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 any 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.

Kantian Intentionality

Brandom’s Woodbridge lectures – published in Reason in Philosophy (2009) — are to date the best introduction to his groundbreaking thought on Kant and Hegel.  He makes it clear this will be a rational reconstruction of key themes rather than a textual or historical commentary.  

The first lecture, entitled “Norms, Selves, and Concepts”, summarizes the innovative account of intentionality Brandom attributes to Kant.  According to Brandom, Kant raises the radical question of representational purport — what it even means for someone to take something as representing something.  Simultaneously, Kant breaks with the standard early modern view of judgment that identified it with mere predication.  

“Here is perhaps Kant’s deepest and most original idea, the axis around which I see all of his thought revolving.  What distinguishes judging and intentional doing from the activities of non-sapient creatures is not that they involve some special sort of mental processes, but that they are things knowers and agents are in a distinctive way responsible for….  Judgments and actions make knowers and agents liable to characteristic kinds of normative assessment….  This is his normative characterization of the mental” (pp. 32-33; emphasis in original).

For Kant, to judge and act are to bind ourselves to values, or as Brandom calls them in arguably more Kantian terms, “norms”.  The rules or principles by which the content of our commitments is articulated Kant calls concepts.  Brandom quips that Descartes had asked about our grip on concepts, but Kant asked about their grip on us.

Reversing the traditional order of explanation, Kant says we actually understand concepts in terms of the role they play in judgments, rather than understanding judgments in terms of component concepts.

What Kant calls the subjective form of judgment (“I think”) indicates the relation of a judging to the unity of apperception to which it belongs.  Brandom says this tells us who is responsible for the judgment.  (I think the identity of unities of apperception is actually more specific than that applied to human individuals in common sense, because the constellation of commitments that is the referent of “I” today may not be quite the same as it was yesterday.)

In making a judgment about something, we make ourselves responsible to that thing — to however it may actually turn out to be.  Judgments are supposed to be about how things are.  To make a judgment about something is to acknowledge that how it actually is has authority over the correctness of our judgment.

What we make ourselves responsible for in judging is the content of the judgment, which Brandom will understand in terms of what further inferences it licenses or prevents from being licensed.

Finally, what we do in making ourselves responsible is to make ourselves responsible for a fourfold task: to integrate our judgment into a unity of apperception; to renounce commitments that are materially incompatible with our judgment; to endorse commitments that are material consequences of our judgment; and to offer reasons for our judgment.

Kant’s alternative to judgment as predication, according to Brandom, is judgment as the undertaking of these task responsibilities, understood ultimately in terms of the ongoing synthesis and re-synthesis of unities of apperception.  Further, “The key to Kant’s account of representation is to be found in the story about how representational purport is to be understood in terms of the activity of synthesizing an original unity of apperception” (pp. 37-38).  

“[W]hat one is responsible for is having reasons for one’s endorsements, using the contents one endorses as reasons for and against the endorsement of other contents, and taking into account countervailing reasons….  [W]e are the kind of creatures we are – knowers and agents, creatures whose world is structured by the commitments and responsibilities we undertake – only because we are always liable to normative assessments of our reasons” (p. 38).

Concepts “are rules for synthesizing a unity of apperception.  And that is to say that they are rules articulating what is a reason for what” (p. 39).

“Kant’s ideas about the act or activity of judging settle how he must understand the content judged” (ibid).  Kant’s methodological pragmatism, Brandom says, consists not in privileging practice over theory but in “explanatory privileging of the activity of synthesizing a unity of apperception” (p. 40).

A unity of apperception is not a substance (and especially not in the rigid early modern sense).  As Brandom says, it is the “moving, living constellation of its ‘affections’, that is, of the concomitant commitments that compose and articulate it” (p. 41).  Looked at this way as extended in time, I would say it is not an existing unity but rather a unity always in the making.

All conceptual content for Brandom traces back to this original synthetic activity.  “[R]epresentational purport should itself be understood as a normative (meta) concept: as a matter of taking or treating one’s commitments as subject to a distinct kind of authority, as being responsible (for its correctness, in a characteristic sense) to things that in that normative sense count as represented by those representing states, which are what must be integrated into an original synthetic unity” (p. 42).

The early modern tradition took it for granted that referential representational intentionality is prior to inferential expressive intentionality – in effect that it is possible to know what is being talked about without understanding what is said.  This would seem to me to require a kind of magical clairvoyance.  As Aristotle might remind us, we approach what is primarily through what is said of it, not of course by the mere saying, but through the care and responsibility and many crisscrossing revisitings that we invest in understanding what is said.

Brandom suggests we look for an approach to Kantian objectivity by a kind of progressive triangulation through examining material incompatibility and material consequence in what is said.  “Represented objects show up as something like units of account for the inferential and incompatibility relations” (p. 45) that for Brandom come first in the order of explanation. To treat something as standing in relations of material incompatibility and consequence “is taking or treating it as a representation, as being about something” (ibid).

The most important and valuable parts of Kant’s thought, Brandom suggests, can be reconstructed in terms of the process of synthesizing a unity of apperception.

Brandom on Reason

In the introduction to Reason and Philosophy (2009), Brandom identifies with “a venerable tradition that distinguishes us as rational animals, and philosophy by its concern to understand, articulate, and explain the notion of reason….  Kant and Hegel showed us a way forward for a rationalism that is not objectionably Cartesian, intellectualist, or anti- (or super-) naturalist.  Nor need it treat the ‘light of reason’ as unacquired or innate” (pp. 1-2; emphasis in original throughout).

“Rational beings are ones that ought to have reasons for what they do, and ought to act as they have reason to” (p.3).

“Taking something to be subject to appraisals of its reasons, holding it rationally responsible, is treating it as someone: as one of us (rational beings).  This normative attitude toward others is recognition, in the sense of Hegel’s central notion of Anerrkennung” (p. 3).

The role of recognition makes things like authority and responsibility into social statuses.  These “are in principle unintelligible apart from consideration of the practical attitudes of those who hold each other responsible, acknowledge each other’s authority, attribute commitments and entitlements to each other” (pp. 3-4).

If we take meaning seriously, we cannot take it for granted.  Inferential articulation is involved not only in determining what is true, but also in the understanding of meanings.  What we mean and what we believe are actually interdependent.  He refers to Wilfrid Sellars’ thesis that no description can be understood apart from the “space of implications” in which the terminology used in the description is embedded.  “Discursive activity, applying concepts paradigmatically in describing how things are, is inseparable from the inferential activity of giving and asking for reasons” (p. 8).  

“[T]he acts or statuses that are givings of reasons and for which reasons are given – are judgings, claimings, assertings, or believings.  They are the undertakings or acknowledgements of commitments” (p. 9).  “[R]ationality is a normative concept.  The space of reasons is a normative space” (p. 12).  Philosophy should be concerned not just with pure logic and semantics, but with “the acknowledgement and attribution of… statuses such as responsibility and authority, commitment and entitlement” (p. 13).

The Dreaded Humanist Debate

In 1960s France, there was a huge controversy among philosophers and others over so-called “humanism”. Rhetoric was excessive and overheated on both sides of the debate, promoting unhealthy and shallow polarization, but the topics dealt with were of great importance.

To begin to understand the various positions on this, it is necessary to realize that connotations of the word “humanism” in this context were quite different from what is usual in English. The third meaning listed in Google’s dictionary result, attributed to “some contemporary writers”, does at least have the virtue of expressing a position in philosophical anthropology, which is what was at issue in the French debate (in contrast both to Renaissance literary humanism and to explicitly nonreligious approaches to values).

Europe has an old tradition of self-identified Christian humanism. After the publication of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in the 1930s, non-Stalinist Marxists began talking about a Marxist humanism. In France after World War II, even the Stalinists wanted to claim the title of humanist. In his famous 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, the notoriously anti-religious and individualistic writer Jean-Paul Sartre surprised some people by placing his existentialism under a common “humanist” banner with Christians and Stalinists. What they all wanted to assert under the name of humanism was a particular view of what it is to be a human, emphasizing the centrality of free will and consciousness, and identifying humanness with being a Subject.

In the 1960s, these views were sharply criticized by people loosely associated with so-called “structuralism”, including Foucault, Althusser, and Lacan. The “structuralist” views denied strong claims of a unitary Subject of knowledge and action; rejected any unconditional free will; and took a deflationary approach to consciousness. Sartre and others launched vehement counter-attacks, and the debate degenerated into little better than name-calling on both sides.

In my youth, I was exposed first to views from the “humanist” side, and accepted them. Then I became aware of the “structuralist” alternative, and for a while became its zealous partisan.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus had to navigate between the twin hazards of Scylla and Charybdis. Since the millenium, I have emphasized a sort of middle way between “humanism” and “structuralism” — inspired especially by Aristotle and Brandom, and now with added support from Ricoeur.

Now I want to say, there is no Subject with a capital “S”, but I am highly interested in the details of subjectivity. There is no unconditional free will (and I even doubt the existence of a separate faculty of “will” distinct from reason and desire), but I am highly interested in voluntary action as discussed, e.g., by Aristotle and Ricoeur. I prefer to sharply distinguish apparently immediate “consciousness” from other-oriented, mediate, reflexive “self-consciousness”, putting most of the philosophical weight on the latter.

Modernity, Voluntarism

A draft chapter on pre-Hegelian stages in the history of normativity that Brandom removed from the published Spirit of Trust is now separately available on the internet. Parts or aspects of this historical narrative are the main source of issues I’ve had with Brandom in recent times. I take his removal of the chapter as confirmation that this historical argument should be viewed as an independent, optional supplement to the main philosophical argument of this truly great work. But Brandom still implicitly relies on it in summarily characterizing what he calls the single most important transformation in history — having to do with the status of normativity in the Enlightenment — and I have issues with those statements as well.

He begins by recalling a number of core themes I would wholeheartedly endorse.  Hegel “fully appreciated, as many of Kant’s readers have not” that Kant fundamentally rethought notions of self, self-consciousness, apperception, and “consciousness in the sense of apperception” in normative terms.  This is a vitally important point.

“Judgment is the minimal form of apperceptive awareness because judgments are the smallest units one can commit oneself to, make oneself responsible for”.  The “I” in “I think” that Kant called the “emptiest of all representations” is a kind of formal mark of taking responsibility for the judging.  What is represented in the judgment is what one makes oneself responsible to, and the “I” in turn only acquires determinate reference from what we implicitly or explicitly take responsibility for.  What Brandom following popular usage still calls “conscious selves”, he glosses with precision as “apperceptively unified constellations of commitments”.

Concepts are “rules that determine what commitments are reasons for and against”, and as such govern the synthesis of apperceptive unities, but they should not be thought of as pre-existing.  “Judgeable contents take methodological pride of place because of their role in Kant’s normative account of judging”.  Concepts used in judgments acquire their content from the activity of judging, from what one does in applying them.  Brandom thinks Hegel sees Kant as a “semantic pragmatist” not just in the Fichtean sense of the primacy of practical philosophy over theoretical philosophy, but in the more radical sense that for Kant, a normative account of discursive activity has methodological explanatory authority over the determination of discursive content in both theoretical and practical philosophy.

Brandom identifies Hegel’s Geist or Spirit with discursive normativity, and says Hegel sees earlier moral theorists as offering important insights not just about morality, but about normativity as such.  Hegel himself starts from conceptual norms expressed in language, rather than from moral norms.  He says that “language is the Dasein [“being there”] of Geist”.  “In another (completely unprecedented) move, Hegel historicizes his social metaphysics of normativity”.  Normativity is for the first time explicitly recognized as having a history.  

“The traditional metaphysics of normativity that Hegel sees all subsequent forms of understanding as developing from the rejection of is the subordination-obedience model.”  On this model, obligation is instituted by the command of a superior.  Brandom notes that Hegel initially discussed it under the famous figure of the relation of Master and Servant.

Protestant natural-law theorists – including Grotius, Cumberland, Hobbes, Pufendorf, Thomasius, and Locke — secularized and naturalized the voluntarism of medieval Catholic theologians like Scotus and Occam, tracing the binding force of law from “the antecedent existence of a superior-subordinate relationship”.  For the theological voluntarists, Brandom says, such relations of subordination were not only matters of objective fact, but “in some sense the fundamental objective metaphysical structure of reality”, embodied in Arthur Lovejoy’s figure of a broadly neoplatonic “Great Chain of Being”.  The natural-law theorists explained relations of subordination among humans in terms of different theories of God’s dominion over humans.  Brandom notes that on the obedience model, the status of being a superior is itself a normatively significant status entailing a right to legislate and command, but having that status relative to other humans is reduced to a non-normative matter of presumed objective fact.  (We should not rely on presumption in such important matters, and all attempts to reduce normativity to something non-normative stand in opposition to the autonomy of ethical reason championed by Kant.)

Brandom says the natural-law theorists began to question the subordination-obedience model in two ways – first by attaching some normative criteria to the status of being a superior, and second by suggesting that the right of a human to command might depend on some kind of implicit consent or attitude of the affected subordinates.  I would emphasize that any such move is already a move away from voluntarism.  As Brandom says, the subordination-obedience model is incapable of being extended to explain a normative status of being entitled to command.  The invocation of the consent of subordinates, he says, is an “even more momentous” step forward.  It is distinctive of Brandomian modernity to take normative statuses to be instituted by attitudes of acknowledgement.  Ultimately, modernity for Brandom is thus related to the emergence of democratic politics.

Brandom says that for Hegel, the modern model of attitude-dependence of normative statuses expresses a genuine and important truth, but like the subordination-obedience model, it is ultimately one-sided.  Hegel’s own view will make room for both an objectivity and an attititude-dependence of norms and normative statuses, by deriving objectivity itself from a vast ensemble of processes of normative mutual recognition over time.  Brandom translates Hegel’s vocabulary of “independence” and “dependence” into authority and responsibility, and says that for Hegel, what self-conscious beings are “in themselves” depends on what they are “for themselves”, on what they take themselves to be, as well as on what others take them to be.  What is “in itself” or “for itself” is thus a matter of normative interpretation, rather than of metaphysics in the traditional sense.

All of this seems both fine and important.  Things begin to become much more problematic, however, when he briefly discusses the contrast between voluntarist and “intellectualist” views of the will in medieval Latin theology.  He ends up valorizing the voluntarism of Occam at the expense of the so-called intellectualism of Aquinas, on the ground that voluntarism can be taken as grounding normativity in attitudes attributed to God.  Even though he notes that Occam’s nominalism makes all universals – including normativity — the product of “brute arbitrariness”, while recognizing that for Aquinas normativity is always grounded in reasons, he is more impressed by the fact that in Aquinas, those reasons are traceable to objective statuses.  Brandom’s language suggests that any reliance whatseoever on attitudes — even if they are arbitrary and do not involve any kind of recognition of an other — is ethically preferable to reliance on objective statuses.  

I on the contrary much prefer Aquinas’ appeal to reasons – in spite of the fact that Aquinas ultimately relies on assumed objective statuses – to Occam’s appeal to arbitrariness, even though the latter can be argued to implicitly involve attitudes.  It is a rather common motif of shallow accounts of the prehistory of modern science to valorize Occam and nominalism generally as anticipating modern developments, while overlooking both the negative ethical consequences of voluntarism and the positive value of the ethically “intellectualist” emphasis on reason.

I want to put greater stress on the contrast between arbitrariness and reasons than on that between relying on assumed objective statuses and relying on attitudes.  Of course I agree that objective normative statuses should not be simply assumed.  But I see nothing at all progressive in arbitrariness glossed as the product of an arbitrary attitude.  The result is still arbitrariness.  So, I cannot at all agree that theological voluntarism is “the thin leading edge of the wedge of modernity”, if modernity is supposed to be anything good.  I think a transition to relying on attitudes for the constitution of normativity only becomes progressive when those attitudes are non-arbitrary.

The other odd thing in Brandom’s account is the complete absence of any mention of Plato and Aristotle.  Unlike most authors of the Enlightenment, Plato and Aristotle put no limits on the free use of reason.  They explicitly treated reason as bound up with normativity.  And even though they did not question existing distinctions of social status as much as we might, nothing in their ethics actually presupposes the subordination-obedience model.  Thus I locate the single greatest historical break with Plato and Aristotle’s invention of rational ethics, rather than with the Enlightenment’s appeal to attitudes.  

However one takes the ethical “intellectualism” of Aquinas, it combines Plato and Aristotle’s merger of normativity and reason with doctrinal concerns.  The assumptions about objective statuses that Brandom objects to belong to the doctrinal component of his synthesis rather than its Platonic-Aristotelian component.  If we are looking for historical antecedents of the ethically good aspects of modernity, we should look to Plato and Aristotle.

Voluntarism’s endorsement of arbitrariness over reasons is quite simply the short path to evil.  It is the bad attitude of the Master discussed by Hegel, raised to a sort of anti-philosophical principle.  Brandom is a great champion of the importance of reasons, and presents an exemplary reading of Mastery as an evolutionary dead end with no progressive role to play, so I think it would be more consistent for him to avoid any historical valorization of voluntarist positions.

Ricoeur on Practical Reason

I just found a nice essay on practical reason in Ricoeur’s From Text to Action (French ed. 1986). An account of practical reason must confront “the two great classical problematics of ‘meaningful action’, those of Kant and of Hegel” (p. 189). As Ricoeur himself notes, though, his account has a “greater affinity” (p. 191) with Aristotle’s accounts of choice and practical wisdom than with Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Like Aristotle, Ricoeur wants to assert “no break between desire and reason” (ibid).

Practical reason for Ricoeur “must deserve the name of reason, but it must maintain certain features irreducible to scientifico-technical rationality” (p. 188). (I think design in engineering — while it must have a strong technical basis — already goes beyond purely technical concerns, insofar as key criteria of its “goodness” lie in the broad pragmatics of use of its products in real-world contexts.) What Ricoeur has in mind here is that practical reason inherently involves concrete judgments of value that cannot be reduced to calculation.

He adds that practical reason is critical rather than speculative. I would also add that common sense, practical reason, and Reason with a capital “R” all work mainly by material inference, which is concerned with meaning and values from the ground up.

There is a syntactic ordering of reasons-for-acting as relative ends and means, but Ricoeur dislikes Aristotle’s talk of “practical syllogisms” as sharing the same formal structure with theoretical ones. I think Aristotle is right about the formal structure, but Aristotle would agree with Ricoeur that this much narrower kind of reasoning is very far from encompassing practical reason as a whole. Practical reason or wisdom in Aristotle crucially includes processes of judgment behind the formation of the propositions used in syllogisms (and canonical Aristotelian propositions codify material inferences).

Ricoeur emphasizes that practical reason involves interpretation, normativity, and resolution of “opposing normative claims” (p. 195). He commends Aristotle’s definition of virtue for joining together psychological, logical, normative, and personal components. Aristotelian practical wisdom “joins together a true calculus and an upright desire under a principle — a logos — that, in its turn, always includes personal initiative and discernment” (p. 197). There is an “epistemological break between practical reasoning and practical reason” (p. 198).

In the Critique of Practical Reason “Kant, it seems to me, hypostatized one single aspect of our practical experience, namely, the fact of moral obligation, conceived as the constraint of the imperative” (ibid). Though I think Kant tempered this in other places, I am very sympathetic to the thrust of Ricoeur’s criticism (and Brandom’s tendency to follow Kant on this in some contexts has evoked a mixture of criticism and apologetics from me; see, e.g., Necessity in Normativity; Modality and Variation). Ricoeur also says that “by constructing the concept of the practical a priori after the model of that of the theoretical a priori, Kant shifted the investigation of practical reason into a region of knowledge that does not belong to it” (p. 199). I thoroughly agree with Ricoeur that there can be no science of the practical, but here I would also follow Brandom in noting that while the practical cannot be reduced to the theoretical, theoretical reason itself is ultimately subordinate to practical reason (taken in a more Hegelian than Kantian sense).

Ricoeur here follows an old-school reading of Hegel’s Geist as a sort of objective mind directly embodied in the State, and correctly points out how such a notion has great potential for abuse. He prefers the “hypothesis of Husserl, Max Weber, and Alfred Schutz” (p. 205) that would ground communities — including things like the State — in relations of intersubjectivity. (I would note that Brandom’s nuanced and multi-dimensional grounding of Geist and normativity in a vast ensemble of processes of mutual recognition over time provides a convincing, original “deep” reading of Hegel that meets Ricoeur’s criterion of grounding in intersubjectivity, while avoiding what seems to me the very crude and implausible notion of an objective mind that would somehow be capable of being definitively embodied in the State. Any such notion of definitive embodiment of objective mind also involves huge confusion between potentiality and actuality.)

“One must never tire of repeating that practical reason cannot set itself up as a theory of praxis. We must repeat along with Aristotle that there is knowledge only of things that are necessary and immutable…. [P]ractical reason recovers a critical function by losing its theoretical claim to knowledge” (p. 206; emphasis in original).

Finally, he wryly observes that “practical wisdom, in situations of alienation, can never be without a certain madness on the part of the sage, since the values that govern the social bond have themselves become insane” (p. 207). (See also Ricoeur on Justice.)

Brandom and Hermeneutics

It’s been a while since I said much about Robert Brandom, though his work — along with my own nonstandard reading of Aristotle — continues to be one of the main inspirations behind everything I write here.

Lately I’ve been devoting a lot of energy to belatedly catching up on the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. To my knowledge, Ricoeur never commented on Brandom during his lifetime, and Brandom has not specifically commented on Ricoeur.

Brandom has, however, in Tales of the Mighty Dead explicitly endorsed some of the broad perspectives of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics, and he has devoted much attention to a “hermeneutics of magnanimity” in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Brandom’s mentor Richard Rorty concluded his famous work Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by recommending a general turn from foundational epistemology to nonfoundationalist hermeneutics, and I have previously suggested that Brandom’s work as a whole could be viewed as a novel sort of hermeneutics developed within the analytic tradition.

Brandom’s fundamental concept of the priority of material inference over formal inference puts meaning — and therefore the interpretation of meaning — in the driver’s seat for reasoning, so to speak. This allows for the recovery of a more historic concept of Reason, which ever since Descartes has been mostly replaced by a mathematically based kind of rationality that is more precise and invaluable in technical realms, but also much more rigid, and in fact far more limited in its applicability to general human concerns (see Kinds of Reason).

Even prior to Descartes, Latin medieval logic already moved increasingly toward formalism. Since Frege and Russell, the rigorous mathematization of logic has yielded such impressive technical results that most philosophers seem to have forgotten there is any other way to view logic.

In the 1950s Wilfrid Sellars took the first steps toward initiating a counter-trend, reaching back to the pre-Cartesian tradition to formulate the notion of material inference later taken up by Brandom.

Modern complaints against Reason strongly and wrongly presuppose that it inevitably follows or approximates a formal path. Material inference provides the basis for a fundamentally hermeneutic view not only of Reason but also of logic and logical truth.

I have further stressed the fundamentally ethical or meta-ethical character of material inference, leading to a concept of ethical reason as the most fundamental form of Reason overall in a view that puts material inference before formal logic. As I put it not too long ago, ethical reason may optionally use the more technical forms of reason as tools. Ethical reason, I want to say, has a genuinely active character, but technical reason does not. Ethical reason is fundamentally oriented toward the concrete, like Aristotle’s practical judgment.

I want to say that there is such a thing as logical or semantic reference — saying something about something is not in vain — but a prior hermeneutic inquiry is necessary to ground and explain reference. Moreover, both Aristotle and Kant recognized something like this. Such a perspective is compatible with science, while putting ethical and meta-ethical inquiry first.

A hermeneutic concept of Reason saves us from a false dilemma between formalism on the one hand and question-begging appeals to intuition, authority, or irrational “decision” on the other. (See also Dialogue.)

Constituted Intentionality

It seems to me that Brandom effectively says intentionality — the basis of meaning — as such not only is not a mental act, but not an act at all or in any way reducible to an act, even though intending is certainly a doing. Further, unlike Husserl’s version, Brandom’s intentionality seems to be something constituted by something else. That something else would be processes of mutual recognition both actual and ideal, which I think also normatively but not causally ground judgment and objectivity, knowledge and logic, while in addition incorporating considerations of reasonableness grounded in feeling, associated with the respect in recognition. I think intentionality is a kind of form having to do with linguistic meaning and potentialities for material inference, and that this form is normatively constituted through mutual recognition.

Structural Causality, Choice

I now have an Aristotelian account of structural causality. It is exercised by the combined form and materiality of actually used means to desired ends, and behaves like a contextual unmoved mover. As usual with Aristotelian “causes”, this puts it in the context of an expressive semantics, rather than any mechanical metaphor. (See also What and Why.)

We choose among available means to our ends (and, I think, also among alternative derived ends, due to the interdependence of derived ends with means). Then through structural causality, each such choice brings with it a block of consequences that are not up to us. This reconciles structural causality with contingency and Kantian freedom. (See also Potentiality, Actuality; Structure, Potentiality; Efficient Cause.)

(Often, ends are things we just tacitly accept, but we also have the possibility of critically examining what we have tacitly accepted, and possibly changing our commitment as a result.)

Notwithstanding Brandom’s negative comments in passing about structuralism, I think a similar account of the place of structural causality can be applied in the context of Brandomian choice and practical endorsement of commitments.

Acts in Brandom and Žižek

Both Brandom and Žižek recognize what Brandom has called the “world’s stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency”, and yet hold out for the possibility of transformative action.

Brandom ingeniously secures the practical reality of choice through the indirect route of an Enlightenment idea that we can only be bound by values to which we have at least implicitly committed ourselves. The recalcitrance of the Real prevents this from becoming a subjectivism, specifically by virtue of his complementary thesis that the meaning of our commitments is not up to us. But actively taking responsibility for things beyond our power turns out to indirectly have a kind of efficacy. Retrospectively, this may change meant reality.

A lengthy article by Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner discusses agency in Žižek from various angles. This account at least is happily free of the Badiouian narrowing of consideration to a few inflationarily conceived “exceptional” acts that afflicts some of the Žižekians (see “Hard” Kantianism?). The concern is with acts in general, and subjectivity in general. Here I can find a good deal more common ground.

For Žižek, our desires are not our own, but the split in the subject that makes us never fully ourselves also connects us with the social. A subject is contrasted with subjectivation. Although passive, alienating subjectivation is inescapable, it also can never be complete. A subject is positively constituted by its own nonidentity or “impossibility” (i.e., impossibility of complete identity with itself). According to Vighi and Feldner, “this decentred kernel of otherness embodies my self-consciousness, the only place where I have a chance to locate the truth about myself”. The conscious activity of individuals is said to be not free, but we can nonetheless accomplish a free act through identifying with the destabilizing effect of what is “in us more than ourselves”. They argue that Žižek does not hypostatize an abstract negativity in the way that I think Sartre did.

Žižek himself wrote that “To ‘pass to the act’ means to assume the risk that what I am about to do will be inscribed into a framework whose contours elude my grasp” (Tarrying with the Negative, p. 31). This connects agency with the Lacanian Real. He also wrote that freedom corresponds to “my ability to choose/determine which causes will determine me. ‘Ethics’, at its most elementary, stands for the courage to accept this responsibility” (The Parallax View, p. 203).

So, despite huge differences in approach and terminology and Žižek’s negative comments about Brandom, on this question at this level of abstraction, there is a similar practical import.