We intuitively grasp a kind of unity of each human person, but have no special, privileged mode of knowledge of persons as individuals. Common sense tends to be rather dogmatic, and glosses over many distinctions in such matters. Plato compared the soul to a city, a sort of community of thoughts and desires — a kind of unity to be sure, but a relatively weak one. In Kantian terms, human persons seem to be distinguished from everything else by somehow being the nexus of combination of otherwise very distinct empirical and transcendental domains.

Considerations of change over time further complicate the picture, but may also provide a kind of guiding thread. A factual “me” is mainly a retrospective construction. A normative “I” on the other hand has both retrospective and prospective aspects. Brandom’s and Pippin’s readings of Hegel emphasize that we should think of agency and acts as always comprising both a partially constituted, retrospectively constructed past and a yet-to-be-determined future. Ricoeur has developed a temporally extended, retrospective and prospective notion of self as an ethical aim or promise rather than an existing actuality. Such an aim or promise, it seems to me, can have a much stronger unity than we could legitimately claim as an existing actuality.

Rather than conflating the empirical and transcendental, as in the Latin medieval notion of an “intellectual soul” — or inflating a notion of empirical self to fill the whole space of subjectivity, in the common modern way — we can tie the unification of empirical and transcendental elements to that prospective aim or promise, without asserting it in the present. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet?; Two Kinds of Character; Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)

Self, Subject

Once again, I’d like to dwell on the subtlety of the relation between empirical “me” and transcendental “I”. As usual, for philosophical purposes I want to advise that we hold off on identifying the two in the way that we commonly do when immersed in living our lives.

A contentful self exists on the empirical side. There are biographical and psychological facts about it. Each such “me” is unique. I take the primary referent of this “self” to be our developed emotional constitution, or Aristotelian hexis. When immersed in living our lives, we often say “I” in common-sense reference to this contentful, factual self, but this is very different from a transcendental “I”. Each person who says “I” for “me” in this common-sense way says it differently, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to a different “me”.

A transcendental “I” is a contentless symbolic index for a constellation of values and commitments, i.e., what we care about and what we believe, our Aristotelian ethos. Here, what is of interest is not the content of a contentful, factual self (“us”), but rather the content of what we care about and what we believe. Transcendental “I” refers to the identity of an ethos or unity of apperception. Thus anyone who in some context cares about the same things and believes the same things says “I” transcendentally in exactly the same way in that context, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to the same ethos.

(I’m using the common vocabulary of reference and identity here to keep things simple, but the usual caveats apply. Reference and identity are actually derivative notions, not primitive ones, but there is no philosophical harm in using them in a simple way anyway, provided we avoid tacitly assuming they are primitive.)

What identifies us as individuals is the empirical “me”, but what plays the role of an ethical subject or subject of knowledge is the paradoxically intimate but anonymous transcendental “I”. (See also Transcendental?; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; and many articles under Subjectivity in the menu.)

Historically, tight theoretical identification of ethical subjects and subjects of knowledge with empirical individuals is associated with the rationalization of practices of blaming and punishment, especially when translated into a theological context.

Pinkard on Spirit of Trust

Terry Pinkard’s contribution to the recent, rather negatively skewed collection Reading Brandom offers a judicious and measured critique of Brandom’s reading of Hegel in A Spirit of Trust. I previously commented on Pinkard’s separate book review, which was a bit more sharply worded, and covers some of the same points in more detail. I’ll focus here on a couple of further matters.

Pinkard nicely develops the contrast between Fichtean and Hegelian accounts of mutual recognition. For Fichte, a denial of the need for mutual recognition would simply be a philosophical error. Hegel went further, in maintaining that the slave society that institutionalized such a denial was ultimately unable to make sense of itself by its own criteria.

Somewhat my surprise, Pinkard objects to what he takes to be Brandom’s reading of the Spirit chapter of the Phenomenology in terms of Kantian or Fichtean transcendental philosophy. He takes this to mean that Hegel’s apparent historical references must on Brandom’s reading be taken to have only an allegorical significance. It is true that the transcendental has no historical dimension in Kant or Fichte. But according to Brandom, “Hegel brings the normative down to earth by explaining discursive norms as the products of social practices…. the diachronic historical dimension of recognitive communities is at the center of Hegel’s story” (Spirit of Trust, pp. 12, 14). Brandom’s Hegel’s transcendental is linguistic, social, and historical.

Pinkard correctly points out that historical development does not follow the principles of what Brandom calls a forgiving Hegelian genealogy, which Brandom likes to explain by analogy with the retrospective evaluations of case law in jurisprudence. I don’t think Brandom meant this as an account of the objective sequence of historical development, but rather as a guiding ideal for the retrospective interpretations we use in understanding cumulative results embodied in the present.


Kant already wanted to clearly distinguish his new concept of the transcendental from traditional notions of transcendence. He associated transcendence with things beyond the possibility of any knowledge — with which the critical philosopher has nothing to do — and the transcendental with knowledge that was a priori in his expansive sense of that term. What is a priori for Kant does not depend on any particular experience, but does concern the limits and conditions of possible experience or knowledge. A priori in this sense does not imply any self-evidence, simple givenness, or other coming out of nowhere. It just effectively captures higher-order structure of knowledge or experience. (See also Kantian Discipline.)

According to Brandom, the Kantian transcendental is socially, historically, and linguistically constituted, though this represents a Hegelian rather than Kantian interpretation. I would further suggest that the transcendental field includes only forms, and no entities such as subjects or objects. (See also Psyche, Subjectivity.)