Reason, Nature

Ethical reason is our simultaneously active and receptive contribution to the bounty of nature. We are neither masters nor slaves or automatons, but co-stewards of this world.

The open-ended inclusiveness characteristic of ethical reason resembles the superabundance of form in nature, the same resemblance I’d like to think Plotinus had in mind when he said we should act in ways that express a “likeness to God”, which I take in the spirit of Leibnizian affirmative “wise charity”. (See also Fragility of the Good; Two Kinds of Character; Magnanimity; Second Nature; Naturalness, Mindedness; Interpretation.)


Our ethical development, or what Aristotle would call our ethos — our piece of Hegelian Spirit, as it were — builds on our emotional development. A relatively harmonious emotional constitution will be naturally open to the influence of ethical development grounded in mutual recognition.

It seems to me that this is already enough for a fully rich account of a human being. If we have ethos, then things like will, ego, intellectual soul, and mind-as-container seem superfluous.

Second Nature

In the case of a human, Aristotle spoke of the soul as the “first” actuality of the body, and of intellect as a second actuality of a human being. This was extrapolated by later commentators into a broader concept of second nature. Nature for Aristotle is not just the way something statically is, or a set of abstract laws; it is an internal source of motion and rest within each natural thing. In the case of an animal, it is responsible for growth and characteristic bodily movements or behavior. I have glossed actuality (energeia) as at-work-ness, or a status of being effectively operative in a process, so there is a kind of metonymic relation between nature and actuality.

The idea that nature or actuality is something admitting of structural degrees seems very useful. Modern discourse is full of awkward contrasts between, e.g., nature and culture, as if these were mutually exclusive domains. But culture or character or mind exists within — or layered on top of — what we would call physical nature. It is a relatively autonomous additional layer with additional capabilities, that would not exist without the first layer. It is a complex adverbial modification of the active processes associated with first nature. Hegelian Spirit is a thing of this kind. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Rational/Talking Animal; Parts of the Soul; Alienation, Second Nature.)


Human reasoning is never purely formal. I think it works mainly along the lines of the material inference described by Sellars and Brandom. But as Brandom pointed out in Between Saying and Doing, any given material inference can still be represented by a formal inference.

Direct brain-computer analogies don’t seem to me to yield much. On the other hand, the theory of programming languages does yield insights into the foundations of formal reasoning, and the foundations of formal reasoning may indirectly yield insights into the ways human reasoning works.

A case in point is the notion of compilation stages. All programs need to be compiled or interpreted to be run. Usually, this happens in multiple stages. At each stage, expressions in a more expressive language are re-encoded into operationally equivalent expressions in a less expressive language. It may seem counterintuitive that this is even possible, but it is essential to the way something intelligible to us can be made to “run”.

This tells us that operational equivalence and expressive equivalence are not the same thing, and it suggests an analogy for the way second nature relates to first nature. Operational equivalence can be preserved by substituting references for inferences. Something that can only be expressed at a higher level can nonetheless be executed at a lower level. Things that can only be expressed through human language and reason can provide the occasion for operational execution by a physiological mechanism. (See also Free Will and Determinism; Psyche, Subjectivity; Bookkeeping.)


As ethical beings possessed of second nature, except for a few very spontaneous acts, we always have reasons for what we say and do. We hope they are good reasons.

Ethical merit consists essentially in conscientiousness about the goodness of the reasons that motivate words and deeds and are used to justify them. Such goodness of reasons is never merely formal or technical; it is also social and situational. (See also Commitment; Ends; Reasonableness; Interpretive Charity; Agency; Rational/Talking Animal; Things Said; Rational Ethics; Evaluation of Actions; Intellectual Virtue, Love; Honesty, Kindness.)

Alienation, Second Nature

In chapter 14 of Spirit of Trust, Brandom points out a distinction developed by Hegel in the Spirit chapter of the Phenomenology between “actual” and “pure” consciousness. These turn out to correspond closely to practical and theoretical culture, respectively. Here it is important to note that “consciousness” is therefore a very different thing from the “consciousness” of the Consciousness chapter, where we began with a putatively immediate awareness and discovered that even then, every apparent immediacy eventually revealed itself as mediated.

Acculturation, and therefore the “consciousness” of the later chapter basically is a form of mediation. We are no longer making any pretense of beginning with the putatively immediate. Culture is very thick, and a long journey. More superficially, it includes all our attitudes.

In chapter 13, Brandom had quoted Hegel saying it is through culture that the individual acquires actuality. The “individual” here is not the atomistic psychological individual beloved of the Enlightenment, externally confronting objects and others, but a participant in Geist with some much more interesting topology. True individuality for Hegel is not given but emergent. Its borders are much wider, and not topologically closed. Atomic psychological individuals are a hallucination of the modern illness Hegel called Mastery. (Hegel explicitly says the pure “I”, by contrast — conceived after Kant as having no content of its own, but as a mere index of the unity of a transcendental unity of apperception — depends on language for its existence. Brandom reminds us that language is the medium of recognition, the sea in which normative fish swim; and that things said, in being public, acquire a significance that runs beyond what the speaker intended. The purely linguistic ā€œIā€ becomes the focus of commitment and responsibility, which depend on linguistic articulation.)

In the same passage Hegel also speaks of Spirit as alienation from our natural being. Reading those words I sort of cringe, but in fact Hegel is not talking about anything like Gnostic or Plotinian alienation. The word has that heritage, but Hegel uses it in the same breath with actualization. This alienation is supposed to be a good thing. It is de-immediatization, which is just the other side of the coin of mediation. Hegel is here using an originally negatively connotated Gnostic and Plotinian word for what is for him a positively connotated Aristotelian concept of actualization, which Brandom associates with expression and making explicit. Mediation is in this passage allegorized by Hegel as, in effect, becoming strange (alien) to our putative atomistic psychological selves.

Spirit as alienation should not be read as any repudiation of nature. As Terry Pinkard points out in Hegel’s Naturalism, Hegel is in fact a naturalist, but of the expansive, Aristotelian sort, explicitly antireductionist. The difference with 2oth century naturalisms is that it allows for the emergence of increasingly higher forms of Geist and Hegelian “freedom” over a natural basis. In Aristotelian terms, 20th century naturalism only addresses “first” nature, the more primitive one. Aristotelian and Hegelian naturalism also recognize second nature that includes culture. Even though in other contexts there will still be talk of overcoming alienation, at least one meaning of “alienation” is just the move to second nature.