Brandom and Pippin on Hegelian Ethics

Robert Brandom and Robert Pippin are two major “deflationary” readers of Hegel these days. Counter to the old bad stereotype of Hegel as an extravagant metaphysician who turned his back on Kant’s critique of traditional metaphysics, they both see Hegel as further developing the most essential aspects of Kant’s innovations. Both aim to carry forward Wilfrid Sellars’ Kant-inspired critique of the “myth of the given”. They both see human intentions in terms of shareable meanings rather than private mental contents.

Brandom sees Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition not only as leading to a radically new, expanded notion of responsibility, but also as providing a basis for a novel general account of the objectivity of knowledge. Pippin meanwhile has developed an innovative, strongly Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s practical philosophy. I like putting the two of these together.

Brandom radicalizes the Kantian theme of the primacy of practical reason, effectively putting ethical inquiry before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic. He replaces metaphysics with a new kind of meta-ethics. Unlike many who have used the term “meta-ethics”, he does not seek some naturalistic or empirical foundation for ethics; rather, he sees “normativity all the way down”. Normative considerations are involved in the interpretation of anything at all. Judgments of fact depend on value judgments, and value judgments implicitly depend on the possibility of dialogue under conditions of mutual respect. It is principally through being subject to open-ended rational dialogue that judgments are verified.

Brandom’s expanded notion of responsibility is aimed at promoting greater and wider forgiveness, while simultaneously eliminating common excuses for misdeeds. Aristotle and important strands of the Christian tradition already promoted the idea that people should not be blamed or punished for unintended consequences of their actions (or for things they were coerced into doing). Brandom attributes to Hegel the novel view that everyone shares responsibility for all unintended consequences.

Pippin makes the profoundly Aristotelian point that what we actually did is the best guide to what our intentions really were. He argues that for Hegel, our own interpretation of our intentions has no privileged status in comparison to the interpretations of others. He would undercut excuses of the sort “I did x, but I really wanted y“. Rather, he would say that what we really wanted — not in the abstract, but under all the conditions that actually applied — was just what we did.

The actuality referenced here is a matter neither of simple fact nor of empirical consensus or majority opinion, but is itself a matter of normative evaluation under conditions of rational dialogue and respect for all.

Which Pragmatism?

“Pragmatism” is said in many ways. There is the crude, morally disreputable sort that means pursuit of narrow self-interest. There is the broad sort associated with a kind of flexible adaptation, which could be viewed either positively or negatively. There are several philosophical pragmatisms, none of which should be understood in terms of either of these.

Philosophical pragmatisms usually avow a deflationary, coherentist theory of truth, and stand in contrast to Cartesian, representationalist, and foundationalist views. They also tend to be associated with an instrumentalist rather than realist view of scientific explanation. I’m not in the habit of calling myself a pragmatist, but am sympathetic to all of this.

Charles Pierce (1839-1914) is generally regarded as the founder of philosophical pragmatism, and it was he who invented the word. The quite different version promulgated by William James (1842-1910), however, was initially far better known. At a very broad level it could be said that where Pierce was more Kantian, James was closer in spirit to the British utilitarians and the British empiricist tradition. Pierce apparently had severe misgivings about the work of James, and resented James’ takeover of his term. In later works, he ceded the name “pragmatism” to James and adopted the new term “pragmaticism”, in an attempt to separate their views.

Pierce’s pragmatism, I’d like to think, references the Kantian primacy of practical reason. He broadens the sense of “practical” far beyond Kant’s initial ethical focus, but without losing touch with its Kantian basis. He treats Kant’s rejection of “intellectual intuition” as decisive and deeply related to this, preferring to develop meanings through a kind of practical inference. His original “pragmatic maxim” is as follows: “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (“How to Make Our Ideas Clear”). I’m no Pierce scholar, but I think that Pierce’s uses of “practical” are meant to apply in both Kantian and utilitarian/empiricist senses, whereas it seems James lost the Kantian aspect.

Though his interests were wide-ranging, Pierce was initially known for his work in mathematical logic and semiotics, and a few seminal essays. He made pioneering contributions to the mathematics of relations, and is widely regarded as the founder of modern semiotics, or the general study of signs.

Like Leibniz, Pierce left a huge mass of unpublished manuscripts, editing of which will continue for many decades to come. According to my late father, who wrote his dissertation on Pierce in the late 1950s, Pierce’s executors deliberately impeded research into Pierce’s significant engagement with Kant and Hegel and his correspondence with Husserl, in order make Pierce fit better into the American philosophical mainstream of the day, which was a much narrower, more intolerant, and more anti-historical kind of analytic philosophy than prevails among English-speaking professional philosophers today.

John Dewey (1859-1952) was another better known American figure with whose name the term “pragmatism” also became more closely linked than that of Pierce. Like James, he was a psychologist as well as a philosopher. He is known for his writings on education and democracy.

Philosopher, sociologist, and social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) developed a pragmatist theory of social life known as symbolic interactionism. John Herman Randall, Jr. (1899-1980) developed a pragmatist reading of Aristotle, and also argued that Italian Renaissance Aristotelianism played a larger and far more positive role in the development of modern science than is commonly recognized.

In the mid-20th century, analytic philosophers W.V.O. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars used pragmatist arguments to criticize logical positivism, initiating a gradual sea change in Anglo-American philosophy over the next several decades. Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom are also known as analytic pragmatists.

(“Pragmatics” in the study of natural and artificial languages — a discipline concerned with questions of use — comes from the same Greek root, but is otherwise independent of the “pragmatisms” delimited here.)

Formal and Informal Language

Paul Ricoeur suggested that more formal kinds of explanation and informal understanding are related to one another by the first playing a mediating role in the second, and used this in a very nice reconciliation of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics. From the formal side, the mathematician Haskell Curry — whose work has greatly influenced the theory of programming languages — argued in the 1950s that the ultimate metalanguage for all formal languages can only be ordinary natural language. Amid the tremendously rich development of formal languages in the 20th century, this point got somewhat lost, but more recently Robert Brandom’s expansion of Wilfrid Sellars’ work on material inference has provided a detailed account of how this works. The circumscribing role of informal natural language in all formal developments is related to the great Kantian insight of the primacy of practical over theoretical reason.

The Good

Plato suggested the idea (later much expanded upon by Plotinus) that a single ineffable Good is the highest principle of all things. The Good was characterized as hyperousia, or “beyond ousia“, where ousia is the same word Aristotle glossed as “what it was to have been” a thing, later misleadingly translated into Latin as substantia or substance. In discussions of neoplatonism, hyperousia used to be often loosely understood as “beyond being”, which is confusing and engendered all sorts of arguments. The problem is that modern people tend to think of being primarily in terms of what is really a kind of brute existence, whereas Plato and Aristotle were more concerned with intelligibility. Even existence in its Greek root has more to do with being able to be picked out than just being there indiscriminately. At any rate, Plato and Aristotle both considered ousia something definable (“intelligible being”, if you will), and they both agreed that the Good as such is undefinable, while drawing different conclusions.

The Platonic Good is the archetype of what Aristotle called an end. Plato held fast to the notion that there should be a single idea of the Good, even if we cannot comprehend or define it. He gave it a quasi-definition as that at which all things aim. Aristotle agreed that all things aim at some good, but pointed out that “good” is used equivocally when we say this. He preferred to say that each thing has its own good that is in principle intelligible. To say something is intelligible for Aristotle still does not mean all details are determined in advance. As Brandom has also emphasized, purpose and contingency are deeply interwoven.

Putting aside this difference between Plato and Aristotle for the moment, I want to suggest that for both of them, a consideration of ends and of what ought to be (and thus of ethics and meta-ethics) implicitly comes first in the order of explanation, before any ontology or any putative facts about what is. Kant made this more explicit as what he called the primacy of practical reason. Plato’s first principle is the Good. Aristotle’s nominal “First cause” of pure actuality or at-work-ness is a generalized end implicit in the ends and proper activities of particular things or kinds.