Wisdom and Responsibility

Among other works, the great early 20th century philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote his own Cartesian Meditations, an expanded version of lectures delivered in Paris in 1929. Husserl developed his own version of phenomenology, very different from Hegel’s, and his own version of transcendental subjectivity, very different from Kant’s. Throughout his career, he was concerned to criticize naive notions of objectivity. While disagreeing with a few of his fundamental principles, I enormously admire his nuanced development and intellectual honesty.

Husserl writes that “The aim of [Descartes’] Meditations is a complete reforming of philosophy into a science grounded on an absolute foundation” (Cartesian Meditations, p. 1). I think of philosophy as concerned with generalized, coherent interpretation of life and the world as an ongoing, never-finished project, rather than a completed rational “science”. But Husserl, with all his scruples about premature claims of objectivity, is famously provisional in most of his actual developments. As long as the ultimate “science” remains an aim and is not claimed as a present possession, we have not fallen into dogmatism. I think Husserl overall actually does better than Kant at avoiding overstated claims of “scientific” accomplishment.

According to Husserl, Descartes “gives rise to a philosophy turned toward the subject himself” (p. 2). I tend to worry more about illegitimate claims on behalf of a sovereign Subject than about premature claims to know about real objects, but both concerns are valid. “Philosophy — wisdom (sagesse) — is the philosopher’s quite personal affair. It must arise as his wisdom, as his self-acquired knowledge tending toward universality, a knowledge for which he can answer from the beginning, and at each step” (ibid).

The literal meaning of the Greek philosophia is “love of wisdom”. Some kind of wisdom, rather theoretical knowledge, was the main goal of ancient philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle through the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics, all the way to the neoplatonists. An emphasis on wisdom as distinct from knowledge puts a “practical”, ultimately ethical dimension above all particular inquiries, whereas Latin scholastics focused on more technical debates about the truth of propositions, and early modern philosophy was permeated with ideals of pure science. I think it was really more the Kantian primacy of practical reason than the Cartesian cogito that initiated a partial turn back to the ethical concerns of the ancients. Some writers have suggested that claims for the revolutionary character of the cogito are more shaped by Kant’s interpretation and by the perception of Descartes as a precursor to Kant than by Descartes’ original.

Commentators have noted that ethical concerns are basically absent from Descartes’ Meditations. Kant and Husserl each in their own way reinfused broadly ethical concerns into Descartes’ preoccupations with the foundations of knowledge.

Husserl appeals to “the spirit that characterizes radicalness of philosophical self-responsibility” (p. 6). “Must not the demand for a philosophy aiming at the ultimate conceivable freedom from prejudice, shaping itself with actual autonomy according to ultimate evidences it has itself produced, and therefore absolutely self-responsible — must not this demand, instead of being excessive, be part of the fundamental sense of genuine philosophy?” (ibid).

This Husserlian appeal to autonomy, like Kant’s, ultimately still has to answer to the critiques of Hegel and Brandom (see In Itself, For Itself; Autonomy, Normativity; Self-Legislation?). Nonetheless, it is a high point in the development of the human spirit.

Moral Faith Is Not Dualism

Leading Kant scholar Allen Wood argues in the front matter to his early work Kant’s Moral Religion (1970) that previous mainstream interpretation of Kant was mistaken in treating his views on religion as a weak point of his philosophy. This post is limited to Wood’s valuable orienting remarks in the preface and introduction, so it won’t get to the core of what Kantian moral faith is supposed to be.

According to Wood, Kant’s own concern with very detailed argument has led interpreters to focus on these details to the detriment of a broad view of the outlines of his philosophy as a whole, in which the as yet unelaborated notion of “moral faith” will be of fundamental importance. He aims to recover such a broad view.

(It was Brandom’s original synoptic suggestion of similarly broad outlines cutting across the theoretical and practical parts of Kant’s philosophy that first led me to radically re-assess my previous very negative view of Kant, which had been based on negative remarks in Hegel and Nietzsche and my own earlier lost-in-the-details reading of Kant himself. See Kantian Intentionality; Kantian Freedom.)

For Wood, Kant’s philosophy is at root a philosophy of human self-knowledge in the Socratic tradition. He disagrees with those who have found an irreconcilable (and untenable) dualism at the heart of Kant’s thought.

“The ‘dualism’ in Kant’s view of human nature arises because human activity in all its forms is at once subject to the necessary principles of man’s reason and to the inevitable limitations of his finitude. Humanity for Kant is not composed of ‘two irreconcilable natures’, but there does appear throughout the critical philosophy a kind of irreconcilable tension between man’s rational destination and the finitude within which his reason is destined to operate. This tension, in Kant’s view, is the destiny of man as such, and defines the problems which confront human existence” (Kant’s Moral Religion, p. 3).

To be finite for Kant, according to Wood, is to be subject to the conditions of sensibility. Sensibility constrains the kind of intuitions that we can possibly have. What are called the conditions of sensibility are not just empirical facts, but have to do with the kind of beings we are. Kant asserts that we are beings that have a “blind” sensory intuition of being affected in this or that way, but do not have any infallible “intellectual intuition” that could legitimately give us immediate truths.

Noting that Kant’s epistemology has often been characterized as “empiricist” because of its emphasis on experience, Wood says it is actually founded on a view of the finitude of human nature as a whole, and not on an epistemological dogma that all knowledge must be grounded in immediate sensation. (Like Hegel, I would note) Kant operates with an extremely broad notion of human experience.

Kant famously defends naturalism in science, while simultaneously rejecting what analytic philosophers have called ethical naturalism, or the idea that ethics can be reduced to naturalistic explanations. The thrust of Wood’s argument is that this rejection and Kant’s strong rhetoric about freedom should not be taken to imply a dualism (which latter, as it seems to me, would introduce a supernaturalism about human persons alongside a naturalism about all else).

The logical claim as I reconstruct it is that one can consistently be a naturalist in matters of natural science, but not an ethical naturalist, and at the same time not a dualist and therefore not a supernaturalist about persons either. This seems possible, but more needs to be said. Where is the Aristotelian mean that avoids all the associated dilemmas? As a first indication, it seems to me to characterize a space that includes the ethics of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.

“Man’s finite and hence sensibly affected will is a condition for the possibility of moral life, in Kant’s view. If man were not subject to inclinations (if he possessed a divine holy will), obligation would not be the necessary feature of moral life that it is. The very concept of a holy being excludes the possibility of obligation, for such a being would by its own inner nature follow the law, and would not need the constraint which the concept of obligation presupposes. A holy being could not be ‘autonomous’, since an ‘autocracy’ of reason would necessarily govern all its willing. Such a being would no longer be subject even to moral imperatives. Human sensibility is thus a condition for the possibility of our moral life, as well as of our empirical knowledge” (p. 4).

The hypothetical “human holy will” to which Kant contrasts the actual sensibly affected will would be perfect, in the sense of being a perfectly good will such as we might attribute to God.

Such a posited perfection of goodness, I would note, is independent of questions of power or efficacy. Traditional theological views have sometimes attributed total counterfactual omnipotence — an ability to do absolutely any arbitrary thing — to God, but that is a logically separate move. There is an old counter-argument that the state of the world suggests God must not be both all-good and all-powerful. Gwenaëlle Aubry in her outstanding Dieu sans la puissance: dunamis et energeia chez Aristote et Plotin (2006) argues that for Aristotle himself as distinct from the commentary tradition following Plotinus, the notion of God as pure act makes questions of power inapplicable.

While speaking in language that is deferential to tradition, Kant stresses divine goodness over divine power, and moral faith over faith in miracles.

Wood says in effect that a hypothetical perfect human will could not even be autonomous in Kant’s sense. Presumably this kind of perfection would render ethics irrelevant, because everything would already be decided for it. I don’t consider it the job of philosophy to speculate about impossible what ifs, but this is interesting for shedding further light on the nature of Kantian autonomy as requiring finitude.

Here I find a further argument that leads to the same conclusion as Wood’s. Autonomy in the Kant I want to read presupposes activities like Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment, which presuppose that we have less-than-perfect understanding. Therefore, on my own view that will is not really distinct from our reason and feeling but just a different way of talking about them, a less-than-perfect “will” is necessarily a prerequisite for Kantian autonomy.

Wood says that for Kant, reason inevitably suggests the idea of something unconditioned, which is always at least thinkable even if we can never experience it. This makes it tempting to just assume it also has reality. This takes me a step closer to a sympathetic reading of the Antinomies of Pure Reason, which I still have a hard time with.

Contrary to Kant, I still think the Antinomies are due to conflicting assumptions that should not be blamed on any dialectical illusion inherent to reason itself, since I don’t think Reason itself immediately gives us anything at all, be it truth or illusion. Conclusions follow not from Reason alone, but only in combination with particular premises. Therefore I think the direct opposite of what Wood quotes Kant saying, to the effect that dialectical illusions “are sophistries not of men but of pure reason itself” (p. 7).

But the broader Kantian point that Wood makes is that independent of that detail, reason does at least suggest the idea of something unconditioned, which precisely as he says must necessarily be in tension with our finitude. “The tension, the problematical condition in which man finds himself, is thus a result not of ‘two irreconcilable natures’ in man but of the natural conflict between man’s finite limitations and his rational tendency to overcome them. Critical self-knowledge thus reveals human nature not as ‘dualistic’ but as dialectical” (pp. 6-7). Here Wood seems to take Kant’s thought toward a more positive connotation of “dialectic”.

“The dialectic which leads to moral faith is a dialectic not of theoretical but of practical reason. It results not from our limitations as regards knowledge, but rather from our limitations in the pursuit of our unconditional and final moral end” (p. 7).

“The critical philosophy, then, views it as essential to the human condition for man to be concerned with the awesomeness and nobility of his rational destiny, and yet to be aware of his finitude, his inability ever to gain a firm hold on that which reason proposes as his destiny” (p. 8).

Here I prefer to bend Kant in the direction of Hegel, while simultaneously bending Hegel in the direction of Kant in a way that I think Hegel himself suggests. There is more to getting a hold on that which reason proposes as our destiny than a simple on/off state. We do get as far as a firm hold, but that firm hold is still never final or complete.

“Socratic self-knowledge does not end, of course, with a mere recognition of man’s situation, but rather functions as part of man’s higher aspirations themselves…. [It] involves also an appropriate response of a rational and active being…. Moral faith is for Kant the rational response of the finite being to the dialectical perplexities which belong essentially to the pursuit of the highest purpose of his existence” (ibid).

Fichtean Mutual Recognition

Having heard that Fichte anticipated Hegel in developing a concept of mutual recognition, I was anxious to learn more. That was actually why I went to examine his Ethics. Then I was surprised to find it mostly absent from that work, which in the main is still squarely based on a version of Kantian autonomy, even though he mentions “reciprocal communication with others” in his remarks on religion. Mutual recognition appears explicitly in his philosophy of law, Foundations of Natural Right.

There he says “One cannot recognize the other if both do not mutually recognize each other; and one cannot treat the other as a free being, if both do not mutually treat each other as free” (p. 42).

“[T]he concept of individuality is a reciprocal concept…. This concept can exist in a rational being only if it is posited as completed by another rational being. Thus this concept is never mine” (p. 45). “The concept of individuality determines a community, and whatever follows further from this depends not on me alone, but also on the one who has… entered into community with me…. [W]e are both bound and obligated to each other by our very existence. There must be a law that is common to us both” (ibid).

“What holds between me and C also holds between me and every other rational individual with whom I enter into reciprocal interaction” (p. 47). “I must in all cases recognize the free being outside me as a free being, i.e. I must limit my freedom through the concept of the possibility of his freedom” (p. 49).

“Therefore, in consequence of the deduction just carried out, it can be claimed that the concept of right is contained within the essence of reason, and that no finite rational being is possible if this concept is not present within it — and present not through experience, instruction, arbitrary human conventions, etc., but rather in consequence of the being’s rational nature” (ibid).

Fichte is in effect grounding his version of social contract theory in the very essence of reason. Mutual recognition grounded in the dialogical nature of reason is presented as turning out to be a necessary postulate underlying social contract theory, or a Kantian condition of its possibility.

He does not seem to see mutual recognition as in any way subsuming and improving upon autonomy as a criterion, or in a constitutive account of values. Thus he gives it a rather more limited role than Hegel.

But Hegel convincingly argues that autonomy, while important, is insufficient as a principle. It implicitly has to be supplemented by respect for others, which arguably has a lot more real ethical content than formal autonomy. Autonomy alone is ultimately a version of the “independence” whose weaknesses Hegel exposes.

Real Individuality?

“Real Individuality is the last singular shape of Consciousness” (H. S. Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 77). After this, the focus will move to shareable contents.

We are still in the “Reason” chapter of the Phenomenology. Aristotelian considerations of actualization figure prominently here, along with Hegel’s concerns about Kant’s use of autonomy as an ethical criterion.

According to Harris, in the “internal language of Individuality”, “I am my own project, which is always ‘self-expression’; and the realization of my ‘self’ in some external material is the publication of what I am to others…. The little girl, of whom I once heard in a philosophy class, who asked ‘How can I know what I think, until I see what I say?’ had her feet set firmly on the path towards a Real Individuality that will not deceive itself” (p. 88). “We are all ‘expressing ourselves’ as perfectly as possible all the time” (p. 89). But this means that Real Individuality cannot be used as a criterion of truth, or as an ethical criterion.

“Hegel insists that the identity of project and performance, the identity of the Real End with what is actually done, is so fundamental, so essential, that even the most spontaneous feelings of success… or of failure and regret… are illegitimate. Not even the agent is allowed to compare the project with the performance, because the certainty of Reason that it is all reality implies that the whole ‘inner consciousness’ of the agent is an illusory fiction” (p. 90). (Robert Pippin’s account of this is similar but not quite so sharply worded.) On this view, strictly speaking it would never be legitimate to say I didn’t really mean to do what I actually did, or to neglect what I actually neglected. At the end of the “Spirit” chapter though, Hegel will balance this ultra-strong notion of responsibility with an unprecedentedly strong notion of forgiveness.

“We ourselves find out what we are by seeing what we do” (p. 91). “In any case, what my words mean is a matter of interpretation, and I am not in a privileged position on that question” (ibid). “It is in the Werk [work, or product of action], says Hegel, that consciousness comes to be for itself what it truly is. In his view it is the ’empty concept’ of Real Individuality that disappears as a result. The Werk is what survives; and it survives as belonging to everyone. So the immediate identity of thought and speech… must give way to actions that leave a record of self-realization” (p. 93). “The first ‘experience’ of Real Individuality is the discovery that it is not the agent and the process that is real. What is real is the result, the product” (p. 94).

“What the ‘self-identical form of pure action’ really constructs is the harmony that Leibniz had to ascribe to God’s pre-establishment at the moment of Creation” (p. 96). “We have reached the spiritual ‘perception’ of Reason as a Thing” (p. 97).

But this is Hegel, and there is seemingly always another consequent “shape” of things waiting to emerge beyond the current one. Harris continues, “[N]ow the Werk vanishes back into the vanishing action; in this reciprocal process ‘vanishing vanishes’. For the ‘objective actuality’ of the Werk is only a vanishing moment of the actuality that is truly objective” (p. 97). Harris says Hegel is here switching from use of a pre-Kantian notion of objectivity as independence from us, to a Kantian notion of objectivity as universality. A bit later, the question of independence from us will re-emerge again.

“What Hegel wants to emphasize is that I am my own other, I am always beyond what I say; I can react to it myself…. But it is very useful to have the reaction of another self (especially one that says ‘Nohow’ or ‘Contrariwise’) if I am to become conscious that when I reformulate what I said the first time, my self-critical activity is controlled by an ‘objective’ standard. I want to put something ‘right’ that was ‘not right’ before. ‘Feelings of lamentation and repentance’ are not out of place now; and when I feel that I have got it right finally, the feeling may even be one of ‘exaltation'” (p. 98). Here the Real Individual seems to assert its rights again.

But this leads to a new worry about the Real Individual’s objectivity. “[A]s the naive consciousness of the [thing itself], Real Individuality is the perfectly reconciled or Happy Consciousness. Its own ideal standard always applies to its action in some way or other. The action always deserves to be ‘honored’ by everyone, once the agent has presented it in the right light” (p. 101). “The ‘honor’ of this consciousness arises from its not putting its thoughts together. Anything said, done, thought, or just luckily found can be made into the [thing itself]” (ibid). This I think is related to Hegel’s critique of the Kantian autonomy criterion of normativity, which — contrary to what Kant clearly wanted to be the case — Hegel found to leave the door open to arbitrariness on the part of the autonomous Real Individual.

I have previously claimed that it is not really that hard to be what the Greeks called “blameless”, and I still think that is true. But I would certainly concede to Hegel that there is no way for a third party to conclusively distinguish valid self-certification from subtly self-serving attitudes, which is why Hegel argued that mutual recognition is a better criterion. On the other hand, much as I generally admire it, the universal forgiveness that Hegel will ultimately recommend seems to downplay the spectrum of distinction between ordinary human fallibility and real evil. It is better to err on the side of charity. But it is also better to avoid error when we can…

In Itself, For Itself

Robert Brandom’s Brentano lectures highlight key themes of his innovative reading of Hegel in A Spirit of Trust (2019). Despite a few disagreements on matters of historical interpretation, I think Brandom is probably the most important philosopher yet to write in English. In the first lecture, he explores the development of the notion of practical valuational doing and normative force from Kant to Hegel. He interprets Hegel’s abstract language about the “for itself” and the “in itself” in terms of the interplay between normative attitudes (the “for itself”) and normative statuses (the “in itself”) in concrete processes of valuation in human life.

Hegel thought that Kant almost got things right with his twin notions of ethical autonomy and respect for others. Brandom diagnoses two main flaws in Kant’s account from Hegel’s point of view. Both Kant and Hegel were working to reconcile the modern notion that normative statuses depend on normative attitudes with a genuine bindingness and objectivity of normativity. For Kant, respect for others was the counterweight to the individualist implications of autonomy, and Brandom traces its development into the Hegelian notion of mutual recognition. Kant’s notion of autonomy was a great contribution in the history of ethics, perhaps the most significant since Aristotle. (See also Autonomy, Normativity.) Nonetheless, the first flaw in Kant’s account has to do with autonomy.

“Kant’s construal of normativity in terms of autonomy is at base the idea that rational beings can make themselves responsible (institute a normative status) by taking themselves to be responsible (adopting an attitude)” (p. 7, emphasis in original throughout). While elsewhere showing great admiration for the broad thrust of this Kantian idea of normative “taking”, Brandom here goes on to ask more specifically, “What is it for an attitude of claiming or acknowledging responsibility to be constitutive of the status of responsibility it claims or acknowledges—that it immediately (that is, all by itself, apart from any other attitudes) institutes that status?” (p. 8). “For the idea of individual attitudes of attributing statuses that suffice, all by themselves, just in virtue of the kind of attitudes they are, to institute the statuses they attribute, is the idea of Mastery, or pure independence. (What it is purified of is all hint of dependence, that is, responsibility correlative with that authority.)” (p.10). Hegel will go on to reject the idea of Mastery in all its forms, even the seemingly benign Kantian one of attributing the autonomy characteristic of ethical reason directly to acts of individuals. (See also Hegel on Willing.)

“The idea that some attitudes can immediately institute the normative statuses that are their objects, that in their case, taking someone to be authoritative or responsible can by itself make them have that authority or responsibility, is, on Hegel’s view a characteristic deformation of the modern insight into the attitude-dependence of normative statuses. It is the idea allegorized as Mastery. Hegel sees modernity as shot through with this conception of the relations between normative attitudes and normative statuses, and it is precisely this aspect of modernity that he thinks eventually needs to be overcome. In the end, he thinks even Kant’s symmetric, reflexive, self*-directed version of the idea in the form of the autonomy model of normativity is a form of Mastery. In Hegel’s rationally reconstructed recollection of the tradition, which identifies and highlights an expressively progressive trajectory through it, Kant’s is the final, most enlightened modern form, the one that shows the way forward—but it is nonetheless a form of the structural misunderstanding of normativity in terms of Mastery” (p. 11).

Mastery understands itself as pure independence, “exercising authority unmixed and unmediated by any correlative responsibility…. The Master cannot acknowledge that moment of dependence-as-responsibility” (p. 12). Hegel considers this to be an incoherent conception, in that it is incompatible with the moment of responsibility necessarily involved in any and all commitment. Secondly, it cannot acknowledge the genuine insight that there is dependence of normative attitudes on normative statuses as well as vice versa. “[T]he Master must understand his attitudes as answering to (responsible to, dependent on) nothing” (p. 13). Finally, Brandom argues that no intelligible semantics — or account of conceptual content with any bite — could possibly be compatible with this kind of pragmatics. (See also Arbitrariness, Inflation.)

The second flaw diagnosed by Hegel is that Kant’s twin principles of autonomy and deservingness of respect on Kant’s account turn out to be exceptional kinds of normative status that are not instituted by a kind of taking. Instead, they are presented as a kind of ontological facts independent of any process of valuation. Brandom says Hegel thought Kant was on this meta-level still beholden to the traditional idea of pre-given normative statuses. Nonetheless, the Kantian criterion of respect already suggests that our normative takings take place in a mediating social context. With autonomy and respect, Kant “had all the crucial conceptual elements, just not arranged properly” (p. 17).

Through his account of mutual recognition, Hegel will go on to recover the values that are at stake in the Kantian notions of autonomy and respect, without treating them as pre-given. “Robust general recognition” of others is attributing to them “the authority to attribute authority (and responsibility)” (p. 19). Hegel wants to say that as individual rational beings we cannot ethically and cognitively lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but together we can and do.

As Brandom puts it, “recognitive statuses are not immediately instituted by recognitive attitudes, but they are instituted by suitably socially complemented recognitive attitudes” (p. 21).

He quotes Hegel saying, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself, because and by virtue of its existing in and for itself for an other; which is to say, it exists only as recognized…. Each is for the other the middle term, through which each mediates itself with itself and unites with itself; and each is for itself, and for the other, an immediate being on its own account, which at the same time is such only through this mediation. They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another…. Thus the movement is simply the double movement of the two self-consciousnesses. Each sees the other do the same as it does; each does itself what it demands of the other, and therefore also does what it does only in so far as the other does the same. Action by one side only would be useless because what is to happen can only be brought about by both.” (pp. 22-23). This is the genesis of Hegelian Spirit.

We can only be responsible for what we acknowledge responsibility for, but every commitment to anything at all is implicit acknowledgement of a responsibility. Commitment is meaningless unless we also implicitly license someone to hold us responsible to it.

Autonomy, Normativity

Brandom’s second Woodbridge lecture “Autonomy, Community, and Freedom” picks up where the first left off, invoking “the innovative normative conception of intentionality that lies at the heart of Kant’s thought about the mind” (p. 52; emphasis in original throughout).  “The practical activity one is obliging oneself to engage in by judging and acting is integrating those new commitments into a unified whole comprising all the other commitments one acknowledges….  Engaging in those integrative activities is synthesizing a self or subject, which shows up as what is responsible for the component commitments” (ibid).  

A self or subject in this usage is not something that just exists.  It is a guiding aim that is itself subject to development.  “[T]he synthetic-integrative process, with its aspects of critical and ampliative activity [rejecting incompatibilities and developing consequences] provides the basis for understanding both the subjective and the objective poles of the intentional nexus.  Subjects are what repel incompatible commitments in that they ought not to endorse them, and objects are what repel incompatible properties in that they cannot exhibit them” (p. 53).  

Brandom thinks Kant’s analogy between moral and natural necessity already begins to lead in a Hegelian direction.  On both sides of this analogy but especially on the moral side I am sympathetic to Ricoeur’s view and prefer to soften Kant’s talk about necessity, but I still find the analogy itself to be of great importance, and I very much want to support what I think is Brandom’s main point here.

(In general, I am almost as allergic to talk about necessity outside of mathematics as I am to talk about arbitrary free will, so I had to go through a somewhat lengthy process to convince myself that Brandom’s usage of Kantian necessity is at least sometimes explicitly nuanced enough that I can accept it with a mild caveat. Taken broadly, I am very sympathetic to Brandom’s emphasis on modality, independent of my more particular issues with standard presentations of necessity and possibility. There are many kinds of modality; necessity and possibility are actually atypical examples in that they are all-or-nothing, rather than coming in degrees. Modality in general is certainly not to be identified with the all-or-nothing character of necessity and possibility, but rather with higher-order aspects of the ways of being of things. See also Potentiality, Actuality.)

Brandom recalls Kant’s meditations on Hume.  “Hume’s predicament” was that neither claims about what ought to be nor claims about what necessarily must be can be justified from claims about what is.  “Kant’s response to the proposed predicament is that we cannot be in the position Hume envisages: understanding matter-of-fact empirical claims and judgments perfectly well, but having no idea what is meant by modal or normative ones” (p. 54).  For Kant, the very possibility of empirical or common-sense understanding depends on concepts of normativity and modality.  

All inferences have what Brandom calls associated ranges of counterfactual robustness.  “So, for example, one must have such dispositions as to treat the cat’s being on the mat as compatible with a nearby tree being somewhat nearer, or the temperature a few degrees higher, but not with the sun’s being as close as the tree or the temperature being thousands of degrees higher.  One must know such things as that the cat might chase a mouse or flee from a dog, but that the mat can do neither, and that the mat would remain essentially the same as it is if one jumped up and down on it or beat it with a stick, while the cat would not” (pp. 54-55).  Here I think of the ancient Greeks’ notion of the importance of respecting proper proportionality.  Brandom says that a person who made no distinctions of this sort could not count as understanding what it means for the cat to be on the mat.  This I would wholeheartedly endorse.  Brandom adds that “Sellars puts this Kantian point well in the title of one of his essays: ‘Concepts as Involving Laws, and Inconceivable without Them’” (p. 55).

If this is right, Brandom continues, then knowing how to use concepts like “cat” and “mat” already involves knowing how to use modal concepts like possibility and necessity “albeit fallibly and imperfectly” (ibid).  Further, concepts expressing various kinds of “oughts” make it possible to express explicitly distinctions one already implicitly acknowledges in sorting practical inferences into materially good and bad ones.  A central observation of Kant’s is that practices of empirical description essentially involve elements that are not merely descriptive.  Brandom says he thinks the task of developing a satisfying way of talking about such questions is “still largely with us, well into the third century after Kant first posed them” (p. 57).  “[W]e need a way of talking about broadly empirical claims that are not in the narrow sense descriptive ones, codifying as they do explanatory relations” (p. 58).  Brandom identifies this as a central common concern of Kant, Hegel, Pierce, and Sellars.

Upstream from all of this, according to Brandom, is “Kant’s normative understanding of mental activity” (ibid).  This is closely bound up with what he calls Kant’s “radically original conception of freedom” (ibid).  In the Latin medieval and early modern traditions, questions about freedom were considered to be in a broad sense questions of fact about our power.  For Kant, all such questions of fact apply only to the domain of represented objects.  On the other hand, “Practical freedom is an aspect of the spontaneity of discursive activity on the subjective side” (pp. 58-59).  

“The positive freedom exhibited by exercises of our spontaneity is just this normative ability: the ability to commit ourselves, to become responsible.  It can be thought of as a kind of authority: the authority to bind oneself by conceptual norms” (p. 59).  Brandom recalls Kant’s example of a young person reaching legal adulthood.  “Suddenly, she has the authority to bind herself legally, for instance by entering into contracts.  That gives her a host of new abilities: to borrow money, take out a mortgage, start a business.  The new authority to bind oneself normatively… involves a huge increase in positive freedom” (ibid).

Rationality for Kant does not consist in having good reasons.  “It consists rather just in being in the space of reasons” (p. 60), in being liable to specific kinds of normative assessment.  “[F]reedom consists in a distinctive kind of constraint: constraint by norms.  This sounds paradoxical, but it is not” (ibid).  

“One of the permanent intellectual achievements and great philosophical legacies of the Enlightenment [I would say of Plato and Aristotle] is the development of secular conceptions of legal, political, and moral normativity [in place of] traditional appeals to authority derived ultimately from divine commands” (ibid).  I would note that Plato and Leibniz explicitly argued what is good can never be a matter of arbitrary will, and the better theologians have also recognized this.

This leads finally to Kant’s distinctive notion of autonomy.  Brandom’s account focuses directly on the autonomy of persons, whereas I put primary emphasis on the autonomy of the domain of ethical reason, and consider the autonomy of persons to be derived from their participation in it.  But I have no issue with Brandom’s statement that “The autonomy criterion says that it is in a certain sense up to us… whether we are bound” (p. 64) by any particular concept.  As Brandom notes – alluding to Wittgenstein — here we have to be careful not to let arbitrariness back in the door.  Our mere saying so does not make things so.  (If we recognize that it is primarily ethical reason that is autonomous, this difficulty largely goes away, because ethical reason by its very nature is all about non-arbitrariness. See also Kantian Freedom.)

“[O]ne must already have concepts in order to be aware of anything at all” (p. 65), and any use of concepts already commits us to a measure of non-arbitrariness.  As Brandom points out, pre-Kantian rationalists did not have a good explanation for where concepts come from.  Kant does have at least the beginning of an answer, and I think this is why he sometimes qualifies unity of apperception as “original”.  This does not mean that it comes from nowhere, but rather that its (ultimately still tentative) achieved results function as the ground of all concept-using activity.

At this point, Brandom begins to discuss Hegel’s response to Kant.  Hegel rather sharply objects to what I would call Kant’s incomplete resolution of the question where concepts and norms come from.  Kant could legitimately answer “from unity of apperception” or “from Reason”, but Hegel still wants to know more about where Reason comes from, and how unities of apperception get the specific shapes they have.  For him, Reason clearly cannot just be a “natural light” ultimately given to us by God.  Its emergence takes actual work on our part.  Further, this work is a social, historical achievement, not an adventure of Robinson Crusoe alone on an island.  We cannot just accept what society tells us, but neither can we pretend to originate everything for ourselves.  This is what makes the application of autonomy to individuals problematic.  Instead, Hegel wants to develop a notion of shared autonomy, as a cultural achievement grounded in a mutual recognition that does not have to be perfect in order to function.

Brandom credits Hegel especially with the idea of a normative symmetry of authority and responsibility.  The traditional authority-obedience model is inherently asymmetrical.  Authority is concentrated mainly on one side, and responsibility (to obey!) is lopsidedly concentrated on the other.  This is a huge step backwards from the attitude of Aristotle and the ancient Greeks generally that “with great power (or wealth) comes great responsibility”.  Mutual recognition on the other hand is a solid step forward, further generalizing the criteria Aristotle already built into his notion of friendship and how we should regard fellow citizens. (See also In Itself, For Itself; Self-Legislation?)


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.

The Autonomy of Reason

The Enlightenment has been widely described as an age of reason, but the moderate Enlightenment — at least until Kant — put many more limits on reason, especially in areas like religion and politics, than Plato and Aristotle did.

Kant made the autonomy of reason — its non-subordination to anything else — an explicit theme. Rhetorically, of course, he also famously talks about limits on reason, but really what he wants to limit are extra-rational accretions woven into Cartesian and Wolffian rationalisms — various received truths, and so on. Descartes had quickly moved from hyperbolic doubt to question-begging acceptance of many received truths as intuitively reasonable. Wolff and his followers, to whom Kant was primarily reacting, did not even pretend to doubt.

If reason is to be truly autonomous, it cannot start from received truths. Kant himself was sympathetic to some of these received truths, but too honest to pretend they were self-evident or derivable from reason alone. Kant is often misunderstood as mainly a critic of reason, and certainly not its unconditional defender, but he is actually clear that the autonomy of reason is unconditional. Too often, readers of Kant focus too much on autonomy of a subject rather than autonomy of reason, but the practical autonomy attributable to a so-called subject in Kant is actually derivative, based on the putative subject’s participation in the autonomy of reason. In Making It Explicit, Brandom says where Descartes had focused on our grip on concepts, Kant focused instead on their grip on us (p. 9). (See also Kant’s Groundwork.)

Hegel has been widely misunderstood as an example of the autonomy of reason gone mad. Brandom, Pippin, and Pinkard have performed an invaluable service in clarifying what Hegel was really trying to do, which was in part to sincerely take up Kant’s honesty about received truths and to push it even further.

Aristotle said that of all things, reason most deserves to be called divine. He does not use a word like autonomy, but the effect is the same. Nothing is higher. (See also Interpretation; Brandom on Truth.)

I think of the Kantian autonomy of reason as necessarily involving something like the free play of the Critique of Judgment. The Reason that is truly autonomous in the Kantian sense will be a hermeneutical Reason (see Brandom and Hermeneutics).