Hegel and the French Revolution

Rebecca Comay’s Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution (2011) is a far better book than her recent collaboration with Frank Ruda (see Hopes Dashed). This is in the genre of literature people doing a sort of philosophy, and tends to dwell too much for my taste on broadly “existentialist” themes like sickness, loss, anxiety, etc., but it is a prolonged meditation on its subject matter, ending with a substantial discussion — and ultimately a positive, if somewhat paradoxical assessment — of the role of forgiveness in Hegel’s Phenomenology, as politically liberating.

Around 1800 in Germany, it was something of a commonplace to claim that Germany did not need a political revolution like France did, because Germany had already had the Reformation, as well as Kant’s Copernican revolution as interpreted by Fichte. Kant had expressed sympathy with the French Revolution’s ideals, but horror both at the idea of revolution, and at the execution of the French monarch in particular. (See also Enlightenment.) To oversimplify a bit, the German Romantics tended to feel that the freedom of the Subject claimed by Fichte captured everything good about the Revolution.

Hegel distanced himself from the Romantics, and mixed praise of Fichte with sharp criticism of his one-sidedness. Though Hegel championed what he considered to be true freedom, he also noted there was an uncomfortable relation between one-sided freedom and Terror. This should not be too surprising, since one-sided freedom on Hegel’s analysis is a kind of mastery. (See also Independence, Freedom; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

In the context of the paranoia that drove the Terror, which Comay associates with Hegel’s allegory of the hard-hearted judge, Comay quotes Hegel saying “the fear of error is itself the error” that “mistrusts everything except [its] own mistrust” (p. 121).

I think every state and every revolution has sometimes followed a kind of Realpolitik, under which ethical goods are sacrificed in the name of what are expediently deemed to be greater goods, e.g., the conformist political “Virtue” promoted by Robespierre. It becomes all too easy to denounce others as counter-revolutionaries or Reds or terrorists or the moral equivalent thereof, while equating one’s own Terror with Virtue. There is a rather desperate need for an Aristotelian mean here. People should not be unconditionally pacifist in the face of oppression or aggression, but we ought to be very selective and conditional about endorsing the legitimacy of violence in the name of a greater good. (See also Stubborn Refusal; Sanctions.)

Hegelian forgiveness, Comay says, “evacuates the substantial plenitude of every community. The opening of the universal is thus neither reconstructive (forgiveness does not presuppose the stable identity of the social context) nor constructive (it does not stipulate a social norm).” (p. 133.) Then “The event is historicized: instead of determining the future, the past is freed to receive a new meaning from the future…. I am freed from the past, freed to act differently, only by exposing myself to the moral claim of others…. If I am no longer the prisoner of my act, this is because I am not its proprietor either.” (p. 133.) And “The reconciling yes… retains its participial, unfinished aspect. It speaks not of reconciliation but of an unfinished and ongoing movement of reconciling” (p. 136).

Rhetorical differences notwithstanding, this much seems to me entirely compatible with Brandom’s reading of Hegelian forgiveness.

Comay says, however, that it “challenges every politics of recognition (especially those formulated in Hegel’s name) constructed on a model of dialogical transparency” (p. 135). I’m not quite sure what is meant to be implied here by “dialogical transparency”, but I don’t think the work of reason in dialogue is “transparent”. Work is not a metaphor here. Dialogue involves actual conceptual/interpretive and communicative work leading to developments that do not come ready-made.

Comay goes on to associate a politics of recognition with identity politics, without saying of whom she is thinking. I’m used to a more positive, universalist Kantian-ethical view of recognition that has nothing to do with identity politics.


Magnanimity (literally “great-souledness”) has a special place among the Aristotelian virtues. It is said to be a mean that avoids both vanity and small-mindedness. In the later tradition under Christianity, pride often tended to be regarded simply as a sin, but Aristotle made a strong distinction between vanity or arrogance and a legitimate, well-founded kind of pride that leads to good actions.

Aristotle says a person who has this legitimate kind of pride will be very willing to help others, but will generally avoid asking for help. Such a person will be open and frank, caring more about the truth than about negative judgments of others. They will generally not hide what they feel. They will have the confidence to assert themselves with others who have power and authority, but will treat others — especially those less fortunate — with kindness and respect, and perhaps ironic self-depreciation. Also, “it is not a mark of greatness of soul to recall things against people, especially the wrongs they have done you, but rather to overlook them”.

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.)

Brandomian Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the process by which immediacy is mediated, by which the stubborn recalcitrance of reality is given conceptual shape.

A Spirit of Trust, p. 612.

Confession, forgiveness, and trust are what we must do, recognitively, in order to find objective, determinately contentful conceptual norms being applied cognitively in judgment and practically in action.

p. 628

[F]orgiveness and trust embody an expansion strategy, by which self-conscious individuals identify with actual goings-on over which they exert some real, but always only partial authority, identify themselves as the seats of responsibilities that outrun their own capacity to fulfill.

p. 623

The final chapter and conclusion of Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust include a strong ethical message about mutual forgiveness, interwoven with his reading of Hegel’s resolution of the subject-object dichotomy. Sophoclean tragic heroes encountered fate as an uncontrollable alien force that changed the meaning of their actions against their will, but still took responsibility for their actions anyway. Aristotle and important strands of the Christian tradition already anticipated what Brandom calls Kant’s contraction of responsibility to a responsibility for intentions only. Brandom sees in Hegel a novel suggestion that instead of thus contracting responsibility to commitments alone, we should expand it and make it mutual.

Instead of blaming the actor for the action’s unintended consequences or contractively saying no one is responsible in such cases, Brandom sees the “postmodern”, “expansive” Hegelian alternative as consisting in the actor taking responsibility for unintended consequences, while the recognitive community also takes responsibility by forgiving the actor. Aristotle and the aforementioned strands of Christian tradition both already explicitly recommended forgiveness of the actor for unintended consequences and unwilling actions generally, even if they grounded it in what Brandom calls a contractive model of responsibility. In terms of concrete ethics, the results are similar. (See also Willing, Unwilling; Blame and Blamelessness; Evaluation of Actions.)

The gain from Brandom’s expansive model of responsibility lies rather in its consequences for the project of treating meta-ethics as first philosophy. Brandom wants to nudge us to move from an implicit normative/factual dualism toward a purely normative monism, in which all facts are what they are by virtue of their place in the normative synthesis of reasonable explanations.

When we fail to come up with a charitable interpretation of someone’s action, commitments, or reasons, Brandom recommends we trust that someone else eventually will be able to do so. “Where our normative digestion and domestication of immediacy, contingency, and particularity shows its limitations, when (as in each case at some point they must) they outrun our recollective capacity to incorporate them into the mediated, normative conceptual form of governing universals, that failure of ours is properly acknowledged by confession and trust in the forgiveness of that failure to fulfill our responsibilities, by more capable future recollectors” (p. 756).

For Brandom, what I above called normative monism is the final step in the long process of resolving the subject-object dichotomy bequeathed to us by early modernity. Simultaneously, it offers a new concept of community, in which “each member identifies with all the others, at once expressing and sacrificing their own particular attitudes by taking coresponsibility for the practical attitudes of everyone” (p. 757). He cites Hegel’s invocation of the “‘I’ that is ‘We’, the ‘We’ that is ‘I'”. Though it has a historical dimension, this is the universal community of rational beings participating in the transcendental field, not an empirical community.

It is worth noting that forgiveness applies to individual people, who potentially could participate in concrete acts of mutual recognition. Insofar as we tend to hold actual people responsible for what we deem to be bad circumstances, institutions, or organizational behavior, we should be forgiving toward those people.

But there is still such a thing as injustice, and as long as we are forgiving of individual people and exercise appropriate interpretive charity with respect to their motives, in the formation of normative syntheses we are under no obligation to be similarly tender toward circumstances, institutions, or organizational behavior. On the contrary, if we have an obligation in this case, it is to right what is wrong. Circumstances, institutions, and organizational behavior are not people deserving sympathy, and not participants in any recognition process. Any or all of them may be deeply unjust in actual cases. Here, critical thought about what is good and the consideration of impacts on people should have full sway. (See also Justice in General; Honesty, Kindness.)