Reading “Reading Brandom”

I’ve commented on the introduction to Reading Brandom: On A Spirit of Trust, and on the contributions by Robert Pippin and Terry Pinkard. Here I will briefly attend to the remainder of the book.

A moderately phrased essay by Elena Ficara wants to recover a more conventional notion of propositional truth in Hegel, while adhering to the view that real “contradictions” literally violate the law of noncontradiction. John McDowell, a notorious opponent of coherentism, predictably takes issue with Brandom’s coherentist reading of the Kantian unity of apperception. He also claims Hegel is not engaged in the critique of representationalism that Brandom imputes to him, and argues for a forward-moving necessity in the emergence of one shape of consciousness from another. A thoughtful and well-balanced piece by Paul Redding unfortunately wants to recover a place for a more conventional positive role for immediate experience. Georg Bertram argues for the importance of conflict, and says that Brandom overstresses reconciliation. In a nuanced piece on Brandom’s take on realism and idealism in Hegel, Dean Moyar argues that thinking of practical judgment in terms of values rather than deontology could strengthen Brandom’s argument. I have some sympathy for this.

J.M. Bernstein adheres to an ethically “positivist” reading of Making It Explicit, and claims that the notion of forgiveness in Spirit of Trust invalidates Brandom’s previous stance. Italo Tesla objects to some of the detail of Brandom’s treatment of alienation, and rejects Brandom’s subsumption of all human activity under ethical practice. Editor Gilles Bouché claims Brandom “retreats” to a “pure philosophy of language” ill-suited for ethical purposes. Franz Knappik claims Brandomian trust is incompatible with critical thought, and thus has bad political consequences. Charles Taylor globally rejects Brandom’s reading of Hegel in favor of a more conventional view of a self-unfolding teleology, but says Brandom’s ethics contain a message much needed in contemporary politics.

“Secondary” Literature

One of my favorite Hegelian aphorisms is that philosophy is inseparable from the history of philosophy. Presentations ordered in the form of “my system of the world” or “the Truth according to me” rather quickly become tedious, and contribute to the misapprehension that there is no possibility of a cumulative development. Far better is a reflexive turn that interrogates the best that has been said before.

Socrates — at least, the Socrates of Plato’s “Socratic” dialogues — inaugurated a related approach, treating serious pursuit of questions as more valuable than supposed answers. Aristotle especially deserves credit for initially showing how such questioning can lead to a truly cumulative development, with many tentative answers along the way. Many later figures approached philosophy primarily as a sort of dialogue with Aristotle or Plato, or meditation or commentary on their works. In the later European middle ages, very extensive catalogs of nuanced alternative views, interpretations, and arguments were recorded by individual authors. This tradition rather suddenly died in the 17th century. In the midst of many scientific and technical advances, philosophy largely regressed from hermeneutic engagement to competing “systems of the world” that mostly talked past each other.

Hegel himself largely initiated serious interest in the history of philosophy. His historical view enabled him to recover the possibility of a cumulative development. Nowadays, philosophers again spend much of their time writing about other philosophers. Very important philosophical work takes place in what is nominally “secondary” literature, and “primary” works are full of secondary references. Without extensive secondary literature, the works of great later philosophers like Kant and Hegel would remain largely closed books. High-quality secondary literature on historical philosophers has especially flourished since the later 20th century, so it is really quite a recent development.

After 20 years of engagement, I have come to include Brandom on the short list of the very greatest philosophers that I can count on one hand. He is the first analytic philosopher to rise nearly so high in my estimation. His Woodbridge lectures revived my interest in Hegel, and overcame my previous deep reservations about Kant. Now, for the first time, in Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust we have a true Great Book by a true great philosopher that is nominally a “secondary” work about another philosopher. Needless to say, it is also a work of great originality. I still look to others for closer textual engagement and a more historical view, but Brandom’s Hegel requires less in the way of apologetics than I ever would have expected from reading Hegel himself.