Mechanical Metaphors

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Italian physicist, astronomer, and engineer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) — regarded by many as the single most important originator of modern, mathematically oriented natural science — was a unified explanation of both astronomical and earthly phenomena by the same set of mathematical principles for analysis of the behavior of physical bodies and matter. This was a generalized mechanics of solid bodies.

The tremendous power of this new way of understanding the physical behavior of bodies is undeniable. At least until the computer age, it has been the main basis of modern engineering and technology.

A historical side effect of this immensely successful development has been the promotion of solid-body mechanics as a kind of privileged metaphor for causality in general. I’ve several times discussed the transformation of Aristotle’s notion of efficient cause (most fundamentally, the means to actualization of an end) into the very different notion of “driving” cause or “motor” by medieval and early modern authors (see Efficient Cause, Again; Suárez on Agents and Action; Effective vs “Driving”; Not Power and Action). In combination with a very un-Aristotelian tendency to reduce other causes to efficient causes, this created a ripe condition for the spread of a view of causality in general in terms of metaphors based on solid-body mechanics. We are now so used to this that it takes effort to imagine any other view.

But the solid-body interaction metaphor ultimately leads to an impoverished, overly narrow view of causality in general. (For an alternative, see Aristotelian Causes.) Even within mechanics proper, solid bodies are no longer the paradigmatic, privileged case. At scales that are too small or too large, analogies to the behavior of medium-sized solid bodies break down. In broader contexts, wave phenomena are as important as the analysis of solid bodies. The great Roman poet-physicist Lucretius already had the insight that in the general case, atoms in aggregate behave more like liquids than like solids.

Irreducible to any purely mechanical paradigm, disciplines like earth sciences, ecology, medicine, economics, and computer science provide many examples of more complex and subtle interactions and structures that suggest a new need for something more like an Aristotelian view of causality, as having more to do with forms of things than with force.

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).

Modernity, Voluntarism

A draft chapter on pre-Hegelian stages in the history of normativity that Brandom removed from the published Spirit of Trust is now separately available on the internet. Parts or aspects of this historical narrative are the main source of issues I’ve had with Brandom in recent times. I take his removal of the chapter as confirmation that this historical argument should be viewed as an independent, optional supplement to the main philosophical argument of this truly great work. But Brandom still implicitly relies on it in summarily characterizing what he calls the single most important transformation in history — having to do with the status of normativity in the Enlightenment — and I have issues with those statements as well.

He begins by recalling a number of core themes I would wholeheartedly endorse.  Hegel “fully appreciated, as many of Kant’s readers have not” that Kant fundamentally rethought notions of self, self-consciousness, apperception, and “consciousness in the sense of apperception” in normative terms.  This is a vitally important point.

“Judgment is the minimal form of apperceptive awareness because judgments are the smallest units one can commit oneself to, make oneself responsible for”.  The “I” in “I think” that Kant called the “emptiest of all representations” is a kind of formal mark of taking responsibility for the judging.  What is represented in the judgment is what one makes oneself responsible to, and the “I” in turn only acquires determinate reference from what we implicitly or explicitly take responsibility for.  What Brandom following popular usage still calls “conscious selves”, he glosses with precision as “apperceptively unified constellations of commitments”.

Concepts are “rules that determine what commitments are reasons for and against”, and as such govern the synthesis of apperceptive unities, but they should not be thought of as pre-existing.  “Judgeable contents take methodological pride of place because of their role in Kant’s normative account of judging”.  Concepts used in judgments acquire their content from the activity of judging, from what one does in applying them.  Brandom thinks Hegel sees Kant as a “semantic pragmatist” not just in the Fichtean sense of the primacy of practical philosophy over theoretical philosophy, but in the more radical sense that for Kant, a normative account of discursive activity has methodological explanatory authority over the determination of discursive content in both theoretical and practical philosophy.

Brandom identifies Hegel’s Geist or Spirit with discursive normativity, and says Hegel sees earlier moral theorists as offering important insights not just about morality, but about normativity as such.  Hegel himself starts from conceptual norms expressed in language, rather than from moral norms.  He says that “language is the Dasein [“being there”] of Geist”.  “In another (completely unprecedented) move, Hegel historicizes his social metaphysics of normativity”.  Normativity is for the first time explicitly recognized as having a history.  

“The traditional metaphysics of normativity that Hegel sees all subsequent forms of understanding as developing from the rejection of is the subordination-obedience model.”  On this model, obligation is instituted by the command of a superior.  Brandom notes that Hegel initially discussed it under the famous figure of the relation of Master and Servant.

Protestant natural-law theorists – including Grotius, Cumberland, Hobbes, Pufendorf, Thomasius, and Locke — secularized and naturalized the voluntarism of medieval Catholic theologians like Scotus and Occam, tracing the binding force of law from “the antecedent existence of a superior-subordinate relationship”.  For the theological voluntarists, Brandom says, such relations of subordination were not only matters of objective fact, but “in some sense the fundamental objective metaphysical structure of reality”, embodied in Arthur Lovejoy’s figure of a broadly neoplatonic “Great Chain of Being”.  The natural-law theorists explained relations of subordination among humans in terms of different theories of God’s dominion over humans.  Brandom notes that on the obedience model, the status of being a superior is itself a normatively significant status entailing a right to legislate and command, but having that status relative to other humans is reduced to a non-normative matter of presumed objective fact.  (We should not rely on presumption in such important matters, and all attempts to reduce normativity to something non-normative stand in opposition to the autonomy of ethical reason championed by Kant.)

Brandom says the natural-law theorists began to question the subordination-obedience model in two ways – first by attaching some normative criteria to the status of being a superior, and second by suggesting that the right of a human to command might depend on some kind of implicit consent or attitude of the affected subordinates.  I would emphasize that any such move is already a move away from voluntarism.  As Brandom says, the subordination-obedience model is incapable of being extended to explain a normative status of being entitled to command.  The invocation of the consent of subordinates, he says, is an “even more momentous” step forward.  It is distinctive of Brandomian modernity to take normative statuses to be instituted by attitudes of acknowledgement.  Ultimately, modernity for Brandom is thus related to the emergence of democratic politics.

Brandom says that for Hegel, the modern model of attitude-dependence of normative statuses expresses a genuine and important truth, but like the subordination-obedience model, it is ultimately one-sided.  Hegel’s own view will make room for both an objectivity and an attititude-dependence of norms and normative statuses, by deriving objectivity itself from a vast ensemble of processes of normative mutual recognition over time.  Brandom translates Hegel’s vocabulary of “independence” and “dependence” into authority and responsibility, and says that for Hegel, what self-conscious beings are “in themselves” depends on what they are “for themselves”, on what they take themselves to be, as well as on what others take them to be.  What is “in itself” or “for itself” is thus a matter of normative interpretation, rather than of metaphysics in the traditional sense.

All of this seems both fine and important.  Things begin to become much more problematic, however, when he briefly discusses the contrast between voluntarist and “intellectualist” views of the will in medieval Latin theology.  He ends up valorizing the voluntarism of Occam at the expense of the so-called intellectualism of Aquinas, on the ground that voluntarism can be taken as grounding normativity in attitudes attributed to God.  Even though he notes that Occam’s nominalism makes all universals – including normativity — the product of “brute arbitrariness”, while recognizing that for Aquinas normativity is always grounded in reasons, he is more impressed by the fact that in Aquinas, those reasons are traceable to objective statuses.  Brandom’s language suggests that any reliance whatseoever on attitudes — even if they are arbitrary and do not involve any kind of recognition of an other — is ethically preferable to reliance on objective statuses.  

I on the contrary much prefer Aquinas’ appeal to reasons – in spite of the fact that Aquinas ultimately relies on assumed objective statuses – to Occam’s appeal to arbitrariness, even though the latter can be argued to implicitly involve attitudes.  It is a rather common motif of shallow accounts of the prehistory of modern science to valorize Occam and nominalism generally as anticipating modern developments, while overlooking both the negative ethical consequences of voluntarism and the positive value of the ethically “intellectualist” emphasis on reason.

I want to put greater stress on the contrast between arbitrariness and reasons than on that between relying on assumed objective statuses and relying on attitudes.  Of course I agree that objective normative statuses should not be simply assumed.  But I see nothing at all progressive in arbitrariness glossed as the product of an arbitrary attitude.  The result is still arbitrariness.  So, I cannot at all agree that theological voluntarism is “the thin leading edge of the wedge of modernity”, if modernity is supposed to be anything good.  I think a transition to relying on attitudes for the constitution of normativity only becomes progressive when those attitudes are non-arbitrary.

The other odd thing in Brandom’s account is the complete absence of any mention of Plato and Aristotle.  Unlike most authors of the Enlightenment, Plato and Aristotle put no limits on the free use of reason.  They explicitly treated reason as bound up with normativity.  And even though they did not question existing distinctions of social status as much as we might, nothing in their ethics actually presupposes the subordination-obedience model.  Thus I locate the single greatest historical break with Plato and Aristotle’s invention of rational ethics, rather than with the Enlightenment’s appeal to attitudes.  

However one takes the ethical “intellectualism” of Aquinas, it combines Plato and Aristotle’s merger of normativity and reason with doctrinal concerns.  The assumptions about objective statuses that Brandom objects to belong to the doctrinal component of his synthesis rather than its Platonic-Aristotelian component.  If we are looking for historical antecedents of the ethically good aspects of modernity, we should look to Plato and Aristotle.

Voluntarism’s endorsement of arbitrariness over reasons is quite simply the short path to evil.  It is the bad attitude of the Master discussed by Hegel, raised to a sort of anti-philosophical principle.  Brandom is a great champion of the importance of reasons, and presents an exemplary reading of Mastery as an evolutionary dead end with no progressive role to play, so I think it would be more consistent for him to avoid any historical valorization of voluntarist positions.

Rational Ethics

When Hegel said that Plato and Aristotle were the great educators of the human race, I think he had in mind not only their exemplary nondogmatism, but also their rational ethics. The advent of rational ethics was a world-historic advance. I even think it might be unequalled. (See also Reasons.)

This suggests a further clarification of my view on the vexed modernity debate. At a more elemental level, I had suggested that philosophy — understood as the recognition of genuine questions in normative matters — might almost be substituted for modernity, hypothetically understood typologically as any step away from the unquestioned governance of pre-given traditional norms. At issue then was philosophy as a whole, the content of which I believe is all at least indirectly normative. But a more specific argument could also be made about rational ethics, where the content is by definition normative.

Aristotle would remind us that if we speak of this flowering of expressive metaconcepts as an “event”, it is said in an extremely different way than a bare reference to an empirical event, the content of which is completely undetermined by the reference.

This suggests a clarification of something else that has been nagging at me in the modernity debate, and why I have been anxious to substitute an explicit typological criterion of modernity for references to what sounds like a chronological threshold. A chronological threshold is just an abstraction for some empirical events associated with it. The geistlich content we might attribute to empirical events is not made evident at all by reference to them, so there is a lack of determination in all simple, putatively empirical references to “modernity”.

Anyway, I’d like to suggest that the greatest watershed in the development of Geist was the advent of rational ethics. Then the next biggest thing after that could be said to be the making explicit of the mutual recognition model.

This also clarifies another perplexity I had about the relation between valuations of modernity and Brandomian postmodernity. Phase two of three in Brandom’s schema seems objectively to be mainly characterized by what really did turn out to be understood by him as negatively valued alienation, but in other passages he lauds phase two as the main event of progressive history. In that case, I would have expected the positively valued big event to be the phase three synthesis resolving the alienation, rather than the phase two alienation itself. But if we instead specify phase two as something like rational ethics and phase three as its enhancement by the mutual recognition model, then it does make more sense to assign the highest value to phase two. Since it restores to norms an emergent, synthetic objectivity — arising out of the mutual recognition process — the mutual recognition model can be understood as the (second) negation of the questioning (first negation) of the traditional putative simple, pre-given objectivity of norms from which rational ethics begins.

(As the above paragraph illustrates, it takes real interpretive work to identify something like a Hegelian triple and give it reasonable semantics.)

Alienation, Modernity

The positively connotated (and actually not anti-naturalist) “alienation” of Spirit from nature noted earlier did turn out to be an exception. Hegel’s more usual, negatively connotated talk about alienation is explained by Brandom as picking out any asymmetry between authority claimed and responsibility acknowledged. On this reading, traditional Sittlichkeit that takes responsibility for too much would be just as alienated as the modernity that takes responsibility for too little.

The model of a positively connotated alienation is still interesting, though, and may possibly shed further light on the vexed question of how modernity is to be picked out and assessed. Perhaps the thought is not only that any move in any direction away from the unquestioned governance of tradition is ultimately progressive, even if only through its eventual consequences, but also that a given degree of asymmetry on the modern side is therefore less bad than an equivalent asymmetry on the traditional side, because the modern one starts a dynamic that (normatively, not causally) leads to something better, while the traditional one just preserves the status quo.

Karl Mannheim in his 1925 essay on the sociology of knowledge adopted a vaguely Hegelian notion of modernity as the progressive self-relativization of thought. (He was at pains to argue that this did not lead to the “relativism” decried by some of his contemporaries.) I was fascinated by this in my youth. Here is a modernity with a Hegelian pedigree that bears no trace of Cartesianism. Mannheim’s version is more practical-epistemological than normative, and merely programmatic rather than really developed, where Brandom has a very thorough account of recognition-based normativity in many different circumstances. But it does seem to correlate with the move away from tradition that Brandom talks about. It focuses more on the notion of progress itself, and less on a particular achieved status.

Modernity, Again

Brandom is a systematic philosopher, and he has always been clear that his aims are not principally historical. Nonetheless, like Pippin, he considers it very important to argue that Hegel, despite all his criticisms of modernity and admiration for Plato and Aristotle, regarded modernity’s advent both as the single most important event in history and as fundamentally progressive. Brandom’s uncharacteristically telegraphic argument deliberately constructs coarse historical stereotypes, with a specific, edifying purpose in mind. I am a lover of the fine grain of history, deeply concerned with subtleties and ambiguities of historiography, and critical of clichés in the history of philosophy. Coarse periodizations in cultural and intellectual matters always trouble me. So, while highly sympathetic to the edifying intent, I worry about historiographical soundness of predications on coarse periodizations.

Chapter 13 of Spirit of Trust provides the best available clarification of the conceptual content Brandom means to impute to modernity. In the more careful treatment there, the order of explanation begins from a type based simply on what Hegel would call the determinate negation of immediate Sittlichkeit — a move away from the unquestioned governance of tradition. Association of this with a particular periodization is a separate, secondary move. Also, from the point of view of the edifying intent, conceptual content is what matters, not the periodization with which it is associated. So on two separate grounds, disagreement on the periodization would not really touch the main argument, which is good. (See also Alienation, Modernity.)

Having now completed a first pass through the book, I find the less careful language of the introduction repeated in the conclusion. This could be just an editorial issue. But some of the wording again sounds like periodization could come first, and again attributes major unexplained significance to Descartes, with no earlier signpost. (He refers to a suppressed chapter on normativity in early modernity that probably would have been helpful. I’m guessing it expanded on the role he attributes to social contract theories in the published text. See also Modernity, Rousseau?)

Let me try to forgivingly recollect what is going on here. In the very big picture, stepping away from tradition is progressive compared to never doing so, and Descartes did step away from tradition. In sharp contrast to the highly technical and deeply contexted discourse of the academic philosophers of his day, Descartes became famous for simple reflections in the first person addressed to a much broader audience and presupposing no acquaintance with other philosophical texts. That is to say, he became famous as an instigator of a style of writing. A kind of individualism and a kind of democratic impulse — both interpretable as counterposed to the governance of tradition — can be read into this style, so in very broad terms that gives it a proto-Enlightenment shape that undoubtedly inspired others. The large social/historical impact of his proto-Enlightenment writing style cannot be denied, regardless of the verdict we reach on the relative merits of his philosophical claims and arguments. He also tried to build a complete foundationalist system of his own, which for better or worse could be read as another expression of burgeoning individualism. In conjunction with this, he promoted a kind of know-nothing attitude toward previous philosophy, which if we are being very charitable could again be loosely tied to a sort of democratic impulse.

That said, while reflections in the first person are important in our social relations, to claim to derive the only true system of the world from first-person reflections is a terrible and extremely arrogant way to do philosophy. To think otherwise is a particularly bald example of the illusion of Mastery. The wholesale rejection of previous philosophy is another artifact of hopeless Mastery. The specific conceptual content Descartes gives us does little to improve the situation. (I’ve commented before on Descartes and representation — see the Repraesentatio post.)

The thrust of the famous cogito ergo sum was already anticipated in Augustine’s Confessions. A more detailed version was developed by Avicenna, in an argument known to the medievals as the “flying man”. He proposed a thought experiment, considering someone in counterfactual absolute sensory deprivation from birth, with the intent of asking whether awareness could be completely independent of sensibility. He argued that the person in absolute sensory deprivation would still be aware of her own existence, due to a pure immediate reflexive awareness intrinsic to the soul and independent of the body. This kind of claim would have been accepted by Plotinus, but rejected by Aristotle or Hegel. Medieval Augustinians, however, enthusiastically adopted many of Avicenna’s ideas.

More originally but even less auspiciously, Descartes argued for the incorrigibility of raw appearance qua appearance as an epistemic foundation. In Brandom’s Fregean terms, this gives us bare reference to an unspecified something, but no sense we could begin to work with. This kind of incorrigibility is a trivial truth, but because it is trivial, nothing of interest follows from it. As Brandom says, a contraction to appearance-talk is a refusal of actual commitment to anything. And we don’t want an incorrigible foundation anyway. What does any of this add to our expressive genealogy? It still seems like a node deserving of omission in a short account.

Brandom himself in his study guide to Sellars’ “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” says “the Cartesian way of talking about the mind is the result of confusion about the distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic items, and the roles they can play in various sorts of explanation”. (See also Enlightenment.)

Modernity Clarified

In chapter 13, Brandom expands significantly on what he means by modernity, and what he wants to contrast it with. Modernity in effect includes any determinate negation of what is now referred to perspicuously as a traditional attitude.

As we might expect, the traditional attitude takes norms as just simply given. That is just a type, and as such perfectly clear and sensible, raising no historiographical issues. Hegel’s examples from Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus Rex provide excellent illustrations of what is at stake. Before, I got the sense Brandom was predicating this attitude of a very broad chronological category that might include everything before Descartes, and this seemed wrong. I believe Hegel himself in this context speaks of the “ancient world” as an undifferentiated whole, which is similarly confusing.

Brandom already mentioned in passing that the first seeds of the modernity he has in mind were present in classical Greece. This now makes perfect sense. I would venture to suggest that within classical Greece, Sophocles gave poetic expression to the traditional attitude; the Sophists represented an early instance of modern subjectivism and alienation; and Plato and Aristotle were already postmodern in Brandom’s sense of recovering genuine normativity without the anchor of tradition. (See also Alienation, Modernity.)

Hegel on the Ancients

In early writings predating the Phenomenology, Hegel argued that the modern Christian world needed to learn spiritually from the ancient world to overcome its alienation. Starting with the Phenomenology, his mature public view made the Christian world a big step forward from the ancient world instead. But in the late History of Philosophy lectures, Plato and Aristotle are praised above “all others” — even above Kant, who apparently comes third.

Already in the early period, Hegel tried his hand at a retrospective reconstruction of the Christian gospel in terms of Kantian ethics. The later Philosophy of History lectures trace a line of development from primitive Christianity via Lutheranism to Kant and German idealism, retrospectively using key German idealist terms like freedom and subjectivity to explicate the whole development. The here assumed high value of German idealism is used to show the value of the earlier stages. In the Philosophy of Religion lectures, he argues at length for the superiority of what he calls revealed religion, but his notion of revelation is making things plain and open to all, not any kind of supernatural special knowledge. Religion is said to express in images what philosophy expresses in concepts.

The idea of making things open to all is consistent with Hegel’s rejection of aristocracy in favor of a modern civil state based on a constitution rather than the mere will of a monarch or ruling class. But Aristotle too regarded constitutional rule as vastly superior to any form of tyranny or despotism.

Plato and Aristotle thought we would be better off if society were governed by those best capable of normative reasoning. Hegel criticized Aristotle’s view that some people turn out to be incapable of adequately reasoning about normative matters for themselves, and that they ought to be ruled by people who can do this adequately. But Aristotle already noted that existing social distinctions did not just reflect this.

Hegel’s mature vision for the future was a synthesis of the best of the ancient and modern worlds. If we compare that synthesis to his view of the modern world, it differs by what it incorporates from the ancient world. Hegel would never have wanted to roll the clock back, but even in his mature view, I think he still believed the moderns had something to learn from the higher-order and normative approach of Plato and Aristotle. (See also The Ancients and the Moderns; Untimely.)

Heroism and Magnanimity

Robert Brandom is in my estimate the most important philosopher ever to write originally in English. His recently published lecture Heroism and Magnanimity recaps some of the argument of the monumental Spirit of Trust, which translates Hegel’s Phenomenology into analytic terms, partly via the development in his other monument, Making It Explicit.

Brandom is primarily a systematic thinker in his own right. He deliberately stands at arm’s length from historical texts, favoring high-level reconstructions in his own very illuminating idiom over fine-grained textual interpretation. To the limited extent that he engages in broader historical discussion, it is at an even much higher level of abstraction. Despite deep admiration for his systematic development and insights into particular figures, I find some of his historical schematizations to be problematic.

In the lecture, he presents a tripartite historical schema of a heroic age, a modern age, and Hegel’s own vision for the future, for which Brandom appropriates the term “postmodern”, thus giving that word a new meaning that inspired the “Postmodern” part of the title of this blog. To the extent that he develops this new concept of postmodernity — which has very little to do with fashionable “postmodernism” — in terms of Hegel’s vision for the future, I find it exemplary.

In tension with this, however, is his longstanding characterization of Hegel as a very strong advocate of the modernity embodied specifically by Descartes and the Enlightenment. This collapses the new distinction between Cartesian/Enlightenment modernity and Hegelian postmodernity. If we take into account the rich detail of actual history, it is impossible to periodize very meaningfully at this gross a level. But even if we do squint and cheat, what emerges from Hegel’s text is a different division.

While I have issues with Hegel’s treatment of Christianity, Hegel’s own broad summary of historical development in the Philosophy of History lectures suggest a different tripartite periodization, between the pre-Christian ancient world, historical Christianity, and his own vision for the future. In his explicit text, he actually seems more concerned to apologize or propagandize for Christianity as he reinterprets it than for his positive appropriation of Descartes and the Enlightenment. (That there is such a positive appropriation is clear, but Hegel positively appropriates every significant development of thought, even those he severely criticizes.) Hegel is dismissive of the middle ages and abhors Catholicism, but gives high praise to the Christianity of the gospels as a precursor to German idealism and his own vision. He retrospectively associates the decisive emergence of themes of subjectivity and freedom on a social scale all the way back to primitive Christianity, not to modernity as such.

Modernity did further develop these themes, and for Hegel as for Aristotle, results are of greater value than beginnings. But still, Hegel devotes a much more extensive apologetic to Christianity (and his own radical reinterpretation of it) than to Enlightenment modernity. His explicit discussions of Enlightenment in the Phenomenology mainly criticize what are presented as overly severe, uncharitable assessments of religion. (In the Encyclopedia Logic, he does make an important defense of the essential role of Understanding, which we can associate with Cartesian/Enlightenment styles of reasoning, as a moment in a larger process. But Understanding is standardly presented by Hegel as grossly deficient compared to what he calls Reason. According to Hegel, Plato and Aristotle reached the level of Reason, whereas the Enlightenment only reached the level of Understanding.)

I find Hegel’s treatment of Descartes in the History of Philosophy surprisingly charitable, given the profoundly non-Cartesian character of Hegel’s (and Kant’s) own thought. But it is Plato and Aristotle that Hegel says above all others deserve to be called educators of the human race.

I read Hegel as a highly original, genuinely Kantian recoverer of Aristotelian insights. I think both that Plato and Aristotle anticipate Kant more than is generally recognized, and that Kant has far more in common with Aristotle than Kant himself seems to have recognized. Aside from Hegel’s explicit praise for and recurring implicit use of the two, Aristotle and Kant are the two thinkers who get the longest treatment in the History of Philosophy.

Brandom characterizes the heroic or tragic age as one in which normative statuses were regarded as objective facts, and people were held responsible for objective outcomes, regardless of their intentions. This repeats Hegel’s own oversimplification, which is hard to reconcile with Hegel’s praise of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Brandom contrasts this with the modern age, in which people are responsible only because they have already at least implicitly taken responsibility. But taking responsibility is a Kantian concept, and even one that was little recognized until recently. (Brandom himself has been a contributor to this recognition.) It was hardly characteristic of the Enlightenment in general.

There is a much better case for attitude-dependence of normative statuses (which Brandom also cites) as typical of the Enlightenment, but the typical Enlightenment version of this was ultimately subjectivist. All of Hegel’s criticisms of subjectivism ought to have full force here (and to be applied to typical Enlightenment modernity).

While there is arguably something heroic about accepting one’s fate, in contrast to both Hegel and Brandom’s usage I would rather save the word heroism for something exceptional. I would say a hero in the ancient sense can be understood in a contemporary sense as someone who genuinely takes responsibility for more than what is in her power, as when I stay behind and fight against hopeless odds to save my friends when I could have turned and run.

“Magnanimity” is a word Brandom uses for an attitude of confession, forgiveness, and interpretive charity (a spirit of trust) that he associates with Hegel’s vision for the future. This is different in emphasis from the magnanimity discussed by Aristotle, but in line with Hegel’s positive treatment of Christian themes.

Magnanimity (literally “great-souledness”) in Aristotle is almost proto-Nietzschean rather than Christian (but scholarship has shown that Nietzsche was a good deal kinder and gentler than the crude stereotype). Aristotle’s great-souled man is proud and assertive, but his pride is entirely well-founded and never false. This is the kind of pride that leads to a generosity of spirit that is the opposite of arrogance. (I find it appalling and totally unhistorical that some people act as if generosity of spirit had never been recognized as a value before Christianity. Even less is there a special connection between generosity of spirit and the Enlightenment.)

Despite my reservations about the historical schema, I think the ethical message in Brandom’s work is deeply important. He is among the foremost exponents of recently developed concepts of normativity and its genesis in mutual recognition. His general reading of Kant and Hegel and his creative use of analytic philosophy to understand them have been groundbreaking. My friendly amendment is to find better historical antecedents for the new understanding of normativity in Plato and Aristotle than in the Enlightenment.

I see that in the introduction to the published version of Spirit of Trust, Brandom says “The transformation began with the ancient Greeks and proceeded at an accelerating pace.” This does give at least a nod to the point I am trying to make, but I still have an issue with the part about an accelerating pace.

I think that when we are recollectively reconstructing a historical teleological story, while it is expected that we will exercise some poetic license and will ignore many details we think are less significant, we should still try to do justice to the real nonlinear ebb and flow of things, and not just come out with a Whiggish monotonic ascent of man. While there is real progressive development, there is also real regress. Hegel thought that in various ways, Roman culture was a step back from Greek culture, and he thought the middle ages were an even bigger step back. (I actually think Hegel did not do justice to the middle ages, but he did not have access to many texts available today.)

In general, a new form of Geist will be more adequate in some ways than its predecessor, but may be less so in others. It is not guaranteed that the improvements will outweigh a decline in other respects every time. I think Hegel’s contention was that for the known data, each decline has eventually been or will be made up, so there is or will be an overall positive accumulation in spite of inevitable local declines. (See also The Ancients and the Moderns; Hegel on the Ancients; Enlightenment; Modernity Clarified; Alienation, Modernity; Modernity, Again.)

The Ancients and the Moderns

The mature Hegel’s generalizations about the ancient world — discussed at length by Brandom and Pippin — remains a lingering puzzle for me. I would think, given Hegel’s deep appreciation for Plato, and even more so Aristotle, that Hegel would have recognized that Plato and Aristotle regarded normative statuses as anything but unproblematically given. But Hegel repeatedly imputes a naive, precritical attitude resembling that of the Consciousness chapter of the Phenomenology to the ancient world as a whole, apparently including Plato and Aristotle.

Talk about subjects and objects is distinctively modern, due mainly to Kant and Hegel. I want to say it is due to shallow readings of Kant and Hegel. I think not only Hegel but even Kant already wanted to overcome this dichotomy. I would argue that the transcendental in Kant is a third kind that is neither subjective nor objective, and that some of Plato and Aristotle’s discussions of form and its knowability were already at something like this level.

Kant famously criticizes the kind of realism that takes objects as unproblematically available to be known (“dogmatism”), without ever seeming to clearly recognize that the greatest philosophers of the ancient world would never have wanted to defend it. See separate post “The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle”.

Even Robert Pippin, a very close reader of Hegel who pays considerable attention to his affinities to Aristotle, seems to join the chorus when it comes to the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. (See also Hegel on the Ancients; Enlightenment; Heroism and Magnanimity; Modernity Clarified; Alienation, Modernity; Modernity, Again.)