I-Thou, I-We

Brandom has long insisted on the more fundamental role of I-Thou relations as compared with I-We relations. This means that a community is not a pre-given whole or an immediate belonging, but rather something that emerges out of concrete relationships. This seems to me like a good Aristotelian or Hegelian approach. Truth is concrete, as Hegel put it. There are also grounds for saying that face-to-face relations (literal or metaphorical) are more primary for ethics than any alleged immediacy of a community as an abstract entity. Even more than other things, our notions of actual unity of collectivities like communities are products of complex Kantian synthesis.

Martin Buber famously contrasted I-Thou relations with I-It relations. For Buber, I-It relations refer to objects viewed as separate from us and are typical of sensation, whereas I-Thou relations involve others we recognize as like us, and have an intrinsically ethical character.

Though we metaphorically speak of the spirit of a community, a community as a unity is not a person but an abstraction. In this way, it is more like an object. Kantian respect applies to persons — to concrete others.

It is only in Brandom’s interpretation of Hegelian mutual recognition in his later work that his emphasis on I-Thou relations reaches its full flowering. Earlier, I think he had wanted to achieve the same delicate balance as in the later work. Social norms are instituted from the normative attitudes of people, but nonetheless also acquire a kind of emergent objectivity, so that something is not right just because I or my empirically existing community say it is, but because of a whole complex of criteria that have acquired relative independence. On the other hand, the last word is never said, so even what emerges as objective and relatively independent can also be questioned and change. But his earlier work was mainly framed as an ambitious technical contribution to the philosophy of language, even though normativity played a central role in it. One reviewer characterized Brandom’s “normative pragmatics” as the first comprehensive attempt to ground the whole philosophy of language in Wittgenstein’s dictum that meaning is use.

Brandom’s mentor Richard Rorty already characterized Making It Explicit as taking analytic philosophy into a new Hegelian phase, but at this stage Brandom was still very circumspect about the ultimately Hegelian character of his views, engaging mainly with the work of other analytic philosophers. Without his later detailed argument about mutual recognition, his assertion that normativity also has a kind of objectivity derived from intersubjectivity seemed to many readers not to be adequately supported or developed.

Brandom spent decades carefully laying the ground for the idea that there really could be a unification of analytic philosophy with key aspects of Hegel’s thought that would be meaningful and convincing in analytic terms. Only after that long preparatory work did he begin to publicly focus on Hegel. Only then did his longstanding emphasis on I-Thou relations flower into a groundbreaking account of mutual recognition, and only then did its ethical significance become more clear.

A number of reviewers have suggested that he changed his mind on this issue, from a more one-sided emphasis on attitudes to his current view that emphasizes a kind of two-sided interaction. I have tended to see more continuity, but Making It Explicit did briefly flirt with applying the term “phenomenalism” to Brandom’s view of norms. The way I understand phenomenalism, such a term better applies to a one-sided emphasis on attitude-dependence of norms than to the two-sided, intersubjective view that I think is already implicit in his I-Thou emphasis. I have not seen this odd usage of “phenomenalism” recur in his later work. That term gets zero references in the index to A Spirit of Trust.

Brandom associates one-sided attitude-dependence with modernity, and the two-sided view with what he now calls Hegelian postmodernity. As I have mentioned too many times already, I do find it odd that he has chosen to valorize the one-sided view as historically progressive, when his own view is two-sided. For me, the subjectivist or voluntarist error is at least as bad as naive traditionalist acceptance of values as pre-given. I want to emphasize the two-sided view across the board.

It is worth noting that Ricoeur has rehabilitated the third person from Buber’s negative association with an “It” by connecting it with notions of justice, which he sees as involving as an additional mediation of ethical second-person relations through Kantian universality in the third person. But Ricoeur’s notion of justice has nothing to do with Buber’s I-It model; indeed, one of the two “axes” around which it revolves is an implicitly I-Thou based “dialogical” constitution of self that ends up being close to Brandom’s. (See Ricoeur on Justice; Ricoeurian Ethics.) An important strand of the argument of his late work Memory, History, Forgetting converges with Brandom’s critique of a focus on I-We: “It is, therefore, not with the single hypothesis of the polarity between individual memory and collective memory that we enter into the field of history, but with the hypothesis of the threefold attribution of memory: to oneself, to one’s close relations, and to others” (p. 132).

Poetry and Mathematics

Philosophy is neither poetry nor mathematics, but a discursive development.  Poetry may give us visionary symbolism or language-on-language texturings that deautomate perception.  Mathematics offers a paradigm of exactitude, and develops many beautiful structures.  But philosophy is the home of ethics, dialogue, and interpretation.  It is — dare I say it — the home of the human.

Poetry and mathematics each in their own way show us an other-than-human beauty that we as humans can be inspired by.  Ethics on the other hand is the specifically human beauty, the beauty of creatures that can talk and share meaning with one another.

Ethical Reason, Interpretation

Now I want to say that the ethical reason or practical reason I have in mind is broad enough to subsume not only a consideration of feeling and non-ego-centered meditation, but all sorts of philosophical questions, and all sorts of technical disciplines as well. It is able to learn from things as diverse as structuralism and Marcelian spirituality.

The broad perspective of ethical reason, born in Plato’s dialogues and developed by Aristotle into a generalized approach subsuming many more specific inquiries, was largely lost in early modern thought, but revived again by Kant and Hegel. To this day, much modern thought remains polarized between untenable alternatives of allegedly value-free scientific or technical analysis on the one hand, and subjectivist self-assertion and anti-rationalism on the other.

Ethical reason asks what and why in a spirit of mutual recognition, and in a way that is at once open-endedly interpretive and concerned with values. (See also Rationality.)

More Difference, Less Conflict

This is not a panacea because often people are not attuned to logical subtleties, but strife can be reduced by closer attention to distinctions. Even opposite assertions about what are actually different things do not conflict at all, except possibly through their implications. More qualified assertions also reduce the potential for conflict.

Claims of incommensurability tend to end dialogue rather than promote it, so it is not clear that they actually reduce conflict. Intelligible distinctions, on the other hand, are an important part of the implicit basis of civility. Much of civility and ethics is about appropriate response, which depends on intelligible distinctions.

Attention to distinctions is entirely consistent with a Kantian concern for ethical universality. It actually helps. We can do a better job of applying universals to particulars when we have more distinctions to work with. (See also Practical Judgment; Reasonableness; Contradiction.)


“Normativity” means “values”, with emphasis on the implicit ought they carry with them.

Brandom and others have used the word “normativity” as a way of more explicitly recalling that our affirmation of particular values implicitly carries with it a Kantian obligation to realize them in life, and that while we may choose to affirm some values rather than others (and values are only binding on us because we have implicitly or explicitly endorsed them), the meaning of the values we do so affirm is fundamentally not up to us.

This has absolutely nothing to do with empirical “normality” or social conformity. Like all ethics, it certainly does have a fundamentally social significance, but there is nothing conformist about it. Normativity in no way entails unthinking or merely obedient acceptance of prevailing attitudes. On the contrary, it implies a responsibility to participate in potential Socratic questioning of merely asserted values. In Aristotelian terms, normativity is concerned with derived ends considered under the mode of potentiality, whereas “normality” is concerned with efficient causes operating under the mode of actuality. (See also Space of Reasons; Intentionality.)

Kantian Respect

One of the fundamentals of Kantian ethics is a universal respect for people — not just those of whom we are fond, or those of whom we approve, or those who belong to a group with which we identify. This of course does not mean we should one-sidedly tolerate extremes of abuse. Respect for people is actually an Aristotelian mean. Like all ethical considerations, it requires a bit of thought in the application.

I used to worry about “metaphysical” or theological preconceptions about what it means to be a person. Even now, I would not base respect for people on a theological notion of substantial personhood, which carries too many presuppositions. Rather, I would start from the Aristotelian concept of rational or talking animals, understood as participating in Brandomian sapience.

I actually believe in respect for all beings, period — including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. At this level, respect just means a sort of general kindness. But Kant was right to note that there is a profound practical difference when it comes to our fellow talking animals. The fact that we can talk to each other and ask questions of one another makes our interaction with fellow rational animals unique. Even under a broad, somewhat non-Kantian notion of respect for all beings, the kinds of interaction that are possible among beings possessed of language are far richer, and entail more specific responsibilities. Kant himself chose to reserve the term “respect” for those more specific responsibilities.

Kantian respect for people has nothing to do with judgments of the competence or goodness of individuals. It is grounded in the sheer possibility of dialogue. (See also Recognition.)

Space of Reasons

Wilfrid Sellars (1912-89) was one of the greatest American philosophers of the 20th century. A pragmatist trained in the analytic tradition, he rethought analytic philosophy from a broadly Kantian point of view, and famously criticized the “Myth of the Given”. His positive reference to Hegel as “that great foe of immediacy” made a great impression on the young Robert Brandom.

Sellars originated the phrase “space of reasons”, now much used by Brandom and others. He said that to hold a commitment at all is to invite questions about the reasons for it. The particular reasons for a commitment involve other reasons, which involve still others, and so on, forming a “space” that can be explored through dialogue.

I would note that in Aristotelian terms, the space of reasons would be a kind of field of potentialities. Because the space of reasons is potential rather than actual, it involves a vast multiplication of alternate (counterfactual) paths, structures, and fibrations. I associate it with an open field of potential Socratic questioning and negotiation. By contrast, both individualized ethos and the beliefs generally shared by an existing community would be kinds of actuality, in which particular alternatives are already selected, but may change over time. (See also Normativity; Intentionality.)

Intro to Hermeneutics

“Hermeneutics” is derived from the Greek word for interpretation. It has a complex history, with roots in Greek literary interpretation, scriptural interpretation, and Renaissance humanism. In an 1808 work, the German philologist Friedrich Ast formulated a first version of the hermeneutic circle, emphasizing that we encounter a sort of chicken-and-egg relationship between the meaning of the parts and the meaning of the whole in a text. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833 – 1911) promoted a discipline of hermeneutics as the grounding for a distinctive kind of scientific method for the human sciences. In contrast to Dilthey, Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) emphasized that we do not begin from the outside with a theoretical methodology, but rather find ourselves in the world along with the things we seek to understand.

The name most strongly associated with 20th century hermeneutics is Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 – 2002). Combining neo-Kantian and Heideggerian influences with a strong interest in Platonic and Aristotelian ethics, Gadamer emphasized that all understanding has the character of a dialogue, and dwelt extensively on Aristotelian phronesis, or practical wisdom regarding concrete situations and what to do.

Another major figure is Paul Ricoeur (1913 – 2005), who dwelt on the nature of human beings as responsible ethical agents, while rejecting claims that the self is immediately transparent to itself, or fully master of itself. He sought to understand subjectivity without falling prey to subjectivism or presupposing a sovereign Subject. Both he and Gadamer also emphasized the irreducible role of language in understanding.

At least on these points, there is an interesting convergence with themes I have been pursuing here. I see philosophy as fundamentally hermeneutic, rather than seeking to formulate a “system of the world”. The kind of semantics I have attributed to Aristotle, along with his use of dialectic, seems to me to be the earliest developed philosophical hermeneutics, with roots in Socratic questioning. Brandom’s mix of semantics with what he calls normative pragmatics, in conjunction with his work on Hegel, can be considered as a very original form of hermeneutics within analytic philosophy.

“Secondary” Literature

One of my favorite Hegelian aphorisms is that philosophy is inseparable from the history of philosophy. Presentations ordered in the form of “my system of the world” or “the Truth according to me” rather quickly become tedious, and contribute to the misapprehension that there is no possibility of a cumulative development. Far better is a reflexive turn that interrogates the best that has been said before.

Socrates — at least, the Socrates of Plato’s “Socratic” dialogues — inaugurated a related approach, treating serious pursuit of questions as more valuable than supposed answers. Aristotle especially deserves credit for initially showing how such questioning can lead to a truly cumulative development, with many tentative answers along the way. Many later figures approached philosophy primarily as a sort of dialogue with Aristotle or Plato, or meditation or commentary on their works. In the later European middle ages, very extensive catalogs of nuanced alternative views, interpretations, and arguments were recorded by individual authors. This tradition rather suddenly died in the 17th century. In the midst of many scientific and technical advances, philosophy largely regressed from hermeneutic engagement to competing “systems of the world” that mostly talked past each other.

Hegel himself largely initiated serious interest in the history of philosophy. His historical view enabled him to recover the possibility of a cumulative development. Nowadays, philosophers again spend much of their time writing about other philosophers. Very important philosophical work takes place in what is nominally “secondary” literature, and “primary” works are full of secondary references. Without extensive secondary literature, the works of great later philosophers like Kant and Hegel would remain largely closed books. High-quality secondary literature on historical philosophers has especially flourished since the later 20th century, so it is really quite a recent development.

After 20 years of engagement, I have come to include Brandom on the short list of the very greatest philosophers that I can count on one hand. He is the first analytic philosopher to rise nearly so high in my estimation. His Woodbridge lectures revived my interest in Hegel, and overcame my previous deep reservations about Kant. Now, for the first time, in Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust we have a true Great Book by a true great philosopher that is nominally a “secondary” work about another philosopher. Needless to say, it is also a work of great originality. I still look to others for closer textual engagement and a more historical view, but Brandom’s Hegel requires less in the way of apologetics than I ever would have expected from reading Hegel himself.