Trust as a Principle

Trust as a principle does not mean blind trust. It means trust as a default attitude. Trust as a universal default is perfectly compatible with every kind of critical thinking.

When we trust someone, we grant them a kind of authority, but authority must always be balanced by symmetrical responsibility. To make any assertion at all is enter the space of reasons. To make an assertion is to make oneself responsible for it, along with its consequences and incompatibilities. No one has privileged access to what is right, which depends upon shareable criteria. Generalized trust does not mean naivete or credulity, just a kind of fairness. It could not mean an abdication of our responsibilities as rational beings. In the context of what Brandom would call deontic scorekeeping, generalized trust means a level playing field, not an absence of standards.

“Why” by Normative Pragmatics

Brandom’s normative pragmatics can be seen as providing a general framework for answering “why” questions. Pragmatics is initially about the practical use of language, and normative pragmatics is about good use, which for Brandom especially means good inferential use. Thus, normative pragmatics ends up being broadly concerned with good informal reasoning in life, i.e., with the quality of our ethical and other judgments.

In my view, this concern with the goodness of reasons and judgments also ends up emphasizing the ethical dimensions of judgment in general. There is really no such thing as “value free” judgment. Even what is called mathematical “intuition” is really an acquired practical skill having to do with judgment of what next step is contextually appropriate.

Classically, “why” asks for reasons, or about the goodness of reasons. Taken far enough, this leads to questions about ends.

Aristotle, too, typically framed inquiries in terms of what is well “said of” something. This is a kind of analysis of language use, with a normative or ethical intent, that ends up being inseparable from questions of what is right and what is true. This general approach is actually a form of what Brandom would call normative pragmatics. Brandom would tell us that semantics — or the investigation of meaning — depends on this sort of inquiry. My ascription of a fundamentally semantic orientation to Aristotle carries a similar implication.

What and Why

I want to say that questions of what and why of the sort asked by Plato and Aristotle are of vital importance for all ethically concerned people. These are questions of interpretation, and of what I have been broadly calling meaning. For the moment, I’m leaving aside obvious questions of what to do, in favor of these broader questions that implicitly inform them.

What something is and why it is the way it is — or should be the way it should be — are deeply intertwined. Aristotle provides many good illustrations of this. Also, at any given moment, our thinking about why depends on many assumptions about what we are concerned with that may call for review. Conversely, our thinking about each what implicitly depends on many more detailed judgments of why.

It is not practical to question everything at once, so we do it serially as the need arises, striving to be deeply honest with ourselves in our assessments of the relative levels of such needs. We seek the appropriate best balance of considerations, as well as a good balance between thoroughness of questioning on the one hand, and practical responsiveness or needed decisiveness on the other. (See also Context.)

The question why is quite open-ended. It asks for reasons or causes — and then potentially for more reasons or causes behind those — sincerely seeking to explain or justify, in the spirit of Hegel’s notion of a faith in reasonableness without presupposed truths. It arises in ethical deliberation, in general dialogue, and in many other practical circumstances, as well as in more broadly philosophical considerations. It always involves a dimension of explicit or implicit judgments of value and importance, and often interrelates with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. We should pursue it in a spirit of mutual recognition and expansive agency. Brandom’s normative pragmatics provides a good outer frame for why questions, and valuable technical tools for addressing them. (See also “Why” by Normative Pragmatics.)

The question what honestly faces the provisional character of our implicit and explicit classifications and identifications of things. As Kant might remind us, the what-it-is that we “immediately” apprehend depends upon complex processes of synthesis. Every what encapsulates many judgments and inferences. That does not mean our apprehensions are necessarily wrong — far from it — but it opens another huge space of questions an ethically concerned person should be aware of as possibly relevant, and should monitor for potential warning flags. As with why, questions of what also interrelate with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. Brandom’s inferential semantics provides a good outer frame and technical apparatus for approaching what questions. (See also “What” by Inferential Semantics.)


It seems to me that the main thing human reason does in real life is to interpret the significance of things. When we think of something, many implicit judgments about it are brought into scope. In a way, Kant already suggested this with his accounts of synthesis.

In real-world human reasoning, the actually operative identity of the things we reason about is not the trivial formal identity of their names or symbols, but rather a complex one constituted by the implications of all the judgments implicitly associated with the things in question. (See also Identity, Isomorphism; Aristotelian Identity.)

This is why people sometimes seem to talk past one another. The same words commonly imply different judgments for different people, so it is to be expected that this leads to different reasoning. That is why Plato recommended dialogue, and why Aristotle devoted so much attention to sorting out different ways in which things are “said”. (See also Aristotelian Semantics.)

I think human reason uses complex material inference (reasoning based on intermediate meaning content rather than syntax) to evaluate meanings and situations in an implicit way that usually ends up looking like simple summary judgment at a conscious level, but is actually far more involved. A great deal goes on, very rapidly and below the level of our awareness. Every surface-level judgment or assertion implicitly depends on many interpretations.

Ever since Aristotle took the first steps toward formalization of logic, people have tended to think of real-world human reasoning in terms modeled straightforwardly on formal or semi-formal logical operations, with meanings of terms either abstracted away or taken for granted. (Aristotle himself did not make this mistake, as noted above.) This fails to take into account the vast amount of implicit interpretive work that gets encapsulated into ordinary terms, by means of their classification into what are effectively types, capturing everything that implicitly may be relevantly said about the things in question in the context of our current unity of apperception.

A typed term for a thing works as shorthand for many judgments about the thing. Conversely, classification and consequent effective identity of the thing depend on those judgments.

As a result of active deliberation, we often refine our preconscious interpretations of things, and sometimes replace them altogether. Deliberation and dialectic are the testing ground of interpretations.

In general, interpretation is an open-ended task. It seems to me that it also involves something like what Kant called free play. (See also Hermeneutics; Theory and Practice; Philosophy; Ethical Reason; The Autonomy of Reason; Foundations?; Aristotelian Demonstration; Brandom on Truth.)