Expansive Agency

[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.

A Spirit of Trust, p. 623

I have said that to be an agent is to be subject to a certain kind of interpretation, independent of any consideration of causal power in the modern sense. The expansive approach to agency that Brandom recommends accordingly involves an expansive interpretation. Characteristically, he expresses this in terms of identification, authority and responsibility.

When they implement practices of what Brandom calls “postmodern” forgiveness and trust, “self-conscious individuals” (metonymically substituted for the applicable transcendental syntheses that actually include identification; see Substance Also Subject) are said to identify with actual goings-on. Consistent with Brandom’s expansive strategy, this should mean they identify with actual goings-on tout court, i.e., everything that happens. This in turn helps with the implementation of normative monism.

The syntheses in question are said to have real partial authority over these same goings-on. Since what is important in an action (as distinct from, say, an event) is its normative status, how that will be evaluated, and what other normative consequences that will have — not first-nature causal efficacy — real but partial authority is all that is required of an agent. As with what was said about identification above, that real but partial authority also extends to everything that happens. A postmodern ethical being functions as a co-steward of the world.

Brandom compares this expansive approach with Leibnizian optimism that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. For Brandom, realization of this world as the best of all possible worlds is the task postmodern ethical beings set for themselves. Postmodern ethical beings accept co-responsibility for all things, and remain light of heart in doing so.

In the spirit of postmodern heroism, commitment knowingly and happily takes on responsibilities are greater than it could possibly fulfill, then does the best it can, freely confesses where it fell short, and rests confident in the knowledge that it deserves to be forgiven for those shortcomings. That is its essential dignity.


Leibniz was one of the greatest minds ever — deeply original, vastly prolific, encyclopedic like Aristotle, but working in the ferment of early modernity. He formulated many differently detailed systems, in an exploratory and tentative way.

Leibniz favored an ethical and political ideal of what he called wise charity. An ethical being is one who does more for others than is required to satisfy rights and responsibilities or social contract, and demands less of others than would be justified, while taking care to act in ways that are sustainable and not self-destructive. I like this very much.

An avowed Lutheran who cultivated extensive dialogue with Catholic scholars and religious leaders, Leibniz was deeply disturbed by Europe’s terrible religious wars. He sought to promote tolerance, diplomacy, and understanding.

As a Platonist in theology who stressed the importance of Plato’s Euthyphro, Leibniz said that God is first and foremost supposed to be good and reasonable, not just obeyed. His God would never say “…because I said so!” Leibniz was highly sensitive to the dangers of subordinating Reason and the Good to any kind of arbitrary Will, be it divine or political. To those who objected that this limited God’s power, he replied that attributing an arbitrary will to God would degrade God to a mere tyrant and despot rather than a good and wise ruler. See Leibniz: Political Writings (Cambridge 1972).

Leibniz partly anticipated Einstein in saying that space and time are relations.

He held that mathematical physics of the sort he helped develop was fundamentally compatible with — and complementary to — what I have referred to as Aristotle’s semantic physics.

He argued for what I take to be the Aristotelian position that identity is just discernibility.

Leibniz defended the principle of sufficient reason (cleverly phrased by the scholastics as “nothing comes from nothing”). At the same time, he held that all necessity is of the hypothetical (if-then) variety, which means that nothing is unconditionally necessary, either.

The famous monads apply his pioneering work on infinite series to an inspiration from his friend Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of microscopic organisms. On the one hand, each monad is supposed to be a self-contained microcosm of the entire universe; on the other hand, each monad contains many others that each contain many others that are also such microcosms (each with its own unique point of view on the whole), and so on to infinity. Leibniz also had a fascinating theory of unconscious microperceptions.

Monads are said not to causally interact, but instead to mutually reflect one another in a purely synchronic way. For Leibniz, it is as though in reality everything has always already happened. It all comes down to one eternal act of God selecting the best of all possible already completely formed worlds. His thesis of the unreality of interaction seems bizarre and was never widely accepted, but the idea of synchronic mutual reflection is fascinating. (This is quite different from the pattern of determination in Hegelian mutual recognition, which has a substantial synchronic dimension but is based on interaction and has an irreducible diachronic component.)

I think Leibniz’s preformationism may be intended as a kind of edifying Platonic myth, but that is a side issue. Its practical consequence is a vision of determination and explanation by synchronic structure rather than sequential causality. Like most people, I think we also need a diachronic, interactive dimension. However, the possibilities of synchronic structural explanation are huge.

In French, I was impressed by Yvon Belaval’s Leibniz, critique de Descartes (1960) and his student Michel Serres’ dissertation Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathémathiques (1968).


In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates asks whether it is better to say that a thing is holy because the gods love it, or that the gods love it because it is holy. Socrates clearly favors the second option. To use “because the gods love it” (or, implicitly, “because it is God’s will”) as an unexplained explainer is to assert a form of theological voluntarism. As Leibniz said much later, this is to make of God a tyrant or a despot, arbitrary rather than wise and good.

It turns out that assertions of the form “it is God’s will” necessarily involve argument from authority. The exchange between Socrates and Euthyphro exhibits the hollowness and nonrational character of argument from authority in general.

Elsewhere, Plato famously makes Socrates argue that only the wisest should rule. The best rule is based on wisdom; only the worst is based on sheer power. (See also Freedom and Free Will.)

It might seem that to say that the gods love a thing because it is holy is implicitly to presume that what is holy is somehow simply given. Leibniz may or may not have presumed this, but I think Plato did not in regard to anything practical, because I don’t think Plato regarded anything in becoming as simply given.

The Word “Rationalism”

Typical connotations of the word “rationalism” seem very unfortunate to me. Rationalism ought to mean something like just giving pride of place to reason (inference). Instead, it is usually taken to refer primarily to what I would regard as aberrant historical versions that carry unrelated and even antithetical baggage. I have in mind particularly Cartesianism and Wolffianism, both of which make dubious claims based on allegedly self-evident contentful truths.

At most, I think something called “rationalism” should recognize self-evidence only in a narrow formal domain, and I think even that is arguable. Otherwise, reason works from evidence, not self-evidence.

Although he did use the unfortunate phrase “evident from itself”, Spinoza was much more careful. He thought most of what the Cartesians and Wolffians claimed on the basis of self-evidence was not even true. Leibniz was a great explorer, and proposed not one but quite a few differently detailed systems at different times. (See also Enlightenment.)