Michel Foucault (1926-84) played a very great role in developing approaches to subjectivity as something that is constituted, rather than pre-existing or only one-sidedly constitutive. Despite some nontrivial issues with things he said at different times, this seems like a major contribution. In his later work, he also emphasized that people actively participate in the constitution of their own subjectivity. Foucault was not only a brilliant theorist, but often expressed his ideas in beautiful, sparkling prose.

I see his focus on the constitution of subjectivity itself as an invaluable and necessary complement to the notion of a constituting subjectivity, as exemplified by, e.g., Kantian synthesis.

Much of Foucault’s work tended to fit the common trope of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” — pointing out how liberal reforms actually implemented more efficient strategies of social control, and so on. Unlike most of the people who use this phrase, I think this sort of “suspicion” of usual assumptions can play an invaluable critical role. However, I agree it can also be taken too far.

For example, received truths may turn out to be mere prejudice, and the notion of truth itself may turn out to have been naively hypostasized in many instances. But it is going too far to say — as Foucault did on several occasions — that truth and knowledge as such are inevitably caught up in strategies of domination, or — as Nietzsche and Foucault both did — that there really is no Platonic truth. In matters like this, we need an Aristotelian mean that avoids both naivete and cynicism.

I always preferred to pay more attention to Foucault’s practical multiplication of articulable differences, distinctions, and discontinuities in his historiography than to his negative rhetoric about truth and knowledge in general. During his earlier “archaeological” period, which greatly impressed me in my youth, this multiplication of articulable differences was the positive side of his questioning of too-easy unities, identities, and continuities in history. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; Genealogy; Immediacy, Presence.)

In his later work, he developed a distinctive theory of power in society, treating it as distributed everywhere at a micro level, rather than emanating from a central authority. On a practical level, this seems to me to contain valuable lessons, although it also seems to play on an ambiguity between power as capability and power as domination. (It is easy to see that power as capability is ubiquitous, and illuminating to think of how what are really modes of control may be actualized at a micro level. But capabilities and modes of control, while they are both distributed, are two different things that cannot be just identified or assumed to have the same distribution.)

He also pointed out how control can be effectuated through the very formation and self-formation of people and things, without the overt involvement of any sort of repression or repressive apparatus. This seems like another important insight.

Foucault was much influenced by the philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem’s investigations of the concept of normality in biology and medicine, which highlighted the importance of pathology for an understanding of normality. (It also appears that within the French context, the term “normativity” has strong connotations of mere empirical “normality” and conformity, in sharp contrast to its value-oriented significance in analytic philosophy and my own usage.) Foucault himself had a sort of fascination with what sociologists call deviance, and a bit of a morbid streak that I never liked.

The discursive regularities he analyzed in his earlier work represent a kind of empirical “normality” rather than an ethical normativity. Again, these are two entirely different concepts.

In Aristotelian terms, discursive regularities fall under the domain of “art” or technique, rather than that of ethos. Technique is the canonical example of an Aristotelian means or efficient cause (not to be confused with later notions of impulse, or a scholastic act of creation). As efficient causes, Foucaultian discursive regularities operate under the mode of actuality. (Ethical normativity, by contrast, involves derived ends considered under the mode of potentiality.)

Foucault’s “archaeological” method can be seen as a specialized historiographical application of what I have been calling Aristotelian semantics, concerned with fine distinctions in the ways things actually said might be meant, as well as of Aristotelian dialectic, concerned with making the practical consequences of those distinctions explicit.

Brandomian Choice

Aristotle had a reasonable, noninflationary concept of real choice. Choice is up to us, but it is far from arbitrary. Unfortunately, later treatments have largely oscillated between extremes of voluntarism and determinism, making choice either arbitrary or only an unreal appearance.

One of Brandom’s great contributions to ethics is a new account of choice that is reasonable and noninflationary like Aristotle’s. Aristotle developed a notion of real but nonarbitrary choice by defining it as the result of an open deliberation subject to normative standards of inquiry. Brandom reaches a complementary conclusion following a different path. The core of it is a combination of two theses. First, there is a view he associates with the Enlightenment that makes values binding on us only when we have implicitly or explicitly endorsed them. This secures the practical reality of choice, without any ontological assumptions. Second, there is Brandom’s own view that the meaning of the values we endorse is not up to us, but depends on articulation in the space of reasons. As with Aristotle’s notion of deliberation, this establishes the nonarbitrary nature of choice. (See also Intentionality; Self, Subject; Fragility of the Good; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)


“Normativity” means “values”, with emphasis on the implicit ought they carry with them.

Brandom and others have used the word “normativity” as a way of more explicitly recalling that our affirmation of particular values implicitly carries with it a Kantian obligation to realize them in life, and that while we may choose to affirm some values rather than others (and values are only binding on us because we have implicitly or explicitly endorsed them), the meaning of the values we do so affirm is fundamentally not up to us.

This has absolutely nothing to do with empirical “normality” or social conformity. Like all ethics, it certainly does have a fundamentally social significance, but there is nothing conformist about it. Normativity in no way entails unthinking or merely obedient acceptance of prevailing attitudes. On the contrary, it implies a responsibility to participate in potential Socratic questioning of merely asserted values. In Aristotelian terms, normativity is concerned with derived ends considered under the mode of potentiality, whereas “normality” is concerned with efficient causes operating under the mode of actuality. (See also Space of Reasons; Intentionality.)


I usually think of judgment as a process of interpretation or a related kind of wisdom, but at least since early modern reformulations of Aristotelian logic, “a” judgment has also traditionally meant a logical proposition, or an assertion of a proposition.

An older, but still post-Aristotelian notion is that what the early moderns called a judgment “A is B” should be understood (on the model of its surface grammar) as the potentially arbitrary predication “A is B”. Such a potentially arbitrary predication by itself does not contain enough information for us to assess whether it is good or bad. The predication model was associated with a non-Aristotelian notion of truth as simple correspondence to supposed fact.

L. M. De Rijk, arguably the 20th century’s leading scholar on medieval Latin logic, developed a very detailed textual argument that the understanding of logical “judgments” in such grammatical terms is actually an unhistorical misreading of Aristotle. In the first volume of his Aristotle: Semantics and Ontology, De Rijk concluded that Aristotle’s own logical or semantic use of “is” or “is not” should be understood not in the traditionally accepted way as a “copula” or binary operator of predication, but rather as a unary operator of assertion on a compound expression — i.e., on the pair (A, B), as opposed to its two elements A and B.

I also want to emphasize that Aristotle himself did not admit simple, potentially arbitrary predications as “judgments”. The special form of Aristotelian propositions makes them express not arbitrary atomic claims as is the case with propositions in the standard modern sense, but two specific ways of compounding subclaims. Aristotle’s two truth-value-forming operations of combination and separation (expressed by “is” and “is not”) limit the scope of what qualifies as a proper Aristotelian “judgment” to cases that are effectively equivalent to what Brandom would call judgments of material consequence or material incompatibility (see Aristotelian Propositions). What the moderns would call Aristotelian “judgments” thus end up more specifically reflecting judgments of what Brandom would call goodness of material inference.

Proper Aristotelian “judgments” thus turn out to express not just arbitrary predications constructed without regard to meaning, but particular kinds of compound claims that can in principle be rationally evaluated for material well-formedness as compound thoughts, based on the actual content of the claims being compounded. (Non-compound claims are just claims, and do not have enough content to be subject to such intrinsic rational evaluation, but as soon as there is some compounding, internal criteria for well-formedness come into play.)

So, fortuitously, modern use of the term “judgment” for these ends up having more substance than it would for arbitrary predications. For Aristotle, truth and falsity only apply to what are actually compound thoughts, because truth and falsity express assessments of material well-formedness, and only compound thoughts can be assessed for such well-formedness. The case for the fundamental role of concerns of normativity rather than simple surface-level predication in Aristotelian truth-valued propositions is further supported by the ways Aristotle uses “said of” relations.

Independent of this sort of better reading of Aristotle, Brandom in the first of his 2007 Woodbridge lectures points out that Kant also strongly rejected the traditional analysis of judgment in terms of predication. Brandom goes on to argue that for Kant, “what makes an act or episode a judging in the first place is just its being subject to the normative demand that it be integrated” [emphasis in original] into a unity of apperception. This holistic, integrative view of Kantian judgment seems to me to be strongly supported by Kant’s discussion of unities of apperception in the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, as well as by the broad thrust of the Critique of Judgment.

Thus, a Kantian judgment also has more substance than the standard logical notion, but while an Aristotelian “judgment” gets its substantive, rational character from intra-propositional structure, a Kantian judgment gets it from inter-propositional structure.

“Why” by Normative Pragmatics

Brandom’s normative pragmatics can be seen as providing a general framework for answering “why” questions. Pragmatics is initially about the practical use of language, and normative pragmatics is about good use, which for Brandom especially means good inferential use. Thus, normative pragmatics ends up being broadly concerned with good informal reasoning in life, i.e., with the quality of our ethical and other judgments.

In my view, this concern with the goodness of reasons and judgments also ends up emphasizing the ethical dimensions of judgment in general. There is really no such thing as “value free” judgment. Even what is called mathematical “intuition” is really an acquired practical skill having to do with judgment of what next step is contextually appropriate.

Classically, “why” asks for reasons, or about the goodness of reasons. Taken far enough, this leads to questions about ends.

Aristotle, too, typically framed inquiries in terms of what is well “said of” something. This is a kind of analysis of language use, with a normative or ethical intent, that ends up being inseparable from questions of what is right and what is true. This general approach is actually a form of what Brandom would call normative pragmatics. Brandom would tell us that semantics — or the investigation of meaning — depends on this sort of inquiry. My ascription of a fundamentally semantic orientation to Aristotle carries a similar implication.

What and Why

I want to say that questions of what and why of the sort asked by Plato and Aristotle are of vital importance for all ethically concerned people. These are questions of interpretation, and of what I have been broadly calling meaning. For the moment, I’m leaving aside obvious questions of what to do, in favor of these broader questions that implicitly inform them.

What something is and why it is the way it is — or should be the way it should be — are deeply intertwined. Aristotle provides many good illustrations of this. Also, at any given moment, our thinking about why depends on many assumptions about what we are concerned with that may call for review. Conversely, our thinking about each what implicitly depends on many more detailed judgments of why.

It is not practical to question everything at once, so we do it serially as the need arises, striving to be deeply honest with ourselves in our assessments of the relative levels of such needs. We seek the appropriate best balance of considerations, as well as a good balance between thoroughness of questioning on the one hand, and practical responsiveness or needed decisiveness on the other. (See also Context.)

The question why is quite open-ended. It asks for reasons or causes — and then potentially for more reasons or causes behind those — sincerely seeking to explain or justify, in the spirit of Hegel’s notion of a faith in reasonableness without presupposed truths. It arises in ethical deliberation, in general dialogue, and in many other practical circumstances, as well as in more broadly philosophical considerations. It always involves a dimension of explicit or implicit judgments of value and importance, and often interrelates with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. We should pursue it in a spirit of mutual recognition and expansive agency. Brandom’s normative pragmatics provides a good outer frame for why questions, and valuable technical tools for addressing them. (See also “Why” by Normative Pragmatics.)

The question what honestly faces the provisional character of our implicit and explicit classifications and identifications of things. As Kant might remind us, the what-it-is that we “immediately” apprehend depends upon complex processes of synthesis. Every what encapsulates many judgments and inferences. That does not mean our apprehensions are necessarily wrong — far from it — but it opens another huge space of questions an ethically concerned person should be aware of as possibly relevant, and should monitor for potential warning flags. As with why, questions of what also interrelate with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. Brandom’s inferential semantics provides a good outer frame and technical apparatus for approaching what questions. (See also “What” by Inferential Semantics.)

Platonic Truth

Plato was much more concerned with what might be called truths of essence than with truths of fact. Truths of essence involve interpretation of meaning, and always have an implicit normative dimension. They are inseparably involved with questions of what is good or right. As Aristotle might say, they tell us what and why something is rather than merely “that” something is.

There is no general way to test whether we have completely grasped an essence, and not just what Hegel would call a one-sided view of it. As Brandom might say, all grasping of essences is defeasible. Plato makes his leading characters say many things that apply this in particular cases. Essences are the object of interpretation, not certain knowledge. (See also Dialogue; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle; Plato and Aristotle Were Inferentialists; Brandom on Truth; Foundations?)

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. (See also Objectivity of Objects.)

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; Obstacles to Synthesis.)

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.)