Hegel’s Ethical Innovation

Terry Pinkard’s biography of Hegel shows him as primarily motivated by ethical and social concerns. The common image of Hegel as an extravagant metaphysician ignores his many highly critical remarks about metaphysics, and his stated desire to replace metaphysics with a “logic” concerned with the elaboration and refinement of meaningful content. Hegel remains very challenging to read.

In his third and final Woodbridge lecture, “History, Reason, and Reality”, Brandom distills and reconstructs Hegel’s principal philosophical objectives, and clarifies his relation to Kant.

Hegel is arguably the inventor of what later came to be called meta-ethics. Further, he promotes a version of meta-ethics that is normative all the way down — that is to say, it does not try to explain values in terms of something else. There is no sharp boundary between ethics in the small and this kind of meta-ethics, which ends up including everything.

Brandom suggests that discourse about values or normativity is in fact the one kind of discourse that is truly self-sufficient; that all other discourse implicitly depends on it; and that developing explanations that take this into account is one of Hegel’s great contributions.

According to Brandom, Hegel thinks that Kantian ethical autonomy as Kant himself developed it, though a huge improvement over some previous explanations, still did not eliminate the asymmetry or one-sidedness of responsibility typical of the authority-obedience model. Hegel sees the one-sidedness of the responsibility to obey in the authority-obedience model and the one-sidedness of presuming to judge everything for ourselves as a sort of mirror-image variants of the same basic failure to treat responsibility as two-sided. He also thinks Kant could not adequately explain how autonomy and a universality of values could coexist, though Kant clearly wanted them to.

The reciprocity of mutual recognition is Hegel’s answer to these difficulties. We freely choose particular commitments over others, but the content of those commitments is not just whatever we say it is. On the other hand, that content is not fully predetermined either, so we do play a role in its determination. (See Mutual Recognition; Mutual Recognition Revisited; Pippin on Mutual Recognition.)

“[T]he reciprocal recognition model requires that the authority of conceptual contents over the activities of practitioners (their responsibility to those contents) be balanced by a reciprocal authority of practitioners over those contents, a responsibility of those contents to the activities of the subjects of judgment and action who apply them.  And that is to say that Hegel is committed to understanding the practice of acknowledging commitments by rational integration as a process not only of applying conceptual contents, but also as the process by which they are determined” (Reason in Philosophy, p. 82; emphasis in original throughout).

What it is to be a concept for Kant and Hegel fundamentally involves playing a normative role. Hegel takes the further step of explaining the determination of concepts through concrete, historical, open-ended processes of mutual recognition. This has implications for the nature of determinateness itself.

“One of Hegel’s key ideas, as I read him, is that in order to understand how the historical process of applying determinately contentful concepts to undertake discursive commitments (taking responsibility for those commitments by rationally integrating them with others one has already undertaken) can also be the process of determining the contents of those concepts, we need a new notion of determinateness” (p. 88).

Here Brandom is highlighting a crucial aspect of Hegel’s deeper argument that runs counter to his frequent recourse to rhetoric about a “system” and related themes, which Fichte and the influential early Kant-interpreter Karl Reinhold before him had made very popular in German philosophy at the time. Hegel’s rhetoric often seems much easier to understand than his in-depth arguments, but it is a fatal mistake to assume that the apparent meaning of the rhetoric is a good guide to the meaning of the in-depth arguments. Hegel is far from the only philosopher to develop very nonstandard, idiosyncratic connotations for some common terms, but he may have done more of it than anyone else. This means it is better to interpret his rhetoric in light of an interpretation of his in-depth arguments than to take the rhetoric as authoritative.

The “new notion” of determinateness that Brandom attributes to Hegel is in effect what I would call an open, genuinely Aristotelian determinateness rather than a closed Stoic/Cartesian one. (See also Univocity; Equivocal Determination; Aristotelian Identity; Aristotelian Causes; Free Will and Determinism).

Brandom develops a detailed model of open-ended determination by mutual recognition, by dwelling at length on the kinds of things that happen in the evolution of common law and interpretations of case law in jurisprudence.

Unlike the way we think of the physical determination of events, which only “flows” in one direction, the determination of meanings and the meaning of talk about being is a reciprocal determination between forward application of concepts to situations and backward-looking interrogation of their meaning. Historical time understood as the time of the historical constitution of meaning inherently involves a reciprocal determination of forward- and backward-looking interpretation.

Brandom says that Hegel’s famous contrast between Understanding and Reason is one between a view that assumes conceptual determination is already complete and one that recognizes it as inherently subject to indefinite further development.

“[Hegel] is very much aware of the openness of the use of expressions that is the practice of at once applying concepts in judgment and determining the content of the concepts those locutions express.  This is the sense in which prior use does not close off future possibilities of development by settling in advance a unique correct answer to the question of whether a particular concept applies in a new set of circumstances.  The new circumstances will always resemble any prior, settled case in an infinite number of respects, and differ from it in an infinite number of respects.  There is genuine room for choice on the part of the current judge or judger, depending on which prior commitments are taken as precedential and which aspects of similiarity and difference are emphasized” (p. 89).

Prior uses have real weight, but nonetheless do not by themselves “determine the correctness of all possible future applications of a concept” (p.90). (See also Brandomian Choice.) According to Brandom, Hegel develops a new “recollective”, “genealogical” approach to justification that takes into account the continual reshaping of the interpretation of past experience in the light of new experience.

Hegel the man was not immune to some of the common prejudices of his own cultural milieu, but his philosophy provides a principled basis for challenging all such prejudices, in a careful way that avoids indiscriminately denying the value of past experience.

Mutual Recognition Revisited

Mutual recognition has two distinct senses.

The first is an ethical ideal with roots in Aristotle’s discussion of friendship and love, as generalized by Fichte, and especially Hegel. Brandom and others consider it central to the understanding of what Hegel was really trying to do.

The second is a nonreductive meta-ethical theory of how normativity or the “ought” in general comes to be. Such a theory was broadly suggested by Hegel, and has been recently developed in great detail by Brandom in A Spirit of Trust. It addresses the emergence of normativity, but bootstraps itself from within the domain of a clarified understanding of normativity itself. Other accounts of the emergence of normativity have generally explained it in terms of something else, effectively reducing the “ought” to some kind of facts.

While I don’t see how anyone could reasonably object to the ethical ideal, its meta-ethical elaboration into a “normative all the way down”, self-bootstrapping theory of the constitution of normativity is an extensive, highly original, many-faceted theoretical account building on the first that no one could be expected to fully grasp on merely hearing it mentioned. I think its combination of detail and coherence is an amazing and unprecedented accomplishment, confirming Brandom’s place among the greatest philosophers who could be counted on one hand, but it takes real work to assimilate. (See Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Brandom on Postmodernity; Mutual Recognition; Pippin on Mutual Recognition; Recognition; Kantian Respect; Trust as a Principle.)

Summing Up So Far

A philosophical approach to ethics brings in many considerations that may initially seem remote from the question of what to do, but can greatly enrich our ability to think about it.

Philosophy is not just any view of the world, but an inquiry into the meaning of things that is sustained and free. It also could not be the activity of an isolated individual. It is an intrinsically historical development, because it is a cumulative achievement of the virtual universal community of talking animals across space and time, through various ups and downs. The best way into it is through a kind of dialogue with the great philosophers. Pursuing this in depth turns out to involve many historiographical questions.

Truth does not come to us ready-made. What we take as truth is always the provisional result of a development. The primary activity of reason is the determination of meaning through a kind of open-ended interpretation. It is therefore involved with a kind of hermeneutics.

Ethics involves us as whole beings. Subjectivity is manifold. Its ethically important aspects have to do both with our acquired emotional constitution and with shareable contents and commitments.

Truth, Beauty

In my very first post here, I mentioned a reversal of order of precedence in my own top-level view of things. An always ongoing quest for better understanding of things large and small, combined with intuitive sympathy or empathy for others, used to seem to come first. (Such “understanding” would not be the univocal representational Understanding that Hegel talked about, but something broader and more open-endedly interpretive.) Ethics would thus have basically taken care of itself, and would at most have been a matter of working out details.

At another intermediate point, I thought what should come first would be to seek beauty in all things, incorporating a sort of ancient Greek notion of beautiful actions. Again, ethics would have basically taken care of itself. If queried about this, I might have added that provided one sincerely cares, it is better to be light of heart than worried all the time. (See also Affirmation.)

Now I have come to think that understanding of things large and small is itself at root an ethical or meta-ethical activity, and have even begun to speak of a normative monism. The point I want to make here, though, is that there is a common theme across all three of these stages.

The common theme is a profound interdependence between how the world is for us, how we ought to think about it, and how we ought to act. The three stages mentioned above represent not changes of values that would result in different ground-level ethical conclusions, but rather a progressively deepening “self-consciousness”. (According to Brandom, this sort of autobiographical Hegelian genealogy itself plays an important role in the improvement of what I am here loosely calling “understanding”.)

From a Kantian critical point of view, we know that there will always be a difference between how we think the world is and how it actually is (and ultimately that anything like Cartesian certainty can only be a dogmatic illusion). But from an Aristotelian pragmatic point of view, we can go ahead and work with our current best understanding. Then from a Hegelian point of view, without forgetting that our understanding will never be the last word, we can charitably or forgivingly recognize that current best understanding as an expression of Reality and Truth. (See also Objectivity; Objectivity of Objects; Brandom on Truth.)

Brandomian Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the process by which immediacy is mediated, by which the stubborn recalcitrance of reality is given conceptual shape.

A Spirit of Trust, p. 612.

Confession, forgiveness, and trust are what we must do, recognitively, in order to find objective, determinately contentful conceptual norms being applied cognitively in judgment and practically in action.

p. 628

[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.

p. 623

The final chapter and conclusion of Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust include a strong ethical message about mutual forgiveness, interwoven with his reading of Hegel’s resolution of the subject-object dichotomy. Sophoclean tragic heroes encountered fate as an uncontrollable alien force that changed the meaning of their actions against their will, but still took responsibility for their actions anyway. Aristotle and important strands of the Christian tradition already anticipated what Brandom calls Kant’s contraction of responsibility to a responsibility for intentions only. Brandom sees in Hegel a novel suggestion that instead of thus contracting responsibility to commitments alone, we should expand it and make it mutual.

Instead of blaming the actor for the action’s unintended consequences or contractively saying no one is responsible in such cases, Brandom sees the “postmodern”, “expansive” Hegelian alternative as consisting in the actor taking responsibility for unintended consequences, while the recognitive community also takes responsibility by forgiving the actor. Aristotle and the aforementioned strands of Christian tradition both already explicitly recommended forgiveness of the actor for unintended consequences and unwilling actions generally, even if they grounded it in what Brandom calls a contractive model of responsibility. In terms of concrete ethics, the results are similar. (See also Willing, Unwilling; Blame and Blamelessness; Evaluation of Actions.)

The gain from Brandom’s expansive model of responsibility lies rather in its consequences for the project of treating meta-ethics as first philosophy. Brandom wants to nudge us to move from an implicit normative/factual dualism toward a purely normative monism, in which all facts are what they are by virtue of their place in the normative synthesis of reasonable explanations.

When we fail to come up with a charitable interpretation of someone’s action, commitments, or reasons, Brandom recommends we trust that someone else eventually will be able to do so. “Where our normative digestion and domestication of immediacy, contingency, and particularity shows its limitations, when (as in each case at some point they must) they outrun our recollective capacity to incorporate them into the mediated, normative conceptual form of governing universals, that failure of ours is properly acknowledged by confession and trust in the forgiveness of that failure to fulfill our responsibilities, by more capable future recollectors” (p. 756).

For Brandom, what I above called normative monism is the final step in the long process of resolving the subject-object dichotomy bequeathed to us by early modernity. Simultaneously, it offers a new concept of community, in which “each member identifies with all the others, at once expressing and sacrificing their own particular attitudes by taking coresponsibility for the practical attitudes of everyone” (p. 757). He cites Hegel’s invocation of the “‘I’ that is ‘We’, the ‘We’ that is ‘I'”. Though it has a historical dimension, this is the universal community of rational beings participating in the transcendental field, not an empirical community.

It is worth noting that forgiveness applies to individual people, who potentially could participate in concrete acts of mutual recognition. Insofar as we tend to hold actual people responsible for what we deem to be bad circumstances, institutions, or organizational behavior, we should be forgiving toward those people.

But there is still such a thing as injustice, and as long as we are forgiving of individual people and exercise appropriate interpretive charity with respect to their motives, in the formation of normative syntheses we are under no obligation to be similarly tender toward circumstances, institutions, or organizational behavior. On the contrary, if we have an obligation in this case, it is to right what is wrong. Circumstances, institutions, and organizational behavior are not people deserving sympathy, and not participants in any recognition process. Any or all of them may be deeply unjust in actual cases. Here, critical thought about what is good and the consideration of impacts on people should have full sway. (See also Justice in General; Honesty, Kindness; Memory, History, Forgetting.)

Meta-Ethics as First Philosophy

I want to say that philosophy can be divided into just ethics and meta-ethics, which would comprise everything else (semantics/hermeneutics, epistemology, logic, philosophical psychology, historiography, politics, aesthetics, what was traditionally called ontology, philosophy of science, and so on). Of course, this is nonstandard. The point is that all of these things have at least indirect meta-ethical relevance in one way or another, and meta-ethics can be regarded as what Aristotle would call first philosophy.

I also think that logic in particular has a directly normative character. Things like tautologies, logical rules, and modalities express strongly deontically binding higher-order norms relative to particular logics, not some strange kind of facts. This was apparently Frege’s view as well.