I concluded the last post in this series by highlighting what I take to be two points of tension between the conclusions of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ and the line of thought I’m pursuing on the blog here using the Brandomian-Hegelian apparatus.  The first point of tension was the question of the possibility of instituting normative statuses without those normative statuses being acknowledged by the social actors they bind.  I want to bracket that issue completely for now.  The second point of tension was a broader one: the issue of normative pluralism.

In the last post, then, I raised a suspicion that the strong Whiggism of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ is not compatible with a robust normative pluralism.  In comments, Christopher Eddy very reasonably asked what I mean by ‘robust normative pluralism’.  This post is an attempt to begin to answer that question.

Usual caveats.  First, I’m thinking this through as I go here, and I reserve the right to back rapidly away from what I say here if I decide I’ve messed it all up.  Second, I’m aware of course that there is a vast philosophical and political literature on the issue of pluralism, but as so often I simply haven’t done my homework.  In my defence, there is so much to read – an unimaginable, vertigo-inducing amount to read; if I ‘did my homework’ fully before blogging here, I’d drown.  But hopefully one day I’ll look at some of the literature that has a direct bearing on the things I’m writing about here, and perhaps I’ll be better equipped to make sense of these topics.  I of course make zero claims to originality – I’m just trying to think what I take to be some pretty commonplace ideas through, “out loud”. 

All that said – what do we (or I) mean by ‘normative pluralism’?  Start by drawing a distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ pluralism.  In ‘weak’ pluralism, multiple sets of norms are operative, but these norms are compatible at some ‘meta-normative’ level; in ‘strong’ pluralism the sets of norms cannot be rendered compatible – they are simply in tension.  It seems likely that this is better thought of as a spectrum than a dichotomy, but I’ll go with this for now.

What’s an example of ‘weak’ normative pluralism?  I think language is a good example here (with some important caveats to be specified in a moment).  Obviously everybody agrees that there are many different languages in the world, with different recognitive communities associated with the institution and assessment of their norms.  If I am speaking in language A, I am bound by a different set of norms, and the propriety of my practice is appropriately assessed by a different community, than if I am speaking in language B.  But equally, it seems reasonable to say that these different proprieties of usage can be reconciled by a ‘meta-norm’ which stipulates which linguistic norms are appropriate in which context: when speaking language A within community A I should follow these norms, and when speaking language B within community B I should follow those norms.  We therefore (the thinking goes) don’t have fundamental normative incompatibility here – we have a pluralism that can be reconciled at a ‘higher normative level’.

I think some care needs to be taken even here.  In practice, the formation of modern states often operated in part via the coercive stamping out of linguistic difference, in the service of the constitution (or attempted constitution) of national recognitive communities defined by shared linguistic norms.  Here in Aotearoa New Zealand the politics of language across much of the twentieth century were characterised by the enforced state suppression of te reo Māori – and contemporary attempts to wind this back via some level of official biculturalism and state-endorsed and -supported language revitalisation are deeply and conflictually shaped by that context.  Of course, this is a settler-colonial state, but even non-settler-colonial states’ linguistic communities have often been formed by processes of ‘internal colonisation’ aimed at the suppression of linguistic difference.  This coercive process of linguistic homogenisation is, I think, reasonably seen as an oppressive real-world analogue to the dual commitments that shape the ‘positive’ conclusion of Hegel’s historical narrative: language is the Dasein of Geist, and we should aspire to full community-wide reciprocal recognition as our political ideal.

So I think there are important caveats to be made about how ‘weak’ this kind of ‘weak normative pluralism’ really is.  Nevertheless, I still want to draw the distinction.  ‘Strong’ normative pluralism, according to this distinction, is pluralism that cannot be reconciled by the kind of meta-norm that shifts ‘first level’ norms depending on context; it is a normative pluralism that involves some level of in-principle unresolvable tension between different normative commitments or obligations.

I think this distinction is captured by the problems that our political institutions face in trying to institute or defend pluralism within any given social domain.  The basic premise of ‘open society’ pluralistic liberalism (with which, to be clear, I am basically aligning myself here) is that our ‘meta-level’ political institutions aspire to permit a high degree of normative pluralism – permitting people to live the good life as they see fit, without dictating to them what they should regard as ‘the good’ – but that a ‘hard limit’ is reached when we encounter norms the enactment of which is itself corrosive of others’ ability to pursue their own visions of the good.  At a normative or practical level, the goal of this kind of pluralistic liberalism is to navigate this tension – no easy task.  But at an analytic level – which is the level I’m still basically operating on here – we need to be able to give an account of strong normative incompatibilities.  That is, we need to be able to describe normative tensions that exceed the ability of political pluralism to accommodate them.

So when I say that I don’t think that Brandom-Hegel’s conclusions are compatible with a robust normative pluralism, I guess I’m really trying to make two different points.  First point: I’m suspicious that the conclusions ‘A Spirit of Trust’ ends up committed to are in some tension with the kinds of real-world normative pluralism that I want to endorse as a practical political ideal.  Second point: I think that the analytic framework of ‘A Spirit of Trust’, as elaborated in that work, doesn’t seem to adequately accommodate the forms of strong normative incompatibility that pose challenges to that political project.  I guess one of my claims in this series of posts is that we can in principle untether the core analytic apparatus of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ from the specific conclusions the book ends up endorsing, and that the apparatus has resources to address these challenges, even if we end up in a slightly different place to Brandom-Hegel.  But we’ll see.  In any case – there’s much more to be said about all this, and I hope to come back to all this in more detail in future posts, but this is my first pass effort to elaborate what I mean when I talk about strong normative pluralism.


Normative pluralism

March 29, 2023

In this short, very rough post I want to try to discuss some of the points I’ve made in previous posts in this series in a slightly more general way.  In previous posts I’ve talked about the problem of ‘evil norms’.  Brandom-Hegel, I’ve said, is preoccupied by the problem of how normative statuses that are instituted by normative attitudes can be genuinely binding.  The ‘drama’ of the second half of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ therefore plays out between two different categories of perspective: a reductionist (‘small-souled’) perspective which believes that, because normative statuses are instituted by normative attitudes, normative statuses cannot be genuinely binding; and a non-reductionist (‘great-souled’) perspective which correctly sees normative statuses as real and binding, but may not understand how.  Brandom-Hegel’s task is to reconcile the analytic insights of the first perspective with the normative orientation of the second.

But – as I’ve said – this isn’t the problem I want to focus on.  I fully endorse Brandom-Hegel’s account of the institution of binding norms by normative attitudes – I have nothing to add to that narrative or analysis.  But I want to know what happens when social actors disagree, not about whether there are norms, but about what the norms are.  That is to say: I am interested in the question of what happens when norms (apparently?) conflict.  I am interested in the problem of social actors who are ‘alienated’ from their normative environment – who are not ‘at home’ with the norms of their community, or some section of it – not because they reject norms in general, but because they reject these norms.

To illustrate this point, I want to propose a very simple toy model, drawing on the ‘algebra of normativity’ Brandom outlines in the great Chapter 9 of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ (‘The Fine Structure of Autonomy and Recognition: The Institution of Normative Statuses by Normative Attitudes’).  Imagine two subcommunities.  Let’s assume, for ease, that these subcommunities are very small – four social actors in each.  And let’s assume that each subcommunity enjoys full internal reciprocal recognition: each member of each subcommunity recognises each other member of that subcommunity (along whatever recognitive dimensions are relevant).  We’ll call these subcommunities A and B. 

Now let’s assume that each subcommunity successfully institutes normative statuses – that is, norms – by means of its reciprocal recognitive network.  And, further, let’s assume that each subcommunity institutes different norms (or at the very least appears to).  The suggestion is that normative statuses that are appropriately ascribed to you by virtue of your recognitive membership of community A are different from the normative statuses that are appropriately ascribed to you by virtue of your recognitive membership of community B.  And now, finally, let’s assume that these subcommunities come into contact.

My question is: how do we understand this scenario?  More specifically: let’s assume that I am a member of subcommunity A, and I come into contact with subcommunity B (in the graph above this contact is represented by the dotted line).  Let’s fiat that the norms that appear to have been instituted within subcommunity B are in some sense incompatible with my own.  What attitudes can (and, secondarily, should) I take to the normative attitudes of this different subcommunity?

It seems to me that there are several options here.

First option: I could simply refuse to acknowledge that subcommunity B has successfully instituted norms at all.  From my perspective, subcommunity B are savages: they are driven by animalistic urges, and their behaviour may sometimes appear like a mocking parody of norm-governed action, but fundamentally they are not part of the space of reasons.  In other words, I simply refuse to recognise subcommunity B as engaged in norm-instituting recognitive practices – I adopt a maximally ‘small-souled’ attitude towards it.

Second option: I acknowledge that subcommunity B has instituted norms, but I take it that they (or potentially we) have mis-recognised the norms in question, and that this misrecognition is the source of the apparent incompatibility of norms.  To the extent that subcommunity B’s actions are genuinely norm-governed, this is because their actions are governed by the same norms as those that govern my actions.  In other words, I acknowledge that both subcommunities are norm-governed, but I deny that there is any genuine normative pluralism here: one or both of our subcommunities must simply be wrong about the substance of the norms in question.  It is then a matter of drawing a strong de dicto / de re distinction between the apparent and real commitments associated with at least one set of normative attitudes.

I take it that these two scenarios are discussed in great detail in ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  They correspond to: on the one hand, a ‘small-souled’ refusal to acknowledge (some) normative attitudes as genuinely norm-constituting or -governed; and, on the other hand, a ‘rational reconstruction’ of the real norms that we take to be implicit in a set of normative attitudes, despite the (erroneous) judgements of the social actors whose attitudes they are.

But what about a third option?  This third option is: there really are two different sets of norms here.  Each subcommunity has successfully instituted a different – and, by hypothesis, at least in some respects, incompatible – set of norms.  In this scenario it would be improper to rationally reconstruct one set of normative attitudes as really, implicitly instituting and governed by the same norms as the other set of normative attitudes.  This would be an error: the norms in question are different.

If we grant this scenario, then I think a further question arises: what attitudes can (and should) I take to a set of norms that really are successfully instituted as norms, but that differ from my own, such that neither set can properly be ‘rationally reconstructed’ in a manner that reveals the other as implicit within it?

And here in turn I think there are several options.  The first option is, let us say, a fully pluralist (a critic might say relativist) one.  We say: “ok, live and let live, these people just have different norms from us – who are we to judge?”  

The second option is that we assess the other community’s norms as bad norms – we are right and they are wrong (or, conceivably, vice versa), but because they have instituted the norms they have instituted, they are (regrettably) bound by their bad norms, not our good ones.

The third option is stronger still.  In this scenario we claim that another community can be bound by our norms even though they have not instituted those norms.  Here, in other words, we fundamentally break the connection between acknowledging a norm and being bound by that norm (on which more, perhaps, eventually).  And this option is in turn compatible with a range of previously canvassed scenarios.  We might, for example, claim that community B has failed to institute norms entirely, but we have instituted norms (so to speak) on their behalf, by which they are bound.  Or we might claim that community B has successfully instituted norms, by which its members are bound, but that these are bad norms, and that community B’s members are therefore simultaneously bound by other, good norms (presumably those instituted by community A).  For reasons I discussed in my last post in this series, we might worry about the implications of this option – but I think it’s clear that this is a practice that real humans and real human communities engage in all the time, so at a minimum it needs to be on the table in terms of the available range of normative attitudes associated with an interaction between subcommunities.

I don’t think this is an exhaustive account of the space of possibilities here.  But I do think that this post canvasses some scenarios that don’t get all that much consideration in ‘A Spirit of Trust’.

Specifically, I think there are two points here that seem to be in tension with the conclusions of ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  

First: as I said in earlier posts, Brandom-Hegel appears to be committed to the idea that one cannot be bound by norms that one has not committed oneself to.  This is a position with a lot to recommend it, but (as I discussed in previous posts in this series) I am not yet convinced that it doesn’t run into serious difficulties.  In any case, I think the final option that I canvassed above (you are bound by norms that you have not instituted) falls outside the space of possibilities that ‘A Spirit of Trust’ considers legitimate.

Second (and more broadly): I think a reasonable case can be made that ‘A Spirit of Trust’ is in an important sense non- or even anti-pluralist in the conclusions it finally reaches about the appropriate institution of norms.  The strong (albeit retrospective) Whiggism of the theory of history proposed by Brandom-Hegel does not ultimately seem compatible, to me, with a robust normative pluralism – and this means, I think, that there is a tension between Brandom-Hegel’s conclusions and all of the multiple-distinct-norms scenarios I canvassed above.

Of course, these remarks are very hasty and underdeveloped, as they stand.  I’ll return to all this in future posts.

In the last post I discussed a category of normative attitude and normative status that, I think, falls outside Brandom-Hegel’s apparatus: obligations that are attributed and (if we take this to be a legitimate category) thereby potentially instituted without the social actor in question committing themselves to the obligation.  I said that this category of obligation stands in tension with the idea that the only norms that bind us are those that we acknowledge.

In this post I want to sort of ramble or associate around this idea, rehearsing some arguments for and against this kind of normative attitude and status.  This is (obviously!) just scratching the surface, and I intend to be very brief (not to say disorganised and muddy – but so it goes).

First argument why this category is a good idea: obviously, empirically, people do attribute obligations all the time, without necessarily caring about whether or not the person to whom they are attributing the obligation has acknowledged the obligation in any sense.  There are often, in real life, fundamental disagreements about what the norms in some domain are, and people are constantly insisting that their own sense of the norms is the right one, and that people who disagree are nevertheless bound by the norms preferred by the attributor.  It doesn’t seem to me, at least on its face, that all – or even most – of these disagreements can be accounted for using the de dicto / de re distinction regarding implicit commitments.  Rather, people frequently simply attribute obligations without necessarily caring about the target social actor’s own commitments, implicit or otherwise.  At a minimum, then, it seems to me that this kind of attribution of obligations without commitments is something that our apparatus needs to accommodate as a normative attitude.

Second argument why this category is a good idea: for myself, I don’t think this is always wrong; I want to be able to do this too.  That is to say, I think it is sometimes appropriate to see these kinds of normative attitudes as genuinely instituting normative statuses, independent of questions of whether the target of those statuses acknowledges them via their own commitments, either implicitly or explicitly.  More specifically: we can (extremely easily – one does not have to look far in history for illustrative case material) imagine cases where someone has behaved absolutely horrifically, but simply does not regard themselves as having done so, because they take themselves to be correctly following a norm.  Most of us regard our own actions as defensible much of the time.  The worst monsters of history typically didn’t conceive of themselves as monsters – they conceived of themselves as guided (no doubt imperfectly and fallibly, like us all) by their vision and understanding of the good.  Moreover, it often seems to me that – on their own terms – these people have a case.  If you acknowledge the norms that they are committed to, then their actions are plausibly normatively justified.  The problem – as I put it in an earlier post – is evil norms.  For this reason, it seems to me that we need to be able to hold people to account not just for deviating from their sense of what their commitments commit them to, or even our sense of what their commitments commit them to, but also for the norms themselves to which they are committing themselves.  It seems to me that we want to be able to say that normative statuses can in principle be instituted without those statuses being tethered to the relevant social actor’s own commitments.

Now, against this argument is the line of thinking that Brandom summarised in the passage I quoted in my last post: the Rousseau-Kant line of thought – broadly a social-contractarian line of thought – that says it is simply politically-ethical illegitimate to hold people to standards that they have not committed themselves to.  The thinking here goes that commitment is simply the foundation of normativity, and that’s that – if you want to attribute obligations without tethering those obligations to the target social actor’s commitments, so much the worse for you.  Moreover, this line of thinking can be bolstered by what seems to me to be a very understandable worry about what kind of coercive pandora’s box we are opening if we say that people can appropriately be taken to be bound by norms that they had no say in instituting.  Isn’t (the thinking goes) this kind of move – untethering obligations from commitments – the road to tyranny?  Isn’t the entire point of the liberal social-contractarian approach the attempt to delegitimise the idea that I can have obligations that I have no voice in determining?  And isn’t this a good, emancipatory ethical-political project?

I have a lot of sympathy with this line of argument.  But I’m not persuaded it holds, at least not in all cases.  Again, we are confronted with the problem of how to think about social actors who are strongly and coherently committed to monstrously evil norms (at least as we see it).  Are we really just prepared to say “oh, ok, if you’re not prepared to commit yourself to non-evil norms that’s fine, normativity derives from commitment, after all – carry on”?  Moreover, I think that theorists who are operating within the broad social-contractarian tradition are constantly running up against this problem, in a way that often leads to moves that seem to be either incompatible with their core premises, or sophistical.  Thus we end up with formulations like Rousseau’s “our will is always for our own good, but we don’t always see what that is.”  This approach can easily licence ‘the community’ – or its representatives – to simply fiat that their own sense of the good is implicitly everyone’s, and those who claim to reject those obligations are simply fooling themselves about their own real commitments.  In this way, an apparent commitment to the idea that we are only bound by norms that we choose to bind ourselves by, can turn into a de facto attribution of obligation independent of commitment, accompanied by a self-serving and ideological denial that this is what we’re doing.  This is the kind of thing that Isaiah Berlin is worrying about in connection to ‘positive liberty’, and even if we reject Berlin’s specific approach the worry is in my view a real and appropriate one.  In other words, it seems to me, the pandoras box of coercion can in principle be opened either way.

Now, the Rousseauian social contractarian ‘general will’ tradition is one way in which theorists can attempt to resolve this problem (by simply fiating that the general will cannot be wrong, and that if you think your own will differs from it you are sadly mistaken).  Another, more sophisticated cousin of the same move is to make a transcendental argument about the commitments associated with normativity as such.  This is what Habermas is doing (for example) in ‘A Theory of Communicative Action’ – he is claiming that if we get our linguistic philosophy right, then we can see that merely by virtue of being linguistic creatures we are committing ourselves to a set of normative ideals that can guide political action.  And, I think, this is also the broad category of argument that Brandom is making in ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  I ought to re-read the paper to check that I’m remembering it right, but this is roughly what I take Brandom to be suggesting in his piece ‘Towards Reconciling Two Heroes: Habermas and Hegel’.  That is to say: Brandom thinks that Hegel’s semantics (as reconstructed in a Brandomian idiom) can do a better job than Habermas’s rather crass theory of language in providing the basis for a transcendental argument about normative ideals that we find ourselves committed to merely by virtue of being creatures capable of producing or understanding semantic content at all.  This is what Brandom means when he says that Hegel offers a “semantics with an edifying intent”.

Now, I don’t want to say that no such transcendental argument is possible.  But I do want to say that any normative commitments that could emerge from the conditions of possibility of our semantics are going to be sufficiently slimline that they can’t realistically do any serious political-normative argumentative heavy lifting.  I’m obviously not making the case for this view in this post – and one can obviously reasonably say that this view goes against the entire thrust of Brandom-Hegel’s argument in ‘A Spirit of Trust’. but I hope to make the case for this perspective across this long series of posts on Brandom.

In any case – if you grant me this suspicion about the degree of substantive norms that can actually flow from transcendental arguments about the conditions of possibility of semantics, then we are thrown back onto the problem of how to deal with very basic differences of normative commitments.  If language use as such is enough to institute the ethical-political commitments we’re interested in defending, then there’s no problem here: I can tell the historical monster that the evil norms to which they are committed are wrong by their own lights, because merely by virtue of being a linguistic creature they have implicitly committed themselves to something in the ballpark of my own preferred normative framework, and their own evil commitments are incoherent.  But what if this is not the case?  What if there is no such available transcendental argument, at least for many of the norms I want to defend?  Well, then we are thrown back on the ‘retail business’ of the space of giving and asking for reasons, and the constitution of recognitive communities for the institution of norms by which we can assess action.  We do not have a ‘transcendental guarantee’ that our norms are the good ones.

That’s one line of argument that I want to endorse.  Another line of argument is as follows: given this approach I’m advocating, we also cannot rely on the de dicto / de re (implicit / explicit) distinction to bear too much of the weight of our normative condemnation of those we wish to condemn.  We cannot necessarily say that our preferred norms were implicit all along in the actions we condemn, however tacitly.  Maybe they weren’t.  Maybe the norms that were implicit in those actions were themselves monstrous.  And I think that thinking in these terms has significant consequences for how we think about the kinds of ‘rational reconstruction’ via which we retroactively consider “reason’s march through history”.  I’ll hopefully say more about all that in future posts.

In the last post in this series I discussed Making It Explicit’s distinction between de dicto and de re ascription of commitments.  In de re ascription of commitments, I say what I take it you have committed yourself to.  In de dicto ascription of commitments, I say what I take it you take it you have committed yourself to. In Making It Explicit’s argument, this distinction can be used to produce a purely formal concept of objectivity, made available by our ability to reflexively understand that the gap between de dicto and de re ascription might properly apply to our own current commitments, even though, when it comes to our own current commitments, these two forms of ascription are for us aligned.

I then suggested that – exceptional though Brandom’s elaboration of this account is – there are important forms of ascription of obligation that this account does not well capture.  I say “ascription of obligation” here rather than “ascription of commitment” because the category of obligation I am talking about is obligations that the social actor in question has not committed themselves to.

I want to unpack this point soon, and begin to deal with at least a few of the obvious philosophical issues in its vicinity.  But first let me put on the table, in the baldest way I can, the core point I want to make in this post.  I want to claim (at least in a preliminary thinking-things-through kind of way) that instead of these two categories of attribution, we should be working with four (or maybe three and a bit) categories of attribution.  These four categories, I suggest, are as follows:

  1. The obligations that we take a social actor to have committed themselves to, with an act.  This is Brandomian de re ascription of commitments.
  2. The obligations that we take a social actor to take themselves to have committed themselves to, with an act. This is Brandomian de dicto ascription of commitments.
  3. The obligations that we take a social actor to be subject to, even though they have not committed themselves to them (in either a de dicto or de re sense).  This category of obligation I believe falls outside the Brandomian apparatus (on which more soon).
  4. The obligations that we think a social actor should be subject to, but are not – for example, because they have not committed themselves to them.

Now, I think categories (1), (2) and (4) fall well within the Brandomian apparatus.  (1) and (2) are just my rephrasing of central Brandomian categories, and (4) is easily theorisable with Brandomian resources: we think somebody should commit themselves to such-and-such a normative content, but in fact they haven’t (yet).

But what about (3)?  This category of obligation – obligations that have not been instituted by an act of commitment from the social actor subject to the obligation – seems to me to be in some significant tension with the Brandomian system.  At any number of points in his corpus, Brandom locates himself in the philosophical tradition that channels Rousseau via Kant.  As he puts it in Making It Explicit: “our own acknowledgement or endorsement of a rule is the source of its authority over us” (51).  In A Spirit of Trust, Brandom locates Hegel within (in Brandom’s words):

the perfectionist self-government tradition, running from Montaigne through Descartes and Leibniz, through the Cambridge Platonists and some of their British sentimentalist heirs, culminating in the idea of normativity in terms of autonomy that Kant develops out of Rousseau’s notion of freedom.  This is the idea that “[o]bedience to a law one has prescribed for oneself is freedom.”  Kant endorses this thought about freedom, and puts it to a new use: distinguishing normative constraint, characterized by freedom, from nonnormative compulsion.  According to this line of thought, one is genuinely normatively bound only by norms one has oneself acknowledged as normatively binding.

(AST 264-5)

This last sentence is the idea I want to highlight – the idea that “one is genuinely normatively bound only by norms one has oneself acknowledged as normatively binding.”  If one is committed to this idea then my third category above is simply philosophically illegitimate (and not only philosophically, but also politically and ethically).  The argument here would be: there is no such thing as an obligation that someone can have without having (at least in some sense) committed themselves to that obligation.  For sure, they may not realise that they have committed themselves to this obligation – the de dicto / de re distinction has force.  Nevertheless, what makes the obligation an obligation is that they have in fact committed themselves to it.  No act of commitment, no obligation.

I want to suggest that this isn’t necessarily the case.  Or, at a bare minimum, I want to seriously explore the possibility that this isn’t the case.  And I want to do so using the Brandomian-Hegelian apparatus, to the extent that I can.  I’ll continue pursuing this line of thought in my next post.

Simple disagreement

March 22, 2023

In this short post I want to make an almost childishly simple point, concerning the Brandomian (/Hegelian) apparatus I’ve been discussing in the last few posts.  I justify the simplistic approach here, as usual, by emphasising that this blog is where I think things through.

Go back to ‘Making It Explicit’, then, and the distinction between ‘de dicto’ and ‘de re’ ascription.  This distinction does a huge amount of heavy lifting in ‘Making It Explicit’ – and I’m conscious that it’s a long time now since I read that work carefully, so the chance that I’m going to make errors in discussing this content seems high.  Nevertheless: the point of the de dicto / de re description is to pick out two different ways in which we can attribute commitments to people.  Imagine that you say something – you make a claim.  I can then take two different attitudes to the inferential commitments (i.e. the content) of what you’ve claimed.  I can state what I take it you have committed yourself to.  And I can state what I take it you take it you have committed yourself to.  In other words: from any given social perspective (e.g. mine) what you have really committed yourself to may differ from what you think you have committed yourself to.  This means that everyone needs to keep ‘two sets of books’ – tracking not just what we take to be somebody’s commitments, but also what they take to be their commitments.

This ‘double-entry book-keeping’ account of social scorekeeping in turn underpins Making It Explicit’s formal concept of objectivity.  That’s because this double perspective can reflexively be applied to our own current commitments, making use of a possible alternative ‘objective’ perspective on views regarding which our current de dicto and de re perspectives happen to align.

I regard Brandom’s working out of this formal concept of objectivity as a marvellous contribution.  In fact, one of the things I don’t like about ‘A Spirit of Trust’ is the way in which the ‘bimodal hylomorphic conceptual realism’ Brandom develops there is carrying so much weight, when it comes to discussions of objectivity.  I see this Hegelian conceptual realism as a much more metaphysically committal position than the position developed in ‘Making It Explicit’, and problematically so – it contravenes my own preferred (I guess more traditionally Wittgensteinian) preference for the rejection of metaphysics tout court, as well as my more specific (Derridean) suspicion of the ‘metaphysics of presence’.

But this is neither here nor there.  Both de dicto and de re ascription are concerned with what the social actor in question has chosen to commit themselves to.  In this post I want to make a very simple point: what about normative obligations that a social actor has not chosen to commit themselves to, but which we nevertheless want to attribute to them?

When we focus on the analysis of the semantic content of sentences – i.e. on linguistic philosophy – obviously what we’re concerned with (at least if we adopt a broadly inferentialist approach) is the commitments associated with that semantic content.  But if we adopt a broader normative framework – thinking about action in general – our scope for thinking about norms also broadens.  

Let me take a very crude example: an act of violence.  We can normatively assess this act of violence – was it justified or not?  But it’s not at all clear to me that the appropriate way to assess this question – at least in all cases – has much to do with what we take to be the actor’s own commitments.  Let’s say the person who commits the act of violence is also fully committed to a normative framework within which this act of violence is unambiguously justified.  Does that mean that we have to accede to that assessment?  I think the answer is clearly no.  But if this is so, then we need something like a category of “attributing obligations” that does not route via what the actor has chosen to commit themselves to.  We need to be able to say not just “you are wrong about the content of your commitments” but also “your commitments are themselves wrong”.

This is the category of normative attitude – and the category of norm associated with it – that I want to focus on, for a while, on the blog.  How can we think about this kind of normative judgement within a broadly Brandomian/Hegelian framework?  How, in other words, can we think about straightforward disagreement about normative framework?

Evil norms

March 22, 2023

In the last post in this series I discussed a passage from Hegel (via Brandom of course), and went haring off onto one of my digressions about resonances between Hegel’s apparatus and psychoanalysis.  I am, of course, vaguely aware that there is a significant intellectual tradition that directly studies the relationship between Hegel and psychoanalysis – and maybe one day I’ll look into that tradition properly.  For now, though, I want to talk about Brandom’s gloss of this same passage, on pages 588-9 of ‘A Spirit of Trust’.

Here is Brandom:

It is from the point of view of such a judging consciousness, assessing the conformity of a performance to duty, that the performance – any actual performance – shows up as wrong, and the acting consciousness as bad.  The concept of evil in play here is of actions that disregard normative considerations of what the agent ought to do, what it would be right to do, and respond only to the agent’s personal wants, desires, and other attitudes.  In this case, assessing the doing as evil is taking it not to have been performed out of a pure respect for duty – that is, not being just the application of a norm, the acknowledgement of a commitment.  We know enough by now to see that the problem is going to be with the ‘purity’ required of the purpose: that the action stem from “duty for duty’s sake” alone.  An insistence on those characteristics expresses an understanding of authority on the one-sided model of independence (mastery): unless only the norm is authoritative, unless it is wholly authoritative, it cannot be understood as authoritative at all.

(AST 588-9)

Brandom is, I take it, here doing two things.  First, he is repeating the Hegelian argument I rehearsed in the last post in this series: it is a delusion to think that any action can be ‘purely’ or ‘solely’ responding to a norm, because the only way in which an action can respond to a norm is via particular attitudes of the individual actor, and those attitudes can always be analysed wholly under the ‘point of view of particularity’.  Brandom-Hegel is going to use this argument as a stepping stone in the development of a more adequate understanding of the relation between normative statuses and normative attitudes.

But Brandom is also characterising “a concept of evil here in play”.  This concept of evil is: “actions that disregard normative considerations of what the agent ought to do… and respond only to the agent’s personal wants, desires, and other attitudes.”  Evil, in this sense, is disregarding norms – letting personal desires guide action despite what the relevant norm says one should do.

Now, I want to make a very simple point here: is this the only – or even the best – way to understand “evil”?  I want to claim that it is not.  Specifically, I want to claim that by discussing evil (at least in this sense) as particularist deviation from a norm Brandom-Hegel is neglecting a very important other sense of evil: evil as conformity to an evil norm.

I don’t think one needs to look far in history for evil acts that understood themselves as motivated by something higher and grander than the particular desires of the actor.  In fact, subordination of self to some grander normative project – where, from our perspective, that project was, at least in important dimensions, monstrous – is I think a very very historically common form of evil.  But this sense of evil doesn’t seem to me to be captured by the sense of “evil” used by Brandom-Hegel in this passage.

Now, Brandom-Hegel isn’t saying that the sense of evil the text is working with here is the only possible sense of “evil”.  But I don’t believe the alternative sense of evil that I’m talking about – the evil of subordination of personal desires to evil norms – is discussed in ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  That’s because Brandom-Hegel is primarily interested in how to reconcile the bindingness of norms with the institution of norms by normative attitudes – and thus takes the work’s major explanatory task to be showing why ‘particularity’ does not undermine normative bindingness.  Nevertheless, I think we need an account, within the Brandomian-Hegelian apparatus, not just of “binding norms” and “(evil) attitudes that are not guided by norms” but also of the evil specifically associated with binding norms.  I’ll try to talk about that more in the next post in this series.

So in the last few posts I’ve made the same basic point in a few different ways.  At the risk of inexcusably mashing different things together due to brevity, that point is as follows.  The second half of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ frames a lot of its discussion in terms of two different kinds of social perspective: the perspective of the individual and the perspective of the community.  This bi-perspectival approach inflects in different ways at different points of the argument, and the two perspectives in play aren’t always the same two.  So, for example, there is the subjective perspective of the individual who intends an action, and the objective perspective of the community that assesses the action.  Separately but relatedly, there is the perspective of the ‘small-souled’ consciousness that fixates on normative attitudes, and the perspective of the ‘great-souled’ consciousness that sees us as bound by norms.  This latter perspective pair drives the core argument that motivates these later sections of the book: the reconciliation of a perspective that sees normative statuses as instituted by normative attitudes, and a perspective that sees normative statuses as binding upon us.

My strategy in this series of posts is to look at the more ‘objective’ pole of these various bi-perspectival stories, and insist on dwelling on the internal heterogeneity of that ‘objective’ perspective.  I am arguing, in other words, that the ‘community’ side of this bi-perspectival perspective is not really a single perspective at all, but countless different perspectives – and that once we ‘fracture’ this perspective into its component parts, the structure and implications of Brandom-Hegel’s argument shifts.

I want to be a little careful about how I articulate this point.  It would definitely be wrong, for example, to claim that Brandom-Hegel is unaware of the internal diversity of the ‘community’ in these sections of argument.  There is, after all, a strong sense in which this internal diversity is the driver of Brandom-Hegel’s entire argument – the ‘Bacchanalian revel’ of experience is an intrinsically and necessarily internally diverse process.  For this reason, it would be reasonable to claim that nothing I’m saying in this series of posts moves outside or breaks with Brandom-Hegel’s apparatus.

And yet I also think we need to be careful in the other direction.  In my view Brandom-Hegel does at times problematically elide the internal perspectival diversity I’m talking about at critical moments of the argument.  My goal in this series of posts is to try to get clearer about exactly where and how these elisions take place.

In this post I want to start that process by beginning to discuss a passage from Brandom-Hegel’s discussion of ‘niederträchtig assessment’.  In this post I will discuss a passage from Hegel that Brandom quotes; then in the next post I’ll discuss Brandom’s commentary on that passage.  For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to temporarily drop the portmanteau identity ‘Brandom-Hegel’ and discuss Hegel and Brandom separately.

Here then is Hegel:

Just as every action is capable of being looked at from the point of view of conformity to duty, so too can it be considered from the point of view of the particularity [of the doer]…. No action can escape such judgement, for duty for duty’s sake, this pure purpose, is an unreality; it becomes a reality in the deed of an individuality, and the action is thereby charged with the aspect of particularity…. Thus, for the judging consciousness, there is no action in which it could not oppose to the universal aspect of the action, the personal aspect of the individuality, and play the part of the moral valet towards the agent.

[PG 665]

I want to dwell here on what I think is a core psychological (and following on from than philosophical) insight that Hegel is articulating, and that is crucial to his entire project.  As I understand him, Hegel is here saying that even if we are following norms, we do not follow norms in a manner that is abstracted from the down-to-earth psychological structures of our consciousness.  Any act of following a norm is ‘mediated’ by the ‘particularity’ of the human actor in question, and if you were to remove that particularity, you would remove the act itself.  In other words, there must be concrete and immediate motives for following any given norm – there must be an actual psychological mechanism via which the norm is followed – and the identification of such motive structures is in principle entirely orthogonal to the question of whether a norm is being followed.

What does all this mean?  Well, I think this kind of thing is one of the areas where Hegel very valuably and importantly overlaps with psychoanalysis.  For psychoanalysis, recall, even very ‘high-flown’ psychological structures can be explained in terms of the vicissitudes of our instincts.  The instinctual master category for Freud is ‘libido’.  As I’ve written about before on the blog, I’m not wedded to that vocabulary.  But the core analytic idea, as I see it, is that gratifications that are typically regarded as very ‘base’ can be located even in ‘lofty’ psychological structures that appear to have little relation to them.  Regardless of how much of the specific Freudian apparatus we accept, the psychoanalytic framework asks us to think in terms of gratifications.  Thus our ‘moral sentiments’ are analysed as produced by complex structures of internalised specular gratification.  We may feel that we are following an impersonal ideal – but in the psychic economy, that impersonal ideal has been ‘locally instantiated’constructed’ in such a way that following it brings ‘libidinal’ gratifications.  For Freud, then, even selflessly norm-following behaviour is driven by personal pleasures in some sense.

I think this is the same broad category of point that Hegel is making when he writes that actions are “charged with the aspect of particularity”.  So for example: we may see a heroic public figure as being driven by commitment to some higher ideal; but we can also see those same actions as driven by the gratifications associated with the admiration that perceived heroism brings.  Such admiration does not even have to really exist: a person who stands heroically steadfast against the court of public opinion may do so because their psychic economy routes via an imagined future approving audience (or their sense of the judgement of a world beyond this one).  It may be that the psychic economy is structured such that the ‘gratifications’ (in an expansive sense) associated with going against ‘immediate’ gratifications are stronger than those immediate or ‘manifest’ gratifications. The point is that – if Freud’s broad framework is correct – you simply can’t get human behaviour that isn’t driven by some expected gratification; the only question is what the social-psychic economy in question is, and thus what expected gratifications are dominant. (I’m aware, of course, that this is a controversial perspective, and I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of defending or debating psychoanalytic theory now. But I think that, at a minimum, there are clear resonances with Hegel in this perspective.)

To think in these terms is to analyse action under the perspective of particularity.  Instead of thinking about the norms that are guiding action, we are thinking about the specific gratification structures of the relevant social actors’ psyches.  One of Hegel’s points in this passage is that it is always possible to analyse any action in such terms: “duty for duty’s sake, this pure purpose, is an unreality”.  Hegel’s claim, however, is that if we just think about actions under this perspective, then we evacuate normativity.  Moreover, because it is always possible to think of any action in these terms, there is a standing risk that awareness of such particularity will lead us to see all actions as untethered from norms.  This attitude – the niederträchtig attitude – is the attitude of alienation.

Now, I’m very interested in pursuing this line of thought – that is to say, in exploring the connections between Hegel’s “point of view of particularity” and psychoanalytic theory.  I hope to come back to all this in future posts.  For the purposes of this post, though, the point here is simply that actions can always be analysed from the point of view of particularity, but we should not analyse them just in those terms.  We need to see how particularity can be the ‘medium’ of ‘universality’ – that is to say, how binding norms can be understood as both instituted by and manifested via personal gratification-structures.  Brandom’s preferred vocabulary for making this point is that ‘normative statuses’ are instituted by ‘normative attitudes’.  I want to extend the language of ‘normative attitudes’ to encompass the kind of psychological dynamics that psychoanalytic theory studies.  But in a sense this is all a side point – the main thing I want to focus on in this series of posts is the heterogeneity of the perspectives associated with the ‘edelmütig’ point of view.  I’ll turn to this in the next post.

Alienation and dissensus

March 21, 2023

In this post I want to put on the table (or perhaps just rearticulate) what I see as a criticism of the apparatus developed in ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  Much of the second half of that book is interested in the opposition between two different attitudes towards norms.  On the one hand, there is a “niederträchtig” (small-souled) attitude, which sees norms solely in terms of normative attitudes.  This is, as it were, a form of denialism about normative statuses.  Hegel-Brandom sees this attitude as characteristic of modernity – it constitutes ‘alienation’.  Alienation, in this framework, is an orientation to our world that cannot understand the bindingness of norms, because it ‘naturalises’ those norms in a way that leaves no room for genuine normative statuses themselves.  On the other hand, there is an “edelmütig” (great-souled) attitude, which sees norms as genuinely binding.

Hegel’s basic historical narrative, as reconstructed by Brandom (but surely there is broader interpretive agreement on this kind of thing than there is with respect to Brandom’s idiosyncratic semantics – in any case…)… Hegel’s basic historical narrative has three stages.  We (“we” here meaning ‘Geist’ – humanity in its normative and social dimension) begin (the story goes) by being ‘at home’ with our norms – seeing norms as real and binding upon us.  This is an appropriate attitude towards our norms, Hegel-Brandom argues.  However, in the pre-modern vision of the world (the argument goes), we see the normativity of norms – normative statuses – as, so to speak, features of the natural order.  Maybe this attitude is religious, or maybe it is philosophical, but basically (in my words, not Brandom’s or Hegel’s) we treat norms as magical or theological – as having a special mysterious form of existence that is not dependent on our attitudes towards them.  

Then (Hegel argues) there is the great sea-change of modernity, which leads us to see norms as instituted by our own actions.  In Brandom’s vocabulary, this perspective leads us to see norms (normative statuses) as produced or instituted by normative attitudes.  Brandom-Hegel thinks that this is an analytic or cognitive advance: normative statuses are indeed instituted by normative attitudes, this is a correct perspective.  However, this cognitive advance is accompanied by a loss.  (Compare Weber on disenchantment.)  In the attitude of modernity, the fact that we see normative statuses as instituted by normative attitudes means that we cannot understand how those normative statuses can be binding upon us – how they can genuinely be norms at all.  This is an alienated attitude, where we feel norms are not really norms.  We are, Brandom-Hegel argue, thereby dragged into a bunch of self-contradictions and social-psychological turmoil.

Hegel’s goal is to propose a philosophical-institutional approach that can reconcile what is correct about both of these earlier perspectives.  Hegel wants us to be able to retain the analytic advances associated with the Enlightenment – understanding and acknowledging the institution of normative statuses by normative attitudes – while simultaneously seeing those normative statuses as properly binding upon us, and thereby moving beyond an ‘alienated’ attitude towards our norms to be once again at home with them.

Ok.  I want to basically completely bracket the historical dimension of this argument.  It doesn’t seem to me that there’s nothing to this historical argument – there really is something that happens with ‘modernity’ that can plausibly be interpreted in something like the broad ballpark of Hegel-Brandom’s terms.  But I think it’s obvious that this overarching historical distinction between the pre-modern and the modern carries a whole lot of baggage, some of it very bad, and is at best wildly over-simplistic.  I just don’t want to have to wrestle with the actual history here – not yet, anyway – so I’m treating these as analytic categories not as genuine historical claims.

With that very major caveat out of the way, I want to say that I endorse the core analysis here.  I think it is simultaneously true that:

  • normative statuses are instituted by normative attitudes, and
  • normative statuses are genuinely binding upon us.

I see the core of Brandom’s entire project (not just in the Hegel book, but in his earlier work too) as trying to give a detailed account of exactly how and why these two things can simultaneously be true.  I think the Hegel book represents a significant advance in that project.  And, as I keep saying, I endorse this double commitment.

Moreover, it seems to me that one can very usefully typologise a lot of contemporary (as well as historical) philosophical perspectives (in the broad sense – not just talking about professional philosophers here) in terms of where they fall within the two-by-two matrix implied by these two commitments.

Are normative statuses binding upon us?
Are normative statuses instituted by normative attitudes?YesThe True Pragmatist PathAlienation
NoNorms are non-socially RealJust full nihilism I guess?

So, as Brandom says, various forms of contemporary naturalism can be seen as ‘alienated’, while various forms of ‘normative realism’ can be seen as claiming that the bindingness of norms has a reality that is fully independent of our social practice.  (I realise some of my phrasing in this post risks being a little ‘new atheist’ in its dismissiveness towards ‘full non-social realism’ about norms.  I don’t in fact think that there is anything wrong with or irrational about a normative realism that rejects the entire social- or practice-theoretic project I’m participating in here.  Nevertheless, this is simply not the project I’m pursuing.  Moreover, to the extent that the argument for non-social normative realism is the incoherence of a social- or practice-theoretic account of norms as genuinely binding, I think the Brandomian-Hegelian apparatus provides a very strong response to that critique.)

Ok.  So Brandom-Hegel’s core argument is that we can ‘have it all’ – the analytic virtues of an Enlightenment understanding of normatives statuses as instituted by normative attitudes, and the normative virtues of seeing norms as, nevertheless, genuinely binding upon us.  And much of the second half of the book is focused on the question of how to reconcile these different commitments – how can we preserve what is true in the alienated Enlightenment perspective, while acknowledging the real bindingness of norms?

Now.  My claim, following on from the previous post, is that because Brandom-Hegel is focussed on the tension between these two sets of attitudes – niederträchtig and edelmütig, small-souled and great-souled – Brandom-Hegel spends a lot less time than I’d like on a different, but very important and related issue: disagreement about norms.  Brandom-Hegel is allegorically interested in the connection between two ‘character types’ – a small-souled character (who sees normative statuses as unreal, and normative attitudes as the sole truth of normativity) and a great-souled character (who sees norms as genuinely binding).  This is indeed extremely interesting and important!  But I think that if we see the major philosophical-institutional challenge that faces us as the challenge of reconciling what is correct in both these attitudes, we risk overlooking an in some ways more straightforward (‘retail business’) challenge: how to deal with disagreement about what the norms that bind us even are.

My claim (I think) is going to be that by foregrounding disagreement over the bindingness of norms, and backgrounding disagreement over the substance of norms, Brandom-Hegel is at key moments distorting their own analysis of how norms actually get instituted in practice.  We’ll see if I can cash that intuition out in future posts.

Ok. In previous posts in this series I’ve set up two core points.

The first point is Brandom-Hegel’s basic account of action.  Brandom-Hegel’s account of action has a large number of important subtleties that I haven’t touched on in this series of posts yet.  Nevertheless, the core is a ‘bi-perspectival’ account of action. From the subjective perspective of the agent carrying out the action, the action can be specified in terms of its intention.  Then from the objective perspective of those in the community observing the action, the action can be specified in terms of its actual content – what the action really amounted to.  Brandom-Hegel rejects ‘contractionist’ strategies whereby the ‘real’ action can be limited to the fully-intended elements of the action: for Brandom-Hegel unintended elements (even potentially quite causally distant or mediated elements) of the action are also features of the action.  There is therefore always and necessarily some level of discrepancy between these two perspectives – if only because the full consequences of any action can never be foreseen.  But there is always also a core unity.  Brandom-Hegel is interested in elaborating both the unity and the difference involved in these two perspectives – a lot of the later chapters of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ are going to be dedicated to elements of this project.

Ok.  My question, as I said in the last post, is as follows: why are we talking about two perspectives here?  There is the perspective of the individual taking the action – that’s one.  But then there is not a single ‘community’ perspective on what the action ‘objectively’ amounts to.  On the contrary – there are potentially countless different perspectives on the same action within that community, each of which assesses its ‘objective’ content differently.

This is my core point, which I want to try to think through and elaborate in future posts.  In this post, I want to begin that process by quickly and preliminarily typologising some ways in which the community ‘objectively’ observing an action (call it action ‘A’) can be seen as internally heterogeneous.

To begin with, there’s the core formal ‘heterogeneity’ that is built into any concept use at all, on Brandom-Hegel’s account: the fact that we must always, as concept-users, be aware of the formal possibility that our current judgements are incorrect, or will be judged so by future selves to whom we trustingly defer, etc.  Perhaps provocatively, I’m going to say that this core fallibilist element of the Brandom-Hegel apparatus is formally very similar to the role that ‘differance’ plays in Derrida’s work – maybe I’ll come back to that similarity in future posts.  In any case, here I just want to note this ‘formal’ implicit heterogeneity as a core feature of Brandom-Hegel’s account.  I’m not departing from Brandom-Hegel at all in noting this.

But then there are concrete, actually-realised different perspectives on an action: different perspectives inhabited by different real-world social actors.  What might such social actors disagree about in their assessment of an action?

First, they might disagree about what action actually occurred.  This is just a disagreement about the facts of the matter.  But of course such disagreements on factual matters are widespread in real life!  There may not be a clear ‘objective’ perspective on what an action just factually amounted to.

Second, there might be agreement about what events took place, but a disagreement about their causal interrelations.  So, all parties might agree that events X, Y, and Z took place, but they disagree about whether Z was caused by X and Y.  This is a disagreement not about the events themselves, but about whether Z is part of a causal network such that it counts as a part of action A.

Third, more subtly, all observing parties might be in agreement about the relevant events, and about their causal interrelation, but they might disagree about whether the relevant causal chains are chains that can legitimately be taken to also constitute chains of responsibility.  I intend to return to this point in a future post.  But for now let’s just say that it’s reasonably common for somebody to say something along the lines of: “Yes, Y strictly speaking was one of the causes of Z, but although you are responsible for Y, nobody could reasonably regard you as responsible for Z.”  The claim here is that the causal connection between events Y and Z is not the kind of causal chain that can reasonably be taken also to ‘back transmit’ responsibility.  This merits further expansion, but I just want to make the basic point here for now.

Fourth and (for now at least) finally, all observing parties might be in agreement about a) the events, b) their causal interconnection, and c) how chains of responsibility map onto those causal chains, but the observing parties disagree in their normative evaluation of the events (and therefore action) in question.  So, for example: you take an action A.  One observer regards this action A as an act of remarkable heroism, which deserves to be praised in song for years to come.  Another observer regards this action A as an appalling crime, for which you should be condemned.  In one sense these observers agree on the substance of the action – they agree factually or empirically about what the action was.  But their evaluation of the action could not be more different.  And this is part of their assessment of the action.  Brandom-Hegel’s story is fundamentally a normative story – normative evaluation of actions is a large part of what it’s all about.

So here are four different ways in which ‘the community’ (composed, in reality, of many different individuals) might internally disagree about the content of an action.  (There are more ways in which ‘community’ perspectives can differ, which hopefully I’ll get to one day – but this will do for now.)  There is no one ‘objective’ perspective on an action, in other words.  There are potentially many perspectives, which disagree with each other, compete with each other – and the question of how to reconcile the ‘subjective’ perspective of the acting agent to the ‘objective’ perspective of the community is not, in fact, a question of how to reconcile two perspectives: it is a question of how to reconcile many perspectives, potentially countless perspectives.

This is the problem space I want to inhabit in this series of posts.  What happens to Brandom-Hegel’s narrative when we splinter ‘the community’ into countless different perspectives, which may not be obviously or easily reconcilable? Or even, at the possible limit case, reconcilable at all?  I’ll (hopefully) talk more about that problem in future posts.

Ok. In the last but one post in this series I gave a very brief overview of key elements of Brandom-Hegel’s theory of action, as outlined in chapter eleven of ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  Then in the last post in this series I articulated a key objection to this theory of action.  I quoted a passage from ‘Making It Explicit’, in which Brandom criticised ‘I-We’ models of sociality, and advocated instead for an ‘I-Thou’ model of sociality.  That is to say: in this passage, Brandom is objecting to the tacit homogenisation of ‘the social’ involved in many social-theoretic philosophical accounts of meaning (the proximate target of this critique is Kripke’s reading of Wittgenstein, but the critique applies much more broadly).  Brandom argues that our understanding of the ‘We’ of sociality needs to be built up out of many diverse social relations, and that these social relations cannot be assumed to be all of the same type.  Our ‘We’, in other words, needs to be internally heterogeneous, and models of sociality that homogenise ‘the social’ are always going to be problematic.

I endorsed – and endorse! – this critique of homegenising ‘I-We’ accounts of sociality.  But my core claim, in the last post, is that in the second half of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ Brandom-Hegel is tacitly adopting precisely such a model of sociality.  I claimed, in the last post, that this tacit commitment shows up in the ‘bi-perspectival’ account of action in chapter eleven of ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  And I’m going to claim that this same problem shows up in critical later chapters of ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  Most centrally, the allegory of the confessing sinner and the hard-hearted judge, which concludes the ‘Spirit’ chapter of the Phenomenology, and forms the centrepiece of Brandom-Hegel’s interpretation of the transformation in our recognitive relations required to usher in a new ‘age of spirit’, characterised by the reciprocal relations of forgiveness and trust… this allegory is also, critically, a ‘two person’ allegory, tacitly working therefore (I claim) with a bi-perspectival model of the relation between the individual and the community.  I think my core claim in this entire series of posts is going to be that this won’t do: that (at a minimum – and more on this caveat eventually) we have to follow the lead of ‘Making It Explicit’ in consistently building our account of ‘I-We’ relations out of ‘I-Thou’ relations, and that doing so has major ramifications for the entire apparatus of the analysis of recognitive relations that structures Brandom-Hegel’s argument.

Because I’m going to be claiming that this point ramifies through so much of the second half of ‘A Spirit of Trust’, I’m a little uncertain exactly how to proceed with the argument.  It feels to me like I have a lot to say on this topic, and that it’s all kind of interconnected.  But I think in the first instance I’m going to proceed with the plan I outlined in my last couple of posts, focusing in the first instance on chapter eleven’s theory of action.  I reserve the right, however, to skip around Brandom-Hegel’s text if I think it’s necessary to ‘get ahead of myself’ to try to make clear what I’m getting at.  Let’s see how this goes.