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.)


Rights are an important legal concept, and in the interest of justice in an imperfect world sometimes need to be defended, but ethics should guide law, not the other way around. Mutual recognition makes the blunter instrument of unilateral “rights” superfluous for ethical purposes. Kantian respect for others and the Aristotelian spirit of friendship already do so. If we respect others in our actions and treat them in a friendly way, they need not worry about enforcing any putative rights in relation to us. (See also Leibniz.)

If we examine what Hegel called “positive” (actually existing) law, it is often not guided by good ethics as it should be. All too much law is devoted to institutionalizing unilateral privilege (etymologically, “private law”) of one sort or another. We are supposed to be consoled that by the fact that everyone is assigned at least a few privileges, but the whole model of unilateral privilege is ethically deeply wrong.

It is an unsavory fact that the unilateral, unconditional privileges associated with modern ownership and sovereignty historically descend from medieval libertas or “liberty”, or the unconditional right of the Master to rape the peasant’s daughter and generally do as he pleases, with no regard for others. This kind of “liberty” is an ugly voluntarist fantasy associated with what Plato called the worst sort of character, that of a tyrant.

Years ago, I was shocked to learn that the classic modern development of the notion of rights explicitly models all rights on unilateral property rights, making reciprocal rights of people a derivative afterthought. (See, e.g., C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism.) Hobbes and Locke did this, and specifically on the question of rights Kant and Hegel unfortunately followed suit, even though their views provide resources for a much better, people-first account, based on respect or mutual recognition.

All rights deserving of legal recognition should be grounded in respect. If we respect property, it should be because we respect people, not the other way around.

Mutual Recognition and the Other

Part of what I like so much about both Aristotle and Brandom is that they each offer a sustained non-Subject-centered development of what I broadly think of as meta-ethical concerns, including subjectivity itself.

Since I first encountered him in the 1970s, Lacan’s broad perspective on subjectivity as decentered always seemed very sensible and right to me, and in accord with the epistemic modesty I have attributed to Plato and Aristotle. At this very broad level, there is an important consonance here.

A large emphasis on language is obviously another point Aristotle, Brandom, and Lacan all have in common, but while I have previously suggested a possibility of bidirectional translation specifically between relational structures and inferentialist modes of expression based on a common denominator of Hegelian determinate negation, the difference between metaphoric-metonymic and normative-inferential approaches to language is huge.

Lacan identified what he called the Other primarily with language analyzed in Jakobsonian terms, and with Levi-Straussian “Law”. Now I want to focus on the latter aspect. This seems to be just normativity, albeit in global synchronic relational form rather than the fine-grained interactive diachronic form developed by Brandom.

To say that the unconscious is the discourse of the Other in this sense results in an anonymous, social unconscious rather than a personal, biological one, which I find highly intriguing. It also puts the unconscious and normativity in the same “place”. At first that made me worry about explaining primary process from a Brandomian point of view, but I have decided there is no requirement to do that. I am inclining toward a view that primary process and normativity would each pick out aspects of what goes on in that hypothetical anonymous, role-based social subjective “place”, and that those aspects would be basically orthogonal.

The Other seems to be mainly considered as synchronic and global, viewed from a distance, whereas mutual recognition is a fine-grained, ongoing interactive process. The Other could be hypothetically considered as the global synchronic product of the whole mutual recognition process. Conversely, mutual recognition could be considered a detailed, internal, genetic explanation of the Other that Lacan never contemplated.

I have yet to find mutuality in Lacan. He talked a fair amount about Hegel, but through a Kojèvian lens. Kojève had stressed the struggle for one-sided recognition associated with Mastery. Lacan seems to have regarded love as primarily a narcissistic phenomenon, which I cannot agree with. (See also Imaginary, Symbolic, Real.)

Mutual Recognition

Brandom reads mutual recognition as central to Hegel’s ethics or practical philosophy, and Hegel’s practical philosophy as central to his philosophy as a whole. Prior to the publication of A Spirit of Trust (2019), what I take to be Brandom’s own deep ethical engagement was often not recognized. I hope the situation will soon improve.

Consistent with Brandom’s general approach, the ethics of A Spirit of Trust appears in a highly mediated form. Much of the work of ethics for Brandom comes down to the implementation and practice of normative pragmatics and inferential semantics, which he has been expounding at least since Making It Explicit (1994). So, I think he has been laying the groundwork for a long time.

Hegelian mutual recognition puts ethical considerations of reciprocity with others to the fore. In part, it is a more sophisticated version of the idea behind the golden rule. It also suggests that anyone’s authority and responsibility for anything should always be evenly balanced. It is also a social, historical theory of the genesis of meaning, value, and identity. Hegel’s notion was partly anticipated by Fichte.

One recent commentator (Lewis 2018) suggested that ethics proper was just missing from Brandom’s earlier accounts. His citations for this were to Brandom’s close allies in the interpretation of Hegel, Robert Pippin and Terry Pinkard. I cannot find the text of Pinkard’s 2007 article, but Pippin in the course of his searching but still very sympathetic review “Brandom’s Hegel” (2005) had suggested there was at that time an important gap in Brandom’s reading, related to Hegel’s lifelong concern with a critical treatment of positivity, i.e., received views and institutionalized claims.

Pippin cited what I agree to be a dubious argument from Making It Explicit in favor of the social legitimacy of a commitment to enlist in the Navy by a drunken sailor who was tricked into a contract by accepting a shilling for more beer. In Spirit of Trust terms, Brandom’s valid point in such a context would be to emphasize that the freedom associated with agency does not entail mastery, and in particular that we do not have mastery over the content of our own commitments. The issue for Pippin in 2005 was that Brandom seemed to put sole responsibility and authority for determining the content of commitments on the audience. Pippin found with respect to positivity “not so much a problem as a gap, a lacuna that Brandom obviously feels comfortable leaving unfilled” in Making It Explicit. I suspect Brandom’s lack of discomfort was directly tied to a deferral of such considerations to his 40-year magnum opus project, A Spirit of Trust.

For years, something like Pippin’s positivity issue was a main topic of discussion between my late father and me. For both of us, it was the big hurdle to overcome in fully recognizing Brandom as the world-historic giant we both thought he would probably turn out to be. I thought the positivity issue already began to be addressed in the early web draft of A Spirit of Trust, and I suspect it was a significant focus while Brandom was working on the final text.

In any event, I think it is clear that in the published Spirit of Trust, the determination of the content of commitments is envisioned not as stopping with an immediate audience, but as involving an indefinitely recursive expansion of mutually determining I-Thou relationships. On my reading, normative statuses that are both fully determinate and unconditionally deontically binding would only emerge from the projection of this expansion into infinity. But in practical contexts, we never deal with actual infinity, only with indefinite recursive expansions that have been cut off at some relatively early point. (See also Hegelian Genealogy.)

We always work with defeasible approximations — finite truncations of a recursive expansion through many relationships of reciprocal determination. This means in particular that judgments of deontic bindingness are defeasible approximations.

Further, the kind of approximation at issue here is not a statistical one, but a more Aristotelian sort of “probability”. It therefore cannot be assumed to monotonically improve as the expansion progresses, so it is not guaranteed that further expansion will not suddenly require a significant revision of previous commitments or concepts, as Brandom explicitly points out (see Error).

This means that the legitimacy of the queen’s shilling and any other received truth is actually open to dispute and therefore open to any rational argument, including those the sobered-up sailor might make. In Brandom’s favorite example, new case law — though of course subject to higher-level canons of determinate negation in its own future interpretation and evaluation — may significantly revise existing case law in unforeseeable ways.

I believe this gives us all the space we need for social criticism. We need have no fear that Brandom’s version of the mutual recognition principle will bind us to positivity. Nothing is out of bounds for the autonomy of reason. We only have to be honest about the conceptual content we encounter in the detail of the recursive expansion. I believe this is the answer to the lingering concerns I expressed in Robust Recognition and Genealogy. Even if Brandom himself were to turn out not to go quite this far, I think at worst this is a friendly amendment that does not disrupt the framework. (See also Edifying Semantics; Reasonableness.)