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.

Brandom on Reason

In the introduction to Reason and Philosophy (2009), Brandom identifies with “a venerable tradition that distinguishes us as rational animals, and philosophy by its concern to understand, articulate, and explain the notion of reason….  Kant and Hegel showed us a way forward for a rationalism that is not objectionably Cartesian, intellectualist, or anti- (or super-) naturalist.  Nor need it treat the ‘light of reason’ as unacquired or innate” (pp. 1-2; emphasis in original throughout).

“Rational beings are ones that ought to have reasons for what they do, and ought to act as they have reason to” (p.3).

“Taking something to be subject to appraisals of its reasons, holding it rationally responsible, is treating it as someone: as one of us (rational beings).  This normative attitude toward others is recognition, in the sense of Hegel’s central notion of Anerrkennung” (p. 3).

The role of recognition makes things like authority and responsibility into social statuses.  These “are in principle unintelligible apart from consideration of the practical attitudes of those who hold each other responsible, acknowledge each other’s authority, attribute commitments and entitlements to each other” (pp. 3-4).

If we take meaning seriously, we cannot take it for granted.  Inferential articulation is involved not only in determining what is true, but also in the understanding of meanings.  What we mean and what we believe are actually interdependent.  He refers to Wilfrid Sellars’ thesis that no description can be understood apart from the “space of implications” in which the terminology used in the description is embedded.  “Discursive activity, applying concepts paradigmatically in describing how things are, is inseparable from the inferential activity of giving and asking for reasons” (p. 8).  

“[T]he acts or statuses that are givings of reasons and for which reasons are given – are judgings, claimings, assertings, or believings.  They are the undertakings or acknowledgements of commitments” (p. 9).  “[R]ationality is a normative concept.  The space of reasons is a normative space” (p. 12).  Philosophy should be concerned not just with pure logic and semantics, but with “the acknowledgement and attribution of… statuses such as responsibility and authority, commitment and entitlement” (p. 13).

Pippin on Mutual Recognition

Hegel’s ethical, epistemological, and political notion of mutual recognition has its roots in his early writings, predating the Phenomenology of Spirit, and is most famously developed in the Phenomenology itself. Some older commentators claimed that in the late period of the Encyclopedia and Philosophy of Right, Hegel turned his back on this grounding in intersubjectivity in favor of what Robert Pippin calls “a grand metaphysical process, an Absolute Subject’s manifestation of itself, or a Divine Mind’s coming to self-consciousness” (Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, p. 184). Pippin thinks those writers were “insufficiently attentive to the unusual foundations of the mature theory of ethical life, or to Hegel’s theory of spirit (Geist) and so the very unusual account of freedom that position justifies” (p. 185; for other aspects of Pippin’s reading, see Naturalness, Mindedness; Self-Legislation?; Actualization of Freedom; Hegel on Willing).

What Hegel calls “true” or “concrete” individuality “should not be confused with questions of pre-reflexive self-familiarity, self-knowledge, existential uniqueness, personal identity, psychological health, and so forth” (pp. 185-186). The concrete individual for Hegel is an ethical being, i.e., a being to be understood through her actions and commitments, and as such embedded, ramified, and temporally extended — anything but an atom “acting” instantaneously in a vacuum. It is this ethical being — not factual existence — that is constituted by mutual recognition.

Pippin notes that recognition of others as “free” as an ethical aim is not directed at meeting any psychological need for recognition. (Certainly it is also not about believing they have arbitrary free will. Rather, it is to be identified with an elementary requirement of Kantian respect for others as a starting point for ethics.)

Pippin agrees with Ludwig Siep — a pioneer of scholarship on recognition in Hegel — that Hegel “understood himself to have clarified and resolved the great logical problems caused by the sort of relational claim implicit in a radical theory of the constitutive function of recognition (wherein the relata themselves, or agents, are ultimately also relational) in his account of ‘reflection’ in particular and the ‘logic of essence’ in general” (p. 183n).

The freedom said to be the essence of spirit — which emerges concretely from mutual recognition — involves a mediated relation to one’s own “individual immediacy”. Mediation grounds reason, which grounds universality (in the mid-range Aristotelian rather than the unconditional Kantian sense, as distinguished in Self-Legislation?), which grounds the actualization of freedom.

Hegel is quoted saying “in an ethical act I make not myself but the issue itself the determining factor” (p. 192). This is the perspective he identifies with “ethical life”. “When I will what is rational, I act not as a particular individual, but in accordance with the notions of ethical life in general” (ibid).

To interpret ourselves and others as ethical beings or “respectfully” is to understand ourselves and them as each “freely” acting from an ethos, in the sense that we genuinely share in it by virtue of “willingly” and actually acting on it — and that is genuinely ours by the fact that we have thus willingly taken it up, whoever “we” may turn out to be — rather than treating action as a matter of our empirical selves causing things and/or being caused to be in a certain way, and freedom as a matter of power-over.

Hegelian freedom is never an intrinsic property of a substance or subject; it is an achievement, and what is more, that achievement always has a certain fragility, or possibility of losing itself. The acting self “can only be said to be such a self when [it acknowledges] its dependence on others in any determination of the meaning of what is done” (p. 200). For Hegel, what agency consists in is thus not a “metaphysical or substantive question” (p. 204). Instead, it involves a kind of non-arbitrariness or responsiveness to reasons. It seems to me one might say it is a sort of procedural criterion.

Hegel is quoted saying “In right, man must meet with his own reason… The right to recognize nothing that I do not perceive as rational is the highest right of the subject” (p. 244). Pippin continues, “Further, it is not sufficient merely that subjects actually have some sort of implicit, subjective faith in the rectitude of their social and political forms of life, that they in fact subjectively assent….. What I need to be able to do to acknowledge a deed as my own… is in some way to be able to justify it” (pp. 245-246). “It is never a good reason simply to say, ‘This is how we do things'” (p. 266). For Brandom’s take on the same aspects of Hegel, see Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Mutual Recognition.)

Hegel on Willing

Chapters 5 and 6 of Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy address psychological and social dimensions of willing. Hegel is generally close to Aristotle on these matters. Pippin also makes the interesting remark in the introduction that among philosophers, it is actually Spinoza whose approach to freedom most resembles Hegel’s. (For notes on earlier chapters, see Naturalness, Mindedness; Self-Legislation?; Actualization of Freedom.)

He quotes Hegel’s remark that “the will is a particular way of thinking — thinking translating itself into existence — thinking as the drive to give itself existence” (p. 129). “He seems to be saying that the right way to understand the subject’s basic relation to her deeds… is a matter primarily of comprehension or an experiential understanding, and not at all the experience of a power successfully executed” (p. 130).

Pippin says that for Hegel, “the picture of being simply assailed by unmotivated desires and seeking only to satisfy them, is as false as is the picture of the pure contemplator-of-the-good, necessarily and unavoidably moved to act by such contemplation alone” (p. 136). Freedom will involve not some kind of freeing of ourselves from desire, but rather a desire manifested in a form that is also one of reason.

Hegel wants to reconnect the inner and the outer. In particular, the relation between inner state and outer deed will be interpreted as one of continuity, or what he will call speculative “identity”, rather than any kind of causality. What is actually expressed in our actions is according to Hegel the best guide to understanding what we truly wanted.

Self-knowledge for Hegel therefore cannot be separated from knowledge of the world. Moreover, “my relation to myself is mediated by my relation to others” (p. 149). Hegel thinks one deliberates “qua ‘ethical being’ (Sittliches Wesen), not qua rational agent, full stop” (p. 150). He does not accept the “standard picture of individuals exercising an exclusively and uniquely first-personal and self-certifying intra-mental deliberative faculty” (p. 150). “[S]elf-ascriptions of intentions are not to be understood as based on observation; they are not reports of mental items…. When I express an intention, even to myself, I am avowing a pledge to act, the content and credibility of which remains (even for me), in a way, suspended until I begin to fulfill the pledge” (p. 151; emphasis in original).

Hegel “makes clear that he is quite opposed to the most widespread understanding, …the subjective sense that nothing will happen until I resolve to act, understood as something like engaging the gears of action and propelling oneself forward into action” (p. 129). He thinks there is a “defect at the core of a modern notion of agency based on ontologically distinct individual centers of unique intra-mental causal powers” (p. 155).

Instead, he “is asking that we in effect widen our focus when considering what a rational and thereby free agent looks like, widening it so as to include in the picture of agency itself a contextual and temporal field stretching out ‘backwards’ from… the familiar resolving and acting subject, and stretching ‘forward’… such that the unfolding of the deed and the reception and reaction to it are considered a constitutive element of the deed, of what fixes ultimately what was done and what turned out to be a subject’s intention” (p. 152; emphasis in original).

“The proper act-description partly depends on the established context of deliberation and action (what having this or that practical reason for doing this or that could mean in such a context) and partly on what intention and what act-description are attributed to you by others. If that is so, then no trumping priority can be given to the agent’s own expression of intention” (p. 153). (I would prefer to just say “context” rather than “established context”.) This also makes all such assessments “provisional and temporally fluid, unstable across time and experience” (ibid).

The “unfolding of a deed in time and for others, after an agent has begun to act, is as essential a dimension of what makes agency agency as what precedes the putative moment of decision” (p. 156). Hegel is quoted saying “Ethical Self-consciousness now learns from its deed the developed nature of what it actually did” (p. 157; emphasis in original).

“Knowing one’s mind, then, turns out to be ‘having a mind of one’s own’, which, in turn, must be wrested from others and protected in ways neither indifferent to nor submissive to the demands and interpretations of others, and it means a form of mindedness that one must also be able to express and act out, successfully ‘realize’ in the world” (p. 178). (For my notes on Brandom’s coverage of this same Hegelian territory, see Brandomian Forgiveness; Rethinking Responsibility; Expansive Agency.)

Constituted Intentionality

It seems to me that Brandom effectively says intentionality — the basis of meaning — as such not only is not a mental act, but not an act at all or in any way reducible to an act, even though intending is certainly a doing. Further, unlike Husserl’s version, Brandom’s intentionality seems to be something constituted by something else. That something else would be processes of mutual recognition both actual and ideal, which I think also normatively but not causally ground judgment and objectivity, knowledge and logic, while in addition incorporating considerations of reasonableness grounded in feeling, associated with the respect in recognition. I think intentionality is a kind of form having to do with linguistic meaning and potentialities for material inference, and that this form is normatively constituted through mutual recognition.

Ricoeur on Recognition

Paul Ricoeur’s very last book The Course of Recognition (French ed. 2004) is a fascinating discussion of the history and variety of concepts of recognition in philosophy, from judgments of identification of things in general to Hegel’s ethical principle of mutual recognition. It is full of insightful remarks on the history of concepts of self, from Homer and Sophocles to Bergson and Husserl. I am myself especially interested in further progress that takes Hegel’s ethical principle as a starting point and is essentially unrelated to concerns of identification, but for its intended scope this is a fine study. Even recognition in the sense of identification turns out to be ramified in all sorts of interesting ways.

The introduction is devoted to a highly nuanced discussion of treatments of the word “recognition” in two large-scale French dictionaries that each included many literary citations, somewhat like the Oxford English Dictionary does. (Of course, as Ricoeur warned, lexicography does not directly translate into philosophy.) The 19th century Littré dictionary gave 23 distinct meanings for recognition, and attempted to show their interconnection in a “rule-based polysemy”. The 20th century Robert evinced a different theory of the interconnection of the different meanings. In both cases, a sort of lexicographical equivalent of the Thomistic doctrine of analogy seems to me to be at work, presenting the diverse meanings as unified after all, by means of a sort of ordered series.

The problem with such an emphasis on recovering unity through analogy is that it tends to reduce away the kind of non-univocity that Aristotle was so careful to point out. In the main body of the book, Ricoeur developed a similar ordered series from philosophical senses of recognition, attempting to connect the final ethical notion of mutual recognition back to purely cognitive or epistemic judgments of identity of things in general, using a discussion of what he calls self-recognition as a capable human being (via his notions of ipse identity and narrative identity of personal selves from Oneself as Another) as a sort of middle term to connect them. In the earlier book, narrative identity was itself supposed to be a sort of mean between the logical identity associated with sameness, on the one hand, and ethical notions of self-constancy and promise keeping that he developed there, on the other. (See also Solicitude.)

Although I think Ricoeur’s notions of self-constancy and promise-keeping are quite valuable and are indeed related to the ethical principle in mutual recognition, I would myself emphasize the difference between these concerns — which seem to pertain to the integrity of ethical beings — and concerns pertaining to the identification of individuals. One seems to address a kind of ethical substantiality associated with responsibility, whereas the other seems to address a kind of uniqueness. I don’t really see any mean between these, but rather an interweaving of strands that remain distinct. (But see Self, Infinity for a new insight on what Ricoeur was aiming at here.)

Nonetheless, the ramifications of the sense of “recognition” that starts from mere identification show how even a narrow concern with logical identity can be broadened in all sorts of unexpected ways. At the dictionary level, the ordered series progresses from recognition of sameness through various shadings of recognition of truth, then to various avowals and confessions, and finally to appreciation and gratitude.

The book’s main philosophical discussion moves from the technical role of an identity-related “synthesis of recognition” in Kant’s account of processes of synthesis, through the aforementioned discussion of notions of self, to an account of Hegelian mutual recognition as an alternative to Hobbes’ famous thesis of the state of nature as a war of all against all, and more positively in terms of Axel Honneth’s emphasis on an emergence of mutual recognition from an underlying “struggle” for recognition.

Ricoeur points out that even Descartes said judgments of identity are inseparable from judgments of difference. Augustine’s view of time as internal to the soul — in contrast to Aristotle, who associated time with a measure of externally perceptible change — is presented as a step toward modern forms of subjectivity, which Locke’s explicit association of personal identity with consciousness and continuity of memory is taken to successfully consummate, in spite of various paradoxes with which it is associated.

Historically this seems right, but to my surprise Ricoeur seems to have viewed it as progress toward a better understanding, whereas I see in early modernity an immense new confusion of subjectivity with selfhood that only began to be sorted out again with Kant and Hegel. “There is no doubt that we owe the decisive impulse in the direction of a what I propose calling hermeneutics of self to the Cartesian philosophy of the cogito and Locke’s theory of reflection” (p. 89; emphasis in original). I would agree as far as a decisive impulse in the direction of emphasis on self is concerned, but I think the confusion of subjectivity with selfhood has greatly impeded understanding of both. (See also Self, Subject.)

In this same context, Ricoeur speaks of Kant’s “effacement of ipseity in the treatment of moral autonomy” (p. 90). I would rather speak of his salutary separation of moral autonomy from notions of self. Moral autonomy is related to our integrity and substantiality as ethical beings — to what we really care about, specifically as made clear by how we show that care in our lives. Our ethical substance is actualized in the adverbial “how” of that care. Other biographical details that contribute to making us distinguishable from others are not really relevant to that.

I also think we love someone first of all in response to that “how” of their caring, and then because we love them for that, other details about them become dear to us.

Though broadly endorsing the ethical concept of mutual recognition, Ricoeur seems to have had a worry about its emphasis on reciprocity, related to his acceptance of Lévinas’ idea of an asymmetrical priority of the Other. I don’t understand this. Mutual recognition applies to relations between rational animals; it does not apply to the kind of relation to God that Lévinas often had in mind. It may well be appropriate to say that each participant should in various ways put consideration of the other before self, but in turn, the other should also do the same. An asymmetry in each direction is perfectly compatible with a symmetry between the directions.

Ricoeur did not live to see Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust, where the ethical concept of mutual recognition finally becomes a guiding criterion for judgment in general, and for the grounding of objectivity in general. I think he would have been highly intrigued by this landmark development. (See also Ricoeurian Ethics.)

Ethical Reason, Interpretation

Now I want to say that the ethical reason or practical reason I have in mind is broad enough to subsume not only a consideration of feeling and non-ego-centered meditation, but all sorts of philosophical questions, and all sorts of technical disciplines as well. It is able to learn from things as diverse as structuralism and Marcelian spirituality.

The broad perspective of ethical reason, born in Plato’s dialogues and developed by Aristotle into a generalized approach subsuming many more specific inquiries, was largely lost in early modern thought, but revived again by Kant and Hegel. To this day, much modern thought remains polarized between untenable alternatives of allegedly value-free scientific or technical analysis on the one hand, and subjectivist self-assertion and anti-rationalism on the other.

Ethical reason asks what and why in a spirit of mutual recognition, and in a way that is at once open-endedly interpretive and concerned with values. (See also Rationality.)

Freedom from False Freedom

This is just a tricky phrase rather than a new idea, but the idea is vital.

No person or institution has a “right” to do arbitrary things. Here, “arbitrary” means having no justification by ethical reason broadly construed. It thus applies to things like disrespecting others, or engaging in wanton destruction. Freedom should not be allowed to serve as a cover for unethical action.

With regard to wanton destruction, I would point out that we have no right to destroy the planet we live on. This raises issues of diffuse, expansive responsibility that no one wants to deal with, and for which most people at least cannot be individually blamed.

We all need to take more responsibility in cases where we could not be blamed for failing to do so. (See also Expansive Agency; Freedom Without Sovereignty; Mutual Recognition; Stubborn Refusal; Economic Rationality?)

Habermasian Recognition

I have not engaged a lot with the work of Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929), but he is well known for promoting a version of mutual recognition.

At a very preliminary level, it seems he relies more on a presumption of abstract equality between participants, where Brandom incorporates consideration of their actual performance (see Scorekeeping). Habermas has also tended to assume that full consensus is the only desirable outcome, whereas Brandom takes a more positive view of clarifications that do not lead to consensus.

Habermas is a prolific writer, so I may be missing something mitigating, but both these differences seem to me to make the Žižekian criticisms of mutual recognition more applicable to the Habermasian version than to the Brandomian one.

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. (See Mutual Recognition; Pippin on Mutual Recognition; Recognition; Kantian Respect; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Trust as a Principle).

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. (For an overview, see Hegel’s Ethical Innovation.)