Robust Recognition

Having just completed a first pass through chapter 8 of Brandom’s published Spirit of Trust, I am currently pondering his introduction of a “robust” concept of recognition that is to be fully transitive as well as mutual. He wants to say that robust recognition is the transitive closure of simple recognition. Clearly the motivation is to be able to argue that if a recognitive relation is both symmetric and transitive, then it is also reflexive, as a relation in the mathematical sense would be. So far, this seems to be isolated in one step of a much larger argument about the mutually recognitive institution of normative statuses and the nature of what Hegel calls self-consciousness.

My concern is that in real life practice of mutual recognition, we not only do in fact stop short of fully transitive, logically complete recognition of all judgments by those recognized by the ones we recognize (and by those they recognize, and so on indefinitely) as authoritatively binding on us, but we should stop short of that. To see this, we need not even consider the indefinite regress. We need not even go beyond the immediate other being recognized.

I recognize you as a recognizer, and thereby as having what Brandom would call some authority (always symmetrically balanced by responsibility), such that I should take your judgments seriously. But we may have nontrivial disagreement with someone for whom we have the utmost regard. To accept a conclusion or an argument merely on someone’s say-so, no matter how much we love them or how wise we think they are in general, is not intellectually or morally responsible. We are always in a sense morally obligated to risk seeming to second-guess those whom we grant some authority over us, by attempting to follow and thus validate their reasoning. From the fact we recognized they were right about many things and generally worthy of being taken seriously, it does not follow that they are right about everything. Good people make mistakes, and sometimes they make serious errors. Recognizing someone as worthy of recognition cannot entail treating them as infallible. (See also Authority, Reason; The Autonomy of Reason; Interpretive Charity; Honesty, Kindness; Intellectual Virtue, Love.)

Brandom says the authority we acknowledge in mutual recognition with someone is “probative, but provisional and defeasible”. This seems reasonable.

He has not yet made any claim about actual occurrences of robust recognition, but it seems to be postulated as logically complete, which I worry could be too strong to ever actually occur or to be appropriate for ethical use. To “acknowledge as authoritative whatever ground-level takings the one robustly recognized acknowledges as authoritative” (p. 255) sounds to my ear as if the authority would have us in a deontological vise that would not be defeasible. If the acknowledgement of a ground-level taking as authoritative is intended to be implicitly defeasible, then “acknowledge as authoritative” only means “take seriously”, which would be fine.

Part of the difficulty here is that the common or usual understanding of authority is inherently asymmetric, and Brandom is going against that with a symmetric notion of authority/responsibility. The usage here suggests that we should read all references to acknowledgments of authority in Brandom as also inherently including built-in defeasibility. There would then be a kind of symmetry between this and his idea that the very act of making an assertion inherently includes a built-in taking of responsibility for the assertion.

As usual, this leaves me wondering about the status of Brandom’s continually reaffirmed choice in favor of deontological vocabulary. Deontology is all about claiming something analogous to necessity in ethics. If a ground-level conclusion is defeasible like the best judgments of the wise in Aristotle, then to my simple mind it cannot be said to follow necessarily. If ground-level ethical conclusions really should be considered to follow with something a little weaker than necessity, why keep talking as if deontology were the only framework available for ethics? Even if such vocabulary could be a good fit for addressing higher-order constraints on thought (which I am beginning to see more and more), other alternatives are available for talking about ground-level ethical deliberation and choice.