Charity vs Modesty

Sometimes we encounter conflicts in our values. One value suggests one course of action, and another that is equally valid suggests something conflicting.

Two of my most basic philosophical values are an affirmative or generous view of life in general, and a Socratic modesty about knowledge claims. I especially admire the way Aristotle succeeds in combining the two. In contrast to Plato, he puts more value on concrete life and manifestation, and has more hope that experience will be intelligible, but he still remains faithful to Plato’s Socratic modesty about knowledge.

Hegel like Aristotle puts a high value on manifestation. But he thinks part of this ought to be reflected in a relatively charitable attitude toward knowledge claims, especially those arising in ordinary life. There is an implicit tension between charity toward such claims and modesty about them. Sometimes I want to defend Kant’s greater modesty about knowledge from Hegel’s criticism. (See also Socratic Wisdom; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle; Epistemic Conscientiousness; Interpretive Charity; Affirmation.)

Many Hegels?

It is common etiquette among contemporary philosophers to preface sharp criticism with kind remarks. I try to do this myself — to find something positive I can say with full sincerity. I hope that my own practice never gives anyone the kind of feeling of insincerity I sometimes get when the subsequent criticism seems to actually undermine the previous praise, rather than rounding it out.

Gilles Bouché’s introduction to Reading Brandom: On A Spirit of Trust moves from weak praise to a valid elementary point about the difficulties of evaluating interpretations of Hegel, but his rhetoric quickly reveals an undercurrent of global hostility that makes me doubt the appearance of an unprejudiced beginning. For some unspecified reason, Brandom is singled out as “bringing his very own criteria to the bench”, as if every serious interpreter did not do just that. The question of the hermeneutic value of Brandom’s work is then shelved.

Bouché correctly notes that A Spirit of Trust is also a major presentation of Brandom’s own philosophy. He then claims that Brandom’s other major work Making It Explicit only discussed assertions and commitments “against the background of a firmament of fixed concepts”. I am aware of no textual evidence that Brandom ever presupposed such a background of fixed concepts — to me, this seems antithetical to his whole approach, which centers on a fine-grained though abstract analysis of open-ended processes of interpretation and evaluation, in contexts framed by dialogue and social relations.

Like some others, Bouché affects surprise that Brandom would “want to present us with an ethics at all”, even though questions related to normativity were already central to Making It Explicit. He claims this can only be understood in terms of a “constitutive limitation” of Brandom’s philosophy. His brief expansion of this presents Brandom’s sharp distinction of human “sapience” from organic “sentience” in extremely unsympathetic light without explaining it at all, and tries to support this by artificially tying it to a claim that Making It Explicit had nothing to offer to a wider circle of readers who expect philosophy to help them with cultural, existential, and political issues.

Twenty years ago, I struggled with the sapience/sentience distinction myself. Now I would emphasize that it is just a distinction between different concerns, one of which Brandom chooses to focus on. (In articles under Subjectivity in the menu, I have elaborated somewhat on both sides of this distinction.) It is true that Making It Explicit is a highly technical work, clearly addressed to professional analytic philosophers, rather than to that wider circle of readers. Analytic philosophy in general is technical, and has little to say directly to that wider circle. But Making It Explicit is an epic reorientation of analytic philosophy, in a direction that ultimately reconnects it with concerns that I trace back to Plato and Aristotle, who did address that wider circle.

Bouché correctly points out that for Brandom, the practices described in Making It Explicit already imply a commitment to realize the kind of community based on mutual recognition and trust that is advocated in A Spirit of Trust. He goes a little too far in identifying Brandom’s philosophy as “exactly what he ascribes to Hegel”, and then characterizes the essays he is introducing as “defend[ing] Hegel” against Brandom’s “supposedly magnanimous” reading.

Brandom makes it very clear that A Spirit of Trust is a selective and highly synthetic reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, and that he does not intend it to exclude other approaches, even though he does contradict many particular old-school claims about Hegel. I take him at his word on this, and myself find complementary value in, for example, H. R. Harris’ monumental Hegel’s Ladder, which is a line-by-line literal commentary on the Phenomenology that does an amazing job of clarifying the fine grain of Hegel’s argument. Harris’ approach could hardly be more different from Brandom’s very high-level reconstruction, but I find both to be invaluable. I have also been impressed by, e.g., Michael John Petry’s exegesis of Hegel’s Encyclopedia, in spite of the fact that Petry is quite disparaging of the Phenomenology. Despite their many differences, Brandom, Harris, and Petry all contribute to a view of a basically very reasonable Hegel, far from from the old stereotype.

In my own modest efforts here, connections with Aristotle — about whom Brandom says nothing at all — are very important. Aristotle helps me understand Hegel and Brandom, and Hegel and Brandom help me understand Aristotle. I am very interested in what I call “historiographical” questions, which directly address the kind of more concrete cultural concerns that Bouché misses in Brandom. I am also very interested in broader questions about the nature of subjectivity, and about ground-level ethics as well as meta-ethics. I don’t think it makes me any less Brandomian to have additional interests that Brandom does not pursue himself. Nor would I dream of faulting Brandom for not devoting his time to my other interests. In one lifetime, it is not possible to do everything. To accomplish something significant, one must have focus.

I believe one of the marks of a truly great philosopher is to be the subject of many different readings that are both interesting and have some plausibility. Some will be better than others and it is appropriate to critically demarcate this, but there will be something to gain from many of them. (See also Why Brandom’s Hegel.)


Foundationalism is the mistaken notion that some certain knowledge comes to us ready-made, and does not depend on anything else. One common sort involves what Wilfrid Sellars called the Myth of the Given.

Certainty comes from proof. A mathematical construction is certain. Nothing in philosophy or ordinary life is like that. There are many things we have no good reason to doubt, but without proof, that still does not make them certain.

In life, high confidence is all we need. Extreme skepticism is refuted by experience. It is not possible to live a life without practical confidence in many things.

Truth, however, is a result, not a starting point. It must be earned. There are no self-certifying truths, and truth cannot be an unexplained explainer.

In philosophy, we have dialectical criticism or analysis that can be applied from any starting point, then iteratively improved, and a certain nonpropositional faith in reason to get us going. All we need is the ability to question, an awareness of what we do not know, and a little faith. We can always move forward. It is the ability to move forward that is key. (See also Interpretation; Brandom on Truth; The Autonomy of Reason.)

Three Logical Moments

The “Logic Defined & Divided” chapter of Hegel’s Encyclopedia Logic contains some brilliant, relatively popular aphorisms from his lectures, and provides a nice introduction to his views. Having recently treated with approval Kant’s denunciation of speculation in the usual sense, I’m turning to this now because among other riches, it contains Hegel’s recovery of an alternative, much more positive sense for “speculation”. As Aristotle would remind us, things are said in many ways, and it is wise to give heed to the differences.

Hegel says that every notion and truth involves three moments that are all essential and cannot really be separated from one another: Understanding, Dialectic, and Speculation.

In other places, Hegel frequently polemicizes against the narrowness and rigidity of mere Understanding. Here, he rounds out the picture, noting that “apart from Understanding there is no fixity or accuracy in the region of theory or of practice” and that knowledge begins “by apprehending existing objects in their specific differences”. He cites examples of how Understanding contributes to science, mathematics, law, practical life, art, religion, and philosophy.

Preparing the transition to dialectic, he notes “It is the fashion of youth to dash about in abstractions — but the man who has learnt to know life steers clear of the abstract ‘either-or’, and keeps to the concrete”. Dialectic for Hegel if viewed separately is the moment of “negative” Reason or criticism. He says that dialectic subordinated to Understanding’s mode of thought leads to skepticism, but dialectic freed from this subordination builds on distinctions developed by the Understanding, even while “the one-sidedness and limitation of the predicates of understanding is seen in its true light”. Dialectic studies things “in their own being and movement”. He goes on to expound Plato’s use of dialectic, and its difference from sophistry. (See also Contradiction vs Polarity; Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic.)

Speculation in Hegel’s special sense is the “positive” moment of Reason, which if considered separately begins from a kind of faith in reasonableness in the world. He implicitly connects it with a charitable reading of the long religious tradition of faith seeking understanding, construed in such a way as to be not incompatible with a charitable version of Enlightenment criticism. He notes that “the true reason-world, so far from being the exclusive property of philosophy, is the right of every human being [of] whatever grade of culture or mental growth”, adding that “experience first makes us aware of the reasonable order of things… by accepted and unreasoned belief”. Once this rational order becomes an object of thought rather than mere belief, we have speculative Reason proper.

Speculative Reason builds on both Understanding and dialectic. “A one-sided proposition… can never even give expression to a speculative truth.” He notes a connection between this and basic intuitive fairness. Starting from a simple faith in the reasonableness of the world and advancing through various stages of criticism, speculative Reason ultimately realizes substance as subject, and overcomes the dichotomy of subject and object.

Dialectic undid the abstract, atomistic, foundationalist, “either-or” tendencies of isolated Understanding. Speculative Reason in Hegel’s sense turns this into a new affirmation. In many places, Hegel talks about Reason or dialectic in ways that subsume both the dialectical and the speculative moment described here.

I read Hegelian speculative Reason — or dialectic incorporating the speculative moment — as just ordinary reason moving forward without the crutches of foundationalism and dogmatic claims of certainty. Reason without foundationalism is concerned with the very same open-ended work of interpretation I have attributed to Aristotle. Ultimately, Hegelian Reason is defeasible rational interpretation of experience, optimistically doing the best we can with the resources we have, and always on the lookout for something better. Thus, it too can be reconciled with Kantian discipline. (See also “Absolute” Knowledge?)