Metaphysical, Nonmetaphysical

There is a large current debate over so-called “metaphysical” versus “nonmetaphysical” readings of Hegel. Brandom, Robert Pippin, and Terry Pinkard are considered to be in the nonmetaphysical camp, and my sympathies are generally on this side. I also think that the “metaphysical” camp makes many unwarranted assumptions about what metaphysics must be; and that the so-called nonmetaphysical approach to Hegel is actually much closer to what emerges from an unbiased and historiographically aware close textual reading of Aristotelian metaphysics. (Justification of this obviously large claim is a work in progress, far exceeding the scope of a single post. But see menu for many related notes on Aristotle and Hegel.)

I take the term “metaphysics” to refer in the first instance to concerns addressed in the collection of Aristotelian texts later editors placed “after the Physics”, when physics itself had already been developed in terms of a kind of semantics of the becoming of sensible things. Aristotelian “metaphysics” is dedicated to a further exploration of higher-order interpretive concepts already employed throughout his works.

Many layers of very non-Aristotelian Neoplatonic and theological interpretation affect the way Aristotelian texts are still commonly read today. To the extent that they relate to Aristotle at all, common connotations of the term “metaphysics” almost exclusively pick out what were actually non-Aristotelian biases in historical readings of Aristotle. Interpretations I refer to as biased in this way were often highly sophisticated and interesting in their own right, but that is not the point here.

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.)

Having a History

Having established that there is a non-absurd interpretation of talk about “essentially self-conscious” entities, we can go on to specify that these will be the entities we will say have a history and not just a past, where “history” refers to progressive changes in the entity’s self-constituting normative stance, attitude, identification, commitment. (Once again, “self-constituting” implies no magic bootstrapping from nothing, just that what the self-conscious entity takes to be the case contributes to its constitution; and “entity” is just an anaphoric reference to a previous mention.)

Brandom does not use second-nature talk, so he speaks of these entities as having a history instead of a nature. In a general context, I find it helpful to speak of second-natured things as having second nature as well as first nature; and of second nature as the sort of thing that intrinsically has a history, whereas a composite of first and second nature derivatively has a history.

This creates a nuancial difference in the identity of the entities Brandom and I respectively may be mentioning in this sort of context — his entities that have a history seem to be entirely constituted by what I am calling second nature, which would be a nonempirical normative status, whereas mine at least could also be the larger wholes that include a first-nature empirical “me” with factual characteristics as well as a transcendental “I” indexing second-nature commitments in a unity of apperception.

An entity that has a history and no first nature would be just whatever entity we associate with the second-nature commitments in question, whereas an entity that has a history and a first nature would be associated with both a “historical” second nature and an “unhistorical” first nature. In any given case, I think it is important to be clear which of these is at issue.

My preferred variant — based on a strong concern to avoid implicit too-easy identification of empirical and transcendental subjectivity — imposes or brings to light additional burdens on the normative monism I have attributed to Brandom, which would aim to explain everything that needs to be preserved about the empirical, in terms of the transcendental. I believe this can be resolved in principle with a bit of added bookkeeping. (See also One, Many; Individuation; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)

Also, “history” is said in many ways. Aside from the transcendental-only sense discussed above, there is another in which I would want to say that nature too has a history (think of things like historical geology, evolution, and ecological succession); and that non-Whiggish history of human culture also has its place. See Aristotelian Matter; Historiography; Archaeology of Knowledge.)

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.

Echoes of the Deed

“The kinds of doings [Hegel] is principally interested in are processes rather than events: writing a book, building a house, learning a trade, diagnosing or treating a disease” (A Spirit of Trust, p. 733). Not only that, such doings implicitly include future consequences that are not yet determined. Because of this, their evaluation and place in a normative synthesis may change over time. (The “echo” metaphor of this post’s title should not be taken too literally. I mean something related but relatively independent that happens later, may not have been expected, and possibly could not have been expected.)

Unlike mathematical provability or statically definable structures, what not only looks but (as a result of an enormous process of mutual recognition) genuinely is normatively correct or incorrect or good or bad as of one moment is not guaranteed to remain so as further consequences play out. In this sense, as long as there is a future, no deed and no story will ever be complete, or even necessarily have a predictable ending.

The future may move us to reinterpret the past, and this is as it should be. It gives cause for hope that situations beyond our control can always be better, and that we can play a role in making them so — that how we respond to them matters.

Beyond Subject-Object

When dichotomous connotations have already been applied to a distinction in some communicative context, it can be tricky to simultaneously clarify the transcendence of the dichotomy and the preservation of the underlying distinction, but the general solution is not far to find — just ensure that the underlying distinction is expressed in terms of some finite relation, rather than A versus not-A. Then we have Hegelian determinate negation or Aristotelian difference between the terms, rather than classical negation. So in effect, the solution lies in recognizing that the previous understanding of the distinction in terms of dichotomy was wrong in the first place. More positively, Hegel eliminates dichotomies by putting determinate relations, coherence, and mediation first in the order of explanation, before all particular terms.

Hegel famously wanted to move beyond the subject-object dichotomy he saw as typical of early modernity. In practical terms, Kant’s most famous concern to avoid “dogmatic” assumptions about direct possession of epistemic objects had seemed to accentuate the separation of subject and object, by focusing on the distinction between appearance and reality. But both Kant and Hegel wanted to assert the possibility of knowledge in a strong sense, while avoiding what Kant called dogmatism. They also had considerable common ground in a shared rejection of naive early modern notions of subjects and objects and their relations.

Kant had begun — seemingly unwittingly — to recover some neglected Aristotelian insights in these areas, and Hegel made this an explicit theme. Thus they both already questioned the dichotomous interpretation of subject-object relations. Kant had also already highlighted the inevitable involvement of concepts in experience. For Kant, there is no direct epistemic access to real-world objects, or things in themselves (or to our own subjectivity). All knowledge proceeds by way of concepts, but he retains the concept of objects (and subjects) as a sort of placeholders for new distinctions between appearance and reality that can always be wrapped around current concepts in a new iteration.

The Hegelian Absolute — or that which transcends the subject-object dichotomy — is just a handle for perspectives that put processes, relations, coherence, and mediation before any preconceived notion of the conceptual content of particular terms. I think Hegel saw this sort of structure as common to Aristotelian substance or “what it was to have been” a thing and Kantian subjectivity or synthesis of apperception. Working in the Hegelian Absolute does not require epistemic super powers or specious Cartesian certainty, just a sustained honest effort that is still implicitly defeasible. Hegel intends the Absolute to be a kind of Aristotelian achievable perfection, not a kind of omniscience or theological perfection that could never be legitimately claimed by a rational animal. (See Substance Also Subject.)

In approaching these matters in A Spirit of Trust, Brandom characteristically focuses not directly on higher-order abstractions, but on their implications for what we do with ordinary concepts in ordinary experience. Like Aristotle and Hegel but following a distinct strategy of his own, Brandom avoids the impasse of a supposed transition from psychological to “metaphysical” terms, or from ordinary experience to something that would seemingly have to be like the mind of God, by clarifying what we implicitly mean by concepts in the first place.

With Aristotle, Hegel, and Frege and in contradistinction to the empiricist tradition, Brandom understands concepts and apperception in a nonpsychological, nonrepresentational, normative-pragmatic, inferential-semantic way. Through the discovery of counterfactually robust relations, concepts evolve toward increasing universality. Through the experience of error, synthesis of apperception comes to recognize that not only its commitments but also its concepts are always in principle provisional, subject to reformulation when faced with a new case. Through both of these combined with the additional cross-checks provided by mutual recognition, synthesis moves toward increasing objectivity and what might be called contact with reality. Through Brandom’s “expansive” model of responsibility, the last remaining obstacle to a full resolution of subject-object separation — the lack of a normative interpretation of unintended consequences of actions — is removed.

Neither “subjects” nor “objects” as such are very prominent in an account of this sort. It is much more a story about processes, relations, coherence, and mediation. Aristotle, Hegel, and Brandom each develop their own ways of working that start in the middle, as it were, and do not need reified subjects and objects to begin with. This, again, is just what the Hegelian Absolute is — a name for the sort of perspective that emphasizes the in-principle provisional character of all finite concepts, as contrasted with the more directly practical sort of perspective that provisionally works with the current basis as a source of reasons for particular sayings and doings.


I’m looking at yet another critique of Brandom’s reading of Hegel by yet another person who did not consult the draft of Brandom’s major book on Hegel that was publicly available well before the critique was published. (So far, disappointingly, this has been true in four out of four cases I have examined.)

Alper Turken in “Brandom vs. Hegel: The Relation of Normativity and Recognition to the True Infinite” (2015) wants to say that the “true infinite”, which he identifies as Hegel’s resolution of the naive separation of Subject and Object in Consciousness, is the most important thing in Hegel, and is simply missed by any reading of Hegel that emphasizes the sociality of reason. According to Turken, reason must come before sociality, and a sociality of reason is incompatible with autonomy. Turken also cites psychoanalytic arguments that an empirical subject does not have what would in effect be Mastery over its attitudes.

Brandom explicitly comments on the Hegelian “true infinite” at several points in A Spirit of Trust. He characterizes it as a holistic perspective characteristic of the Hegelian “Absolute”, in which all identity is constituted through difference, and there is no fixed point of reference.

The idea that reason must come “before” sociality suggests a kind of modern platonism that I don’t think Plato himself — let alone Hegel — would have countenanced. (I view Platonic reason as inherently dialogical, and inherently involved with ethical concerns.)

Brandom applies a Fregean force/content distinction to normativity. It may appear that he does so with a sort of reciprocal onesidedness.

However, when he speaks of the attitude-dependence of normative force, I understand this to mean dependence on a concrete and fallible but inherently rational and ethical synthesis of apperception, not just an arbitrary attitude of an empirical subject.

The relevant autonomy does not consist in a putative right of naively conceived Enlightenment individuals to form whatever attitudes they factually please, but in the normative autonomy of reason in any synthesis of apperception. Autonomy just means that Reason should take only reasons — what it judges to be good reasons — into account, not assumptions or special pleadings. “I” as index of a synthesis of apperception also recognize only reasons that fit into the concrete synthesis. (See also Error.)

When Brandom speaks of the dependence of determinations of normative content on others, I understand the “others” in question to be the virtual universal community of all rational beings, not some empirically existing society. In the realm of Reason, the status quo of an existing society could never be the final word.

If Brandom did not deal with Hegel’s resolution of the naive early modern separation of Subject and Object, that would indeed be a grievous shortcoming. But in fact, Hegel’s resolution of subject-object separation is developed extensively by Brandom in A Spirit of Trust. It emerges organically from a nonpsychological notion of conceptual content. (See Beyond Subject-Object; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

It seems to me that there is actually a sort of parallel between the transition from naive early modern subject-object separation to the standpoint of Hegel’s Logic and the end of the Phenomenology on the one hand, and the transition from naive early modern individualism to Hegelian mutual recognition on the other. I see a similar parallel between the epistemic limitations of early modern subjectivism and the ethical limitations of early modern individualism. Hegel’s solutions to both are deeply interrelated.

Turken seems to assume that all sociality of reason must take the form of what Hegel called positivity, or empirically existing determinations such as received views. If this were the case, it could not possibly do what Brandom wants. But it is not the case. Commitments only exist in the social space of reasons, and every commitment invites rational questioning. In principle, there is no end to this potential dialogue. We never arrive at final answers, just the best ones we can obtain for now.

Once again, it seems to me that the critics of “deflationary” readings of Hegel implicitly depend on “inflationary” medieval transformations of Plato and Aristotle. Part of what those inflationary, reifying readings lost was the primacy of open-ended normative reasoning.