No one gets through life without making countless assumptions about things we cannot properly know. In routine cases, this is usually harmless. That does not remove our obligation to give someone a fair hearing if they initiate dialogue asking about our reasons for feeling committed to the assumption. Except in immediate emergencies, we should always be open to such questions, and on our own initiative we should raise such questions to ourselves in ambiguous situations. This means we also need to learn to be good at recognizing ambiguous situations, which involves lifelong care and active practice at doing it. (See also Epistemic Conscientiousness.)


The ethical importance of dialogue can hardly be overstated. The key to ethical dialogue is mutual acceptance of sincere questioning about reasons. To ask a question is not to make a counter-assertion, and no one should ever take offense at a sincere question.

To qualify as based on good judgment or sound reasoning, a commitment or one’s reasons for holding it must be explainable in a shareable way. Sharing of the kind of meaning-based material inference used in everyday reasoning and judgment (as well as most philosophy) is a social process of open-ended dialogue.

The world’s oldest preserved examples of such rational dialogue (or any kind of rational development) are contained in the works of Plato. Earlier figures just wrote down what they saw as the truth. Plato provided many examples of a method of free inquiry. (Aristotle says the atomist Democritus was another initiator of rational inquiry, but the works of Democritus do not survive.) This is yet another reason why Hegel called Plato and Aristotle the greatest teachers of the human race.

Plato bequeathed to us many idealized examples of reasoning by dialogue. He raised them into an art form, creating a new literary genre in the process. His dialogues vary in the degree to which they approximate free open-ended discussion; most often, one character leads the discussion through question and answer, and sometimes even the question and answer is limited. However, since Plato’s dialogues are like plays portraying self-contained conversations, they are very accessible.

The style of question and answer often practiced by Platonic characters like Socrates — commonly known as Socratic method — provides a model for how anyone can contribute to such a development. The questioner tries to reason only from things to which the answerer agrees, but often has to keep questioning to draw out the needed background.

In a fully free and open dialogue characterized by mutual recognition, any party may make contributions of this sort. As Sellars and Brandom would remind us, to assert anything at all is implicitly to take responsibility for that assertion, which is to invite questioning about our reasons.

Essentially Self-Conscious?

The idea of an essentially self-conscious entity sounds like an oxymoron. Once we even begin to understand what Hegel meant by self-consciousness — that it is anything but automatic immediate “consciousness” of a “self”, but rather the hard-won awareness of real-world limitations, nuances, complications, and ambiguities — there could hardly be anything more absurd than the idea that an entity could just have such awareness essentially.

Luckily, there is another, completely different interpretation, highlighted by Brandom, that does not involve any super powers. An “essentially self-conscious entity” is actually just an entity whose essence depends on the higher-order shape of her commitments, including whatever awareness of limitations, nuances, and what-not that the entity does or does not have.


Who we are is mainly constituted by on the one hand, the practical and epistemic commitments we actually live by, and that are implicit in our words and deeds, as measured by what we hold dear and are willing to sacrifice something else for; and on the other, our track record of responsibility in keeping our words and deeds in line. These together make up what Aristotle called our ethos (root of “ethics”, commonly translated as “character” or “culture”). Appraisals of such things are subject to standards of interpretive charity and reasonableness. Since this has to do purely with what we actually say and do, thinking of who we are as mainly constituted by these commitments does not depend on any extravagant assumptions about free will or exemption from natural causality. (See also Reasons; Ends; Choice, Deliberation; Practical Judgment; Error; Belief; Epistemic Conscientiousness; Honesty, Kindness; Intellectual Virtue, Love; Rational/Talking Animal; Second Nature.)