Pre-preliminary remarks on Brandom’s Hegel

September 18, 2020

Back in the day (more than a decade ago, my god!) I sort of ‘live blogged’ my reading of Robert Brandom’s ‘Making It Explicit’.  That generated a few blog posts that in retrospect were badly wrong in key points (as well as a lot of blog posts that I still stand by and value!) – but I nevertheless found the process very helpful in working through Brandom’s system.  So, recognising that I risk again polluting the blogosphere with incorrect takes on Brandom, but selfishly going ahead anyway for purposes of self-clarification, I’m going to put up some remarks on Brandom’s interpretation of Hegel as I start to engage with it.

These are pre-preliminary remarks because I haven’t yet found time to even begin reading ‘A Spirit of Trust’ (Brandom’s Hegel book).  Instead, I’ve been listening to the Leipzig lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology that Brandom has very helpfully put up on his YouTube channel.  I take it that these lectures basically cover the same terrain as the book, but of course ~18 hours of lectures can’t go into nearly as much detail as a ~800 page book, so I’m not imagining that these lectures are an adequate substitute for the text.  Nevertheless, until I can find time in my reading schedule for the book itself, this is what I’ve got.

It’s probably worth saying upfront that I’m not interested at all in the question of whether Brandom gets Hegel right.  Brandom’s is a reconstructive project, and while it’s obviously going to greatly irritate Hegel scholars if Brandom’s reconstruction departs in major ways from their interpretation of Hegel’s own position, I don’t care.  Moreover, although it is common and reasonable to assume that Brandom’s Hegel is simply Brandom himself dressed up in a slightly different technical vocabulary, I think it’s probably worth exercising a bit of caution here too.  Clearly Brandom’s Hegel’s system bears a striking – even an uncanny – resemblance to Brandom’s own system, but Brandom is still following the text of Hegel’s Phenomenology in his interpretation, so I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that, if Brandom were sitting down to write a ‘phenomenology of spirit’ himself, it would look like this.  Rather, I think we can usefully operate as if what we have here is a third figure, analogous perhaps to ‘Kripkenstein’ – Saul Kripke’s influential and controversial interpretation of Wittgenstein – which exists somewhere in the space between or is produced in the interaction between Brandom’s and Hegel’s commitments.

So, with that said, some very preliminary, pre-preliminary remarks on starting to listen to the lectures.  First up: it probably doesn’t need saying, but as with ‘Making It Explicit’, my overwhelming impression is just how clever it all is.  Brandom has so many balls up in the air, and he juggles them with such deftness, interlocking different elements of the system in ways that are both intricate in detail and yet also load-bearing within an overall architectonic structure… it’s all just deeply impressive to watch.  I am, clearly, a Brandom fan, and that isn’t going to go away on the basis of this Hegel project.

With that said, I nevertheless have more unease about the Hegel project in some important areas than I did about ‘Making It Explicit’ (MIE).  As ever, there’s much more to be said than can be covered in a single blog post, even if I had actually read the book.  For now, though, I think the best way to begin discussing some of that unease is to highlight two key elements of MIE, and my takes on them, before contrasting those elements of the MIE project with similar elements of the Hegel project.

So.  Extremely long-term readers of the blog may remember that my main discomfort with ‘Making It Explicit’ focused on the role that Brandom grants to specifically linguistic practice within his system.  Clearly that’s a big disagreement to have, given that Brandom is first and foremost a linguistic philosopher, and given that he pretty clearly thinks that participation in a linguistic community is in some sense a precondition of sapience (a view I disagree with!).  Nevertheless, my disagreement with MIE on the role of the linguistic was tempered by the way in which Brandom embeds his ‘inferentialist’ semantics within his ‘normative pragmatics’.  MIE is interested in the way that language is, first and foremost, something that we do, as a social activity.  Moreover, one of the key elements of Brandom’s account of how linguistic practice generates the forms of normativity characteristic of sapience was his metaphor of ‘scorekeeping’.  In MIE, ‘scorekeeping’ plays a fundamental explanatory role – a role analytically more fundamental (I would argue) than the specific linguistic practices that Brandom uses to give an account of how scorekeeping functions within a discursive community.

It seemed to me then (and still does!) that the role of scorekeeping in MIE leaves open the door to a parallel philosophical apparatus (formally very similar to Brandom’s, but departing from it in key respects), that gives a non-linguistic account of social scorekeeping.  So (perhaps eccentrically), it seems to me that despite Brandom’s own heavy emphasis on specifically linguistic practice, the apparatus of MIE has much to teach us, even if we do not share Brandom’s own commitments in linguistic philosophy, or concerning the centrality of language to thought.

That’s one key element of MIE, and my reaction to it.  Another key element of MIE is Brandom’s account of objectivity.  For me, this is really the key ‘output’ of Brandom’s apparatus.  Again, it’s necessary to be extremely crude and simplistic, if one wants to give a subsection-of-a-reasonable-blogpost-length summary of what Brandom is doing.  But as I see it, one key goal of Brandom’s system is to address a problem that has plagued the pragmatist philosophical project from the beginning.

That problem is, to be crude about it, “what about objectivity, then?”  The pragmatist project, crudely put, is to ground our understanding of traditional philosophical categories – categories like knowledge, truth, value – in social practice theory.  The idea is that what we do as social beings is in some sense generative of these categories, and the categories can only be explained in terms of social practice.  The core objection to the pragmatist project is, basically, that this can’t be done.  Moreover, not only can it not be done, but the effort to do it opens the door to moral, political, and epistemic nihilism (at worst) or moral, political, and epistemic incoherence (at best).  This is what Bertrand Russell is saying when he suggests that US-style pragmatism is a gateway drug to fascism.  This is what Sokal and Bricmont were doing when they suggested that the strong programme in science studies was somehow destroying left politics.  And this is (part of) what many contemporary critics of ‘critical theory’ are doing when they suggest that ‘social justice’ accounts of politics or truth are destroying civilisation.  The idea is that truth, morality, etc. have some reality that exists beyond the social practice of contingent social groups, and that critical-theoretic efforts to ground these categories in social practice are undermining the categories themselves.

Obviously there is a lot mixed up in these debates besides the philosophical issue of the coherence of the pragmatist project, so I want to be clear that I’m not at all suggesting that these debates can be reduced to the kind of abstruse meta-theoretical problems that preoccupy Brandom.  Nevertheless, for me, one of the most important contributions of MIE was that it provided a detailed and (in my humble opinion) satisfactory account of how norms and objectivity can be explained in practice-theoretic terms without succumbing to the theoretical vulnerabilities that have bedevilled earlier pragmatist thinkers (such as Brandom’s doctoral supervisor Richard Rorty, but extending back to the ‘classical’ pragmatists like Dewey, James, etc.)

OK.  So for me Brandom’s account of the concept of ‘objectivity’ was probably the key contribution of MIE.  It’s this account of objectivity (of reference and of norms) that explains why pragmatism isn’t simply a way of explaining truth and value in terms of (say) the practices or beliefs of a dominant social group, and why pragmatism doesn’t simply evacuate these categories altogether. And that concept of ‘objectivity’ more or less emerges from Brandom’s account of scorekeeping.  In particular, Brandom’s account rests on a set of distinctions between different attitudes to normative commitments, established via his scorekeeping apparatus. 

On this account, I as a sapient creature have certain normative commitments about the way things are.  I also track other people’s commitments.  But this tracking of commitments operates via what Brandom calls a form of ‘double bookkeeping’.  I can have an opinion about what somebody takes themselves to be committed to; I can also have an opinion about what they actually are committed to, given my own views about what their commitments entail.  And this ‘double bookkeeping’ can reflexively be applied to my own commitments.  I know what I take my own commitments to entail, but I am also aware that others may take my commitments to entail something different – and this gap between my current perception of my own commitments, and the commitments I may eventually take myself to have really possessed all along, opens up a ‘formal’ concept of objectivity that can be understood independent of any specific account of what objectivity substantively consists in.

I’m being much too telegraphic here to capture how Brandom’s argument functions with any adequacy, I’m really just trying to gesture to the broad space of Brandom’s argument.  For the purposes of this blog post, what I mostly want to capture is that this account of objectivity is extremely ‘slimline’ – this key element of MIE’s argument does not make any ontological claims about what the substance of objective knowledge consists in.  It gets you out of the problem that has historically plagued pragmatism – how can we give an account of objectivity that cannot be reduced to, say, the consensus of a given sub-community? – and that’s ‘all’ it does.

Now, there are other elements of MIE – indeed, some of the most involved sections, such as Brandom’s lengthy discussion of anaphora – that I haven’t discussed here.  And indeed, I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near even trying to summarise those sections without reading the book again.  So I don’t want to make any strong claims about what the book doesn’t do.  My points here are more that: First, the elements of the book that I’ve highlighted are, to me, a big part of its core argument; Second, this core argument is quite ‘slimline’ in terms of its commitments: Brandom builds a great deal on the foundations of a quite minimal theory of practice.

Ok.  So, with that overly laborious background (given the brevity of the rest of what I have to say in this post), let me articulate some pre-preliminary thoughts on Brandom’s Hegel project.  And here I want to contrast two elements of Brandom’s Hegel with those elements of MIE I’ve just highlighted.

First, although Brandom’s Hegel is a pragmatist, and there is no inconsistency that I can see between the apparatus of MIE and the apparatus of A Spirit of Trust, the latter seems to me (again, at a very first pass) to devote less energy to grounding its account in a ‘deflationary’ pragmatics.  So far in Brandom’s Hegel lectures we have had no discussion of scorekeeping, that key explanatory component of MIE’s account of objectivity.  Rather, Brandom’s Hegel (so far) has a tendency to leap straight in to the more directly semantic elements of the argument.

Clearly there’s nothing wrong with this – and indeed for all I know these matters will be addressed in full later.  But for people like me for whom the normative pragmatics dimension of MIE was in some respects more interesting than its inferentialist semantics, this is a bit disappointing.

That’s my first, very brief and fairly trivial, observation.  My second observation is that it seems to me that Brandom’s Hegel may be making stronger ‘ontological’ claims than the core elements of MIE that I’ve highlighted need commit us to.

In particular, Brandom has an extremely intricate and carefully developed account of Hegel’s idealism.  I’ll want to circle back round and give a much fuller account of this once I’m more confident in my grasp of this material.  But at (again) a very preliminary and crude first pass, Brandom argues that for Hegel the world is already ‘conceptually structured’.  What this means is not that the world is ontologically dependent on thought – Brandom’s Hegel is not a ‘subjective’, Berkeleyan idealist.  For Brandom’s Hegel (much of) the world would be the way it is even if nobody had ever existed to perceive it.  Rather, the argument is that the structure of the world is such that we are capable of having ‘adequate knowledge’ of the world, and this seemingly requires a homology between the normative structure of thought and the ontological structure of the world.  Specifically, Brandom believes that for Hegel the normative component of semantics maps onto the modal structure of reality.  That is, if I am committed to a claim, what this means is that I am committed to some other claims also being the case, and some other claims also not being the case.  And this normative network of obligations and entitlements (legitimate and illegitimate inferences) is homologous with modal relations of possibility and impossibility between and within states of affairs in reality.  If such-and-such a commitment about the world is incompatible with such-and-such another commitment about the world, this normative obligation to not hold those two beliefs simultaneously is saying that such-and-such a state of affairs is in reality incompatible with such-and-such another state of affairs.  Modal claims about compatibility and incompatibility of real states of affairs map onto normative claims about our inferential obligations given our commitments, and vice versa.

My account of this argument here is desperately crude relative to Brandom’s – my goal is again just to gesture in the direction of the Brandomian Hegelian apparatus.  The point is that this account of Hegel’s idealism explains how we have objective knowledge of the world.  For Brandom’s Hegel, this argument meets the sceptical challenge thrown up by his predecessors in the modern philosophical tradition.  And this goal of meeting the sceptical challenge of Descartes, Kant, and others is a key motivator of this apparatus, on Brandom’s account.  For Brandom’s Hegel, one of the problems of the pre-Hegelian modern philosophical tradition was that it baked scepticism into its semantics, by postulating a relationship of representation that intrinsically rendered reality ungraspable in key elements.  ‘Objective idealism’ aims to address this problem, by showing how reality can be ‘conceptually structured’ and thus knowlable in itself without committing us to the idea that reality is ontologically dependent on knowing subjects.

Which is all fair enough.  My initial worry about this dimension of Brandom’s Hegel’s argument, though, is that it might ‘prove too much’.  Like Brandom’s Hegel, I am suspicious of any epistemology that seems to intrinsically condemn us to scepticism.  Maybe we’re completely misguided about reality, but it doesn’t seem right to have this deep epistemological failure be an intrinsic feature of our philosophical apparatus.  (I’m aware that ‘doesn’t seem right’ isn’t actually an argument, but I’m not going to shoulder the burden of grounding my philosophical intuitions in this blog post…)

At the same time, though, and in the other direction, I worry about arguments that seem to imply that reality must be knowable to us, at least in principle, or at least in general.  What if there are elements of reality that we simply cannot comprehend, and never could?  What if the reason for our inability to comprehend those elements of reality is that reality is not ‘conceptually structured’ in Brandom’s Hegel’s sense, or is so only in some of its aspects, or ‘from a certain point of view’?  I’m inclined to a ‘satisficing’ approach to knowledge – a ‘good enough’ account of what it is to know something – and it feels that Brandom’s Hegel’s account of epistemology might be after a stronger sense of epistemological adequacy.  What if this criterion for adequacy of knowledge is just too strong to actually capture the reality of how we know things?

Now, as I keep saying, these are only pre-preliminary thoughts.  I’m writing them up here not because I’m presenting them as an argument against Brandom’s Hegel’s project, certainly not as stands, but because I find it useful to get my reactions down in writing as I go.  Still, these are some of the things I’m going to be thinking about as I continue to work through Brandom’s remarkable project.

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