Brandom’s Woodbridge lectures – published in Reason in Philosophy (2009) — are to date the best introduction to his groundbreaking thought on Kant and Hegel. He makes it clear this will be a rational reconstruction of key themes rather than a textual or historical commentary.
The first lecture, entitled “Norms, Selves, and Concepts”, summarizes the innovative account of intentionality Brandom attributes to Kant. According to Brandom, Kant raises the radical question of representational purport — what it even means for someone to take something as representing something. Simultaneously, Kant breaks with the standard early modern view of judgment that identified it with mere predication.
“Here is perhaps Kant’s deepest and most original idea, the axis around which I see all of his thought revolving. What distinguishes judging and intentional doing from the activities of non-sapient creatures is not that they involve some special sort of mental processes, but that they are things knowers and agents are in a distinctive way responsible for…. Judgments and actions make knowers and agents liable to characteristic kinds of normative assessment…. This is his normative characterization of the mental” (pp. 32-33; emphasis in original).
For Kant, to judge and act are to bind ourselves to values, or as Brandom calls them in arguably more Kantian terms, “norms”. The rules or principles by which the content of our commitments is articulated Kant calls concepts. Brandom quips that Descartes had asked about our grip on concepts, but Kant asked about their grip on us.
Reversing the traditional order of explanation, Kant says we actually understand concepts in terms of the role they play in judgments, rather than understanding judgments in terms of component concepts.
What Kant calls the subjective form of judgment (“I think”) indicates the relation of a judging to the unity of apperception to which it belongs. Brandom says this tells us who is responsible for the judgment. (I think the identity of unities of apperception is actually more specific than that applied to human individuals in common sense, because the constellation of commitments that is the referent of “I” today may not be quite the same as it was yesterday.)
In making a judgment about something, we make ourselves responsible to that thing — to however it may actually turn out to be. Judgments are supposed to be about how things are. To make a judgment about something is to acknowledge that how it actually is has authority over the correctness of our judgment.
What we make ourselves responsible for in judging is the content of the judgment, which Brandom will understand in terms of what further inferences it licenses or prevents from being licensed.
Finally, what we do in making ourselves responsible is to make ourselves responsible for a fourfold task: to integrate our judgment into a unity of apperception; to renounce commitments that are materially incompatible with our judgment; to endorse commitments that are material consequences of our judgment; and to offer reasons for our judgment.
Kant’s alternative to judgment as predication, according to Brandom, is judgment as the undertaking of these task responsibilities, understood ultimately in terms of the ongoing synthesis and re-synthesis of unities of apperception. Further, “The key to Kant’s account of representation is to be found in the story about how representational purport is to be understood in terms of the activity of synthesizing an original unity of apperception” (pp. 37-38).
“[W]hat one is responsible for is having reasons for one’s endorsements, using the contents one endorses as reasons for and against the endorsement of other contents, and taking into account countervailing reasons…. [W]e are the kind of creatures we are – knowers and agents, creatures whose world is structured by the commitments and responsibilities we undertake – only because we are always liable to normative assessments of our reasons” (p. 38).
Concepts “are rules for synthesizing a unity of apperception. And that is to say that they are rules articulating what is a reason for what” (p. 39).
“Kant’s ideas about the act or activity of judging settle how he must understand the content judged” (ibid). Kant’s methodological pragmatism, Brandom says, consists not in privileging practice over theory but in “explanatory privileging of the activity of synthesizing a unity of apperception” (p. 40).
A unity of apperception is not a substance (and especially not in the rigid early modern sense). As Brandom says, it is the “moving, living constellation of its ‘affections’, that is, of the concomitant commitments that compose and articulate it” (p. 41). Looked at this way as extended in time, I would say it is not an existing unity but rather a unity always in the making.
All conceptual content for Brandom traces back to this original synthetic activity. “[R]epresentational purport should itself be understood as a normative (meta) concept: as a matter of taking or treating one’s commitments as subject to a distinct kind of authority, as being responsible (for its correctness, in a characteristic sense) to things that in that normative sense count as represented by those representing states, which are what must be integrated into an original synthetic unity” (p. 42).
The early modern tradition took it for granted that referential representational intentionality is prior to inferential expressive intentionality – in effect that it is possible to know what is being talked about without understanding what is said. This would seem to me to require a kind of magical clairvoyance. As Aristotle might remind us, we approach what is primarily through what is said of it, not of course by the mere saying, but through the care and responsibility and many crisscrossing revisitings that we invest in understanding what is said.
Brandom suggests we look for an approach to Kantian objectivity by a kind of progressive triangulation through examining material incompatibility and material consequence in what is said. “Represented objects show up as something like units of account for the inferential and incompatibility relations” (p. 45) that for Brandom come first in the order of explanation. To treat something as standing in relations of material incompatibility and consequence “is taking or treating it as a representation, as being about something” (ibid).
The most important and valuable parts of Kant’s thought, Brandom suggests, can be reconstructed in terms of the process of synthesizing a unity of apperception.