypostatized one single aspect of our practical experience, namely, the fact of moral obligation, conceived as the constraint of the imperative” (ibid). Though I think Kant tempered this in other places, I am very sympathetic to the thrust of Ricoeur’s criticism (and Brandom’s tendency to follow Kant on this in some contexts has evoked a mixture of criticism and apologetics from me; see, e.g., Necessity in Normativity; Modality and Variation). Ricoeur also says that “by constructing the concept of the practical a priori after the model of that of the theoretical a priori, Kant shifted the investigation of practical reason into a region of knowledge that does not belong to it” (p. 199). I thoroughly agree with Ricoeur that there can be no science of the practical, but here I would also follow Brandom in noting that while the practical cannot be reduced to the theoretical, theoretical reason itself is ultimately subordinate to practical reason (taken in a more Hegelian than Kantian sense).

Ricoeur here follows an old-school reading of Hegel’s Geist as a sort of objective mind directly embodied in the State, and correctly points out how such a notion has great potential for abuse. He prefers the “hypothesis of Husserl, Max Weber, and Alfred Schutz” (p. 205) that would ground communities — including things like the State — in relations of intersubjectivity. (I would note that Brandom’s nuanced and multi-dimensional grounding of Geist and normativity in a vast ensemble of processes of mutual recognition over time provides a convincing, original “deep” reading of Hegel that meets Ricoeur’s criterion of grounding in intersubjectivity, while avoiding what seems to me the very crude and implausible notion of an objective mind that would somehow be capable of being definitively embodied in the State. Any such notion of definitive embodiment of objective mind also involves huge confusion between potentiality and actuality.)

“One must never tire of repeating that practical reason cannot set itself up as a theory of praxis. We must repeat along with Aristotle that there is knowledge only of things that are necessary and immutable…. [P]ractical reason recovers a critical function by losing its theoretical claim to knowledge” (p. 206; emphasis in original).

Finally, he wryly observes that “practical wisdom, in situations of alienation, can never be without a certain madness on the part of the sage, since the values that govern the social bond have themselves become insane” (p. 207). (See also Ricoeur on Justice.)