Everyday Belief

In ordinary life we are guided by well-founded beliefs about many things of which, strictly speaking, we do not have knowledge. Our beliefs are still well-founded in the sense that if asked, we can give reasons for them, and plausibly respond to questions about those reasons. We ought to continue to hold those beliefs, unless and until we are confronted with better reasons for a different conclusion.

Brandom would remind us that we have an implicit ethical obligation to keep our beliefs in good repair. We have a responsibility for the consequences of applying our beliefs. We have a responsibility not to hypocritically pretend to hold incompatible beliefs. In general, we have a responsibility to take our explicit and implicit commitments seriously. This entails a willingness to participate in dialogue, to explain our reasons and answer questions about them.

McDowell on the Space of Reasons

John McDowell’s paper “Sellars and the Space of Reasons” (2018) provides a useful discussion of this concept. Unlike Brandom, who aims to complete Sellars’ break with empiricism, McDowell ultimately wants to defend “a non-traditional empiricism, uncontaminated by the Myth of the Given” (p. 1).

McDowell begins by quoting Sellars: “in characterizing an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says” (ibid; emphasis added).

For Sellars, to speak of states of knowing is to talk about “epistemic facts”. A bit later, McDowell says that Sellars’ epistemic facts also include judgments and uses of concepts that might not be considered knowledge. Not only beliefs but also desires end up as a kind of epistemic facts. McDowell uses this to argue that the space of reasons is a version of the concept of knowledge as justified true belief. I want to resist this last claim.

McDowell points out that knowledge for Sellars has a normative character. Sellars also regards the foundationalist claim that epistemic facts can be explained entirely in terms of non-epistemic facts (physiology of perception and so on) as of a piece with the naturalistic fallacy in ethics.

McDowell cites Donald Davidson’s contrast between space-of-reasons intelligibility and the kind of regularity-based intelligibility that applies to a discipline like physics, but does not want to assume there is a single model for all non-space-of-reasons intelligibility.

He notes that Sellars contrasts placing something in the space of reasons with empirical description, but wants to weaken that distinction, allowing epistemic facts to be grounded in experience, and to be themselves subject to empirical description. “Epistemic facts are facts too” (p. 5). I prefer going the other direction, and saying empirical descriptions are judgments too.

The space of reasons is only occupied by speakers. Sellars is quoted saying, “all awareness of sorts, resemblances, facts, etc., in short all awareness of abstract entities — indeed, all awareness even of particulars — is a linguistic affair” (p. 7, emphasis in original). “And when Sellars connects being appropriately positioned in the space of reasons with being able to justify what one says, that is not just a matter of singling out a particularly striking instance of having a justified belief, as if that idea could apply equally well to beings that cannot give linguistic expression to what they know” (ibid).

“‘Inner’ episodes with conceptual content are to be understood on the model of overt performances in which people, for instance, say that things are thus and so” (p. 8). “What Sellars proposes is that the concept of, for instance, perceptual awareness that things are thus and so should be understood on the model of the concept of, for instance, saying that things are thus and so” (p. 10). All good so far.

To be in the space of reasons, “the subject would need to be able to step back from the fact that it is inclined in a certain direction by the circumstance. It would need to be able to raise the question whether it should be so inclined” (pp. 10-11, emphasis in original). But McDowell says — and I agree — that this is without prejudice as to whether there is still a kind of kinship between taking reasons as reasons, on the one hand, and the purposeful behaviors of animals, on the other.

McDowell acknowledges that the idea that epistemic facts can only be justified by other epistemic facts is easy to apply to inferential knowledge, but rather harder to apply to the “observational knowledge” that he claims should also be included in the space of reasons. For McDowell, observational knowledge is subject to a kind of justification by other facts.

McDowell and Brandom both recognize something called “observational knowledge”, but Brandom thinks that it necessarily involves appeal to claimed non-epistemic facts, whereas McDowell wants to broaden the concept of epistemic facts enough to be able to say that observational knowledge can be justified by appealing only to epistemic facts. I would prefer to say, observational judgments are subject to a kind of tentative justification by other judgments.

McDowell says that acquiring knowledge noninferentially is also an exercise of conceptual capacities. This clearly implies a noninferential conception of the conceptual, and seems to me to presuppose a representationalist one instead. This has huge consequences.

He says that the space of reasons must include noninferential relations of justification, which work by appeal to additional facts rather by inference. But where did those facts come from? In light of Kant, I would say that we rational animals never have direct access to facts that just are what they are. Rather, if we are being careful, we should recognize that we can only consider claims and judgments of fact, which may be relatively well-founded or not. But appeal to claims of fact for justification is just passing the buck. Claims of any sort always require justification of their own.

As an example, McDowell discusses claims to know that something is green in color. As non-inferential justification in this context, he says one might say that “This is a good light for telling the colours of things by looking” (p. 18). That is fine as a criterion for relatively well-founded belief, but that is all it is.

A bit later, he adds, “I can tell a green thing when I see one, at least in a good light, viewed head-on, and so forth. A serviceable gloss on that remark is to say that if I claim, in suitable circumstances, that something is green, then it is” (p. 19).

This is to explicitly endorse self-certification of one’s authority. It is therefore ultimately to allow the claim, it’s true because I said so. I think it was a rejection on principle of this kind of self-certification that led Plato to sharply distinguish knowledge from belief.

As Aristotle pointed out in discussing the relation between what he respectively called “demonstration” and “dialectic”, we can apply the same kinds of inference both to things we take as true and to things we are examining hypothetically. We can make only hypothetical inferences (if A, then B) from claims or judgments of A; we can only legitimately make categorical inferences (A, therefore B) from full-fledged knowledge of A — which, to be such, must at minimum not beg the question or pass the buck of justification.

The great majority of our real-world reasoning is ultimately hypothetical rather than categorical, even though we routinely act as if it were categorical. One of Kant’s great contributions was to point out that — contrary to scholastic and early modern tradition — hypothetical judgement is a much better model of judgment in general than categorical judgment is. The general form of judgment is conditional, and not absolute.

I think it’s fine to include beliefs, opinions, and judgments in the space of reasons as McDowell wants to do, provided we recognize their ultimately hypothetical and tentative character. But once we recognize the hypothetical and tentative character of beliefs, I think it follows that all relations within the space of reasons can be construed as inferential.

I don’t think contemporary science has much to do with so-called observational knowledge of the “it is green” variety, either. Rather, it has to do partly with applications of mathematics, and partly with well-controlled experiments, in which the detailed conditions of the controls are far more decisive than the observational component. The prejudice that simple categorical judgments like “it is green” have anything to do with science is a holdover from old foundationalist theories of sense data.

I would also contend that all putative non-space-of-reasons intelligibility ultimately depends on space-of-reasons intelligibility.

Logic for Expression

In recent times, Robert Brandom has pioneered the idea that the role of logic is primarily expressive. In his 2018 essay “From Logical Expressivism to Expressivist Logic”, he says this means its purpose is “to make explicit the inferential relations that articulate the semantic contents of the concepts expressed by the use of ordinary, nonlogical vocabulary” (p. 70).

In my humble opinion, this is what logic was really supposed to be about in Aristotle, but the tradition did not follow Aristotle. Aristotle insisted that logic is a “tool” not a science, but most later authors have assumed the contrary — that logic was the “science” of correct reasoning, or perhaps the science of consequence relations. Several scholars have nonetheless rediscovered the idea that the purpose of logical demonstration in Aristotle is not to prove truths, but to express reasoned arguments as clearly as possible.

Brandom says that “the task of logic is to provide mathematical tools for articulating the structure of reasoning” (p. 71). People were reasoning in ordinary life long before logic was invented, and continue to do so. But the immensely fertile further development of logic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was mostly geared toward the formalization of mathematics. Reasoning in most specialized disciplines — such as the empirical sciences, medicine, and law — actually resembles reasoning in ordinary life more than it does specifically mathematical reasoning.

According to Brandom, “The normative center of reasoning is the practice of assessing reasons for and against conclusions. Reasons for conclusions are normatively governed by relations of consequence or implication. Reasons against conclusions are normatively governed by relations of incompatibility. These relations of implication and incompatibility, which constrain normative assessment of giving reasons for and against claims, amount to the first significant level of structure of the practice of giving reasons for and against claims.”

“These are, in the first instance, what Sellars called ‘material’ relations of implication and incompatibility. That is, they do not depend on the presence of logical vocabulary or concepts, but only on the contents of non- or prelogical concepts. According to semantic inferentialism, these are the relations that articulate the conceptual contents expressed by the prelogical vocabulary that plays an essential role in formulating the premises and conclusions of inferences” (pp. 71-72).

“Material” relations of consequence and incompatibility have a different structure from formal ones. Formal consequence is monotonic, which means that adding new premises does not change the consequences of existing premises. Formal contradiction is “explosive”, in the sense that any contradiction whatsoever makes it possible to “prove” anything whatsoever (both true statements and their negations), thereby invalidating the very applicability of proof. But as Brandom reminds us, “outside of mathematics, almost all our actual reasoning is defeasible” (p. 72). Material consequence is nonmonotonic, which means that adding new premises could change the consequences of existing ones. Material incompatibilities can often be “fixed” by adding new, specialized premises. (As I somewhere heard Aquinas was supposed to have said, “When faced with a contradiction, introduce a distinction”.)

Brandom notes that “Ceteris paribus [“other things being equal”] clauses do not magically turn nonmonotonic implications into monotonic ones. (The proper term for a Latin phrase whose recitation can do that is ‘magic spell’.) The expressive function characteristic of ceteris paribus clauses is rather explicitly to mark and acknowledge the defeasibility, hence nonmonotonicity, of an implication codified in a conditional, not to cure it by fiat” (p. 73).

“There is no good reason to restrict the expressive ambitions with which we introduce logical vocabulary to making explicit the rare material relations of implication and incompatibility that are monotonic. Comfort with such impoverished ambition is a historical artifact of the contingent origins of modern logic in logicist and formalist programs aimed at codifying specifically mathematical reasoning. It is to be explained by appeal to historical causes, not good philosophical reasons” (ibid). On the other hand, making things explicit should be conservative in the sense of not changing existing implications.

“…[W]e should not emulate the drunk who looks for his lost keys under the lamp-post rather than where he actually dropped them, just because the light is better there. We should look to shine light where we need it most” (ibid).

For relations of material consequence, the classical principle of “explosion” should be replaced with the weaker one that “if [something] is not only materially incoherent (in the sense of explicitly containing incompatible premises) but persistently so, that is incurably, indefeasibly
incoherent, in that all of its supersets are also incoherent, then it implies everything” (p. 77).

“The logic of nonmonotonic consequence relations is itself monotonic. Yet it can express, in the logically extended object language, the nonmonotonic relations of implication and incompatibility that structure both the material, prelogical base language, and the logically compound sentences formed from them” (p. 82).

Material consequence relations themselves may or may not be monotonic. Instead of requiring monotonicity globally, it can be declared locally by means of a modal operator. “Logical expressivists want to introduce logical vocabulary that explicitly marks the difference between those implications and incompatibilities that are persistent under the addition of arbitrary auxiliary hypotheses or collateral commitments, and those that are not. Such vocabulary lets us draw explicit boundaries around the islands of monotonicity to be found surrounded by the sea of nonmonotonic material consequences and incompatibilities” (p. 83).

Ranges of subjunctive robustness can also be explicitly declared. “The underlying thought is that the most important information about a material implication is not whether or not it is monotonic — though that is something we indeed might want to know. It is rather under what circumstances it is robust and under what collateral circumstances it would be defeated” (p. 85).

“The space of material implications that articulates the contents of the nonlogical concepts those implications essentially depend upon has an intricate localized structure of subjunctive robustness and defeasibility. That is the structure we want our logical expressive tools to help us characterize. It is obscured by commitment to global structural monotonicity—however appropriate such a commitment might be for purely logical relations of implication and incompatibility” (pp. 85-86).

“Logic does not supply a canon of right reasoning, nor a standard of rationality. Rather, logic takes its place in the context of an already up-and-running rational enterprise of making claims and giving reasons for and against claims. Logic provides a distinctive organ of self-consciousness for such a rational practice. It provides expressive tools for talking and thinking, making claims, about the relations of implication and incompatibility that structure the giving of reasons for and against claims” (p. 87).

Ethical Practice

In Kant, practical means ethical. This initially seemed counter-intuitive to me. Like many, I used to think of the “practical” in technical and utilitarian terms, as how we realize desired results. I also used to think considerations of value needed to be guided by considerations of truth, and that pursuing the truth far enough and sincerely enough would spontaneously provide sufficient answers to ethical questions. I would no longer put it that way. I now think that the pursuit of truth, taken far enough, shows things to be “normative all the way down”, in Brandom’s phrase. Even the most narrowly technical considerations ultimately involve questions of value. Conversely, inquiry into values is the one kind of inquiry that need not presuppose any other.

Ethics are not a spontaneous byproduct of inquiry into the truth. In order to sincerely inquire into the truth, we need to deliberately focus on all the questions of value that come up along the way and affect our judgments. As a result, I now think of ethical practice as subsuming every other kind of practice.

Ethical inquiry is concerned with what we should do, which includes the details of how we do it. Every kind of doing is subject to this kind of consideration.

Engineering, to take one non-obvious example, is not just about coming up with designs that “work”, but about coming up with good designs. Various kinds of arguments that are relatively “value free” can be made about criteria for good design in specific contexts, but ultimately what matters most is that the design be “good” or better than the alternatives, however that is to be understood in the particular case.

An ethics-first view of philosophy puts ethics or “axiology” (inquiry into values) before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic in the order of explanation.

All doing has ethical implications of one sort or another, and all inquiry (also a kind of doing) ultimately involves questions of value.

Responsibility as Two-Sided

It is all too easy to judge others — to hold them unilaterally responsible for what we deem to be wrong. The saying “Judge not lest ye be judged” recognizes that there is something wrong with this.

I wanted to say a bit more about Brandom’s account of responsibility as inherently two-sided. This is related to the very simple — if uncommon — idea that there should be a correlation between the degree of one’s responsibility for something and one’s authority over it. This means that in ethical terms, no one has a monopoly on authority over anything, and no one is responsible for something without having some authority over it. Two-sided responsibility comes hand in hand with the sharing of authority.

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel develops an allegory of the softening of the heart of a hard-hearted judge. For Brandom in A Spirit of Trust, this allegory serves as a kind of climax of Hegel’s monumental work.

Traditional views commonly define morality in terms of obedience or conformity to authority. What we should do is simply given to us from an external source. Brandom calls this the authority-obedience model.

At least from the time of Socrates, those concerned with ethics have recognized that mere obedience or conformity is at best only a very rudimentary level of ethical development, and therefore the same must apply to naked authority.

In diametric opposition to the authority-obedience model, Kant famously emphasized autonomy as a necessary basis of morality. For Kant, we are only truly moral insofar as we genuinely think our judgments through for ourselves, rather than relying on external authority.

While fully endorsing Kant’s rejection of the authority-obedience model, Hegel criticized the Kantian alternative of autonomy as one-sidedly individualistic. It would be a bit arrogant to claim that we really did think everything through all by ourselves. Moreover, there is a kind of symmetry in the all-or-nothing attitudes of the authority-obedience model and the autonomy model. It would be more reasonable to acknowledge that most things in life depend partly on us and partly on something or someone(s) outside of us.

As Brandom reconstructs Hegel’s argument, Hegel wants to say that genuine moral responsibility is always two-sided. The hard-hearted judge in the allegory, moved by a lawbreaker’s sincere confession, confesses in turn that she too is not without fault. I think this applies even more clearly to conflicts and people’s judgments of one another outside a judicial setting.

The point is not at all to obliterate distinctions or impose an artificial equivalence between the actions of the participants. It is rather just to recognize that nothing of this sort is ever completely unilateral, and then to systematically take heed of this in real life.

Brandom and Pippin on Hegelian Ethics

Robert Brandom and Robert Pippin are two major “deflationary” readers of Hegel these days. Counter to the old bad stereotype of Hegel as an extravagant metaphysician who turned his back on Kant’s critique of traditional metaphysics, they both see Hegel as further developing the most essential aspects of Kant’s innovations. Both aim to carry forward Wilfrid Sellars’ Kant-inspired critique of the “myth of the given”. They both see human intentions in terms of shareable meanings rather than private mental contents.

Brandom sees Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition not only as leading to a radically new, expanded notion of responsibility, but also as providing a basis for a novel general account of the objectivity of knowledge. Pippin meanwhile has developed an innovative, strongly Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s practical philosophy. I like putting the two of these together.

Brandom radicalizes the Kantian theme of the primacy of practical reason, effectively putting ethical inquiry before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic. He replaces metaphysics with a new kind of meta-ethics. Unlike many who have used the term “meta-ethics”, he does not seek some naturalistic or empirical foundation for ethics; rather, he sees “normativity all the way down”. Normative considerations are involved in the interpretation of anything at all. Judgments of fact depend on value judgments, and value judgments implicitly depend on the possibility of dialogue under conditions of mutual respect. It is principally through being subject to open-ended rational dialogue that judgments are verified.

Brandom’s expanded notion of responsibility is aimed at promoting greater and wider forgiveness, while simultaneously eliminating common excuses for misdeeds. Aristotle and important strands of the Christian tradition already promoted the idea that people should not be blamed or punished for unintended consequences of their actions (or for things they were coerced into doing). Brandom attributes to Hegel the novel view that everyone shares responsibility for all unintended consequences.

Pippin makes the profoundly Aristotelian point that what we actually did is the best guide to what our intentions really were. He argues that for Hegel, our own interpretation of our intentions has no privileged status in comparison to the interpretations of others. He would undercut excuses of the sort “I did x, but I really wanted y“. Rather, he would say that what we really wanted — not in the abstract, but under all the conditions that actually applied — was just what we did.

The actuality referenced here is a matter neither of simple fact nor of empirical consensus or majority opinion, but is itself a matter of normative evaluation under conditions of rational dialogue and respect for all.

Direct and Indirect “Knowledge”

For now, this will be the last installment on Alain de Libera’s Archaeology of the Subject. Though he has promised another four and a half volumes, I’ve reached the end of what has been published so far. Here I’ll briefly summarize the remainder of volume 3 part 1.

After analysis of an anonymous Averroist text of the 1270s that criticizes Aquinas in sharper language than that employed by Siger of Brabant, de Libera briefly discuses substance dualism and the plurality of substantial forms in the later Augustinian tradition. He documents the beginnings of the shift toward modern usages of “subject” and “object” in the 13th century. He notes the large difference in connotation between Aristotelian ousia and Latin substantia, glossing ousia as what something is in its depth. (I’ve been continuing to use “substance”, with Aristotle’s own gloss from the Metaphysics of “what it was to have been” a thing.)

He then turns to a long and delicately nuanced review of Aquinas’ compromise between Aristotle and Augustine on the soul’s knowledge of itself. The title of this chapter in French is a pun: by homonymy, it suggests “The Subject Supposed to Know Itself”, but literally, it is “The Subject Supposed to Have Itself”.

At summary level, Aristotle holds that all self-knowledge is indirect, while Augustine holds that the soul directly knows itself through its essence. But de Libera points out that there are elements of directness in Aristotle, and elements of indirectness in Augustine. He emphasizes that “knowledge” is said in many ways, from mere undifferentiated awareness to the strong knowledge that was called “science”. If we want to discuss claims about self-knowledge, we need to distinguish what kind of “knowledge” we are talking about.

In the final chapter, de Libera again mentions the Franciscan Peter Olivi, who in the 13th century criticized the representationalism of the medieval theory of “species” in the name of direct realism. Olivi also further sharpened Augustine’s claims that the soul directly knows itself by its essence. According to de Libera, while Olivi was far less influential than Aquinas, it was the interaction of their legacies that ultimately led to the modern notion of the human subject as agent and ego. Toward the end, de Libera again mentions the 18th century Scottish philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid, who was completely unaware of medieval Augustinian criticisms of representationalism, and re-invented direct realism.

Once again, we have to be careful about too easy assumptions regarding “isms”. Here, it turns out that both advocates of representationalism and advocates of direct realism may make strong appeals to immediacy and presence. The difference is that in modern terms, representationalists appeal to the alleged immediacy of mental representations, whereas direct realists appeal to the alleged immediacy of external objects. I read Aristotle as acknowledging a modest role for immediacy in common sense apprehensions, but as rejecting the idea that immediacy has any kind of privileged status in knowledge. I read Kant, Hegel, Brandom, and Ricoeur among others as strongly supporting this Aristotelian view.

Earlier, de Libera had noted a common Franciscan criticism that for both Aristotle and Aquinas, all self-knowledge is inferential. These days, I would take that as a compliment. In my youth, I uncritically absorbed a large bias toward immediacy myself. Immediacy was supposed to give a truth hidden by ordinary alienation. But in more recent years, I have become sympathetic to Brandom’s thesis that all apparently immediate knowledge is just that — apparently immediate, and that a kind of inference actually is the most primitive source of knowledge.

Commitment to Commitment

A commitment to the practices associated with commitment is more fundamental than any particular commitment we may have. To say it another way, taking our committedness seriously is more important than the exact content of our particular commitments as to what is good and true, or to what we will do.

A high level of seriousness about commitments does not mean sticking to our guns at all cost. If we truly take our commitments seriously, that ought to mean that we also want to improve them when we have the opportunity, and to fix them when they are broken.

The American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) famously made the remark that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do”. One might hope that he really meant to distinguish between a foolish consistency and a wise one — between a kind of rigid adherence to mere formalisms, and what I might call consistency in substance or essence or deep meaning. The latter would be more akin to personal integrity.

Emerson himself was a bit intemperate in the passage that followed (“Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today”). He further confuses the matter by connecting this message with the theme that “great souls are always misunderstood”. This is all in his essay “Self-Reliance”. The rhetoric is quite memorable and there is a sense in which each of these sayings has validity, but they are both what Hegel would call “one-sided” formulations that are highly vulnerable to misuse. Their combination suggests the dangerous implication that it must be our fault if we don’t understand the one who says contradictory things. This clearly goes too far.

In the course of arguing that it is actually possible for a human to have a kind of general knowledge of being, Aristotle in Metaphysics book IV chapter 3 famously defends a principle of noncontradiction that is not merely formal.

He says in part, “For that which is necessary for one who understands any of the beings whatever to have is not a hypothesis” (Sachs translation, p. 58).

“[W]hat it is, after this prelude, let us state. It is not possible for the same thing at the same time both to belong and not to belong to the same thing in the same respect (and as many other things as we ought to specify in addition for the sake of logical difficulties, let them have been specified in addition). And this is the most certain of principles” (p. 59).

“[T]he starting point… is not the demand that one say something either to be or not to be (for perhaps one might suppose that this would require from the outset the things to be shown), but that what he says must mean something to both himself and someone else; for this is necessary, if he is going to say anything” (p. 60).

Robert Brandom argues that all the most important and valuable parts of Kant’s thought can be reconstructed in terms of the process of synthesizing a unity of apperception. This process is not a sequence of events that happen in the world; it is an ethical task for which we are responsible.

No truths follow from the principle of noncontradiction alone. In particular, it is not a deductive source of metaphysical conclusions.

On the other hand, it is what in Kantian language might be called a moral imperative. To be committed to commitment, I would argue, is to embrace that imperative. Stubborn persistence in self-contradiction destroys the possibility of shareable meaning and dialogue. In real life, self-contradiction happens to good people, but that should be an occasion for learning and humility, never something to proudly affirm.

As soon as we acknowledge piecemeal responsibility for the integrity of our commitments, we implicitly have responsibility for the integrity of the whole constituted by all our commitments. Commitment to commitment is an implicit condition of all our particular commitments, and it involves a responsibility for safeguarding and improving the integrity of the whole of our commitments. However fallible it may be, by its very nature it involves at least the germ of the crucial ability to learn, to improve itself and to correct itself.

This also has important consequences for what Kantian respect for others and the related notion of Hegelian mutual recognition look like in practice. First and foremost, respect for others takes the form of recognition of their implicit commitment to commitment, even when we do not endorse all the others’ particular commitments. (See also Brandomian Forgiveness.)

Hume on Causes

The great British empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote that “There are no ideas which occur in metaphysics more obscure and uncertain than those of ‘power’, ‘force’, ‘energy’, or ‘necessary connection'” (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Library of Liberal Arts ed., p. 73).

Hume is most famous for his critique of naive or dogmatic assumptions about causality. “[T]here is not, in any particular instance of cause and effect, anything which can suggest the idea of power and necessary connection” (p. 75). To me, it seems to be the idea of an underlying power or force responsible for causality that he is mainly questioning. He has no doubt that we continually experience instances of cause and effect.

“[There is] no such thing as chance in the world” (p. 69). “[T]he conjunction between motives and voluntary actions is as regular and uniform as that between the cause and effect in any part of nature” (p. 98). Clearly, then, he did believe in the reality of cause and effect, but only wanted to reject naive claims about our knowledge of the world that purport to link experienced instances of cause and effect to explanations in terms of the operation of underlying powers. What we actually experience in these cases is just lawful regularity.

“It is certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always, with the generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate and abstruse…. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present, but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed” (pp. 16-17). But on the other hand, “All polite letters are nothing but pictures of human life in various attitudes and situations…. An artist must be better qualified to succeed in this undertaking who, besides a delicate taste and a quick apprehension, possesses an accurate knowledge of the internal fabric, the operations of the understanding, the workings of the passions…. However painful soever this inward search or inquiry may appear, it becomes in some manner requisite to those who would describe with success the obvious and outward appearances of life and manners…. Accuracy is, in every case, advantageous to beauty, and just reasoning to delicate sentiment. In vain would we exalt the one by depreciating the other” (p. 19). Clearly, then, Hume’s polemic against scholastic modes of reasoning does not at all mean he simply rejects the values of “accurate and abstruse” philosophy.

Neoplatonizing tendencies in the Aristotelian commentary tradition led to the common Latin scholastic view of causes as metaphysical powers operating behind the scenes that Hume is mainly concerned to criticize. Aristotle himself identified causes more broadly and much less speculatively with every kind of “reasons why” things are as they are and behave as they do. He did so without making extravagant claims to certain knowledge. Whereas scholastic philosophers characteristically debated the pros and cons of accepting various abstract propositions, Aristotle himself was fundamentally concerned with the use of reason to help interpret concrete human experience (see Aristotelian Causes).

Hume is a great philosopher, and so far I have focused on a positive appropriation of his work, having some points in common with themes I have been pursuing about causality and the notion of power. Robert Brandom’s innovative reading of Kant’s response to Hume points out that there are distinct limits to Hume’s approach.

“Kant read Hume’s practical and theoretical philosophies as raising variants of a single question. On the side of practical reasoning, Hume asks what our warrant is for moving from descriptions of how things are to prescriptions of how they ought to be. How can we rationally justify the move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’? On the side of theoretical reasoning, Hume asks what our warrant is for moving from descriptions of what in fact happens to characterizations of what must happen and what could not happen…. Hume’s predicament is that he finds that even his best understanding of facts doesn’t yield an understanding of either of the two sorts of rules governing and relating those facts, underwriting assessments of which of the things that actually happen (all he thought we can directly experience) ought to happen (are normatively necessary) or must happen (are naturally necessary).”

“Kant’s response to the proposed predicament is that we cannot be in the situation that Hume envisages: understanding matter-of-factual empirical claims perfectly well, but having no idea what is meant by modal or normative ones” (Brandom, Reason in Philosophy, p. 54).

Brandom continues, “To judge, claim, or believe that the cat is on the mat, one must have at least a minimal practical ability to sort material inferences in which that content is involved (as premise or conclusion) into good ones and bad ones, and to discriminate what is from what is not materially incompatible with it. Part of doing that is associating with those inferences 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 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 as it is if one jumped up and down on it or beat it with a stick, while the cat would not. It is not that there is any one of the counterfactual inferences I have mentioned that is necessary for understanding what it is for the cat to be on the mat. But if one makes no distinctions of this sort — treats the possibility of the cat’s jumping off the mat or yawning as on a par with is sprouting wings and starting to fly, or suddenly becoming microscopically small; does not at all distinguish between what can and cannot happen to the cat and what can and cannot happen to the mat — then one does not count as understanding the claim well enough to endorse it” (pp. 54-55).

Brandom concludes, “If that is right, then in being able to employ concepts such as cat and mat in ordinary empirical descriptive claims one already knows how to do everything one needs to know how to do in order to deploy concepts such as possible and necessary — albeit fallibly and imperfectly” (p. 55).

I am actually a little more sympathetic to Hume, in that I don’t read him as categorically rejecting the validity of concepts of necessity, only any possibility of certain knowledge of how they apply to the real world. I personally like the position of Leibnitz that necessity is real but always hypothetical, never categorical. But Brandom is right that Hume does not go on to emphasize how essential our fallible understanding of necessity is to our understanding of ordinary experience.

Identification as Valuation

It might seem as though the sort of categorial interpretation of experience and general application of concepts as practiced by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason were a purely cognitive affair. Many older readings took it that way, and the passages I quoted from Longuenesse’s commentary don’t explicitly dispel such a notion. My very compressed comparison with Aristotle suggests a reconciliation of Aristotelian practical judgment or phronesis with Kantian judgment, but this relies on an implicit view of the unity of Kant’s thought, partially developed elsewhere. The thrust of it is to overlay the cognitive judgment of the first Critique with the teleological and aesthetic judgment of the Critique of Judgment, and then to read the ethical works in terms of that combined notion.

As a concrete example of how the kind of identification of objects dealt with in the first Critique takes on a valuational angle, Brandom cites the identification of a German by a French person as a “boche” or thick-head, a derogatory term from World War I. This immediately suggests many similar examples of prejudice about various alleged “kinds” of people. Brandom argues that even just by the criteria of logical analysis in Kant’s first Critique, the ethically objectionable “boche” and similar terms are not valid concepts at all. They are a kind of false conceptual “universals” that do not reflect any valid generalization, but are only possible with a sort of poor logical hygiene. This shows that such practices of identification are far from neutral. Identification is after all kind of recognition, and Fichte and especially Hegel developed the ethical consequences of this.

Even claims and classifications that are valuationally neutral in themselves can be made in bad faith for some ulterior motive, but the validity of logical operations applied to the real world implicitly presupposes the ethical criterion that we make our judgments in good faith.