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.

Normative Monism

Having just invented this term “normative monism” as an overly short tag for what Brandom is about, it now occurs to me that perhaps some day in the far distant future, the biographical dictionary entry for Brandom might refer to him as the one to whom we owe the possibility that there could be such a thing. Maybe Hegel already made it possible, but if so, it wasn’t very clear in the original. I think Plato and Aristotle already regarded normativity as the most important thing, but that is different from regarding it as a viable candidate to be the only thing, or a sufficient basis for explaining everything else. (See also Meta-Ethics As First Philosophy.)

Brandomian Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the process by which immediacy is mediated, by which the stubborn recalcitrance of reality is given conceptual shape.

A Spirit of Trust, p. 612.

Confession, forgiveness, and trust are what we must do, recognitively, in order to find objective, determinately contentful conceptual norms being applied cognitively in judgment and practically in action.

p. 628

[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.

p. 623

The final chapter and conclusion of Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust include a strong ethical message about mutual forgiveness, interwoven with his reading of Hegel’s resolution of the subject-object dichotomy. Sophoclean tragic heroes encountered fate as an uncontrollable alien force that changed the meaning of their actions against their will, but still took responsibility for their actions anyway. Aristotle and important strands of the Christian tradition already anticipated what Brandom calls Kant’s contraction of responsibility to a responsibility for intentions only. Brandom sees in Hegel a novel suggestion that instead of thus contracting responsibility to commitments alone, we should expand it and make it mutual.

Instead of blaming the actor for the action’s unintended consequences or contractively saying no one is responsible in such cases, Brandom sees the “postmodern”, “expansive” Hegelian alternative as consisting in the actor taking responsibility for unintended consequences, while the recognitive community also takes responsibility by forgiving the actor. Aristotle and the aforementioned strands of Christian tradition both already explicitly recommended forgiveness of the actor for unintended consequences and unwilling actions generally, even if they grounded it in what Brandom calls a contractive model of responsibility. In terms of concrete ethics, the results are similar. (See also Willing, Unwilling; Blame and Blamelessness; Evaluation of Actions.)

The gain from Brandom’s expansive model of responsibility lies rather in its consequences for the project of treating meta-ethics as first philosophy. Brandom wants to nudge us to move from an implicit normative/factual dualism toward a purely normative monism, in which all facts are what they are by virtue of their place in the normative synthesis of reasonable explanations.

When we fail to come up with a charitable interpretation of someone’s action, commitments, or reasons, Brandom recommends we trust that someone else eventually will be able to do so. “Where our normative digestion and domestication of immediacy, contingency, and particularity shows its limitations, when (as in each case 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 capable future recollectors” (p. 756).

For Brandom, what I above called normative monism is the final step in the long process of resolving the subject-object dichotomy bequeathed to us by early modernity. Simultaneously, it offers a new concept of community, in which “each member identifies with all the others, at once expressing and sacrificing their own particular attitudes by taking coresponsibility for the practical attitudes of everyone” (p. 757). He cites Hegel’s invocation of the “‘I’ that is ‘We’, the ‘We’ that is ‘I'”. Though it has a historical dimension, this is the universal community of rational beings participating in the transcendental field, not an empirical community.

It is worth noting that forgiveness applies to individual people, who potentially could participate in concrete acts of mutual recognition. Insofar as we tend to hold actual people responsible for what we deem to be bad circumstances, institutions, or organizational behavior, we should be forgiving toward those people.

But there is still such a thing as injustice, and as long as we are forgiving of individual people and exercise appropriate interpretive charity with respect to their motives, in the formation of normative syntheses we are under no obligation to be similarly tender toward circumstances, institutions, or organizational behavior. On the contrary, if we have an obligation in this case, it is to right what is wrong. Circumstances, institutions, and organizational behavior are not people deserving sympathy, and not participants in any recognition process. Any or all of them may be deeply unjust in actual cases. Here, critical thought about what is good and the consideration of impacts on people should have full sway. (See also Justice in General; Honesty, Kindness.)

Beyond Subject-Object

When dichotomous connotations have already been applied to a distinction in some communicative context, it can be tricky to simultaneously clarify the transcendence of the dichotomy and the preservation of the underlying distinction, but the general solution is not far to find — just ensure that the underlying distinction is expressed in terms of some finite relation, rather than A versus not-A. Then we have Hegelian determinate negation or Aristotelian difference between the terms, rather than classical negation. So in effect, the solution lies in recognizing that the previous understanding of the distinction in terms of dichotomy was wrong in the first place. More positively, Hegel eliminates dichotomies by putting determinate relations, coherence, and mediation first in the order of explanation, before all particular terms.

Hegel famously wanted to move beyond the subject-object dichotomy he saw as typical of early modernity. In practical terms, Kant’s most famous concern to avoid “dogmatic” assumptions about direct possession of epistemic objects had seemed to accentuate the separation of subject and object, by focusing on the distinction between appearance and reality. But both Kant and Hegel wanted to assert the possibility of knowledge in a strong sense, while avoiding what Kant called dogmatism. They also had considerable common ground in a shared rejection of naive early modern notions of subjects and objects and their relations.

Kant had begun — seemingly unwittingly — to recover some neglected Aristotelian insights in these areas, and Hegel made this an explicit theme. Thus they both already questioned the dichotomous interpretation of subject-object relations. Kant had also already highlighted the inevitable involvement of concepts in experience. For Kant, there is no direct epistemic access to real-world objects, or things in themselves (or to our own subjectivity). All knowledge proceeds by way of concepts, but he retains the concept of objects (and subjects) as a sort of placeholders for new distinctions between appearance and reality that can always be wrapped around current concepts in a new iteration.

The Hegelian Absolute — or that which transcends the subject-object dichotomy — is just a handle for perspectives that put processes, relations, coherence, and mediation before any preconceived notion of the conceptual content of particular terms. I think Hegel saw this sort of structure as common to Aristotelian substance or “what it was to have been” a thing and Kantian subjectivity or synthesis of apperception. Working in the Hegelian Absolute does not require epistemic super powers or specious Cartesian certainty, just a sustained honest effort that is still implicitly defeasible. Hegel intends the Absolute to be a kind of Aristotelian achievable perfection, not a kind of omniscience or theological perfection that could never be legitimately claimed by a rational animal. (See Substance Also Subject.)

In approaching these matters in A Spirit of Trust, Brandom characteristically focuses not directly on higher-order abstractions, but on their implications for what we do with ordinary concepts in ordinary experience. Like Aristotle and Hegel but following a distinct strategy of his own, Brandom avoids the impasse of a supposed transition from psychological to “metaphysical” terms, or from ordinary experience to something that would seemingly have to be like the mind of God, by clarifying what we implicitly mean by concepts in the first place.

With Aristotle, Hegel, and Frege and in contradistinction to the empiricist tradition, Brandom understands concepts and apperception in a nonpsychological, nonrepresentational, normative-pragmatic, inferential-semantic way. Through the discovery of counterfactually robust relations, concepts evolve toward increasing universality. Through the experience of error, synthesis of apperception comes to recognize that not only its commitments but also its concepts are always in principle provisional, subject to reformulation when faced with a new case. Through both of these combined with the additional cross-checks provided by mutual recognition, synthesis moves toward increasing objectivity and what might be called contact with reality. Through Brandom’s “expansive” model of responsibility, the last remaining obstacle to a full resolution of subject-object separation — the lack of a normative interpretation of unintended consequences of actions — is removed.

Neither “subjects” nor “objects” as such are very prominent in an account of this sort. It is much more a story about processes, relations, coherence, and mediation. Aristotle, Hegel, and Brandom each develop their own ways of working that start in the middle, as it were, and do not need reified subjects and objects to begin with. This, again, is just what the Hegelian Absolute is — a name for the sort of perspective that emphasizes the in-principle provisional character of all finite concepts, as contrasted with the more directly practical sort of perspective that provisionally works with the current basis as a source of reasons for particular sayings and doings.


I’m looking at yet another critique of Brandom’s reading of Hegel by yet another person who did not consult the draft of Brandom’s major book on Hegel that was publicly available well before the critique was published. (So far, disappointingly, this has been true in four out of four cases I have examined.)

Alper Turken in “Brandom vs. Hegel: The Relation of Normativity and Recognition to the True Infinite” (2015) wants to say that the “true infinite”, which he identifies as Hegel’s resolution of the naive separation of Subject and Object in Consciousness, is the most important thing in Hegel, and is simply missed by any reading of Hegel that emphasizes the sociality of reason. According to Turken, reason must come before sociality, and a sociality of reason is incompatible with autonomy. Turken also cites psychoanalytic arguments that an empirical subject does not have what would in effect be Mastery over its attitudes.

Brandom explicitly comments on the Hegelian “true infinite” at several points in A Spirit of Trust. He characterizes it as a holistic perspective characteristic of the Hegelian “Absolute”, in which all identity is constituted through difference, and there is no fixed point of reference.

The idea that reason must come “before” sociality suggests a kind of modern platonism that I don’t think Plato himself — let alone Hegel — would have countenanced. (I view Platonic reason as inherently dialogical, and inherently involved with ethical concerns.)

Brandom applies a Fregean force/content distinction to normativity. It may appear that he does so with a sort of reciprocal onesidedness.

However, when he speaks of the attitude-dependence of normative force, I understand this to mean dependence on a concrete and fallible but inherently rational and ethical synthesis of apperception, not just an arbitrary attitude of an empirical subject.

The relevant autonomy does not consist in a putative right of naively conceived Enlightenment individuals to form whatever attitudes they factually please, but in the normative autonomy of reason in any synthesis of apperception. Autonomy just means that Reason should take only reasons — what it judges to be good reasons — into account, not assumptions or special pleadings. “I” as index of a synthesis of apperception also recognize only reasons that fit into the concrete synthesis. (See also Error.)

When Brandom speaks of the dependence of determinations of normative content on others, I understand the “others” in question to be the virtual universal community of all rational beings, not some empirically existing society. In the realm of Reason, the status quo of an existing society could never be the final word.

If Brandom did not deal with Hegel’s resolution of the naive early modern separation of Subject and Object, that would indeed be a grievous shortcoming. But in fact, Hegel’s resolution of subject-object separation is developed extensively by Brandom in A Spirit of Trust. It emerges organically from a nonpsychological notion of conceptual content. (See Beyond Subject-Object; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

It seems to me that there is actually a sort of parallel between the transition from naive early modern subject-object separation to the standpoint of Hegel’s Logic and the end of the Phenomenology on the one hand, and the transition from naive early modern individualism to Hegelian mutual recognition on the other. I see a similar parallel between the epistemic limitations of early modern subjectivism and the ethical limitations of early modern individualism. Hegel’s solutions to both are deeply interrelated.

Turken seems to assume that all sociality of reason must take the form of what Hegel called positivity, or empirically existing determinations such as received views. If this were the case, it could not possibly do what Brandom wants. But it is not the case. Commitments only exist in the social space of reasons, and every commitment invites rational questioning. In principle, there is no end to this potential dialogue. We never arrive at final answers, just the best ones we can obtain for now.

Once again, it seems to me that the critics of “deflationary” readings of Hegel implicitly depend on “inflationary” medieval transformations of Plato and Aristotle. Part of what those inflationary, reifying readings lost was the primacy of open-ended normative reasoning.

Ethos, Hexis

Ethical character or culture (ethos) for Aristotle builds on hexis. The latter is most commonly translated as habit. Earlier, I called it emotional constitution. It is an acquired, active disposition to respond or act in certain ways that seems to be centered in the emotions.

Actions, reactions, and choices — as well as many things that just happen to us — cumulatively contribute to the formation of a more long-term emotional constitution that then becomes directly responsible for the tone of our responses to things, and that we can only change with major, prolonged effort, if at all.

People respond to situations based on a combination of emotional disposition (hexis), their constellation of commitments (ethos), and deliberation and choice. It does not generally make sense to blame someone for acting in accordance with their acquired disposition, but at a broader level, people are partly responsible for the formation of their disposition. People are responsible for their choices, unless they are coerced or misinformed. People are in principle responsible for their commitments; bad commitments usually involve more than simple misinformation. But misinformation, lack of good opportunity for learning, and emotional disposition should certainly be taken into account in charitable interpretation of commitments, too. (See also Willing, Unwilling.)

According to Aristotle, a disposition favoring reasonable emotional responses is a prerequisite to higher ethical development, and this needs to be learned from childhood. (See also Feeling.)