I-Thou, I-We

Brandom has long insisted on the more fundamental role of I-Thou relations as compared with I-We relations. This means that a community is not a pre-given whole or an immediate belonging, but rather something that emerges out of concrete relationships. This seems to me like a good Aristotelian or Hegelian approach. Truth is concrete, as Hegel put it. There are also grounds for saying that face-to-face relations (literal or metaphorical) are more primary for ethics than any alleged immediacy of a community as an abstract entity. Even more than other things, our notions of actual unity of collectivities like communities are products of complex Kantian synthesis.

Martin Buber famously contrasted I-Thou relations with I-It relations. For Buber, I-It relations refer to objects viewed as separate from us and are typical of sensation, whereas I-Thou relations involve others we recognize as like us, and have an intrinsically ethical character.

Though we metaphorically speak of the spirit of a community, a community as a unity is not a person but an abstraction. In this way, it is more like an object. Kantian respect applies to persons — to concrete others.

It is only in Brandom’s interpretation of Hegelian mutual recognition in his later work that his emphasis on I-Thou relations reaches its full flowering. Earlier, I think he had wanted to achieve the same delicate balance as in the later work. Social norms are instituted from the normative attitudes of people, but nonetheless also acquire a kind of emergent objectivity, so that something is not right just because I or my empirically existing community say it is, but because of a whole complex of criteria that have acquired relative independence. On the other hand, the last word is never said, so even what emerges as objective and relatively independent can also be questioned and change. But his earlier work was mainly framed as an ambitious technical contribution to the philosophy of language, even though normativity played a central role in it. One reviewer characterized Brandom’s “normative pragmatics” as the first comprehensive attempt to ground the whole philosophy of language in Wittgenstein’s dictum that meaning is use.

Brandom’s mentor Richard Rorty already characterized Making It Explicit as taking analytic philosophy into a new Hegelian phase, but at this stage Brandom was still very circumspect about the ultimately Hegelian character of his views, engaging mainly with the work of other analytic philosophers. Without his later detailed argument about mutual recognition, his assertion that normativity also has a kind of objectivity derived from intersubjectivity seemed to many readers not to be adequately supported or developed.

Brandom spent decades carefully laying the ground for the idea that there really could be a unification of analytic philosophy with key aspects of Hegel’s thought that would be meaningful and convincing in analytic terms. Only after that long preparatory work did he begin to publicly focus on Hegel. Only then did his longstanding emphasis on I-Thou relations flower into a groundbreaking account of mutual recognition, and only then did its ethical significance become more clear.

A number of reviewers have suggested that he changed his mind on this issue, from a more one-sided emphasis on attitudes to his current view that emphasizes a kind of two-sided interaction. I have tended to see more continuity, but Making It Explicit did briefly flirt with applying the term “phenomenalism” to Brandom’s view of norms. The way I understand phenomenalism, such a term better applies to a one-sided emphasis on attitude-dependence of norms than to the two-sided, intersubjective view that I think is already implicit in his I-Thou emphasis. I have not seen this odd usage of “phenomenalism” recur in his later work. That term gets zero references in the index to A Spirit of Trust.

Brandom associates one-sided attitude-dependence with modernity, and the two-sided view with what he now calls Hegelian postmodernity. As I have mentioned too many times already, I do find it odd that he has chosen to valorize the one-sided view as historically progressive, when his own view is two-sided. For me, the subjectivist or voluntarist error is at least as bad as naive traditionalist acceptance of values as pre-given. I want to emphasize the two-sided view across the board.

It is worth noting that Ricoeur has rehabilitated the third person from Buber’s negative association with an “It” by connecting it with notions of justice, which he sees as involving as an additional mediation of ethical second-person relations through Kantian universality in the third person. But Ricoeur’s notion of justice has nothing to do with Buber’s I-It model; indeed, one of the two “axes” around which it revolves is an implicitly I-Thou based “dialogical” constitution of self that ends up being close to Brandom’s. (See Ricoeur on Justice; Ricoeurian Ethics.) An important strand of the argument of his late work Memory, History, Forgetting converges with Brandom’s critique of a focus on I-We: “It is, therefore, not with the single hypothesis of the polarity between individual memory and collective memory that we enter into the field of history, but with the hypothesis of the threefold attribution of memory: to oneself, to one’s close relations, and to others” (p. 132).


The popular adage “everyone has the right to their opinion” is a partial truth. It gestures at something like Kantian autonomy. But the other side of the coin is that Kantian autonomy does not operate in a vacuum; it is always embedded in what Wilfrid Sellars called the space of reasons, where holding a commitment is implicitly to invite questions about the reasons for it, and then about the actual validity or applicability of those reasons. As ethical beings we are responsible for our opinions.

An attitude in the ordinary unqualified sense may operate as a cause of behavior in the modern sense, but because nothing prevents such an attitude from being completely arbitrary, a mere attitude cannot serve as a justification for anything. Attitudes in this sense have a sort of vain Cartesian irrefutability, in the same way that mere appearances do. There is a level at which if you say something appears to you thus-and-such, that mere appearance is incontestable. But it is incontestable precisely because nothing follows from it.

Brandom, on the other hand, is only interested in attitudes from which something is taken to follow. When he talks about the attitude-dependence of norms, I think what he really has in mind is more specifically a dependence on what analytic philosophers call propositional attitudes. This additional specification is crucial. An endorsement of any proposition whatsoever can still qualify as a propositional attitude, but every proposition has a “place” in the space of reasons that situates it in a multi-dimensional spectrum of goodness of justification. Criteria for goodness of justification can of course be debated too, but this still means that the justification for any propositional attitude is subject to evaluation. We may judge a propositional attitude to be poorly founded and therefore wrong, but it still cannot be completely arbitrary, because its justification can be evaluated.

I don’t think the same can be said for the Enlightenment authors Brandom cites as promoting a dependence of norms on attitudes, like Pufendorf and Rousseau (see Modernity, Voluntarism; Modernity, Rouseau?). Their legal and political voluntarism explicitly purports to trump any evaluation in terms of the space of reasons. This is in spite of the fact that those authors were already departing from the most traditional notion of ethical norms as simply somehow pre-given. Precisely because I am deeply sympathetic to Brandom’s critique of the unilateral authority-obedience model, I disapprove of these authors’ appeals to sovereignty.

Brandom shares his mentor Richard Rorty’s concern for democratic values, and suggests that normativity be considered as a historical development. But in spite of his concern for “semantic descent” to relate the higher-order, overtly philosophical concepts Kant and Hegel focused on to the level of ordinary empirical concepts used in daily life, he still treats ordinary concepts in a general way. Consequently, when he thinks about ordinary concepts, he still does so in a way analogous to that of Kant and Hegel. This is not a bad thing; I think he is by far the strongest at this high level. Fortunately, the weaker remarks about concrete historical antecedents for his views are peripheral to the main development of his thought.


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.