In Itself, For Itself

Robert Brandom’s Brentano lectures highlight key themes of his innovative reading of Hegel in A Spirit of Trust (2019). Despite a few disagreements on matters of historical interpretation, I think Brandom is probably the most important philosopher yet to write in English. In the first lecture, he explores the development of the notion of practical valuational doing and normative force from Kant to Hegel. He interprets Hegel’s abstract language about the “for itself” and the “in itself” in terms of the interplay between normative attitudes (the “for itself”) and normative statuses (the “in itself”) in concrete processes of valuation in human life.

Hegel thought that Kant almost got things right with his twin notions of ethical autonomy and respect for others. Brandom diagnoses two main flaws in Kant’s account from Hegel’s point of view. Both Kant and Hegel were working to reconcile the modern notion that normative statuses depend on normative attitudes with a genuine bindingness and objectivity of normativity. For Kant, respect for others was the counterweight to the individualist implications of autonomy, and Brandom traces its development into the Hegelian notion of mutual recognition. Kant’s notion of autonomy was a great contribution in the history of ethics, perhaps the most significant since Aristotle. (See also Autonomy, Normativity.) Nonetheless, the first flaw in Kant’s account has to do with autonomy.

“Kant’s construal of normativity in terms of autonomy is at base the idea that rational beings can make themselves responsible (institute a normative status) by taking themselves to be responsible (adopting an attitude)” (p. 7, emphasis in original throughout). While elsewhere showing great admiration for the broad thrust of this Kantian idea of normative “taking”, Brandom here goes on to ask more specifically, “What is it for an attitude of claiming or acknowledging responsibility to be constitutive of the status of responsibility it claims or acknowledges—that it immediately (that is, all by itself, apart from any other attitudes) institutes that status?” (p. 8). “For the idea of individual attitudes of attributing statuses that suffice, all by themselves, just in virtue of the kind of attitudes they are, to institute the statuses they attribute, is the idea of Mastery, or pure independence. (What it is purified of is all hint of dependence, that is, responsibility correlative with that authority.)” (p.10). Hegel will go on to reject the idea of Mastery in all its forms, even the seemingly benign Kantian one of attributing the autonomy characteristic of ethical reason directly to acts of individuals. (See also Hegel on Willing.)

“The idea that some attitudes can immediately institute the normative statuses that are their objects, that in their case, taking someone to be authoritative or responsible can by itself make them have that authority or responsibility, is, on Hegel’s view a characteristic deformation of the modern insight into the attitude-dependence of normative statuses. It is the idea allegorized as Mastery. Hegel sees modernity as shot through with this conception of the relations between normative attitudes and normative statuses, and it is precisely this aspect of modernity that he thinks eventually needs to be overcome. In the end, he thinks even Kant’s symmetric, reflexive, self*-directed version of the idea in the form of the autonomy model of normativity is a form of Mastery. In Hegel’s rationally reconstructed recollection of the tradition, which identifies and highlights an expressively progressive trajectory through it, Kant’s is the final, most enlightened modern form, the one that shows the way forward—but it is nonetheless a form of the structural misunderstanding of normativity in terms of Mastery” (p. 11).

Mastery understands itself as pure independence, “exercising authority unmixed and unmediated by any correlative responsibility…. The Master cannot acknowledge that moment of dependence-as-responsibility” (p. 12). Hegel considers this to be an incoherent conception, in that it is incompatible with the moment of responsibility necessarily involved in any and all commitment. Secondly, it cannot acknowledge the genuine insight that there is dependence of normative attitudes on normative statuses as well as vice versa. “[T]he Master must understand his attitudes as answering to (responsible to, dependent on) nothing” (p. 13). Finally, Brandom argues that no intelligible semantics — or account of conceptual content with any bite — could possibly be compatible with this kind of pragmatics. (See also Arbitrariness, Inflation.)

The second flaw diagnosed by Hegel is that Kant’s twin principles of autonomy and deservingness of respect on Kant’s account turn out to be exceptional kinds of normative status that are not instituted by a kind of taking. Instead, they are presented as a kind of ontological facts independent of any process of valuation. Brandom says Hegel thought Kant was on this meta-level still beholden to the traditional idea of pre-given normative statuses. Nonetheless, the Kantian criterion of respect already suggests that our normative takings take place in a mediating social context. With autonomy and respect, Kant “had all the crucial conceptual elements, just not arranged properly” (p. 17).

Through his account of mutual recognition, Hegel will go on to recover the values that are at stake in the Kantian notions of autonomy and respect, without treating them as pre-given. “Robust general recognition” of others is attributing to them “the authority to attribute authority (and responsibility)” (p. 19). Hegel wants to say that as individual rational beings we cannot ethically and cognitively lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but together we can and do.

As Brandom puts it, “recognitive statuses are not immediately instituted by recognitive attitudes, but they are instituted by suitably socially complemented recognitive attitudes” (p. 21).

He quotes Hegel saying, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself, because and by virtue of its existing in and for itself for an other; which is to say, it exists only as recognized…. Each is for the other the middle term, through which each mediates itself with itself and unites with itself; and each is for itself, and for the other, an immediate being on its own account, which at the same time is such only through this mediation. They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another…. Thus the movement is simply the double movement of the two self-consciousnesses. Each sees the other do the same as it does; each does itself what it demands of the other, and therefore also does what it does only in so far as the other does the same. Action by one side only would be useless because what is to happen can only be brought about by both.” (pp. 22-23). This is the genesis of Hegelian Spirit.

We can only be responsible for what we acknowledge responsibility for, but every commitment to anything at all is implicit acknowledgement of a responsibility. Commitment is meaningless unless we also implicitly license someone to hold us responsible to it.

Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation

The first part of Memory, History, Forgetting is devoted to the phenomenology of memory.  Husserl’s notion of intentionality – summarized by the dictum that all consciousness is consciousness of something, which Ricoeur here calls “object oriented” and interprets as putting the what before the who – is suggested as a starting point.  “If one wishes to avoid being stymied by a fruitless aporia, then one must hold in abeyance the question of attributing to someone… the act of remembering and begin with the question ‘What?’” (p. 3).  

He notes that Plato bequeathed to posterity an approach to memory (and also imagination) centered on talking about a kind of presence of an absent thing.  Aristotle is credited with clarifying the distinction between this kind of memory and the kind of doing involved in the effort to remember something.  “Memories, by turns found and sought, are… situated at the crossroads of pragmatics and semantics” (p. 4).  It is the pragmatics of recollection that will eventually provide an appropriate transition to the who of memory, but there will also be a difficulty with an inherent potential for a kind of abuse of active recollection, foreshadowed by Plato’s worries about the manipulative discourse of the Sophist.

It will be important to distinguish memory from imagination as having different kinds of objects, and especially to avoid a too-easy assimilation of memories to images (which he elsewhere applies to imagination as well).  Memory is supposed to be concerned with a real past, and although images do seem to play a role in our experience of memory, Ricoeur suggests it will be a secondary one.

He urges that we consider memory first from the point of view of capacities and their “happy” realization, before questions of pathology and error.  “To put it bluntly, we have nothing better than memory to signify that something has taken place” (p. 21).  He also thinks it is possible to at least “sketch a splintered, but not radically dispersed, phenomenology in which the relation to time remains the ultimate and sole guideline” (p. 22).  

There is a problem of the interconnection between preverbal experience and “the work of language that ineluctably places phenomenology on the path of interpretation, hence of hermeneutics” (p. 24).  There is also an extensive problem of the relation between action and representation.  

Memories are essentially plural, and come in varying degrees of distinctness.  We remember diverse kinds of things in diverse ways — singular events, states of affairs, abstract generalities, and facts.  We have practical know-how that closely resembles an acquired habit, and other memory that apparently has no relation to habit.  There is a contrast between memory as evocation and memory as search.  He recalls Bergson’s notion of a dynamic scheme as a kind of direction of effort for the reconstruction of something.  From Husserl, there is a distinction between retention and reproduction.  There is another polarity between reflexivity and worldliness.  From Bergson, there is another distinction between “pure memory” and a secondary “memory-image”.

Ultimately, memory involves a search for truth, an aim of faithfulness.  It will have to be shown how this is related to its practical dimension, concerned with memory’s uses and abuses.  

What Ricoeur terms the abuses of memory include the Renaissance “art of memory” celebrated by Frances Yates, which connected artificial techniques of memorization with magic and Hermetic secrets.   We will “retreat from the magic of memory in the direction of a pedagogy of memory” (p. 67).  Natural memory, too, as Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx pointed out, can be blocked, manipulated, or abusively controlled.  The phenomena associated with ideology are a part of this.  Communities attempt to obligate us to remember things in certain ways, and to forget certain things.

Ricoeur would like to avoid both the radical subjectivism of “methodological individualism” and an immediate sociological holism of a Durkheimian sort.  In this context, he again pleads for a deferral of the question of the “actual subject of the operations of memory” (p. 93).

Pragmatics of Utterance

The second chapter of Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another concerns speech acts in context. Here we begin to consider reflexive acts of self-designation. Like Brandom, Ricoeur emphasizes that saying is a form of doing. “I” is not an identifying reference, but more resembles terms like “here” and “now”. Linguistically, it is a performative associated with affirmation, promising, and similar actions.

Reflexivity applies to the utterance, rather than to the subject of the utterance. It “is not intrinsically bound up with a self in the strong sense of self-consciousness” (p. 47). Meanwhile, it is not utterances but speakers that refer to things, making reference an action rather than a property.

At a later stage, the performative “I” does after all get assimilated to an identifying reference tied to a body, but Ricoeur thinks it will be necessary to step outside the analysis of language and consider our status as incarnated beings to understand this.

“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.)

Aristotelian Demonstration

Demonstration is literally a showing. For Aristotle, its main purpose is associated with learning and teaching, rather than proof. Its real objective is not Stoic or Cartesian certainty “that” something is true, but the clearest possible understanding of the substantive basis for definite conclusions, based on a grasping of reasons.

Aristotle’s main text dealing with demonstration, the Posterior Analytics, is not about epistemology or foundations of knowledge, although it touches on these topics. Rather, it is about the pragmatics of improving our informal semantic understanding by formal means.

For Aristotle, demonstration uses the same logical forms as dialectic, but unlike dialectic — which does not make assumptions ahead of time whether the hypotheses or opinions it examines are true, but focuses on explicating their inferential meaning — demonstration is about showing reasons and reasoning behind definite conclusions. Dialectic is a kind of conditional forward-looking interpretation based on consequences, while demonstration is a kind of backward-looking interpretation based on premises. Because demonstration’s practical purpose has to do with exhibiting the basis for definite conclusions, it necessarily seeks sound premises, or treats its premises as sound, whereas dialectic is indifferent to the soundness of the premises it analyzes in terms of their consequences.

We are said to know something in Aristotle’s stronger sense when we can clearly explain why it is the case, so demonstration is connected with knowledge. This connection has historically led to much misunderstanding. In the Arabic and Latin commentary traditions, demonstration was interpreted as proof. The Posterior Analytics was redeployed as an epistemological model for “science” based on formal deduction, understood as the paradigm for knowledge, while the role of dialectic and practical judgment in Aristotle was greatly downplayed. (See also Demonstrative “Science”?; Searching for a Middle Term; Plato and Aristotle Were Inferentialists; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle; Belief; Foundations?; Brandom on Truth.)

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 (having to do with truth and counterfactual robustness) on the semantic side and a deontic normative role on the pragmatic side (having to do with “oughts”). There is a natural close tie between meanings and proprieties of use. (See also Normative “Force”.)

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.)