Brandom on Postmodernity

Brandom’s third Brentano lecture offers a nice summary of his ethical vision of a Hegelian postmodernity, which has nothing to do with fashionable “postmodernism”, but did inspire the masthead here.

What might be called the traditional view of normativity treats normative statuses as just being what they are, and as simply given to us. According to this view, normative attitudes ought to simply respect pre-given values, and there is no place for inquiry into what is right. Actions are judged in a completely external way, with no regard for the actor’s intent. Hegel used the tragedies of Sophocles to illustrate this. Oedipus accepted full moral responsibility for consequences of which he was totally unaware. This is the stance of a tragic hero. Viewed charitably, it has the benefit of recognizing that everything is not up to us, and that values have a kind of objectivity.

The “modern” view — which I think appeared already among the Greek Sophists — is the polar opposite of the traditionalist view. In its pure form, it reduces all normative considerations to attitudes in the shallow sense, and denies any possible objectivity of values. The attitudes in question can be completely arbitrary. Depending on whether the attitudes that count are anyone’s or only those of the sovereign or of the privileged, the modern view can be anarchistic or authoritarian. But viewed charitably, it has the benefit of suggesting that intentions and personal conscience do matter, while avoiding reliance on a simple givenness of values.

These are both what Hegel called “one-sided” views, each asserting the complete independence of something. Neither statuses nor attitudes can really be completely independent of the other.

The “postmodern” view that Brandom develops out of Hegel recognizes that every thing has some dependence on other things, while also allowing for relative independence. In this view, everyone has both some responsibility and some authority, and responsibility for any given thing is ultimately shared by all of us. All normative statuses are instituted by normative attitudes, but only attitudes that have the structure of mutual recognition can institute genuine normative statuses. Hegel also spoke of confession and mutual forgiveness in this context.

“How can we both make the norms and be genuinely governed by them?”, Brandom asks (p. 76). We do both, but the same person does not do both with respect to the same thing at the same time. “The short answer, I think, is that our past attitudes institute norms that provide the normative standards of assessment for our current attitudes. Such a slogan conceals the rich fine-structure of [Hegel’s] account, however” (p. 77).

Norms are instituted through recollection of an expressively progressive trajectory, Brandom will say (see Hegelian Semantics). “It is in particular the recollective phase of diachronic recognitive processes that explains the attitude-transcendence of normative statuses, which provide standards for normative assessment of the correctness of attitudes” (p. 88).

At any given moment, we should aim “at acknowledging and attributing what we and others are really committed and entitled to, our actual responsibilities and authority” (p. 76). But what we are really committed to can only be seen retrospectively (see Hegel on Willing) and by taking into account the assessments of others. What we are really committed to may on this account be quite different from what we tell ourselves we are committed to.

“The challenge to the intelligibility of normative governance comes from the idea that the authority of norms over attitudes must be total in order to be genuine. It is a manifestation of the deformed conception of pure independence: the idea that authority (normative independence) is undercut by any sort of correlative responsibility to (dependence on) anything else. This is the practical normative conception Hegel criticizes allegorically under the rubric of ‘Mastery.'” (p. 93).

Just because something might be explained without reference to values does not mean that we should so explain it. That would be the cynical attitude that, e.g., people only do good in order to feel good about themselves. Where apparently virtuous actions also appear to have ulterior motives, it is not valid on that basis to assume that there is no genuine ethical motive in play.

“Taking recollective responsibility for another’s doing is practically acknowledging the obligation to tell and endorse a certain kind of retrospective story about that doing. That is the responsibility to rationally reconstruct it as norm-governed. The forgiving recollector must discern an implicit norm that governs the development of the deed.” (p. 98).

“Some things people have done (both ourselves and others), we want to say, are simply unforgivable. (The last century or so provides a host of notorious, alarmingly large-scale candidates.) In some cases, though we might try to mitigate the consequences of evil doings, we just have no idea at all how to go about discerning the emergence of a governing norm we could endorse ourselves. And this situation does not just arise in extraordinary or exceptional cases. Any actual recollective story will involve strains: elements, aspects, or descriptions of what is actually done, at every stage in the developing process, that cannot be smoothly, successfully, or convincingly given such a norm-responsive explanation” (p. 101).

“It might well be that one is in fact incapable of fulfilling that commitment, of carrying out that responsibility. If and insofar as that is so, it is a normative failure that the unsuccessful would-be forgiver should confess. To take proper recognitive recollective responsibility requires the forgiving agent to confess her own inadequacy to the recollective task. Your confession of a failure of your practical attitudes appropriately to acknowledge a norm is a petition for my recognition in the form of my forgiving taking of (co-)responsibility for your doing. My subsequent failure to adopt adequately forgiving recollective recognitive attitudes is something I am in turn responsible for confessing. That confession is itself an act of identification with you: ‘I am as you are.’ My attitudes, like yours, fail adequately to satisfy the norms that they nonetheless acknowledge as binding, as governing those attitudes” (p. 102).

“Paying one’s dues as a member of a recognitive community structured by trust is acknowledging that one is always already implicitly committed to forgiving, responsible for forgiving what one’s fellows do or have done” (ibid).

Referring to Hegel’s famous figure of the cynical valet, Brandom says “The Kammerdiener stands for a view that explains all attitudes in terms of other attitudes, without needing to appeal to governing norms or statuses that they are attitudes towards and acknowledgments of. Hegel does not deny that this sort of explanation in terms of attitudes alone can be done…. But we can ask: what sort of disagreement is it that divides the Kammerdiener and the ‘friend of the norms’ for whom some heroes really are heroes? Is it a cognitive, matter-of-factual disagreement about what there is in the objective world? After all, for Hegel, modernity was right that normative statuses are attitude-dependent. Hegel diagnoses the issue instead as a difference in meta-attitude. He denominates the norm-blind reductive naturalism of attitudes, for which the Kammerdiener stands, debasing: ‘niederträchtig’ (literally, something like “pulling down or under”). The contrasting, norm-sensitive, status-responsive, hero-acknowledging meta-attitude that takes some attitudes to be themselves genuinely norm-sensitive and norm-acknowledging he calls magnanimous: ‘edelmütig’ (literally: noble spirited)” (pp. 90-91).

“[T]he trusting conception is heroic, like the tragic conception, in that responsibility is total. Responsibility is taken for the whole deed. There is no aspect of intentional doings that overflows and falls outside the normative realm of responsibility—no specification of the deed for which no-one takes responsibility” (pp. 106-107).

“Agency as understood and practiced within the magnanimous recognitive structure of confession and forgiveness combines these two heroic aspects of the premodern conception: sittlich appreciation of the status-dependence of normative attitudes and acknowledging total responsibility for the deed as consequentially extended beyond the knowledge and control of the agent. It can maintain a heroic expanded conception of the deed for which responsibility is taken because it has an expanded conception of who is responsible for each doing” (p. 107).

“The neo-heroic postmodern form of practical normativity replaces fate with something we do. What happens is given the form of something done. Immediacy, contingency, particularity and their recalcitrance to conceptualization are not done away with. But they now take their proper place. For we appreciate the necessary role they play in the process of determining the contents of the norms we both institute by our recognitive attitudes and acknowledge as governing that experiential process. The burdens of tragic subjection to fate are replaced by the tasks of concrete magnanimous forgiveness. Where our normative conceptual digestion and domestication of immediacy, contingency, and particularity shows its limitations, when (as in each case, as the Kammerdiener reminds us, at some point they must) they outrun our recollective capacity to incorporate them into the mediated, normative conceptual form of governing universals, that failure of ours is properly acknowledged by confession, and trust in the forgiveness of that failure to fulfill our responsibilities, by more knowledgeable and capable future recollectors” (p. 108). (See also Brandomian Forgiveness; Rethinking Responsibility; Expansive Agency.)

Hegelian Semantics

Brandom begins his second Brentano lecture saying, “On the ground floor of Hegel’s intellectual edifice stands his non-psychological conception of the conceptual. This is the idea that to be conceptually contentful is to stand in relations of material incompatibility and consequence (his “determinate negation” and “mediation”) to other such contentful items. The relations of incompatibility and consequence are denominated “material” to indicate that they articulate the contents rather than form of what stands in those relations. This is his first and most basic semantic idea: an understanding of conceptual content in terms of modally robust relations of exclusion and inclusion” (p. 39).

I think Aristotle and even Plato would have agreed with all of this: both the nonpsychological nature of concepts and the fundamental role of modally robust relations of exclusion and inclusion in determining meaning. But the Latin medieval to European early modern mainstream was in this regard much more influenced by the Stoic explanation of meaning by representation, and by the “psychological” cast of Augustine’s thought.

Brandom goes on to characterize Hegel’s position as a “bimodal hylomorphic conceptual realism”, carefully unpacking each part of this dense formula. The two modalities in question are the two fundamental ways in which things have grip on us: the “bite” of reality and the moral “ought”. Brandom holds that there is a deep structural parallel or isomorphism between these two kinds of constraints that affect us. Further, the isomorphism is also a hylomorphism in the sense that the two modalities are not only structurally similar, but so deeply intertwined in practice as to be only analytically distinguishable. Concepts and normativity are interdependent. Finally, it is through concepts and normativity that all our notions of the solidity of reality are articulated.

This kind of conceptual realism in Hegel is complemented by what Brandom calls a conceptual idealism. “At the grossest level of structure, the objective realm of being is articulated by nomological relations, and the subjective realm of thought is articulated by norm-governed processes, activities or practices. It can be asked how things stand with the intentional nexus between these realms. Should it be construed in relational or practical-processual terms?” (p. 43). “Hegel takes there to be an explanatory asymmetry in that the semantic relations between those discursive practices and the objective relations they know about and exploit practically are instituted by the discursive practices that both articulate the subjective realm of thought and establish its relations to the objective realm of being. This asymmetry claim privileging specifically recollective discursive practices over semantic relations in understanding the intentional nexus between subjectivity and objectivity is the thesis of conceptual idealism.” (p. 44).

Plato had talked about recollection in a mythical or poetic way in relation to paradoxes of learning. Hegel’s more “historiographical” recollection is also related to a kind of learning, but Hegel specifically stresses the importance of error as the stimulus to learning. Brandom says there is both a “subjunctive sensitivity of thought to things” (ibid) and a “normative responsibility of thought to fact. What things are for consciousness ought to conform to what things are in themselves.” (p. 45). This translates into a central obligation to repair our errors, and for Hegel the specific way to do this is through a recollective account of what was right in our previous stance; how we came to realize that it went wrong; and what we did to fix it.

“The normative standard of success of intentional agency is set by how things objectively are after an action. The idea of action includes a background structural commitment to the effect that things ought to be as they are intended to be. Conceptual idealism focuses on the fact that all these alethic and normative modal relations are instituted by the recollective activity that is the final phase of the cycle of cognition and action” (ibid).

“Conceptual realism asserts the identity of conceptual content between facts and thoughts of those facts. (Compare Wittgenstein: ‘When we say, and mean, that such-and-such is the case, we—and our meaning—do not stop anywhere short of the fact; but we mean: this—is—so.’ [PI§95]) Conceptual idealism offers a pragmatic account of the practical process by which that semantic-intentional relation between what things are for consciousness and what they are in themselves is established. Pragmatics, as I am using the term, is the study of the use of concepts by subjects engaging in discursive practices. Conceptual idealism asserts a distinctive kind of explanatory priority (a kind of authority) of pragmatics over semantics. For this reason it is a pragmatist semantic explanatory strategy, and its idealism is a pragmatist idealism. The sui generis rational practical activity given pride of explanatory place by this sort of pragmatism is recollection” (pp. 45-46).

Brandom says that Hegel’s notion of experience has two levels, corresponding to two top-level kinds of concepts he distinguishes: ordinary practical and empirical concepts, and meta-level philosophical, categorial or “logical” concepts.

“The master-strategy animating this reading of Hegel (and of Kant) is semantic descent: the idea that the ultimate point of studying these metaconcepts is what their use can teach us about the semantic contentfulness of ground-level concepts, so the best way to understand the categorial metaconcepts is to use them to talk about the use and content of ordinary concepts… The pragmatic metaconcept of the process of experience is first put in play in the Introduction, at the very beginning of [Hegel’s Phenomenology], in the form of the experience of error. It is invoked to explain how the consciousness-constitutive distinction-and-relation between what things are for consciousness and what things are in themselves shows up to consciousness itself. Hegel assumes that, however vaguely understood it might be at the outset, it is a distinction-and-relation that can at least be a topic for us, the readers of the book” (pp. 47-48).

The most naive human awareness already implicitly recognizes a distinction between appearance and reality. “The question is how this crucial distinction already shows up practically for even the most metatheoretically naïve knowing subject. How are we to understand the basic fact that ‘…the difference between the in-itself and the for-itself is already present in the very fact that consciousness knows an object at all’… Hegel traces its origin to the experience of error” (p. 48).

“Hegel finds the roots of this sort of experience in our biological nature as desiring beings…. What a creature practically takes or treats as food, by eating it, can turn out not really to be food, if eating it does not satisfy the hunger that motivated it…. This sort of experience is the basis and practical form of learning” (p. 49). This is “the practical basis for the semantic distinction between representings and representeds, sense and referent” (pp, 49-50).

“[A]n essential part of the acknowledgment of error is practically taking or treating two commitments as incompatible. Such genuinely conceptual activity goes beyond what merely desiring beings engage in. The origins of Hegel’s idea here lie in Kant’s earlier broadly pragmatist account of what knowing subjects must do in order to count as apperceiving” (p. 50).

“Hegel breaks from the Kantian picture by adding a crucial constraint on what counts as successful repairs…. Successful repairs must explain and justify the changes made, in a special way” (p. 52). This takes the form of a historical recollection. “To be entitled to claim that things are as one now takes them to be, one must show how one found out that they are so. Doing that involves explaining what one’s earlier views got right, what they got wrong, and why…. This is the progressive emergence into explicitness, the ever more adequate expression, of what is retrospectively discerned as having been all along implicit as the norm governing and guiding the process by which its appearances arise and pass away” (p. 53). “Recollection… turns a past into a history” (p. 54).

All this serves as an explanation of how we come to have representations that actually refer to something, in terms of how we express our concerns. “In general Hegel thinks we can only understand what is implicit in terms of the expressive process by which it is made explicit. That is a recollective process. The underlying reality is construed as implicit in the sense of being a norm that all along governed the process of its gradual emergence into explicitness” (p. 56).

“Kant had the idea that representation is a normative concept. Something counts as a representing in virtue of being responsible to something else, which counts as represented by it in virtue of exercising authority over the representing by serving as a standard for assessments of its correctness as a representing. It is in precisely this sense that a recollective story treats the commitments it surveys as representings of the content currently treated as factual” (p. 58). Brandom says that Hegel reconstructs in expressive terms what the representationalists were right about, while strongly contrasting this way of thinking with representationalism.

“Hylomorphic conceptual realism then underwrites the idea of the categorial homogeneity of senses as graspable thoughts and their referents (what they represent) as correspondingly conceptually contentful, statable facts. This makes intelligible the idea that thoughts are the explicit expressions of facts. They make explicit… how the world is” (p. 60).

“The plight of finite knowing and acting subjects metaphysically guarantees liability to empirical error and practical failure. The experience of error is inescapable. What I earlier called the ‘false starts, wrong turns, and dead ends’ of inquiry can be retrospectively edited out of the sanitized, Whiggish vindicating recollective narrative, but they cannot be avoided going forward.

“Why not? In short because the rational, conceptual character of the world and its stubborn recalcitrance to mastery by knowledge and agency are equally fundamental primordial features of the way things are” (pp. 61-62).

“For Hegel, the experience of error requires not just the revision of beliefs… but also of meanings” (p. 62). “The manifestation of stubborn, residual immediacy in thought is the inevitability of the experience of error…. [T]he ineluctability of error and the realistic possibility of genuine knowledge [both] express valid perspectives on what is always at once both the experience of error and the way of truth. The important thing is not to seize exclusively—and so one-sidedly—on either aspect, but to understand the nature of the process as one that necessarily shows up from both perspectives” (p. 63).

“One of Hegel’s animating ideas is that the independence of immediacy (its distinctive authority over structures of mediation) is manifested in its role as a principle of instability, as providing a normative demand for change, for both rejection and further development of each constellation of determinate concepts and commitments articulated by them. The independence of mediation (its distinctive authority over immediacy) is manifested in all the retrospective recollective vindications of prior constellations of commitments as genuine knowledge, as resulting from the expressively progressive revelation of reality by prior claims to knowledge.” (pp. 64-65).

“The forward-looking obligation to repair acknowledged incompatibilities of commitment acknowledges error and the inadequacy of its conceptions. The backward-looking recollective obligation to rationalize as expressively progressive previous, now superseded, repairs and recollections institutes knowledge, truth, and determinate concepts whose incompatibilities and consequences track those articulating (in a different modal key) the objective world…. The recollective process is also what Hegel calls ‘giving contingency the form of necessity.'” (p. 65).

“The key in each case is to understand [truth and error] not as properties, states, or relations that can be instantiated at a single time, but as structural features of enduring experiential processes” (p.66).

This is to move from what Hegel calls Understanding to what he calls Reason. Understanding focuses on the fixity of concepts; Reason also has regard for their malleability. To think of experience as asymptotically approaching objective facts and relations belongs to the Understanding that disregards the mutation of meanings.

“The world as it is in itself as distinct from how it is for consciousness is not a brute other, but in that distinctive sense the product of its own recollective activity in experience” (p.72).

Hegel’s Ethical Innovation

Terry Pinkard’s biography of Hegel shows him as primarily motivated by ethical and social concerns. The common image of Hegel as an extravagant metaphysician ignores his many highly critical remarks about metaphysics, and his stated desire to replace metaphysics with a “logic” concerned with the elaboration and refinement of meaningful content. Hegel remains very challenging to read.

In his third and final Woodbridge lecture, “History, Reason, and Reality”, Brandom distills and reconstructs Hegel’s principal philosophical objectives, and clarifies his relation to Kant.

Hegel is arguably the inventor of what later came to be called meta-ethics. Further, he promotes a version of meta-ethics that is normative all the way down — that is to say, it does not try to explain values in terms of something else. There is no sharp boundary between ethics in the small and this kind of meta-ethics, which ends up including everything.

Brandom suggests that discourse about values or normativity is in fact the one kind of discourse that is truly self-sufficient; that all other discourse implicitly depends on it; and that developing explanations that take this into account is one of Hegel’s great contributions.

According to Brandom, Hegel thinks that Kantian ethical autonomy as Kant himself developed it, though a huge improvement over some previous explanations, still did not eliminate the asymmetry or one-sidedness of responsibility typical of the authority-obedience model. Hegel sees the one-sidedness of the responsibility to obey in the authority-obedience model and the one-sidedness of presuming to judge everything for ourselves as a sort of mirror-image variants of the same basic failure to treat responsibility as two-sided. He also thinks Kant could not adequately explain how autonomy and a universality of values could coexist, though Kant clearly wanted them to.

The reciprocity of mutual recognition is Hegel’s answer to these difficulties. We freely choose particular commitments over others, but the content of those commitments is not just whatever we say it is. On the other hand, that content is not fully predetermined either, so we do play a role in its determination. (See Mutual Recognition; Mutual Recognition Revisited; Pippin on Mutual Recognition.)

“[T]he reciprocal recognition model requires that the authority of conceptual contents over the activities of practitioners (their responsibility to those contents) be balanced by a reciprocal authority of practitioners over those contents, a responsibility of those contents to the activities of the subjects of judgment and action who apply them.  And that is to say that Hegel is committed to understanding the practice of acknowledging commitments by rational integration as a process not only of applying conceptual contents, but also as the process by which they are determined” (Reason in Philosophy, p. 82; emphasis in original throughout).

What it is to be a concept for Kant and Hegel fundamentally involves playing a normative role. Hegel takes the further step of explaining the determination of concepts through concrete, historical, open-ended processes of mutual recognition. This has implications for the nature of determinateness itself.

“One of Hegel’s key ideas, as I read him, is that in order to understand how the historical process of applying determinately contentful concepts to undertake discursive commitments (taking responsibility for those commitments by rationally integrating them with others one has already undertaken) can also be the process of determining the contents of those concepts, we need a new notion of determinateness” (p. 88).

Here Brandom is highlighting a crucial aspect of Hegel’s deeper argument that runs counter to his frequent recourse to rhetoric about a “system” and related themes, which Fichte and the influential early Kant-interpreter Karl Reinhold before him had made very popular in German philosophy at the time. Hegel’s rhetoric often seems much easier to understand than his in-depth arguments, but it is a fatal mistake to assume that the apparent meaning of the rhetoric is a good guide to the meaning of the in-depth arguments. Hegel is far from the only philosopher to develop very nonstandard, idiosyncratic connotations for some common terms, but he may have done more of it than anyone else. This means it is better to interpret his rhetoric in light of an interpretation of his in-depth arguments than to take the rhetoric as authoritative.

The “new notion” of determinateness that Brandom attributes to Hegel is in effect what I would call an open, genuinely Aristotelian determinateness rather than a closed Stoic/Cartesian one. (See also Univocity; Equivocal Determination; Aristotelian Identity; Aristotelian Causes; Free Will and Determinism).

Brandom develops a detailed model of open-ended determination by mutual recognition, by dwelling at length on the kinds of things that happen in the evolution of common law and interpretations of case law in jurisprudence.

Unlike the way we think of the physical determination of events, which only “flows” in one direction, the determination of meanings and the meaning of talk about being is a reciprocal determination between forward application of concepts to situations and backward-looking interrogation of their meaning. Historical time understood as the time of the historical constitution of meaning inherently involves a reciprocal determination of forward- and backward-looking interpretation.

Brandom says that Hegel’s famous contrast between Understanding and Reason is one between a view that assumes conceptual determination is already complete and one that recognizes it as inherently subject to indefinite further development.

“[Hegel] is very much aware of the openness of the use of expressions that is the practice of at once applying concepts in judgment and determining the content of the concepts those locutions express.  This is the sense in which prior use does not close off future possibilities of development by settling in advance a unique correct answer to the question of whether a particular concept applies in a new set of circumstances.  The new circumstances will always resemble any prior, settled case in an infinite number of respects, and differ from it in an infinite number of respects.  There is genuine room for choice on the part of the current judge or judger, depending on which prior commitments are taken as precedential and which aspects of similiarity and difference are emphasized” (p. 89).

Prior uses have real weight, but nonetheless do not by themselves “determine the correctness of all possible future applications of a concept” (p.90). (See also Brandomian Choice.) According to Brandom, Hegel develops a new “recollective”, “genealogical” approach to justification that takes into account the continual reshaping of the interpretation of past experience in the light of new experience.

Hegel the man was not immune to some of the common prejudices of his own cultural milieu, but his philosophy provides a principled basis for challenging all such prejudices, in a careful way that avoids indiscriminately denying the value of past experience.