The Phenomenology’s Ending

Having more or less completed a walk-through of Hegel’s Phenomenology in the company of Harris’ unique literal commentary, the first thing I want to comment on is Brandom’s decision not to cover the Phenomenology‘s last two chapters (on Religion and Absolute Knowledge) in A Spirit of Trust. Brandom argues that the actual climax of Hegel’s work is the end of the preceding Spirit chapter, where Conscience finds its completion in mutual recognition, confession, and forgiveness. This allows him to avoid entering into controversy on the secondary point of the status of historical, socially instituted religion. As my own coverage illustrates, this is indeed a thorny area. Brandom develops his own somewhat minimalist treatment of absolute knowledge, carefully avoiding the connections with historical religion and the issues of the latter’s status that Harris explicitly brings out.

In a historically Christian culture, it is difficult to speak of confession and forgiveness without implicitly invoking religious connotations. Clearly they can also be given a purely ethical meaning, though, and this is what Brandom does.

It seems clear that Hegel thinks the standpoint of Conscience already stands on the threshold of absolute knowledge, requiring only an explicit consideration of mutual recognition and forgiveness to complete it. In this regard, Brandom is right. Moreover, I think Brandom’s parallel path to absolute knowledge ultimately yields conclusions compatible with those that Harris draws from following the remainder of Hegel’s argument. They both give absolute knowledge a mainly ethical rather than theological (or epistemological) meaning.

Harris thinks, though, that the Religion chapter is the one place where Hegel does argue for a linear, progressive historical development. Brandom replaces this with references to Enlightenment political theory that Hegel does not explicitly discuss at all in the Phenomenology. Here we are concerned with the transition from ancient Greek recognition that “some are free” to Kantian/Fichtean and modern democratic recognition that “all are free”. For Hegel himself, this goes through historical Christianity.

Brandom charts an alternative linear development to “all are free” that goes through the attitude-dependence of norms in secular traditions of natural law and social contract theory. While I have serious issues with the political and legal voluntarism of these traditions, I do think Brandom’s alternate genealogy of the modern “all are free” is probably more factually historical than the path Hegel himself traces through the Unhappy Consciousness, primitive Christianity, and the Reformation.

Another important point that Harris makes, though, is that Hegel treats historical religion because he wants to be maximally socially inclusive. The peasant-wife with her cows in Sense-Certainty could be deeply touched by historical religion, but is most probably totally unaware of Enlightenment political theory. Harris says that religion already gives the most naive “natural” consciousness the sense that there is something greater than itself, which begins the path to Self-Consciousness and Spirit.

Another alternative path to the more political sense of “all are free” (which I like better than the one through natural law and social contract theory) goes through the more explicitly democratic concerns of the Spinozist movement and the French Encyclopedists (see Enlightenment).

Pinkard on Spirit of Trust

Terry Pinkard’s contribution to the recent, rather negatively skewed collection Reading Brandom offers a judicious and measured critique of Brandom’s reading of Hegel in A Spirit of Trust. I previously commented on Pinkard’s separate book review, which was a bit more sharply worded, and covers some of the same points in more detail. I’ll focus here on a couple of further matters.

Pinkard nicely develops the contrast between Fichtean and Hegelian accounts of mutual recognition. For Fichte, a denial of the need for mutual recognition would simply be a philosophical error. Hegel went further, in maintaining that the slave society that institutionalized such a denial was ultimately unable to make sense of itself by its own criteria.

Somewhat my surprise, Pinkard objects to what he takes to be Brandom’s reading of the Spirit chapter of the Phenomenology in terms of Kantian or Fichtean transcendental philosophy. He takes this to mean that Hegel’s apparent historical references must on Brandom’s reading be taken to have only an allegorical significance. It is true that the transcendental has no historical dimension in Kant or Fichte. But according to Brandom, “Hegel brings the normative down to earth by explaining discursive norms as the products of social practices…. the diachronic historical dimension of recognitive communities is at the center of Hegel’s story” (Spirit of Trust, pp. 12, 14). Brandom’s Hegel’s transcendental is linguistic, social, and historical.

Pinkard correctly points out that historical development does not follow the principles of what Brandom calls a forgiving Hegelian genealogy, which Brandom likes to explain by analogy with the retrospective evaluations of case law in jurisprudence. I don’t think Brandom meant this as an account of the objective sequence of historical development, but rather as a guiding ideal for the retrospective interpretations we use in understanding cumulative results embodied in the present.

Retrospective Interpretation

In studying the past, we should first do all we can to understand it in its own terms, and only then consider possibly anachronistically applying concepts from a later time. But sometimes, such retrospective application can yield real insight. For instance, some time ago I realized that the logical meaning of Aristotle’s two proposition-forming operations of “combination” and “separation” of terms is actually very well explicated by Brandom’s notions of material consequence and material incompatibility (see Aristotelian Propositions).

Philosophers sometimes develop their own very distinctive meanings for common terms, in which case interpreting those terms in the common way can result in serious misunderstanding, and naturally this can also affect the validity of applying them retrospectively. So, for instance, under a “common” interpretation, Hegel’s talk about the concerns of Socrates for Self-Consciousness and Freedom makes little sense. But with a better understanding of Hegel’s distinctive use of these terms, it is much more intelligible. (See also Hegelian Genealogy.)

Aristotle and Brandom?

For the second time, I think I discovered a significant new insight into a major Aristotelian concept by thinking it through in Brandomian terms. When I began this effort, Aristotle and Brandom were just the two philosophers with whom I was most engaged, who seemed to me to share my overarching concern with the ethical import of reasons and things said, but it is growing to be something more.

(To some, this might seem a strange pairing. However, in spite of his own lack of direct engagement with Aristotle, Brandom has commented that a number of his best interlocutors (unnamed) were what he called neo-Aristotelians. Certainly, Hegel — the historic philosopher with whom Brandom has been most engaged — makes major use of Aristotle, and Brandom’s co-thinkers on Hegel, Robert Pippin and Terry Pinkard, have highlighted this.)

Earlier, I noted a kind of isomorphism between Aristotelian potentiality and Brandomian modally robust counterfactual inference, which then turned into a three-way correspondence with the structuralist concept of structure, and helped illuminate the old synchronic/diachronic issue associated with structuralism.

The other day, I noted a second isomorphism, between canonical Aristotelian proposition-forming combination and separation and Brandomian material consequence and material incompatibility. The result is that Aristotle’s canonical conception of logical truth seems very consistent with what Brandom recommends, in terms of using goodness of material inference to explain truth rather than using truth to explain inference.

Brandom has referred to this sort of interpretation as a recollective genealogy, grounded in Hegel’s way of retrospectively interpreting past philosophers in light of the present. Obviously there is a creative element to such an endeavor. The important and delicate point is that it not be an arbitrary imposition, but something that yields genuine insight that is both relevant to the present and honestly compatible with the best historiographic objectivity we can fallibly attain. In the two cases mentioned above, I think that has been achieved.

Going in the other direction, developing an Aristotelian interpretation of Brandom’s distinction between sentience and sapience has helped me to achieve full sympathy with this notion, and with several of Kant’s apparently dualistic moments as well.

Somewhat ambidextrously, it seems to me that Brandomian commitments, together with the sort of pattern of performance with respect to responsibility measured by Brandomian deontic scorekeeping, make up the ethical character or culture that Aristotle called ethos. (See also Ethos; Aristotelian Subjectivity; Brandomian Choice.)