Attitude

The popular adage “everyone has the right to their opinion” is a partial truth. It gestures at something like Kantian autonomy. But the other side of the coin is that Kantian autonomy does not operate in a vacuum; it is always embedded in what Wilfrid Sellars called the space of reasons, where holding a commitment is implicitly to invite questions about the reasons for it, and then about the actual validity or applicability of those reasons. As ethical beings we are responsible for our opinions.

An attitude in the ordinary unqualified sense may operate as a cause of behavior in the modern sense, but because nothing prevents such an attitude from being completely arbitrary, a mere attitude cannot serve as a justification for anything. Attitudes in this sense have a sort of vain Cartesian irrefutability, in the same way that mere appearances do. There is a level at which if you say something appears to you thus-and-such, that mere appearance is incontestable. But it is incontestable precisely because nothing follows from it.

Brandom, on the other hand, is only interested in attitudes from which something is taken to follow. When he talks about the attitude-dependence of norms, I think what he really has in mind is more specifically a dependence on what analytic philosophers call propositional attitudes. This additional specification is crucial. An endorsement of any proposition whatsoever can still qualify as a propositional attitude, but every proposition has a “place” in the space of reasons that situates it in a multi-dimensional spectrum of goodness of justification. Criteria for goodness of justification can of course be debated too, but this still means that the justification for any propositional attitude is subject to evaluation. We may judge a propositional attitude to be poorly founded and therefore wrong, but it still cannot be completely arbitrary, because its justification can be evaluated.

I don’t think the same can be said for the Enlightenment authors Brandom cites as promoting a dependence of norms on attitudes, like Pufendorf and Rousseau (see Modernity, Voluntarism; Modernity, Rouseau?). Their legal and political voluntarism explicitly purports to trump any evaluation in terms of the space of reasons. This is in spite of the fact that those authors were already departing from the most traditional notion of ethical norms as simply somehow pre-given. Precisely because I am deeply sympathetic to Brandom’s critique of the unilateral authority-obedience model, I disapprove of these authors’ appeals to sovereignty.

Brandom shares his mentor Richard Rorty’s concern for democratic values, and suggests that normativity be considered as a historical development. But in spite of his concern for “semantic descent” to relate the higher-order, overtly philosophical concepts Kant and Hegel focused on to the level of ordinary empirical concepts used in daily life, he still treats ordinary concepts in a general way. Consequently, when he thinks about ordinary concepts, he still does so in a way analogous to that of Kant and Hegel. This is not a bad thing; I think he is by far the strongest at this high level. Fortunately, the weaker remarks about concrete historical antecedents for his views are peripheral to the main development of his thought.

Brandomian Choice

Aristotle had a reasonable, noninflationary concept of real choice. Choice is up to us, but it is far from arbitrary. Unfortunately, later treatments have largely oscillated between extremes of voluntarism and determinism, making choice either arbitrary or only an unreal appearance.

One of Brandom’s great contributions to ethics is a new account of choice that is reasonable and noninflationary like Aristotle’s. Aristotle developed a notion of real but nonarbitrary choice by defining it as the result of an open deliberation subject to normative standards of inquiry. Brandom reaches a complementary conclusion following a different path. The core of it is a combination of two theses. First, there is a view he associates with the Enlightenment that makes values binding on us only when we have implicitly or explicitly endorsed them. This secures the practical reality of choice, without any ontological assumptions. Second, there is Brandom’s own view that the meaning of the values we endorse is not up to us, but depends on articulation in the space of reasons. As with Aristotle’s notion of deliberation, this establishes the nonarbitrary nature of choice. (See also Intentionality; Self, Subject; Fragility of the Good; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

Space of Reasons

Wilfrid Sellars (1912-89) was one of the greatest American philosophers of the 20th century. A pragmatist trained in the analytic tradition, he rethought analytic philosophy from a broadly Kantian point of view, and famously criticized the “Myth of the Given”. His positive reference to Hegel as “that great foe of immediacy” made a great impression on the young Robert Brandom.

Sellars originated the phrase “space of reasons”, now much used by Brandom and others. He said that to hold a commitment at all is to invite questions about the reasons for it. The particular reasons for a commitment involve other reasons, which involve still others, and so on, forming a “space” that can be explored through dialogue.

I would note that in Aristotelian terms, the space of reasons would be a kind of field of potentialities. Because the space of reasons is potential rather than actual, it involves a vast multiplication of alternate (counterfactual) paths, structures, and fibrations. I associate it with an open field of potential Socratic questioning and negotiation. By contrast, both individualized ethos and the beliefs generally shared by an existing community would be kinds of actuality, in which particular alternatives are already selected, but may change over time. (See also Normativity; Intentionality.)

Hopes Dashed

The Dash — The Other Side of Absolute Knowing (2018), by Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda, advertised itself as a tour de force vindication of absolute knowing in Hegel, but hardly even mentions absolute knowing. Thick rhetoric rehearsing common Žižekian themes introduces more rhetoric and a few bits of Hegelian trivia. This little book is organizationally reminiscent of middle-period Derrida’s focus on obscure “minor” points, but lacks the redeeming grace of Derrida’s literary sparkle and prolonged thoughtfulness. I am terribly disappointed, and must beg forgiveness from my readers for another defensive response to what come across as very unfair comments about the kindly Brandom, who may be as misunderstood as Hegel himself.

According to the authors, “self-avowed Hegelian pragmatism — undoubtedly the most influential form of Hegelianism today” constrains us to remain within an allegedly preestablished “space of reasons” (scare quotes in original) “legitimized within a restricted sphere” that “cannot be fundamentally changed” (emphasis in original) “with all exits and entrances sealed” so that “the terms of rational agency are already determined such that alternate forms of practical rationality are ruled out from the outset”. I’m really sorry, but I don’t know what planet these people live on. They make something beautiful sound like a source of oppressive conformism.

The “space of reasons” introduced by Sellars and promoted by Brandom simply names the abstract possibility of ethical reasoning and dialogue. It is the wide open space of all possible Socratic questioning (see What and Why; Context). It is not the shared beliefs of some empirically existing community. Existing unjust practices are an affront to reason.

Because the space of reasons is not an empirically existing thing to begin with, talk about changing it or opting out reflects a complete misunderstanding. We could opt out from the established practices of an existing community, or change them. But it doesn’t make any sense to talk about “opting out” from an abstract possibility of questioning. In fact, those who want to opt out from the possibility of questioning are those who want to claim special privilege or to abuse others. (See also Stubborn Refusal.)

By the same token, “alternate forms” of rationality are automatically ruled in to the space of reasons. The autonomy of reason means that no one gets to dictate. Ethically speaking, there is an implied, rather minimal standard of reasonableness and good faith. However, as an abstract thing, the space of reasons can’t enforce anything at all. The social danger is not that reason could possibly oppress us, but that it is too often ignored. (See also Recognition; Fragility of the Good.)

Trust as a Principle

Trust as a principle does not mean blind trust. It means trust as a default attitude. Trust as a universal default is perfectly compatible with every kind of critical thinking.

When we trust someone, we grant them a kind of authority, but authority must always be balanced by symmetrical responsibility. To make any assertion at all is enter the space of reasons. To make an assertion is to make oneself responsible for it, along with its consequences and incompatibilities. No one has privileged access to what is right, which depends upon shareable criteria. Generalized trust does not mean naivete or credulity, just a kind of fairness. It could not mean an abdication of our responsibilities as rational beings. In the context of what Brandom would call deontic scorekeeping, generalized trust means a level playing field, not an absence of standards.