Constitution of Shared Meaning

The 20th century phenomenological tradition stemming from the work of Edmund Husserl emphasized that all meanings are constituted. With a very broad brush, one might say that Husserl redeveloped many Kant-like insights on a different basis, and with far greater detail in some areas. But like Kant, Husserl focused mainly on how each individual develops understanding for herself. Phenomenologists certainly discussed what they called “intersubjectivity”, but it always seemed to me like an afterthought. Husserl’s own development was quite complex, but it seems to me that the further he went in his later investigations of the constitution of meaning, the more he moved away from his early concern to emphasize that meaning is not something subjective.

It is the original “phenomenology” — that of Hegel — that seems to me to do a much better job of explaining simultaneously how meanings are constituted by us and yet how they are not subjective. Hegel does this by starting from the point of view of the development of shared meaning, and ultimately conceiving the constitution of meaning as a part of a great process extended across time and space. The process is grounded in concrete mutual recognition that nonetheless potentially extends to all rational beings. Individuals play an essential role in this as the anchoring points for its actualization, but do so as participants in free and open dialogue with others, rather than as the “owners” of meanings considered as private. Hegel used the Christian notion of the Holy Spirit manifesting between the members of a community as a philosophical metaphor for this.

“Moral”, “Judgment”

Hegel regarded a forgiving stance as transcending what he called the Moral World-View. Other writers have made distinctions between “ethics” and “morality”. I used to distinguish “morality”, as reducing ethics to simple compliance with externally given norms, from “ethics”, as concerned with inquiry into what really is right. But as a result of engagement with the literature on Kant, I have adopted a more Kantian usage that makes “morality” too a subject of inquiry in the best Socratic sense. I now use the word “moral” in the broad sense of what used to be called “moral philosophy”.

However sophisticated the underlying judgment may be, any unforgivingly judgmental attitude is prone to find fault with the world and with others. The Moral World-View in Hegel is several steps removed from the traditional attitude that norms are simply given. Its presentation is implicitly a critique of Kantian and Fichtean ethics. Here the judgment is rational. We are seriously thinking for ourselves about what is right. We are sincerely seeking to develop a point of view that is globally consistent and fair, and that takes everything relevant into account. But however nuanced a point of view we develop, it is still ultimately only a single point of view.

Hegel’s approach to ethics is singularly attuned to avoiding self-righteousness in all its forms. Hegelian forgiveness involves the recognition that no single point of view — no matter what subtleties it encompasses — is ever by itself finally adequate in the determination of what is right. For Hegel the ultimate arbiter of what is right is the universal community consisting of all rational beings everywhere, past, present, and future. Because it includes the future, the last word is never said.

This is far removed from the banality that all points of view are equally valid. Rather, everyone gets or should get an equal chance to participate in the dialogue, to be heard and to have their voice considered. But for each of us, the validity of our point of view is subject to evaluation by others, as Brandom has emphasized. We don’t get to individually self-certify. Nor is the validity of a point of view decidable by majority vote. Validation is not a matter of tallying up the conclusions of individuals, or of achieving consensus in a present community. It involves assessment of how the conclusions were reached. Previously accepted conclusions are always implicitly subject to re-examination.

On an individual level too, I like to stress the open-endedness of Aristotelian (and Kantian) practical judgment. The need to act requires that deliberation be cut short at some point. We aim to act with relatively robust confidence that we are doing the right thing, but the best practical confidence is not knowledge. Aristotle takes care to remind us that ethics is not a science. There are many things in life that we do not know, but in which we have justified practical confidence. Ethical judgment is like that.

Between Transcendentalism and Pragmatism

Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was known as the leading American exponent of absolute idealism. He was recognized for contributions to philosophy of religion, psychology, and logic, as well as metaphysics. I thought of him because apparently, at least in his earlier works, he really did identify the Absolute with an all-embracing, divine consciousness that was supposed to include and underwrite all of reality, quite opposite to the way I read Hegel’s Phenomenology as an extended critique of the point of view of consciousness.

Also quite unlike the “deflationary” approach taken here, he straightforwardly identified his Absolute with God and with Being. Royce’s was a definitely personal God, also existing in time rather than eternally. Early in his career, he developed a novel argument for the existence of God based on the existence of error. According to Royce, the very existence of error presupposes the existence not only of truth against which the error can be recognized, but of a Knower who knows the truth.

Royce had strongly communitarian ethical views, sharply criticizing both the “heroic individualism” of the American Transcendentalists, with whom he shared an interest in German Idealist philosophy, and the individualist views of his close friend, the pragmatist William James. Among other things, Royce thought James in his famous Varieties of Religious Experience focused too much on intensely private experiences of extraordinary individuals, to the detriment of attention to the community aspect of religion. In his theology, Royce strongly associated God with an ideal of a Universal Community.

In his late work, he was increasingly influenced by the great founder of pragmatism, Charles Pierce. He became fascinated with Pierce’s notions of signs, semiotics, and interpretation. While this was not quite the full-fledged anti-foundationalist notion of interpretation developed here, I think it at least points in a similar direction. At this point, Royce developed a new notion of God as “the Interpreter Spirit” providing a metaphysical ground in time for all acts of interpretation, without the interpreters necessarily being aware of this. He extended his notion of the Universal Community, now explicitly calling it a “Community of Interpretation”. I think the latter is a fascinating partial anticipation of Brandom’s much more detailed work on mutual recognition, which also draws on the pragmatist Kantianism of Wilfrid Sellars.

(From Brandom’s point of view, Royce’s communitarianism would still be a one-sided overreaction to individualist trends. It seems to me that Brandom and Ricoeur converge on a very attractive alternative to this old seesaw, putting concrete relations with others and intersubjectivity before either individuality or community.)

Martin Luther King, Jr., acknowledged Royce as the source of King’s own more elaborated notion of the ideal of the Beloved Community, a vision of tolerance and mutual acceptance. I have not evaluated claims of a recent book that in spite of this, Royce also in effect promoted a cultural version of the racist “white man’s burden”.

Royce attempted to derive all of ethics from a single principle of loyalty, understood as loyalty to a cause. He claimed that loyalty to vicious or predatory causes fails to meet a criterion of “loyalty to loyalty” intrinsic to his principle of loyalty. Thus the argument seems to be that loyalty has the kind of universality that Kant claimed for the categorical imperative. However, I don’t think the argument succeeds nearly as well as Kant’s. Kantian respect for people gives a crucial human face to Kant’s formalism in ethics. Even if loyalty to loyalty is concerned to avoid undermining the loyalty of others to the cause, as Royce argued, that seems to me to be a much narrower kind of concern for others. Also, loyalty is by nature particular, whereas Kant’s various formulations of the categorical imperative are actual tests for universality.

Nonempirical But Historical?

What I have been calling the transcendental field and Brandom just calls the transcendental is supposed to be social, historical, and linguistic in its constitution, but nonempirical in its manner of subsisting. Its content would be like a vast implicit structure that is continually being implicitly replaced by new versions incorporating further historical experience. Brandom does not use terms like “field” or “structure” in this context, but the point I currently want to consider is just the nonempirical but historical character of the transcendental, which might seem paradoxical.

There is a related issue with the associated universal “community” of rational beings that I have invoked. This would be larger than any empirical community. It also would not exist at a moment in time, but rather would include an extension across the span of a history, including a past that may need to be reinterpreted, and a future that is not yet determined. But in principle, each participant in the rational community should have some empirical correlate in an actual rational animal existing at some time.

The answers lie, I believe, in the delicate way empirical and transcendental subjectivity are related. Without ever directly intermingling or even existing in the same way, they are each indirectly affected by the other. I have previously begun to sketch how this could be possible (see What Is “I”; Subject; Psyche, Subjectivity; Individuation). (See also Geist; Hegelian Genealogy; Rational/Talking Animal; Ethos, Hexis.)