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.)


Aiming at coherence is a moral necessity. Serious people are serious about avoiding material inconsistency, as Aristotle noted in the Metaphysics, and Brandom has more recently thematized. (Unity of apperception is a moral imperative, not a fact, and certainly not something that could be simply possessed.) Reality or objectivity is measured by the counterfactual robustness of our generalizations; our ability to recognize incongruities; and our commitment to resolving them. Reality is not something you could point at, but a normative criterion, admitting of degree.

The thing that complements coherence is not correspondence, but rather non-correspondence. Putative correspondence provides no additional assurance of veracity, but non-correspondence tells us something is wrong with our conceptions, which is valuable information. From an intuition of incongruity arises a task to improve our understanding. (See also Error.)

Normative Pragmatics

Brandom sees inferential semantics as tightly interwoven with normative pragmatics, and depending on it. Wittgenstein notwithstanding, pragmatics — concerned with linguistic usage — has historically often been neglected in favor of syntax and semantics, and most discussions of linguistic usage among analytic philosophers have focused on empirical usage rather than good usage (including good argument and good dialogue). Good usage for Brandom especially means good inferential usage, respecting material incompatibilities and material consequences. He holds that these have both an alethic modal role on the semantic side and a deontic normative role on the pragmatic side. There is a natural close tie between meanings and proprieties of use.

Brandom’s interest in linguistic pragmatics also reflects his emphasis on practical doings and his broad identification with the American pragmatist tradition in philosophy. Saying something — even just meaning something — is unequivocally a kind of doing for Brandom.

I want to construe good natural language usage broadly as also involving a commitment to recognize all the ethical dimensions of communication as a social act, including both concern for others and concern for inferential proprieties.

In Spirit of Trust, Brandom actually goes further than I would in denying any real role for representational truth. He proposes that even concepts of truth-as-goal should be entirely replaced by concepts of truth-process. I think Truth as a Socratic ethical goal is an invaluable heuristic, provided we maintain Platonic/Aristotelian epistemic modesty and recognize that such a concept of Truth is materially incompatible with any claim to simple possession of it. The whole point of a goal is something to aim at. Aiming necessarily involves a defeasible element. Even if we think static Truth is unachievable, I’m sure he would agree that we should do the best we can at every moment in the larger process. After all, the natural workings of mere Understanding — if only they are taken far enough — lead beyond themselves to the recognition and resolution of error. (See also Honesty, Kindness; Definition.)

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.)