Alienation

At the stage we have currently reached in Hegel’s development, my “self” is to be identified with my concrete spiritual and cultural world. H. S. Harris in his commentary says “In its independent (or truth-knowing) aspect the rational self is not, as Descartes thought, a ‘thinking substance’; but neither is it simply the Aristotelian ‘soul’ — the form of one mortal living body” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 151). I think Aristotle himself — in contrast to very influential Latin medieval interpretations of his work — would have agreed with this.

“The essentially evanescent process of using a common language is Spirit as the universal Self” (ibid). “But the immediate truth of this consciousness is ambiguous. My community is a ‘universal’ for me, only when it particularizes itself” (ibid). “All of the previous shapes of consciousness are ‘abstractions’ from this ‘self-maintaining absolutely real essence'” (p. 153). “What is ‘uncovered’ but beyond speech in the Greek experience, is not deep but shallow. It is the aesthetic surface of truth and no more. But there is no need for anyone (except artists) to become ecstatic about the rediscovery of it” (p. 163). “Nothing could be less Hegelian than [an] aesthetically intuitive concept of ‘Truth'” (ibid).

Under the Roman empire’s dissolution of traditional culture and face-to-face community, “The formal universal unity is a spiritless community of atomic individuals, who are all equally persons…. The ethical substance was true spirit; but now it is supplanted by personal certainty” (p. 230). “We have entered the world of independent self-conscious wills. Everyone is a separate person with her own legal rights” (p. 231), “a legally rigid, abstract self not dissolved in the substance” (ibid). “The law defines what is mine, and what is yours” (p. 235). In the Roman Imperial world, “we were all in bondage, and obliged to recognize the absolute selfhood of an earthly Lord” (p. 247). We have moved from “Ethical Substance” to “the Condition of Right”.

Here Hegel takes up a positive aspect of the Unhappy Consciousness. As Harris recounts, “The Spirit must now embark on the great labor of self-making…. We are now invited to recognize ourselves in the ‘absolute otherness’… of a Spirit who is ‘not of this world’. In this present life we are estranged from our true selves in God’s kingdom” (ibid). “The ruin that seems to come upon the Empire from outside, really comes from the self-alienating activity of the spirit. The destruction is necessary, because self-alienation is the actualization of the Substance” (p. 248).

“Thus it was not the barbarians outside the Empire, but the revelation that the legal self-consciousness is itself barbaric, that made the decline and fall of the empire inevitable. This is what became clear when formal Reason sought to establish ‘mastery’ (a relation of unequal recognition) over the natural passions. The attempt was inevitably transformed into the tyranny of aggressive self-consciousness (the military) over finite life (the civil population)…. The whole system based upon the immediate recognition of ‘Personality’ is arbitrary. The Empire falls, because all selves must learn the lesson of self-estrangement, the lesson of submission to a command from above” (p. 250).

“In the world of True Spirit, the self simply forgot itself in the otherness of the objective custom. The Condition of Right was ‘spiritless’ because there was no absolute otherness, there was only an absolute but natural self. That absolute self has now been recognized as nothing but its own otherness — the unconscious and uncontrolled forces of natural life. This factual otherness must now regain selfhood from ‘Beyond'” (ibid).

“Antigone’s Zeus… has to yield to the ‘absolute otherness’ of Destiny. It is Destiny that becomes a Self for Unhappy Consciousness”…. “The whole actual world… is now inverted into the subordinate status of a mere moment in the divine plan for humanity…. In order to stabilize a social world in which authority is natural (and therefore arbitrary) we are forced to postulate that it is founded upon supernatural Reason.”

“This is an absurd postulate, because ‘absolute authority’ is contradictory” (p. 251). But “Reason can only coincide with Freedom; the absurd postulate of a rational divine Will… is just the first step in the emergence and evolution of this ‘identity’. Universal Christianity, as a social institution, justifies what is logically and ethically experienced and known to be absolutely unjustifiable: the acceptance of arbitrary authority. But without the projection of Reason into the Beyond, humanity could never become what it essentially is: a free self-making spiritual community, not a community of ‘natural Reason'” (p. 252).

“In order to follow Hegel’s argument, we have to employ certain concepts (notably those of ‘self’, ‘self-consciousness’ and ‘Universal’ in unfamiliar ways that seem paradoxical, because they violate our ordinary assumptions…. But if we make these logical adjustments, we can not only turn all the otherworldly talk of the world of culture into straight talk, but we can understand why the otherworldly talk was necessary….”

“[I]n due course, the division of the world of estranged spirit into the visible and the intelligible, the realm of actuality and the realm of faith, will collapse back into the categorical identity of the rational self; and as ‘pure insight’ this rational self will unmask the irrationality of the claim of faith that we can receive the truth of ‘pure consciousness’ by revelation” (p. 253). But “the Beyond of Faith is reborn almost at once as the necessary Beyond of Reason. Estrangement ends when Faith becomes Reason; but Reason is left to liquidate its own Beyond, the realm of ‘moral consciousness’ or ‘rational faith'” (p. 254).

“[H]istory and logic do not stay evenly in step in the story of the estranged world…. Faith in its stillness is not a mode of knowledge at all. It is the ‘devotion’ of the Unhappy Consciousness at the threshold of thought. In that strictly singular shape, it falls into contradiction whenever it seeks to realize itself in the world. Faith proper, has crossed the threshold into actual thought; and it does successfully transform the world. But as Pure Insight it will come back to the experience of contradiction” (p. 255). “Religion proper will be the overcoming of this whole conceptual pattern of estrangement…. With the dawning of ‘pure Culture’ we shall be equipped to deal with the ‘pure consciousness’ of Faith” (p. 257).

Self, Recognition, Work

“Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognized'” (Hegel, Phenomenology, Baillie trans., p. 229).  Thus Hegel begins the “Self-Consciousness” division, which in the final version of his outline occupies the remainder of the book.

Looking forward, Harris comments “‘Recognition’ is the Concept of Spirit as such.  We are going to observe the motion of this Concept which is a ‘multi-sided and multi-significant complexity'” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 344). 

Its ethical destiny is to become mutual recognition, but it begins as a deformed self-will.  “We must realize that we are concerned with the pure self-will that has been communally designated as ‘original sin’, and that will typically designate itself as absolute virtue or duty (because it cannot have any other social justification)” (p. 353).

“When I recognize what I want to be in someone else, then I have ‘come out of myself’.  The attraction (which is all that was attended to in the desiring posture) reveals itself first to be ‘self-repulsion’.  The self that I presently am, I do not want.  I have lost myself.  Empirically I could be in despair.  Those who recognize their ideal self in another sometimes are in despair.  But logically the other side of the truth is more dangerous.  As the object of my desire, what I see out there is not another independent self, but only a passive essence waiting for me to take possession of it.  Actually, however, my relationship with that other self is more complicated.  The self I want to emulate is not simply an object.  She has to make herself into an object for my sake.  If I am to know how to achieve what I want, she must help me, she must negate herself willingly and be at my disposal.  But she may not see herself as the self that I see; or she may not want to be that.  Above all, she may not want to help me to become that self” (p. 345).

Hegel famously discusses a life-and-death struggle that leads to servitude.  The experience of servitude, however, will turn out to contain a vital key to further development.  Labor provides a concrete model not only for the “constructive” role of the mind in interpreting things and the various practical constraints on doing this well, but also for the acquisition of skills, and for work on oneself.

In Harris’ words, “Serfdom reduces the free human agent to a thing.  The serf himself is property for the free self-consciousness of his lord….  In place of the one thing and its many properties we have the one free self and his many serfs.”

“But there is a much more significant inversion of Perception here.  Perception ‘takes the truth from things’ as they are given.  But the human thing makes the truth of things, by controlling their properties.  Serfdom is a new relation of the perceiving mind to its truth….  The lord turns the serf into a thing; but then in his labor the serf turns himself into a made thing.  He trains himself into the shape of the practical Understanding” (p. 366).

“The [being-for-self] of the serf is different from that of the lord, because it is incorporated in his body — a laboring instrument which has ‘independent being’ for him.  The being-for-self of the lord is just his commanding voice” (ibid). 

“Through the laboring activity pure being-for-self comes to be a subsisting thing” (p. 367).

“Hegel’s reason for holding that the fear of death is essential to the right comprehension of the cycle at its finite climax is now fairly easy to graph, even if we do not find it convincing.  Without the daily piecemeal discipline of obedience, the serf would never come to regard everything he touches as belonging to the lord and hence requiring to be treated with absolute respect….  If the sheep were his own, then his private interest, which Hegel calls ‘a vain sense of one’s own’, would have to be dominant.  The discipline of service creates ultimately the recognition that the object has its own good, its own sense” (p. 369).

“And even if the Hellenic (or more precisely the Platonic) conviction abides with us — the conviction that spontaneous ‘desire’ can be developed into ever higher degrees of ‘love’, and that love not fear is the true road to practical objectivity — still we cannot deny that the ‘fear of the Lord’ (both the earthly and the heavenly Judge) has in fact been crucial to the evolution of our presently more fraternal (but how feebly effective) value-consciousness” (p. 370).

I think it’s also worth noting implications of this second beginning.  Hegel’s approach is clearly developmental and in that sense “historical”, but it clearly does not follow a linear path that could correspond to a single progression in time.  We just completed an arc from simple sensation to mathematical physics, and now we are beginning a new ethical arc, starting from the quasi-mythical origin of lordship and servitude.

On the other hand, I think Hegel actually thinks real human consciousness is always already self-consciousness, and actually considers the separate treatment of mere “consciousness” to be artificial.  The ethical part of the book covers his main intent; the whole previous arc was a kind of preamble.

Hegelian Finitude

Hegel has usually been considered to be anything but a thinker of finitude. However, the two previous philosophers to whom he devoted the most pages — Aristotle and Kant — are in their own very different ways perhaps the two most emblematic philosophers of finitude. If we start with Hegel’s ethics rather than his supposed metaphysics of Geist as a sort of divine immanence and his supposed doctrine of “absolute knowledge”, a deep resonance between his thought and Aristotle and Kant’s themes of finitude becomes evident.

Hegel is in fact extremely concerned to point out that we are not masters in life, and that error is inevitable. Further, more so than Kant — and arguably even more than Aristotle — he puts an overtly positive, optimistic face on this finite condition.

In his logical works, Hegel distinguished between a “good” and a “bad” infinity. Similarly, it could be said that he implicitly makes a very sharp distinction between “good” and “bad” finitude. Bad finitude is associated with what he called the Unhappy Consciousness. With the advent of monotheism in the West, one common extreme view held that before the infinity of God, we and all finite beings are as nothing. In this view, finite being is a mainly a burden to be overcome in the hereafter, and has no intrinsic value of its own.

“Good” finitude is what emerges from Hegel’s own view. As completely as Nietzsche but in a more balanced way, Hegel rejected the idea of finitude as a burden. For Hegel, finitude is an opportunity, not a curse. Error is an invitation to learning, and non-mastery is the path to reality. (See also Brandom on Postmodernity; Back to Ethical Being; Infinity, Finitude; Respect for All Beings; Affirmation; Truth, Beauty; Secondary Causes).

In Itself, For Itself

Robert Brandom’s Brentano lectures highlight key themes of his innovative reading of Hegel in A Spirit of Trust (2019). Despite a few disagreements on matters of historical interpretation, I think Brandom is probably the most important philosopher yet to write in English. In the first lecture, he explores the development of the notion of practical valuational doing and normative force from Kant to Hegel. He interprets Hegel’s abstract language about the “for itself” and the “in itself” in terms of the interplay between normative attitudes (the “for itself”) and normative statuses (the “in itself”) in concrete processes of valuation in human life.

Hegel thought that Kant almost got things right with his twin notions of ethical autonomy and respect for others. Brandom diagnoses two main flaws in Kant’s account from Hegel’s point of view. Both Kant and Hegel were working to reconcile the modern notion that normative statuses depend on normative attitudes with a genuine bindingness and objectivity of normativity. For Kant, respect for others was the counterweight to the individualist implications of autonomy, and Brandom traces its development into the Hegelian notion of mutual recognition. Kant’s notion of autonomy was a great contribution in the history of ethics, perhaps the most significant since Aristotle. (See also Autonomy, Normativity.) Nonetheless, the first flaw in Kant’s account has to do with autonomy.

“Kant’s construal of normativity in terms of autonomy is at base the idea that rational beings can make themselves responsible (institute a normative status) by taking themselves to be responsible (adopting an attitude)” (p. 7, emphasis in original throughout). While elsewhere showing great admiration for the broad thrust of this Kantian idea of normative “taking”, Brandom here goes on to ask more specifically, “What is it for an attitude of claiming or acknowledging responsibility to be constitutive of the status of responsibility it claims or acknowledges—that it immediately (that is, all by itself, apart from any other attitudes) institutes that status?” (p. 8). “For the idea of individual attitudes of attributing statuses that suffice, all by themselves, just in virtue of the kind of attitudes they are, to institute the statuses they attribute, is the idea of Mastery, or pure independence. (What it is purified of is all hint of dependence, that is, responsibility correlative with that authority.)” (p.10). Hegel will go on to reject the idea of Mastery in all its forms, even the seemingly benign Kantian one of attributing the autonomy characteristic of ethical reason directly to acts of individuals. (See also Hegel on Willing.)

“The idea that some attitudes can immediately institute the normative statuses that are their objects, that in their case, taking someone to be authoritative or responsible can by itself make them have that authority or responsibility, is, on Hegel’s view a characteristic deformation of the modern insight into the attitude-dependence of normative statuses. It is the idea allegorized as Mastery. Hegel sees modernity as shot through with this conception of the relations between normative attitudes and normative statuses, and it is precisely this aspect of modernity that he thinks eventually needs to be overcome. In the end, he thinks even Kant’s symmetric, reflexive, self*-directed version of the idea in the form of the autonomy model of normativity is a form of Mastery. In Hegel’s rationally reconstructed recollection of the tradition, which identifies and highlights an expressively progressive trajectory through it, Kant’s is the final, most enlightened modern form, the one that shows the way forward—but it is nonetheless a form of the structural misunderstanding of normativity in terms of Mastery” (p. 11).

Mastery understands itself as pure independence, “exercising authority unmixed and unmediated by any correlative responsibility…. The Master cannot acknowledge that moment of dependence-as-responsibility” (p. 12). Hegel considers this to be an incoherent conception, in that it is incompatible with the moment of responsibility necessarily involved in any and all commitment. Secondly, it cannot acknowledge the genuine insight that there is dependence of normative attitudes on normative statuses as well as vice versa. “[T]he Master must understand his attitudes as answering to (responsible to, dependent on) nothing” (p. 13). Finally, Brandom argues that no intelligible semantics — or account of conceptual content with any bite — could possibly be compatible with this kind of pragmatics. (See also Arbitrariness, Inflation.)

The second flaw diagnosed by Hegel is that Kant’s twin principles of autonomy and deservingness of respect on Kant’s account turn out to be exceptional kinds of normative status that are not instituted by a kind of taking. Instead, they are presented as a kind of ontological facts independent of any process of valuation. Brandom says Hegel thought Kant was on this meta-level still beholden to the traditional idea of pre-given normative statuses. Nonetheless, the Kantian criterion of respect already suggests that our normative takings take place in a mediating social context. With autonomy and respect, Kant “had all the crucial conceptual elements, just not arranged properly” (p. 17).

Through his account of mutual recognition, Hegel will go on to recover the values that are at stake in the Kantian notions of autonomy and respect, without treating them as pre-given. “Robust general recognition” of others is attributing to them “the authority to attribute authority (and responsibility)” (p. 19). Hegel wants to say that as individual rational beings we cannot ethically and cognitively lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but together we can and do.

As Brandom puts it, “recognitive statuses are not immediately instituted by recognitive attitudes, but they are instituted by suitably socially complemented recognitive attitudes” (p. 21).

He quotes Hegel saying, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself, because and by virtue of its existing in and for itself for an other; which is to say, it exists only as recognized…. Each is for the other the middle term, through which each mediates itself with itself and unites with itself; and each is for itself, and for the other, an immediate being on its own account, which at the same time is such only through this mediation. They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another…. Thus the movement is simply the double movement of the two self-consciousnesses. Each sees the other do the same as it does; each does itself what it demands of the other, and therefore also does what it does only in so far as the other does the same. Action by one side only would be useless because what is to happen can only be brought about by both.” (pp. 22-23). This is the genesis of Hegelian Spirit.

We can only be responsible for what we acknowledge responsibility for, but every commitment to anything at all is implicit acknowledgement of a responsibility. Commitment is meaningless unless we also implicitly license someone to hold us responsible to it.

Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity

“John Locke is the inventor of the following three notions and the sequence that they form together: identity, consciousness, self…. Locke’s invention of consciousness will become the acknowledged or unacknowledged reference for theories of consciousness in Western philosophy” (Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 102).  The English word “consciousness” was actually coined by Locke’s friend the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth in a work inspired by Plotinus, but it is Locke’s systematic use of it that was spread throughout the modern world by his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Ricoeur’s account significantly draws on that of Etienne Balibar in Identity and Difference: Locke’s Invention of Consciousness.

Chapter 27 of book 2 of Locke’s Essay, “Of Identity and Diversity”, lays out his unprecedented new theory of personal identity as grounded purely in a continuity of memory, rather than any underlying substance.  We tend to forget that Descartes’ cogito, as Ricoeur says, “is not a person….  It bursts forth in the lightning flash of an instant.  Always thinking does not imply remembering having thought.  Continual creation alone confers duration on it” (p. 103).  Ricoeur says that whereas Descartes had sought to conquer doubt with certainty, Locke sought to conquer diversity and difference with an unprecedented concept of pure reflexive identity.

“Proposing to define in new terms the principle of individuation… ‘so much inquired after’…, Locke takes as his first example an atom, ‘a continued body under one immutable superficies’, and reiterates his formula of self-identity: ‘For being at that instant what it is, and nothing else, it is the same, and so must continue as long as its existence is continued; for so long it will be the same, and no other’” (p. 104).

“It is consciousness that constitutes the difference between the idea of the same man and that of a self, also termed person…. The knowledge of this self-identity is consciousness” (ibid).  Locke is quoted saying “as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now as it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done” (p. 105).  

Ricoeur continues, “Personal identity is a temporal identity.  It is here that the objection drawn from forgetting and from sleep, considered as interruptions of consciousness, suggests the invigorated return of the idea of substance: is not the continuity of a substance required to overcome the intermittence of consciousness? Locke replies bravely that, whatever may be the status of the substantial ground, consciousness alone ‘makes’ personal identity….  Identity and consciousness form a circle.  As Balibar observes, this circle is not a logical fallacy of the theory: it is Locke’s own invention, supported by the reduction of substance…. It is not the soul that makes the man but the same consciousness.  With regard to our inquiry, the matter has been decided: consciousness and memory are one and the same thing, irrespective of any substantial basis.  In short, in the matter of personal identity, sameness equals memory” (ibid).

The word “self” is used by Locke in both generic and singular senses, with “no discussion concerning the status of the nominalized pronoun….  Locke had decided to disconnect ideas from names.  Yet, ‘Person, as I take it, is the name for this self’” (p. 106). “The shift to a judicial vocabulary is not far off.  The transitional concept is that of ‘person’, the other ‘name for this self’…. What makes it a synonym for the self, despite its ‘forensic’ character?  The fact that it signifies that the self ‘reconciles’ and ‘appropriates’, that is to say, assigns, allocates to consciousness the ownership of its acts” (p. 107).

Locke thus not only completely rethought the notion of persons in terms of a pure logical identity in consciousness and an analogy with atoms in a void, but also formulated a radically new notion of ethical agency and responsibility, based on an analogy with the exclusive ownership associated with private property.  The ownership model of agency and responsibility leaves no room for more subtle considerations of “power to”.  Indeed, Ricoeur notes that Locke’s approach to politics is entirely grounded in “power over”.

From a purely logical standpoint, Locke successfully avoids many arguments against the putative total self-transparency of consciousness, by making its self-transparency a matter of definition rather than an empirical claim.  Locke’s position is internally consistent.  From a practical standpoint, however, any claim that total self-transparency actually applies to real life is, to say the least, fraught with difficulty.  Total self-transparency seems to me to be more extravagantly supernatural than the Latin medieval notion of a substantial intellectual soul that it replaced.  Also, real people are not atomic unities. From the point of view of more recent physical science, even atoms are not atomic unities. (See also Ego; Personhood; Meaning, Consciousness; Mind Without Mentalism; Aristotelian Identity; Narrative Identity, Substance; Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation; Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory.)

Respect for All Beings

Not just all people but all beings whatsoever deserve our respect. Many additional specialized considerations apply to beings subject to ethical appraisal (“us”), and a lot of the time I focus on these. Mutual recognition in the strong sense applies only between ethical beings, and thus only between potentially rational or talking animals, but the ethical significance of mutuality is much broader than that.

I want to say that a good ethical being claims no unequivocal mastery over any other being, period. Every being — even including inanimate objects — is to some extent an end in itself, and not simply a means to our ends. Of course, we are not unequivocally subordinate to the ends of any being, either, so it it not always wrong to sacrifice other beings to our ends. (We must eat, for instance.) But as ethical beings, we ought to be careful and thoughtful about how we achieve our ends. We are stewards, not masters.

There can be no simple rule about whether the end justifies the means. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. The answers are in the details of each case. Full evaluation of such questions could only be achieved by the universal community of all ethical beings, but the universal ethical community and its principles are not a finished achievement, only a work in progress. Nonetheless, ethical beings implicitly deliberate on behalf of all beings, not just on behalf of themselves. (See also Natural Ends.)

“Absolute” Knowledge?

The term “absolute” in Hegelian absolute knowledge refers only to a certain finality and stability of its form, not to any claim of infallibility or omniscience on the side of content. Intended for earthly actualization and thus finite, it also does not involve any infinite or immediate reflexivity. As a first approximation, it is simply the result of a thorough renunciation of implicit pretensions of Mastery — that is to say, it is a result of the abstraction or subtraction of something from ordinary knowledge, not of the acquisition of some kind of super powers.

At the risk of courting paradox, it might be said that “absolute” knowledge is absolute precisely because it recognizes itself as relative, and true freedom is freedom from false freedom.

This is related not only to an abstract recognition that finite concepts in general are provisional and that understandings in general are context-dependent. It is also requires concrete recognition that each finite concept we actually use is in principle provisional and subject to question, and that each understanding we actually rely on implicitly involves a dependence upon context, therefore also on an assessment of context that can be questioned.

Hegel offers two further developments of this. The first is associated with the perspective that “substance is also subject”. The second is a related one involving overcoming modern thought’s characteristic separation of subject and object. While the mention of either of these may initially raise further questions, they are not difficult to grasp once explained. (See also Rationality.)

Intro to Hermeneutics

“Hermeneutics” is derived from the Greek word for interpretation. It has a complex history, with roots in Greek literary interpretation, scriptural interpretation, and Renaissance humanism. In an 1808 work, the German philologist Friedrich Ast formulated a first version of the hermeneutic circle, emphasizing that we encounter a sort of chicken-and-egg relationship between the meaning of the parts and the meaning of the whole in a text. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833 – 1911) promoted a discipline of hermeneutics as the grounding for a distinctive kind of scientific method for the human sciences. In contrast to Dilthey, Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) emphasized that we do not begin from the outside with a theoretical methodology, but rather find ourselves in the world along with the things we seek to understand.

The name most strongly associated with 20th century hermeneutics is Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 – 2002). Combining neo-Kantian and Heideggerian influences with a strong interest in Platonic and Aristotelian ethics, Gadamer emphasized that all understanding has the character of a dialogue, and dwelt extensively on Aristotelian phronesis, or practical wisdom regarding concrete situations and what to do.

Another major figure is Paul Ricoeur (1913 – 2005), who dwelt on the nature of human beings as responsible ethical agents, while rejecting claims that the self is immediately transparent to itself, or fully master of itself. He sought to understand subjectivity without falling prey to subjectivism or presupposing a sovereign Subject. Both he and Gadamer also emphasized the irreducible role of language in understanding.

At least on these points, there is an interesting convergence with themes I have been pursuing here. I see philosophy as fundamentally hermeneutic, rather than seeking to formulate a “system of the world”. The kind of semantics I have attributed to Aristotle, along with his use of dialectic, seems to me to be the earliest developed philosophical hermeneutics, with roots in Socratic questioning. Brandom’s mix of semantics with what he calls normative pragmatics, in conjunction with his work on Hegel, can be considered as a very original form of hermeneutics within analytic philosophy.

Tyranny

Plato diagnosed tyranny as first and foremost an affliction of the soul. Socrates in Plato’s Republic characterizes the tyrannical soul by a malformed desire that strongly resists any kind of balanced consideration of other factors. This kind of desire wants its way immediately and unconditionally.

The tyrannical soul wants a kind of unquestioning recognition from others, without reciprocally recognizing them. This kind of attitude represents the opposite end of the spectrum from what Aristotle called magnanimity or great-souledness; rather, it is characteristic of the attitude of Mastery denounced by Hegel. Unfortunately, modern egoism, with its emphasis on a narrow kind of self, tends to devolve in this direction. (See also Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

While a tyrannical soul may be an Aristotelian cause of particular unjust acts, this does not mean that injustice as a whole is reducible to matters of individual character. Injustice is not just caused by the bad acts of individuals, but also often involves institutions and social structure, which have their persistence in part from a kind of materiality of their own.

Why Brandom’s Hegel?

Brandom offers us an ethically oriented Hegel, read as anticipating many 20th and 21st century concerns. He provides an ethical path to overcoming the separation of subject and object.

Importantly, Brandom’s Hegel even turns out to have anticipated the main concerns of the 1960s French anti-Hegelians, while standing untouched by their criticism. He turns out to be the original critic of mastery and totalization; never uses subjectivity as an unexplained explainer; and claims no forward-moving historical teleology.

While Brandom’s approach to Hegel involves more original philosophical development than historical scholarship, I nonetheless believe based on my own independent reading that with a few caveats on nonessential points, it is historiographically sound. (That is far from saying it is the only valid or interesting interpretation; historiographical soundness just means that a reasonable case can be made.) At any rate, I find it both sound and tremendously inspiring.