Second Nature

In the case of a human, Aristotle spoke of the soul as the “first” actuality of the body, and of intellect as a second actuality of a human being. This was extrapolated by later commentators into a broader concept of second nature. Nature for Aristotle is not just the way something statically is, or a set of abstract laws; it is an internal source of motion and rest within each natural thing. In the case of an animal, it is responsible for growth and characteristic bodily movements or behavior. I have glossed actuality (energeia) as at-work-ness, or a status of being effectively operative in a process, so there is a kind of metonymic relation between nature and actuality.

The idea that nature or actuality is something admitting of structural degrees seems very useful. Modern discourse is full of awkward contrasts between, e.g., nature and culture, as if these were mutually exclusive domains. But culture or character or mind exists within — or layered on top of — what we would call physical nature. It is a relatively autonomous additional layer with additional capabilities, that would not exist without the first layer. It is a complex adverbial modification of the active processes associated with first nature. Hegelian Spirit is a thing of this kind. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Rational/Talking Animal; Parts of the Soul; Alienation, Second Nature.)


Human reasoning is never purely formal. I think it works mainly along the lines of the material inference described by Sellars and Brandom. But as Brandom pointed out in Between Saying and Doing, any given material inference can still be represented by a formal inference.

Direct brain-computer analogies don’t seem to me to yield much. On the other hand, the theory of programming languages does yield insights into the foundations of formal reasoning, and the foundations of formal reasoning may indirectly yield insights into the ways human reasoning works.

A case in point is the notion of compilation stages. All programs need to be compiled or interpreted to be run. Usually, this happens in multiple stages. At each stage, expressions in a more expressive language are re-encoded into operationally equivalent expressions in a less expressive language. It may seem counterintuitive that this is even possible, but it is essential to the way something intelligible to us can be made to “run”.

This tells us that operational equivalence and expressive equivalence are not the same thing, and it suggests an analogy for the way second nature relates to first nature. Operational equivalence can be preserved by substituting references for inferences. Something that can only be expressed at a higher level can nonetheless be executed at a lower level. Things that can only be expressed through human language and reason can provide the occasion for operational execution by a physiological mechanism. (See also Free Will and Determinism; Psyche, Subjectivity.)

Parts of the Soul

For Aristotle, psyche or “soul” is an ordinary empirical concept. First and foremost, it names a set of functional characteristics and abilities that distinguish living from nonliving things. Associations with what we might call specifically mental functions are secondary to this. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good introduction.

When speaking of “parts” of the soul, Aristotle means distinguishable groups of functions. He explicitly leaves open the question whether they are actually separable from one another. Sometimes he seems to distinguish three main parts: one associated with the basic functions of nutrition and reproduction shared by all living things, including plants; one associated with desire and sensorimotor functions, shared by all animals; and one associated with reason and intellect. At other times, he makes finer distinctions.

Perhaps unexpectedly, reason (logos) and intellect (nous) for Aristotle seem to be more sharply distinguished from what we might call mental functions than mental functions are from biological ones. In contrast with, e.g., memory, which he says cannot exist independent of a living body, and in spite of the fact that he thinks thought contents build on sense perception, he explicitly says intellect has no bodily organ and comes from outside. The very closely connected concept of reason is mainly associated with language and the right kind of socialization. I think reason and intellect still get treated as part of the soul mainly because their presence reshapes the whole (See also Reasonableness; Feeling; Second Nature; Intelligence from Outside; Psyche, Subjectivity; Passive Synthesis, Active Sense.)

For animals, including rational animals, Aristotle located the seat of the soul in the heart. In his time, there was as yet no evidence to refute this traditional conception; understanding of the physiological role of the brain and nervous system only developed in later Greek medicine. But recall also that the psyche for Aristotle is at root more vital than mental. Even today, we still distinguish life by a literal heartbeat, and associate emotion figuratively with the heart.

Why Brandom's Hegel?

Brandom offers us an ethically oriented Hegel, read as anticipating many 20th and 21st century concerns. He provides an ethical path to overcoming the separation of subject and object.

Importantly, Brandom’s Hegel even turns out to have anticipated the main concerns of the 1960s French anti-Hegelians, while standing untouched by their criticism. He turns out to be the original critic of mastery and totalization; never uses subjectivity as an unexplained explainer; and claims no forward-moving historical teleology.

While Brandom’s approach to Hegel involves more original philosophical development than historical scholarship, I nonetheless believe based on my own independent reading that with a few caveats on nonessential points, it is historiographically sound. (That is far from saying it is the only valid or interesting interpretation; historiographical soundness just means that a reasonable case can be made.) At any rate, I find it both sound and tremendously inspiring.

Pinkard on Brandom on Hegel

Leading Hegel scholar Terry Pinkard, who has written several outstanding books, recently reviewed Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust. Pinkard, whose approach to Hegel is broadly related to Brandom’s but not the same, has worked rather closer to the Hegelian text than Brandom, who is principally an original philosopher in his own right. Two things Pinkard questions are Brandom’s thesis about the unparalleled significance of the transition to modernity, and his emphasis on ethical naturalism as the main thing wrong with the morality of the valet. I have some sympathy with both these points (see Brandom and Hegel on Modernity; Genealogy).

In passing, Pinkard contrasts Brandom’s normative-pragmatic reading with “neo-Platonist, neo-Aristotelian and neo-Spinozist interpretations”. While at a certain level this is uncontroversial and there are many conventional readings of Hegel that I think go wrong in one or more of these directions, I also still think that even from a broadly Brandomian viewpoint, something can be salvaged from each of these categories, provided we go beyond old clich├ęs. Plotinus made something like Aristotelian unmoved movers the model for all determination, thus partially anticipating 1960s notions of structural causality, while later neoplatonists like Proclus and Damascius also hinted at more dynamic mutual determination. I have developed connections between Aristotle and Brandom at some length, and Pinkard himself has elsewhere noted significant Aristotelian elements in Hegel. Spinoza pioneered modern thinking in terms of relations before things, which was further advanced by Kant and Hegel. He was celebrated as a proto-inferentialist in Brandom’s Tales of the Mighty Dead.

Pinkard seems to think Brandom dwells too much on the Hegelian critique of mastery, seeing instances of it everywhere. To my mind, this emphasis is salutary, and of vital importance as a corrective to previous claims about the “totalizing” nature of Hegelian thought.

Pinkard argues that the end of the Spirit chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology has more to do with a critique of a Kantian claim that free moral action involves a special kind of causality not available in experience than with a critique of mastery. Kant did inconsistently suggest such a thing, but I think the charitable reading is that this was infelicitous phrasing that is not at all essential. But whether or not one attributes such voluntarist thoughts to Kant, voluntarism basically just is the assertion that the will has mastery, so a critique of voluntarism would also be a critique of mastery.

He has doubts about the bottom-up nature of Brandom’s expanded account of mutual recognition in A Spirit of Trust, even suggesting that it ends up being more Fichtean than Hegelian, and implies starting with an “I”. He objects to a passing phrase of Brandom’s about experience incorporating recognition of error as a “two-stroke engine”, suggesting that it leads to something like a Fichtean opposition of I and not-I.

Passing phrases notwithstanding, I think Hegel and Brandom both go below the level of an “I” to ground the sapient dimension of subjectivity in shareable thought contents and their interconnection. What is below the level of an “I” in this way is thus already social.

Pinkard has a nice phrase about Hegelian phenomenological thinking being in “the middle, as opposed to the active or passive, voice”.

He suggests that Brandom goes too far in reading the Phenomenology as an allegory, assimilating to this Brandom’s comments about applying a methodology that differs from Hegel’s own. I don’t see any allegorical reading of the whole, even though Brandom does give extreme weight to what obviously is an allegory at the end of the Spirit chapter (see Brandomian Forgiveness).

Pinkard does not see why Brandom dwells so extensively on forgiveness. I don’t think Brandomian forgiveness is supposed to yield new ground-level ethical conclusions, only sound ones. What is novel in this area is Brandom’s rethinking of meta-level concepts of responsibility and agency, which provides an ethical path to overcoming the subject-object dichotomy by means of what I have called normative monism.

Brandom is not principally a contributor to the rich literature on the historical Hegel in the way that Pinkard and Robert Pippin are. He reads somewhat selectively, interprets into different vocabulary that has its own complex associations, and makes many points of his own. A highly original philosophical account like Brandom’s should not be taken as competing with the historically oriented literature. They serve complementary purposes.

Kantian Synthesis

We naturally tend to take our experience for granted. One of the profound innovations of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was an emphasis on processes of synthesis at several levels in the formation of experience. Dominant medieval and early modern views had tended to assume some kind of direct, unproblematic mental uptake of experienced objects or data from appearances. Kant’s talk about processes of synthesis is the positive account that complements his famous rejection of this “dogmatism”. For him, all conceptual uptake involves judgment, and all judgment involves synthesis, or putting together many things.

Aristotle had hinted at something like processes of synthesis in his mention of a common sense responsible for correlating perceptions from different senses like sight and touch into what we might call sensory objects. This was slightly expanded upon by Alexander of Aphrodisias in the late 2nd or early 3rd century CE, but it was not until Kant that the idea of synthesis began to be developed more fully. Plato and Aristotle treated judgment and what we might call synthesis as a good deal more difficult and provisional than other authors in the intervening period.

The most famous kind of Kantian synthesis happens when concepts are applied to parts or aspects of the manifold of sensory and other intuition. Even in very simple cases, this turns out to involve many judgments, which in turn involve others. Kant associates this with reason and conscious activity.

Another kind of Kantian synthesis applies at a more elemental level to pieces or aspects of content in the manifold of intuition. This seems to be essentially unconscious. As Beatrice Longuenesse pointed out in her outstanding Kant and the Capacity to Judge (1998), Kant argued that this unconscious synthesis in intuition and the more famous one involved with concepts in thought both depend on the same top-level table of categories. One possible way to interpret this is that Kantian intuition incorporates and in its own way autonomously and unconsciously applies conclusions of previous judgments or processes of synthesis, based on some kind of primitive sense of similarity to current circumstances. Of course, this is not guaranteed to be sound, but the idea is that it works well enough in many practical situations, and can be also refined and corrected by conscious judgment. (See also Passive Synthesis, Active Sense.)

A third kind of Kantian synthesis is the synthesis of unities of apperception. This is a high-level combination of very many judgments or commitments in a way that respects coherence. With either the addition of a track record or the interpretation of commitment as the commitment reflected in actions, this is what constitutes the moral identity of a person, which does not come ready-made (but see Obstacles to Synthesis).

The theme of synthesis was extended by Hegel to describe purely logical processes, as well as what Brandom would call genealogical ones.

Obstacles to Synthesis

Brandom’s reading of the Kantian synthesis of unities of apperception as an ethical task or end has enormously impressed me. One could largely identify the Kantian transcendental with the commitment part of what Aristotle called ethos, and with what Brandom and other contemporary writers call normativity. This seems to bring many things into sharper focus. I am also inclined to identify Hegelian self-consciousness with the result of what Kant spoke of in terms of synthesis, which leads me to want to speak of something like “synthesis or self-consciousness” as an ethical task. The Kantian and Hegelian characterizations take quite different paths, but (in part because of this) can be mutually illuminating. But I actually want to focus on the ethical task part.

As I said, I find this enormously inspiring. Nonetheless, I am still struggling with the fact that some people whom I want to call good, including one very dear to me, are largely prevented by past traumatic events and/or some organic disturbance from ever achieving much synthesis or self-consciousness of this sort, so that they are largely unable to participate in what in this context it feels a bit insensitive to call higher ethical considerations. A well-meaning person thus afflicted may have unstable responses to things and show what would look to us like deep inconsistency, basically dealing with very partial views one at a time in exclusion from one another, rather than reconciled or meaningfully related to one another. For the person experiencing in this way, just going through ordinary life is confusing, and can easily provoke high anxiety. Where thoughts and feelings form no coherent community and just atomistically bump against one another, ability to fully participate in the mutuality of social relationships will suffer. Such a person needs all the kindness and patience we can offer.

Subjectivity is a complex and multi-leveled affair. In terms of the development underway here, we at least need to distinguish transcendental, psychological, and organic levels in the scenario just described. Synthesis and self-consciousness are transcendental; the aforementioned obstacles are organic or psychological. One’s local bit of the transcendental is supposed to be independent of the empirical in one way, but in another way, in lack of the right empirical conditions, it will not grow and flourish. Still, I want to emphasize, there is a human being there deserving of respectful consideration. This last kind of insight is, I think, what is behind Kant’s insistence on the dignity of all human beings, simply as such. (See also Aphasia; Coherence; Honesty, Kindness.)