Aristotelian Subjectivity

If we want to find an analogue in Aristotle for the notion of (transcendental) subjectivity developed by Kant and Hegel, the best place to look is in the concept of ethos, rather than in something like soul or intellect, which for Aristotle have more specialized roles. Then, going in the other direction, this Aristotelian point of view centered on ethos helps to clarify and consolidate many of the points Brandom has wanted to make about the mainly normative or ethical import of subjectivity in Kant and Hegel.

Philosophical interest in subjectivity applies especially to the transcendental kind. Traditionally, this has been situated between what was called metaphysics and something like the “rational psychology” classically criticized by Kant. With inspiration from Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, I’ve been proposing that the constitution of transcendental subjectivity is instead ethical at root. This seems much more helpful than the traditional version for addressing the human condition and questions of who and what we are. The values we actually live by are far more important for this than claims about the existence of some abstract entity like a personal Subject. Meanwhile, personal identity is better left outside the transcendental sphere, and located instead in our concrete emotional constitution. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Two Kinds of Character; Substance Also Subject.)


“Defeasible” (i.e., defeatable) is a legal term metaphorically used by Brandom for anything provisionally affirmed or accepted. The great majority of things we affirm or accept fall into this category.

Brandom applies a legal model of due process to ethical negotiation. We start with presumptions of innocence and good faith. This means that until a cause for reasonable doubt is shown, we act on the assumption that people have good reasons for what they say and for what they want; but anything can be challenged. (See also Things Said; Dialogue; Assumptions; Reasons; Desire, Coherence; Commitment; Mutual Recognition; Scorekeeping.)

In general, I strongly believe that ethics should drive law and not the other way around, but I would argue that the broad notion of due process actually is a good example of ethics driving law, as it should.

Inferentialism vs Mentalism

Brandom’s “inferentialism” or emphasis on material inference effectively makes what I call ethical reason the most important thing in the constitution of subjectivity — not psychology, and not some putative immediate mental presence, or universal transparent representational medium, or supposedly perfect reflexivity.

This is not to deny that there is such a thing as immediacy; it is rather to specify that immediacy is not foundational, and has nothing to do with certainty. Immediacy has a very different role to play, in showing us the world’s “stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency” and providing occasions for learning. (See also Mind Without Mentalism; Psyche, Subjectivity.)

Why Brandom's Hegel?

Brandom offers us an ethically oriented Hegel, read as anticipating many 20th and 21st century concerns. He provides an ethical path to overcoming the separation of subject and object.

Importantly, Brandom’s Hegel even turns out to have anticipated the main concerns of the 1960s French anti-Hegelians, while standing untouched by their criticism. He turns out to be the original critic of mastery and totalization; never uses subjectivity as an unexplained explainer; and claims no forward-moving historical teleology.

While Brandom’s approach to Hegel involves more original philosophical development than historical scholarship, I nonetheless believe based on my own independent reading that with a few caveats on nonessential points, it is historiographically sound. (That is far from saying it is the only valid or interesting interpretation; historiographical soundness just means that a reasonable case can be made.) At any rate, I find it both sound and tremendously inspiring.

Pinkard on Brandom on Hegel

Leading Hegel scholar Terry Pinkard, who has written several outstanding books, recently reviewed Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust. Pinkard, whose approach to Hegel is broadly related to Brandom’s but not the same, has worked rather closer to the Hegelian text than Brandom, who is principally an original philosopher in his own right. Two things Pinkard questions are Brandom’s thesis about the unparalleled significance of the transition to modernity, and his emphasis on ethical naturalism as the main thing wrong with the morality of the valet. I have some sympathy with both these points (see Brandom and Hegel on Modernity; Genealogy).

In passing, Pinkard contrasts Brandom’s normative-pragmatic reading with “neo-Platonist, neo-Aristotelian and neo-Spinozist interpretations”. While at a certain level this is uncontroversial and there are many conventional readings of Hegel that I think go wrong in one or more of these directions, I also still think that even from a broadly Brandomian viewpoint, something can be salvaged from each of these categories, provided we go beyond old clich├ęs. Plotinus made something like Aristotelian unmoved movers the model for all determination, partially anticipating 1960s notions of structural causality (which I have given a somewhat Brandomian interpretation), while later neoplatonists like Proclus and Damascius also hinted at more dynamic mutual determination. I have developed connections between Aristotle and Brandom at some length, and Pinkard himself has elsewhere noted significant Aristotelian elements in Hegel. Spinoza pioneered modern thinking in terms of relations before things, which was further advanced by Kant and Hegel. He was celebrated as a proto-inferentialist in Brandom’s Tales of the Mighty Dead.

Pinkard seems to think Brandom dwells too much on the Hegelian critique of mastery, seeing instances of it everywhere. To my mind, this emphasis is salutary, and of vital importance as a corrective to previous claims about the “totalizing” nature of Hegelian thought.

Pinkard argues that the end of the Spirit chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology has more to do with a critique of a Kantian claim that free moral action involves a special kind of causality not available in experience than with a critique of mastery. Kant did inconsistently suggest such a thing, but I think the charitable reading is that this was infelicitous phrasing that is not at all essential. But whether or not one attributes such voluntarist thoughts to Kant, voluntarism basically just is the assertion that the will has mastery, so a critique of voluntarism would also be a critique of mastery.

He has doubts about the bottom-up nature of Brandom’s expanded account of mutual recognition in A Spirit of Trust, even suggesting that it ends up being more Fichtean than Hegelian, and implies starting with an “I”. He objects to a passing phrase of Brandom’s about experience incorporating recognition of error as a “two-stroke engine”, suggesting that it leads to something like a Fichtean opposition of I and not-I.

Passing phrases notwithstanding, I think Hegel and Brandom both go below the level of an “I” to ground the sapient dimension of subjectivity in shareable thought contents and their interconnection. What is below the level of an “I” in this way is thus already social.

Pinkard has a nice phrase about Hegelian phenomenological thinking being in “the middle, as opposed to the active or passive, voice”.

He suggests that Brandom goes too far in reading the Phenomenology as an allegory, assimilating to this Brandom’s comments about applying a methodology that differs from Hegel’s own. I don’t see any allegorical reading of the whole, even though Brandom does give extreme weight to what obviously is an allegory at the end of the Spirit chapter (see Brandomian Forgiveness).

Pinkard does not see why Brandom dwells so extensively on forgiveness. I don’t think Brandomian forgiveness is supposed to yield new ground-level ethical conclusions, only sound ones. What is novel in this area is Brandom’s rethinking of meta-level concepts of responsibility and agency, which provides an ethical path to overcoming the subject-object dichotomy by means of what I have called normative monism.

Brandom is not principally a contributor to the rich literature on the historical Hegel in the way that Pinkard and Robert Pippin are. He reads somewhat selectively, interprets into different vocabulary that has its own complex associations, and makes many points of his own. A highly original philosophical account like Brandom’s should not be taken as competing with the historically oriented literature. They serve complementary purposes.

Truth and Judgment

Negative reactions to Brandom are a veritable industry these days. Another one I just encountered, by Karl Hahn, comes from a Thomistic direction, and mainly wants to reassert an incompatible view of truth. This yields a useful delineation.

Humanity owes Thomas Aquinas an immense debt of gratitude for helping end the European dark ages and usher in the high medieval development that led to the Renaissance, by making Aristotle acceptable to the Church. But while I am broadly sympathetic to Aristotelian tendencies in theology, I also think theological “improvements” to Aristotle were not improvements.

Aquinas had a very distinctive and sophisticated view of truth. It was extremely remote, however, from that of Brandom and the one I attribute to Aristotle. Aquinas wanted to combine Aristotelian learning and ethical discourse with Christian revelation and the broadly Augustinian tradition of faith seeking understanding, into one seamless edifice. From this perspective, there are truths of reason, truths of experience, and truths of revelation, but truth must agree with truth, so things must be interpreted in a way adequate to them all.

Hahn, following Alasdair MacIntyre, summarizes the Thomistic view of truth as something said primarily of intellect, rather than of propositions. Aristotle discussed truth in the context of things said, but Plotinus already articulated something like MacIntyre’s view, which apparently puts a kind of immediate synthetic mental apprehension ahead of any extended articulation. Simultaneously, Plotinus contributed to a shift in emphasis from form or concept to something more like what we think of as a subjective “mind”. (I would argue that Aristotle’s own notion of intellect is fundamentally not subjective in the modern sense; see Substance Also Subject.)

When we speak of some understanding as “true”, I take that as a sort of poetic metonymy, not a literal statement. Truth can be derivatively said of an act of understanding, based on judgment of that understanding’s soundness and circumstantial appropriateness, which is to say not only the inferential but also the broader emotional and social reasonableness of its articulable content. Understanding-as-truth could almost be taken to hint at something like Hegelian truth-as-process, except that for Plotinus or Aquinas it is an achieved result that should be valid for all time.

Hahn is wary of “intra-rational” criteria for the evaluation of reasons, relating this to what he calls idealist-pragmatist “relativism”. Such worries about relativism depend on a huge equivocation between views that want to take more distinctions into account, and views that implausibly deny the reality of all distinctions. (For Aristotle as well as Kant, distinctions rather than assertions form the basis for evaluation and determination of content. Responsible, serious assertion is an outcome of evaluation.)

Thomism, while placing high value on reason, is fundamentally at odds with the Kantian autonomy of reason, which is an ethical imperative that evaluation be exclusively “intra-rational”. Here, “rational” means not just narrowly logical, but substantively reasonable.

I see strong textual evidence for anticipation of Kant’s autonomy-of-reason thesis in Plato and Aristotle. While we should respect the opinions of the wise, no opinion or received truth can be the final word. An assertion is just as good as the evaluation on which it is based.

As important as reasoning is for Aquinas, it is ultimately subordinate to a body of received truths, both of revelation and of what he calls natural light. (Along with Duns Scotus, Aquinas was an important precursor of modern doctrines of truth-first representationalism that stand in contrast to Aristotle and Brandom’s reason-first inferentialism.)

My view is that even the most polite, well-intentioned claims of received truth prematurely end the possibility of real dialogue about what is reasonable and good, and that they are in that way opposed to truth in a deeper sense like the Hegelian truth-as-process (or, I would argue, even Platonic truth). Kant called claims of received truth “dogmatism”. Genuinely good insights are diminished by being presented with inappropriate finality. (See also Theology; God and the Soul; “Said Of”; Justification; Realism, Idealism; Metaphysical, Nonmetaphysical; Weak Nature Alone; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

Rethinking Responsibility

Until very recently, I took something like what Brandom calls the alienated “contractive” view of responsibility more or less for granted. Aristotle and Kant agree that responsibility should be “contracted” so as not to apply to unintended consequences of actions. What could be wrong with that?

Actually, it’s not so much that something is wrong as that there is a better alternative no one seems to have thought of before. Brandom’s ingenious reversal of common wisdom on this subject is but one product of a monumental labor. He spent 40 years writing A Spirit of Trust, devoted to Hegel’s Phenomenology. Around a quarter of the final version’s 800 pages are devoted to a comprehensive exposition of the concluding eleven ultra-dense paragraphs of the Phenomenology’s chapter on Spirit, involving a hard-hearted judge, confession, forgiveness, and the breaking of the hard heart, which Brandom considers to be the climax of Hegel’s book.

He seems to have found/made something there that to my knowledge no one else saw before — an ethical way to complete the overcoming of the subject-object dichotomy, and thus an ethically grounded approach to an actually attainable Hegelian Absolute. As an added bonus, the recommended approach is itself compelling in purely ethical terms, independent of all of that.

To abbreviate in the extreme, the solution is to return to taking responsibility for unintended consequences, with the difference that everyone shares responsibility for all of them. Since unintended consequences were the last missing piece, everything whatsoever thus ends up included in the field of overlapping responsibilities, leading to what I have started to call normative monism. All determination can then be uniformly located at the historicized transcendental level. Brandom is the most thorough philosophical writer I have ever encountered; his argument is as large and many-faceted as those of Kant and Hegel, and a good deal more perspicuous. (See also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness.)