Multiple Explanations

One of the great strengths of Aristotle’s approach to things is the way it makes use of multiple, complementary kinds of explanation. The paired modalities of actuality and potentiality and the four “causes” (ends and means, form and materiality) all interweave together to create rich tapestries of understanding. Aristotle famously said that to know is to be able to explain, and his notion of explanation is clearly hermeneutic and expansive, rather than reductive. (See also Interpretation; What and Why.; Difference; Classification; Definition.)

Hermeneutic Biology?

Aristotle’s biological works are quite fascinating and lively. They contain abundant experiential reports, including some hearsay, intermixed with thoughtful reflection. Ultimately it is the reflective aspect that gives them their enduring value.

Sometimes, the content is surprising. For instance, book 1 of Parts of Animals is the place where he thoroughly criticizes the notion of classification by dichotomy. With concrete illustrations from the animal kingdom, he shows that commonly recognized kinds cannot be arrived at by successive dichotomous distinctions. Aristotelian distinction is n-ary rather than binary, pluralist rather than dualist.

Elsewhere (Metaphysics 982b) he famously said that philosophy begins in wonder. At Parts of Animals 645a, he added, “We therefore must not recoil with childish aversion from the examination of the humbler animals. Every realm of nature is marvelous: and as Heraclitus, when strangers who came to visit him found him warming himself at the furnace in the kitchen and hesitated to go in, is reported to have bidden them not to be afraid to enter, as even in that kitchen divinities were present, so we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful. Absence of haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in natures’s works in the highest degree, and the end for which those works are put together and produced is a form of the beautiful” (Complete Works, revised Oxford edition vol. 1, p. 1004; see also Natural Ends; Sentience).

Many Hegels?

It is common etiquette among contemporary philosophers to preface sharp criticism with kind remarks. I try to do this myself — to find something positive I can say with full sincerity. I hope that my own practice never gives anyone the kind of feeling of insincerity I sometimes get when the subsequent criticism seems to actually undermine the previous praise, rather than rounding it out.

Gilles Bouché’s introduction to Reading Brandom: On A Spirit of Trust moves from weak praise to a valid elementary point about the difficulties of evaluating interpretations of Hegel, but his rhetoric quickly reveals an undercurrent of global hostility that makes me doubt the appearance of an unprejudiced beginning. For some unspecified reason, Brandom is singled out as “bringing his very own criteria to the bench”, as if every serious interpreter did not do just that. The question of the hermeneutic value of Brandom’s work is then shelved.

Bouché correctly notes that A Spirit of Trust is also a major presentation of Brandom’s own philosophy. He then claims that Brandom’s other major work Making It Explicit only discussed assertions and commitments “against the background of a firmament of fixed concepts”. I am aware of no textual evidence that Brandom ever presupposed such a background of fixed concepts — to me, this seems antithetical to his whole approach, which centers on a fine-grained though abstract analysis of open-ended processes of interpretation and evaluation, in contexts framed by dialogue and social relations.

Like some others, Bouché affects surprise that Brandom would “want to present us with an ethics at all”, even though questions related to normativity were already central to Making It Explicit. He claims this can only be understood in terms of a “constitutive limitation” of Brandom’s philosophy. His brief expansion of this presents Brandom’s sharp distinction of human “sapience” from organic “sentience” in extremely unsympathetic light without explaining it at all, and tries to support this by artificially tying it to a claim that Making It Explicit had nothing to offer to a wider circle of readers who expect philosophy to help them with cultural, existential, and political issues.

Twenty years ago, I struggled with the sapience/sentience distinction myself. Now I would emphasize that it is just a distinction between different concerns, one of which Brandom chooses to focus on. (In articles under Subjectivity in the menu, I have elaborated somewhat on both sides of this distinction.) It is true that Making It Explicit is a highly technical work, clearly addressed to professional analytic philosophers, rather than to that wider circle of readers. Analytic philosophy in general is technical, and has little to say directly to that wider circle. But Making It Explicit is an epic reorientation of analytic philosophy, in a direction that ultimately reconnects it with concerns that I trace back to Plato and Aristotle, who did address that wider circle.

Bouché correctly points out that for Brandom, the practices described in Making It Explicit already imply a commitment to realize the kind of community based on mutual recognition and trust that is advocated in A Spirit of Trust. He goes a little too far in identifying Brandom’s philosophy as “exactly what he ascribes to Hegel”, and then characterizes the essays he is introducing as “defend[ing] Hegel” against Brandom’s “supposedly magnanimous” reading.

Brandom makes it very clear that A Spirit of Trust is a selective and highly synthetic reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, and that he does not intend it to exclude other approaches, even though he does contradict many particular old-school claims about Hegel. I take him at his word on this, and myself find complementary value in, for example, H. R. Harris’ monumental Hegel’s Ladder, which is a line-by-line literal commentary on the Phenomenology that does an amazing job of clarifying the fine grain of Hegel’s argument. Harris’ approach could hardly be more different from Brandom’s very high-level reconstruction, but I find both to be invaluable. I have also been impressed by, e.g., Michael John Petry’s exegesis of Hegel’s Encyclopedia, in spite of the fact that Petry is quite disparaging of the Phenomenology. Despite their many differences, Brandom, Harris, and Petry all contribute to a view of a basically very reasonable Hegel, far from from the old stereotype.

In my own modest efforts here, connections with Aristotle — about whom Brandom says nothing at all — are very important. Aristotle helps me understand Hegel and Brandom, and Hegel and Brandom help me understand Aristotle. I am very interested in what I call “historiographical” questions, which directly address the kind of more concrete cultural concerns that Bouché misses in Brandom. I am also very interested in broader questions about the nature of subjectivity, and about ground-level ethics as well as meta-ethics. I don’t think it makes me any less Brandomian to have additional interests that Brandom does not pursue himself. Nor would I dream of faulting Brandom for not devoting his time to my other interests. In one lifetime, it is not possible to do everything. To accomplish something significant, one must have focus.

I believe one of the marks of a truly great philosopher is to be the subject of many different readings that are both interesting and have some plausibility. Some will be better than others and it is appropriate to critically demarcate this, but there will be something to gain from many of them. (See also Why Brandom’s Hegel.)

One, Many

The unity associated with logical coherence and the flexibility and richness associated with the right measure of pluralism both seem to be worthy goals. As usual, we aim for a kind of structural mean, or the best of both worlds.

The two are not fundamentally opposed. Something like unity of apperception involves no suppression of appropriate distinctions. Similarly, the pluralism we want involves no suppression of practically achievable stability or coherence. So in principle, reconciliation ought to be possible.

They even ought to be combinable like product and sum types in type theory, which are like structures nested inside an n-ary logical AND or OR operation. A single consistent view is representable as a product type. Pluralism at a given logical level of interest is representable as a sum type.

Following Plato’s metaphor in the Phaedrus, we want to cut at the joints, as it were — to recognize unity where there should be unity, and difference where there should be difference. Of course, those “joints” are not just simply given to us; we have to find them.


One of the underappreciated aspects of Aristotle’s thought is his pluralism. A thing will typically have multiple causes. Important words are “said in many ways”. We should be careful not to make claims that are too strong.

There has been a tendency to read Aristotle as a systematizer — which he is, but only up to a point — that has interfered with recognition of the principled and not just incidental nature of Aristotelian pluralism. Aristotle’s pluralism is part of a deep and admirable commitment to what in a modern context would be called antireductionism. This is just part of his extraordinary, methodologically sophisticated intellectual honesty, which is stronger than his desire to systematize.

Historically, Aristotle’s immediate successors were the Stoics, who did aim at extremely strong systematicity, and claimed to have achieved it. Philosophy after that, including what was called Aristotelian philosophy, largely proceeded on the Stoic model. Strong systematic claims became de rigeur. (See also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle; Univocity; Mean; Aristotelian Dialectic; Free Will and Determinism.)