Some people have argued that a fundamentally ethical notion of practice is not sufficient to ground a full, well-rounded account of the varieties of human activity. I used to be one of them, but no longer.

Judgments of utility may on the surface seem mainly to involve various sorts of calculation, but ultimately they involve considerations of what is better or worse for the realization of some purpose.

Judgments of fact may also appear on the surface to be value-neutral, but ultimately they involve questions of what it is reasonable to believe, which also involves judgments of value.

What about physical operations? Physical operations always implicitly involve questions of how to proceed, and answers to these questions involve judgments of utility and judgments of fact, both of which involve judgments of value. (See also Practical Judgment; Choice, Deliberation; Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness; Meta-Ethics as First Philosophy; Normative Monism.)

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.)


People concerned with formal transformations distinguish “bookkeeping” operations from more substantive ones. On reflection, I think something like this is all that is needed to resolve the difficulty I created for myself with apparently conflicting requirements to preserve distinctions between empirical and transcendental subjectivity on the one hand, while implementing the normative monism I have attributed to Brandom on the other.

For each distinguished lump of empirical subjectivity initially kept separate alongside a transcendental synthesis, there should be some isolable correlate expressible in terms of further transcendental content not included in the synthesis. So although this further content is separate from the particular synthesis in question, unlike the starting lumps of empirical subjectivity, it will be transcendental in character. Thus the initial empirical residue can be “lifted” into the transcendental context by some appropriate process, leaving no remainder. Thus monism can be restored.

I’m metaphorically applying a functional programming concept here. When the specification of a program is fully separated from its execution, it becomes possible to do things like construct or transform a complete, possibly side-effecting program inside another program, without executing the first program or incurring the side effect when the second program is executed. This makes it possible to write a higher-order program that has no side effects (“transcendental”), but returns a value that is itself executable and that will cause side effects when executed (“empirical”). (See also Layers.)

Normative Monism

Having just invented this term “normative monism” as an overly short tag for what Brandom is about, it now occurs to me that perhaps some day in the far distant future, the biographical dictionary entry for Brandom might refer to him as the one to whom we owe the possibility that there could be such a thing. Maybe Hegel already made it possible, but if so, it wasn’t very clear in the original. I think Plato and Aristotle already regarded normativity as the most important thing, but that is different from regarding it as a viable candidate to be the only thing, or a sufficient basis for explaining everything else. (See also Meta-Ethics As First Philosophy.)