Brandom and Pippin on Hegelian Ethics

Robert Brandom and Robert Pippin are two major “deflationary” readers of Hegel these days. Counter to the old bad stereotype of Hegel as an extravagant metaphysician who turned his back on Kant’s critique of traditional metaphysics, they both see Hegel as further developing the most essential aspects of Kant’s innovations. Both aim to carry forward Wilfrid Sellars’ Kant-inspired critique of the “myth of the given”. They both see human intentions in terms of shareable meanings rather than private mental contents.

Brandom sees Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition not only as leading to a radically new, expanded notion of responsibility, but also as providing a basis for a novel general account of the objectivity of knowledge. Pippin meanwhile has developed an innovative, strongly Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s practical philosophy. I like putting the two of these together.

Brandom radicalizes the Kantian theme of the primacy of practical reason, effectively putting ethical inquiry before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic. He replaces metaphysics with a new kind of meta-ethics. Unlike many who have used the term “meta-ethics”, he does not seek some naturalistic or empirical foundation for ethics; rather, he sees “normativity all the way down”. Normative considerations are involved in the interpretation of anything at all. Judgments of fact depend on value judgments, and value judgments implicitly depend on the possibility of dialogue under conditions of mutual respect. It is principally through being subject to open-ended rational dialogue that judgments are verified.

Brandom’s expanded notion of responsibility is aimed at promoting greater and wider forgiveness, while simultaneously eliminating common excuses for misdeeds. Aristotle and important strands of the Christian tradition already promoted the idea that people should not be blamed or punished for unintended consequences of their actions (or for things they were coerced into doing). Brandom attributes to Hegel the novel view that everyone shares responsibility for all unintended consequences.

Pippin makes the profoundly Aristotelian point that what we actually did is the best guide to what our intentions really were. He argues that for Hegel, our own interpretation of our intentions has no privileged status in comparison to the interpretations of others. He would undercut excuses of the sort “I did x, but I really wanted y“. Rather, he would say that what we really wanted — not in the abstract, but under all the conditions that actually applied — was just what we did.

The actuality referenced here is a matter neither of simple fact nor of empirical consensus or majority opinion, but is itself a matter of normative evaluation under conditions of rational dialogue and respect for all.

Act and Action

Still pursuing roots of the modern “subject” in medieval Latin scholasticism by way of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet, I’ve reached the point where de Libera reviews Bernard Lonergan’s detailed account of act, action, and related terms in Aquinas. The most noteworthy conclusion is that Aquinas distinguishes “act” from “action” in opposite ways in different texts, when he combines it with his other distinction between cases of immanent and transient action. This confusion appears not to have originated with Aquinas himself, but rather with the Latin translations of Greek texts that he used.

In any event, the way these distinctions are deployed by Aquinas is to say the least highly fluid, which is to say that any attempt to interpret them univocally would result in contradictions. (Burrell, who considers the analogy of being a later development attributable to Cajetan, nonetheless suggests that there is an analogy of action in Aquinas.)

De Libera constructs a table of Latin terms (vol. 3 part 1, p. 325) used by Aquinas for the Greek energeia (literally “in-actness”, for which I’ve been using the conventional translation of “actuality”) in the agent and in an external product, respectively. Energeia may be actus in the agent and actio in the product, or vice versa. It may be operatio in the agent and either actio or factio in the product. It may be actio in the agent and factio in the product.

“What it is necessary to understand in this context is that for Aristotle it is one and the same principle that accounts for act, whether in the agent or the product. That principle is form” (ibid, my translation, emphasis added). According to de Libera, for Aquinas too form is the principle of both the act that remains in the agent, and that which passes to the product. (Burrell reads Aquinas in a relational way that avoids de Libera’s suggestion of something passing between agent and product. The idea of something passing between agent and product suggests Suarez’s later explanation of efficient causation by “influence”.)

De Libera takes note (pp. 327-332) of the Latin translation of the influential definition of praxis (ethical action or practice) in the treatise On the Nature of Man by the 4th century CE Syrian bishop Nemesius of Emesa used by Aquinas. In Greek, Nemesius says “praxis is energeia logiké“. The Latin translation by Burgundio of Pisa says “gestio is actus rationalis“. But the same translator rendered the same Greek sentence in The Orthodox Faith by the 7th century monk John of Damascus as “actio is operatio rationalis“.

This might seem like a complete muddle. But if we take act as form as the guiding thread as de Libera suggests, it may be possible to get something coherent out of it. On the other hand, some adjustment would still be required if we also accepted the identification of act with action and of action with an efficient cause. If act is supposed to be understood as form and end and action as the efficient cause or means by which an end is accomplished, then act cannot be identified with action.

It is one thing to recognize the limits of attempting to apply univocity and formalism in logic to the real world, and quite another to affirm a contradiction. But this is a quite delicate area, and sometimes there are arguments whether there is truly a contradiction or merely an implicit distinction between cases. The answer to this depends on interpretation, and every interpretation is subject to dialogue.

De Libera says that Burgundio’s translation of John of Damascus “introduces nothing less than the ‘modern’ vocabulary of action” (p. 327). Thus it seems that Aquinas ends up with an unstable combination of Aristotelian and “modern” meanings for act and action, but the instability was already present in the sources he used.

Subject and Substance, Again

In the area I have been exploring most recently, we are rather far from the notions of subject and substance that I think Hegel worked back to in the course of asserting that “substance is also subject”, as if this were something new and unheard of.

It was unheard of in the context of relatively standard modern notions of substance and subject. But it is trivially true that “substance” (ousia) in the logical sense of Aristotle’s Categories (as distinct from the much deeper and more interesting sense developed in the Metaphysics) is a “subject” in the Aristotelian sense of “thing standing under”.

It is also true, I think, that substance in the deeper Aristotelian sense is the kind of thing that what I call the human essence or ethical being is, and the latter, I want to contentiously claim, actually deserves to be called a truer form of “subject” than the more standard modern notion of a psychological or spiritual subject-agent.

I’m very aware that I haven’t adequately explained what I mean by human essence, even if I gesture at something by equating it with ethical being. It is important to recognize that most 20th century philosophers rejected the very idea of a human essence. In the course of rejecting it, they made a lot of valuable criticism of notions of human essence that were too easy or had overly specific, arbitrary implications. But essence in general in the best Platonic sense ought to be taken as an open question. And by human, I just mean all of us animals that participate in meaningful language, as Aristotle said.

In having meaningful dialogue at all, we implicitly acknowledge some sort of ethics and standards of reasonableness, even if they are underdeveloped or poorly practiced). We become a “who” through participation in language and the elementary practices of mutual recognition that are entailed by such participation.

Hegel talks about “ethical substance” as the basis of traditional culture. Its “substantial” character is both a strength and a shortcoming. It is unalienated, but ultimately limited by the fact that it just “is what it is”. In his view, this kind of life comes to be eclipsed by modern individualism with its focus on the subject-agent ego, which (to simplify greatly) in turn can potentially be eclipsed or overcome by mutual recognition and “substance that is also subject”. (See also Substance and Subject.)

Real-World Reasoning

I think most people most of the time are more influenced by apprehended or assumed meanings than by formal logic. What makes us rational animals is first of all the simple fact that we have commitments articulated in language. The interplay of language and commitment opens us to dialogue and the possibility of mutual recognition, which simultaneously ground both values and objectivity. This opening, I’d like to suggest, is what Hegel called Spirit. (See also Interpretation.)

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.)