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.

Pinkard on Brandom on Hegel

Leading Hegel scholar Terry Pinkard, who has written several outstanding books, recently reviewed Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust. Pinkard, whose approach to Hegel is broadly related to Brandom’s but not the same, has worked rather closer to the Hegelian text than Brandom, who is principally an original philosopher in his own right. Two things Pinkard questions are Brandom’s thesis about the unparalleled significance of the transition to modernity, and his emphasis on ethical naturalism as the main thing wrong with the morality of the valet. I have some sympathy with both these points (see Brandom and Hegel on Modernity; Genealogy).

In passing, Pinkard contrasts Brandom’s normative-pragmatic reading with “neo-Platonist, neo-Aristotelian and neo-Spinozist interpretations”. While at a certain level this is uncontroversial and there are many conventional readings of Hegel that I think go wrong in one or more of these directions, I also still think that even from a broadly Brandomian viewpoint, something can be salvaged from each of these categories, provided we go beyond old clichés. Plotinus made something like Aristotelian unmoved movers the model for all determination, partially anticipating 1960s notions of structural causality (which I have given a somewhat Brandomian interpretation), while later neoplatonists like Proclus and Damascius also hinted at more dynamic mutual determination. I have developed connections between Aristotle and Brandom at some length, and Pinkard himself has elsewhere noted significant Aristotelian elements in Hegel. Spinoza pioneered modern thinking in terms of relations before things, which was further advanced by Kant and Hegel. He was celebrated as a proto-inferentialist in Brandom’s Tales of the Mighty Dead.

Pinkard seems to think Brandom dwells too much on the Hegelian critique of mastery, seeing instances of it everywhere. To my mind, this emphasis is salutary, and of vital importance as a corrective to previous claims about the “totalizing” nature of Hegelian thought.

Pinkard argues that the end of the Spirit chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology has more to do with a critique of a Kantian claim that free moral action involves a special kind of causality not available in experience than with a critique of mastery. Kant did inconsistently suggest such a thing, but I think the charitable reading is that this was infelicitous phrasing that is not at all essential. But whether or not one attributes such voluntarist thoughts to Kant, voluntarism basically just is the assertion that the will has mastery, so a critique of voluntarism would also be a critique of mastery.

He has doubts about the bottom-up nature of Brandom’s expanded account of mutual recognition in A Spirit of Trust, even suggesting that it ends up being more Fichtean than Hegelian, and implies starting with an “I”. He objects to a passing phrase of Brandom’s about experience incorporating recognition of error as a “two-stroke engine”, suggesting that it leads to something like a Fichtean opposition of I and not-I.

Passing phrases notwithstanding, I think Hegel and Brandom both go below the level of an “I” to ground the sapient dimension of subjectivity in shareable thought contents and their interconnection. What is below the level of an “I” in this way is thus already social.

Pinkard has a nice phrase about Hegelian phenomenological thinking being in “the middle, as opposed to the active or passive, voice”.

He suggests that Brandom goes too far in reading the Phenomenology as an allegory, assimilating to this Brandom’s comments about applying a methodology that differs from Hegel’s own. I don’t see any allegorical reading of the whole, even though Brandom does give extreme weight to what obviously is an allegory at the end of the Spirit chapter (see Brandomian Forgiveness).

Pinkard does not see why Brandom dwells so extensively on forgiveness. I don’t think Brandomian forgiveness is supposed to yield new ground-level ethical conclusions, only sound ones. What is novel in this area is Brandom’s rethinking of meta-level concepts of responsibility and agency, which provides an ethical path to overcoming the subject-object dichotomy by means of what I have called normative monism.

Brandom is not principally a contributor to the rich literature on the historical Hegel in the way that Pinkard and Robert Pippin are. He reads somewhat selectively, interprets into different vocabulary that has its own complex associations, and makes many points of his own. A highly original philosophical account like Brandom’s should not be taken as competing with the historically oriented literature. They serve complementary purposes.

Mutual Recognition

Hegelian mutual recognition puts ethical considerations of reciprocity with others to the fore. In part, it is a more sophisticated version of the idea behind the golden rule. It also suggests that anyone’s authority and responsibility for anything should always be evenly balanced. It is also a social, historical theory of the genesis of meaning, value, and identity. Hegel’s notion was partly anticipated by Fichte.

Brandom reads mutual recognition as central to Hegel’s ethics or practical philosophy, and Hegel’s practical philosophy as central to his philosophy as a whole. Prior to the publication of A Spirit of Trust (2019), what I take to be Brandom’s own deep ethical engagement was often not recognized. I hope the situation will soon improve.

Consistent with Brandom’s general approach, the ethics of A Spirit of Trust appears in a highly mediated form. Much of the work of ethics for Brandom comes down to the implementation and practice of normative pragmatics and inferential semantics, which he has been expounding at least since Making It Explicit (1994). So, I think he has been laying the groundwork for a long time.

One recent commentator (Lewis 2018) suggested that ethics proper was just missing from Brandom’s earlier accounts. His citations for this were to Robert Pippin and Terry Pinkard, whose readings of Hegel are often compared to Brandom’s. I cannot find the text of Pinkard’s 2007 article, but Pippin in the course of his searching but still very sympathetic review “Brandom’s Hegel” (2005) had suggested there was at that time an important gap in Brandom’s reading, related to Hegel’s lifelong concern with a critical treatment of positivity, i.e., received views and institutionalized claims.

Pippin cited an ambiguous argument from Making It Explicit that seemed to support the social legitimacy of a commitment to enlist in the Navy by a drunken sailor who was tricked into a contract by accepting a shilling for more beer. Brandom has since clarified in several places that he did not mean to himself endorse this argument, based as it is on a partial perspective (see, e.g., Hegel’s Ethical Innovation). In Spirit of Trust terms, Brandom’s point in such a context would be to emphasize that the freedom associated with agency does not entail mastery, and in particular that we do not have mastery over the content of our own commitments. The issue for Pippin in 2005 was that Brandom appeared to put sole responsibility and authority for determining the content of commitments on the audience. Pippin found with respect to positivity “not so much a problem as a gap, a lacuna that Brandom obviously feels comfortable leaving unfilled” in Making It Explicit. I suspect Brandom’s lack of discomfort was directly tied to a deferral of such considerations to his 40-year magnum opus project, A Spirit of Trust.

For years, something like Pippin’s positivity issue was a main topic of discussion between my late father and me. For both of us, it was the big hurdle to overcome in fully recognizing Brandom as the world-historic giant we both thought he would probably turn out to be. I thought the positivity issue already began to be addressed in the early web draft of A Spirit of Trust, and I suspect it was a significant focus while Brandom was working on the final text.

In any event, I think it is clear that in the published Spirit of Trust, the determination of the content of commitments is envisioned not as stopping with an immediate audience, but as involving an indefinitely recursive expansion of mutually determining I-Thou relationships. On my reading, normative statuses that are both fully determinate and unconditionally deontically binding would only emerge from the projection of this expansion into infinity. But in practical contexts, we never deal with actual infinity, only with indefinite recursive expansions that have been cut off at some relatively early point. (See also Hegelian Genealogy.)

We always work with defeasible approximations — finite truncations of a recursive expansion through many relationships of reciprocal determination. This means in particular that judgments of deontic bindingness are defeasible approximations.

Further, the kind of approximation at issue here is not a statistical one, but a more Aristotelian sort of “probability”. It therefore cannot be assumed to monotonically improve as the expansion progresses, so it is not guaranteed that further expansion will not suddenly require a significant revision of previous commitments or concepts, as Brandom explicitly points out (see Error).

This means that the legitimacy of the queen’s shilling and any other received truth is actually open to dispute and therefore open to any rational argument, including those the sobered-up sailor might make. In Brandom’s favorite example, new case law — though of course subject to higher-level canons of determinate negation in its own future interpretation and evaluation — may significantly revise existing case law in unforeseeable ways.

I believe this gives us all the space we need for social criticism. We need have no fear that Brandom’s version of the mutual recognition principle will bind us to positivity. Nothing is out of bounds for the autonomy of reason. We only have to be honest about the conceptual content we encounter in the detail of the recursive expansion. I believe this is the answer to the lingering concerns I expressed in Robust Recognition and Genealogy. Even if Brandom himself were to turn out not to go quite this far, I think at worst this is a friendly amendment that does not disrupt the framework. (See also Edifying Semantics; Reasonableness.)

The recursive expansion of mutual recognition pushes it toward the kind of universality on which Kant based the categorical imperative. Practical outcomes from the two approaches ought to be similar. Hegel’s version is useful because it is grounded in social relationships rather than a pure metaphysics of morals, but still escapes empirical, “positive” constraints by indefinitely expanding the network toward the concrete universality of a universal community of rational beings. (See also Mutual Recognition Revisited; Pippin on Mutual Recognition; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation).