Ok – I’ve now listened to the entirety of Brandom’s lectures on Hegel, which cover, in significantly briefer form, the content of ‘A Spirit of Trust’. I need to make time, somehow, to carefully read the book itself, and naturally anything I say about Brandom’s Hegel is provisional until I’ve done so. Still, I take it that the core of Brandom’s interpretation is clear from his lectures, and I am too impatient to want to wait until I’ve worked through the full text before commenting! (“Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience”, writes Kafka – but what does he know.)

Let me dive straight in and say that while obviously I think Brandom’s Hegel project is extraordinarily impressive, I think it jumps off a sort of ethical-political cliff in these closing sections, and it’s probably going to take some pretty heavy lifting to save it. The problem is the use to which Brandom puts the (retrospective) category of forgiveness, and the corresponding (prospective) category of Trust. (For the sake of easy expression, I’m going to stop talking about ‘Brandom’s Hegel’, and just talk about Brandom, but I hope it’s clear that all appropriate caveats about authorial identity apply.)

So – I’m not going to have my language or the details right here, but the closing sections of Brandom’s argument pivot around the distinction between the ‘noble’ and ‘base’ or ‘great-souled’ and ‘small-souled’ or ‘edelmütig’ and ‘niedertrachtig’ perspectives. Roughly speaking, the ‘noble’ perspective sees actions as guided by universal norms, and the ‘base’ perspective sees actions as guided by immediate and contingent material motives. Brandom argues that every action that has ever or could ever take place can, in principle, be viewed from either perspective. What this means, is that it is alway possible to interpret any action in a ‘debasing’ way, that strips away the pretension that an action is motivated by a norm, and ascribes to it, rather, base or ignoble motives – or it is possible to interpret the same action as carried out in accordance with some norm. These are ‘bad faith’ and ‘good faith’ perspectives on action.

The kind of community we want to institute, Brandom argues, is one characterised by mutual recognition – and to recognise another as a normative agent is to recognise their actions as carried out in a normative space, that is, in response to norms. At the same time, we are all aware that our actions may not necessarily be understood in those terms – we all fall short of the ideal selves we may aspire to, and take actions that may deviate from the norms we hope to realise.

At the same time, it is a core element of Brandom’s theory of action that we can never fully know what our actions are when we take them. Actions have unanticipated consequences, and future events may always and at any time retroactively transform what the content of any given action was. It is for this reason impossible to definitively say what the normative content of an action even is at any given time – that normative content is always open for future ‘transformation’ (or greater specification), by the consequences of future history and by future acts of interpretation.

This means that what we currently may interpret as failures to realise a norm could, in principle, be interpreted by future actors as instantiations of a norm. And this possibility opens up a dynamic that Brandom characterises as ‘confession and forgiveness’.

In this dynamic, a social actor confesses the base motives that drive their actions, and the ways in which their actions have deviated from norms, while the forgiver nevertheless recognises those actions in terms of an unfolding norm that they – the confessor – was unable to articulate or recognise. In this way, a ‘tradition’ is constituted that can, in principle, ‘recuperate’ even actions that seem to have no normative justification, retroactively understood as justified by the events and interpretations that followed. In Brandom’s words:

Something I have done should not be treated as an error or a crime… because it is not yet settled what I have done.

(‘A Spirit of Trust’, p. 625)

Moreover, for Brandom in these sections, the kind of political-social-discursive community we aspire to create, should be one characterised by expanding the scope of such confession and forgiveness. For Brandom, the community we aspire to create should be one characterised by a ‘spirit of trust’ in which we confess our our normative failures in the hope that future actors can ‘recuperate’ those failures within a larger, more ‘magnanimous’ interpretive framework, which brings more and more actions under the auspices of normative reason.

I’m racing past a huge amount of content here, and I will want to circle back round and give all of this a much more nuanced treatment once I’ve done my due diligence properly. Nevertheless, in a preliminary way, I think I have enough grasp of what Brandom is getting at here to say: are we sure about this? More specifically: granted that the full content of any action cannot be fully specified at any moment, are we sure that ‘forgiveness’ should be the attitude we ultimately aspire to achieve in relation to social actions?

I think there are two broad issues here. First, some elements of Brandom’s discussion seem to me to move too easily between two categories of non-conformity with norms. First, we may see actions as failing to adhere to any norm at all – as purely appetitive, or accidental, or whatever. This is the perspective of ‘particularity’. Second, we may see an action as taking place in conformity with the wrong norm – indeed, as taking place in conformity with a bad or evil norm. “Falling short of norms” is not the only form that evil may take – (what are taken to be) norms themselves may be evil.

In general I think it is a long-term problem with Brandom’s work that he is insufficiently attentive to worries about ‘bad norms’. Brandom is preoccupied by the threat of ‘nihilism’ – by the problem of adopting theoretical perspectives that, if taken seriously, are unable to make space for norms at all. But Brandom does not seem terribly preoccupied by the problem of communities or social spaces that have established values that we nevertheless wish to reject. This leads him, in my view, to misunderstand the place that a number of critiques of ‘Making It Explicit’, and of other pragmatist thinkers, are coming from – and it also means that he does not give nearly enough attention to this problem space in his interpretation of Hegel.

What if an entire society, in its dominant norms, practices, values, etc., is evil? This is not something that should be too much of a challenge to imagine. And yet it presents a challenge for pragmatist, practice-theoretic, accounts of normativity. If we have a transcendent account of norms, it is easy to understand how we can resist the evil around us. But if we have a practice-theoretic account of norms – if our own norms in some sense emerge out of our own social practices and those of the society we inhabit – then it is harder to see where the ‘critical distance’ that would allow us to reject the bad norms by which we are surrounded, in favour of good norms, might come from. I don’t, to be clear, think that this is an insoluble problem – in practice, all societies, even ‘totalitarian’ ones, are highly internally diverse, and there are always social practices and locations that provide a critical standpoint from which alternative value systems to the dominant ones may be assembled. Nevertheless, this category of worry is one that pragmatists need to address – and that Brandom, as I say, seems inattentive to.

In terms of Brandom’s discussion of recollection and forgiveness, a similar problem manifests in relation to history. How much, in history, in fact, can and should be forgiven? Do we want to provide a Whiggish rational reconstruction of history that ‘justifies’ apparent crimes because of their later consequences? Should we? Isn’t that kind of monstrous? Should the slave trade, the Holocaust, the great policy-driven famines of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the many exterminations, oppressions, and violences of the charnel house of history, all be grist for the mill of Absolute Spirit’s magnanimous forgiveness?

I think it’s clear – on political-ethical grounds – that the answer to these questions is “no”. If we want to build a better community characterised by a more expansive practice of mutual recognition and respect, part of this collective project needs to be a sombre recognition that much human action is not and can never be justified. The question of how we mine our history to construct the traditions that shape the present needs to be, in part, a question of which history we ‘fold in’ to our self-understanding precisely by rejecting the idea that any norm we value or respect can be found there.

I don’t think Brandom’s metatheoretical apparatus is incompatible with that more sombre approach to the thinking of history or tradition. But I do suspect that some significant modifications should probably be made to these elements of Brandom’s Hegel, if we are to assemble a ‘recollective reconstruction’ of our history that is fit for the purpose of emancipatory politics.

It’s common in discussions of the post-Hegelian German Idealist tradition to draw a distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ Hegelians.  I don’t know nearly enough about the history of German Idealism to make use of this distinction in any scholarly way – but my understanding of the distinction amounts to the extent to which the Hegelian apparatus is taken to be ‘critical’.  One can interpret the Hegelian apparatus as providing a quasi-metaphysical justification for the political status quo, or one can interpret the Hegelian apparatus as providing the resources for a far-reaching critique of actually-existing institutions.  This, crudely put, I take it, is the distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ Hegelianism.

Brandom sometimes, following Rorty, plays with this phrase to draw a distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ Sellarsians.  And in this post I want to likewise draw a potential distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ Brandomians.  In doing so, I want to flag straight up that this is extremely loose usage, and I don’t claim that this distinction necessarily usefully maps onto actual political left and right categories (themselves of course often extremely fuzzy).  Hopefully the post itself will make clear what I’m getting at.

So.  As I’ve said before, I’m slowly working through Brandom’s Hegel lectures (available at his YouTube channel here), as a precursor to slowly working through Brandom’s Hegel book.  I’m currently on the penultimate lecture – Genealogy and Magnanimity: The Allegory of the Valet – which covers similar ground to Brandom’s lecture of some years ago – Reason, Genealogy, and the Hermeneutics of Magnanimity.  This post is essentially a reflection on these lectures.  Brandom clearly regards the content discussed in these lectures as central to his Hegel’s philosophical project.

The lectures are focused on Hegel’s distinction between ‘noble’ and ‘base’ or ‘great-souled’ and ‘narrow-souled’ or ‘magnanimous’ or ‘suspicious’ meta-conceptual attitudes.  Brandom connects Hegel’s understanding of these categories to one of Brandom’s own master distinctions, between normative statuses and normative attitudes.  Normative statuses, recall, are things like “an obligation” and “an entitlement”.  Normative attitudes are things like “taking somebody to have an obligation or entitlement”.  One of the major overarching goals of Brandom’s entire philosophical project is to explain normative statuses in terms of normative attitudes in a non-reductive way – in a way, that is, that does not reduce normative statuses like obligations to purely ‘subjective’ categories like “believing somebody to have an obligation”, and yet at the same time does not attribute a “spooky” ontological substance to normative statuses or the norms associated with them.

I’ve been over all this in painful detail in my earlier series of posts on ‘Making It Explicit’, and I’m going to let a lot of important nuance fall by the wayside for that reason.  In his Hegel lectures, Brandom adds a historical-political dimension to these issues, by connecting these categories to Hegel’s ‘epochs of spirit’.  Broadly speaking, for Brandom’s Hegel, pre-Enlightenment understanding of norms saw normative attitudes as derivative of normative statuses.  On this understanding, norms are real things out there in the world somehow, and our normative attitudes can be explained as attempts to attend to their ‘ontological’ authority.  The historical shift to ‘Enlightenment’ facilitated a theoretical perspective that turned this account on its head: from this perspective, normative attitudes are the fundamental explanatory category, and normative statuses derive from them.  But, for Brandom’s Hegel, there is a tendency within this Enlightenment tradition to take this ‘subjectivist’ orientation ‘too far’ – to see normative statuses as fundamentally unreal, an otiose concept, and to understand norms, morality, etc., purely and reductively in terms of normative attitudes.  (Utilitarianism is, for Brandom’s Hegel, an example of this approach.)  This ‘Enlightenment’ attitude can then in turn be taken to provide warrant for a nihilism about norms – it can lead to the conclusion that there are no norms, really, only people believing or acting as if there were norms – a rejection of the normative as such.  (In more recent philosophy, Brandom characterises Gilbert Harman as an exemplar of this approach in the area of moral philosophy.)

Brandom connects all this in turn to what he sees as two different interpretive orientations to any given action.  One can interpret an action as taken in response to a normative obligation – as taking place within the space of reasons – or one can interpret an action as taking place for purely ‘causal’ reasons, as driven by factual contingencies that cannot themselves be understood in terms of reasons.  Brandom discusses Hegel’s ‘allegory of the valet’: “no man is a hero to his valet”, for Hegel, because a valet sees exclusively the ‘contingent’, ‘debased’, ‘appetitive’ motives associated with a public figure’s actions.  More broadly, because any action can be interpreted as (for example) motivated by psychological gratifications, it is possible to give a ‘debased’ account of any action which understands it not as driven by norms, but as driven by purely personal, appetitive, debased, contingent, etc. motives.  To analyse actions in terms of norms is to give a rational account of the sphere of action.  To analyse actions in terms of causes is to give a genealogical account of the sphere of action.

Brandom’s Hegel sees his philosophical, and our practical, task as reconciling these perspectives in a more capacious philosophical orientation and set of socio-political practices that can accommodate both the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ – both the ‘rational’ and the ‘genealogical’ – dimensions of our understanding of action.  And this project of reconciliation, as recounted by Brandom, I would say, has two broad elements.

First, Brandom’s Hegel is keen to rebut what Brandom calls ‘global’ genealogy – the attempt to replace the analysis of norms and reasons in general with the analysis of causes alone.  Brandom (whether rightly or wrongly) takes Nietzsche to be an exemplar of this approach.  For Brandom’s Hegel, this orientation is in the end self-refutingly nihilistic – it ultimately cannot give an account of semantic content at all.

I regard this element of Brandom’s approach as largely unproblematic and correct.  Global reductivism about norms (at least in the sense in which Brandom means the term ‘reductivism’) is indeed an undesirable position for all the reasons that Brandom elaborates, and Brandom’s (and Brandom’s Hegel’s) alternative is, to my mind, both carefully elaborated and large satisfactory.  I appreciate that not everyone will agree with my take on this, but this isn’t the focus of this blog post!

Let’s say for the sake of argument that we agree, then, that global reductionism about norms is an undesirable position, and that Brandom’s Hegel’s approach outlines a broadly acceptable alternative.  Brandom’s Hegel also has a second, more ambitious philosophical-political goal – to participate in the development of a third ‘age of Geist’ in which the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ approaches can be reconciled via the institutionalisation of community practices characterised by ‘Trust’.

Now, I’m not going to tackle what this actually means at this point in working through Brandom’s lectures.  All I want to say, here, is that this project has a stronger objection to the ‘genealogical perspective than simply a narrow objection to ‘global’ genealogy.  This project (the institution of a community of trust) is characterised by a desire to expand the space of social actions that can be, are, and should be treated as ‘rational’ rather than as merely causal – it intervenes, as it were, not just in the question of whether our perspectives should be exclusively genealogical, but also in the question of the extent to which our perspectives should be genealogical. Or, perhaps better, the degree of emphasis that should be placed on the genealogical moment or perspective within our larger framework.

Now, this is where the distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ Hegelians reappears, it seems to me.  Brandom discusses the ‘great unmaskers’ or the ‘great genealogists’ of the nineteenth century – Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud.  Nietzsche, for Brandom, as I have already mentioned, is a ‘global genealogist’ – but Marx and Freud are, at least on some interpretations, more ‘local’ genealogists.  Marx’s account of class location (or, I would argue, more broadly, political-economic social practice) does not rule out the possibility of rationality or normativity – it merely ‘explains’ large categories of claims of reason in social practice terms.  Likewise, Freud’s psychoanalytic apparatus need not be seen as a global enemy of reason, it simply offers a category of causal explanation of our psychological dynamics.

What should our attitude be to such ‘debasing’ discourses – discourses that ‘explain’ rational discourse and belief in terms of specific categories of social or psychological causes?  How should such discourses be folded in to the Brandomian-Hegelian apparatus, assuming we broadly accept that apparatus?

Here it seems to me that there are (at least!) two broad orientations one might take.  On the one hand, one might react with relief to the Hegelian rebuttal of the ‘perspective of the valet’, and hope that the Brandomian-Hegelian apparatus can ultimately point the way to the ‘recuperation’ of the apparently irrational social-psychological dynamics analysed by our ‘genealogists’, building such apparent irrationalities into a larger account of reason unfolding through contingent history.  Such a perspective sees the genealogical moment as an analytic waypoint en route to a larger socio-political rationalism.  I’m going to call this the ‘right Hegelian / Brandomian perspective’.

But one might also take a different attitude.  One might react with relief that the Brandomian-Hegelian apparatus shows, yes, that ‘locally genealogical’ perspectives are not inimical to reason – and for that reason, be all the more happy to embrace large elements of the genealogical perspective!  This Brandomian-Hegelian synthesis might be taken, not as a reason to see genealogical perspectives as ‘surpassed’, but as a warrant for their use.  Of course, embracing the genealogical perspective through the prism of this framework means seeing the genealogical perspective as not necessarily exclusively genealogical – if genealogical analysis may always potentially have the double aspect of reason, when viewed ‘magnanimously’, this may change what we take ourselves to be doing in genealogical critique.  But, at the same time, we should not be too hasty to dismiss such critique as inimical to reason.

In a 2017 paper I co-authored with N Pepperell [preprint link here], we applied something like this theoretical approach to the debates over the ‘strong programme’ in science studies.  The strong programme is often taken to be a paradigmatically genealogical enterprise.  Critics of the strong programme, such as Sokal and Bricmont, or Laudan, see it as a fundamentally anti-rationalist enterprise, exchanging the analysis of scientific content in rational and evidentiary terms for a debasing or debunking analysis focussed purely on contingent sociological factors.  Surely, both critics and defenders of the strong programme argue, such an approach can only lead to relativism.  The debate over the strong programme therefore amounts to a debate over whether relativism is an acceptable price for the strong programme’s methodological approach.

We argued, by contrast, that the core elements of the strong programme can be retained without a commitment to relativism, because normative categories of objectivity and reason can still be preserved even alongside a sociological – or, in the vocabulary of Brandom’s Hegel lectures – genealogical analysis.  From my own perspective, this claim provides not a rebuttal of the strong programme (except in some of its metatheoretical conclusions), but a (perhaps counter-intuitive) justification for many of its methodological and empirical decisions.

A similar argument can be made, I think, about genealogical approaches in general.  The fact that the Brandomian apparatus is in principle capable of folding even ‘crassly debasing’ genealogical accounts into a larger rationalism should free us from worrying too much about whether any given genealogical account can in fact be folded in to such a rationalism.  It gives free reign to ‘critical theory’, in a genealogical sense, because it shows that genealogical critical theory is not intrinsically anti-rationalist.

So, I think there’s a loose distinction that can be drawn here between two different ‘lessons’ that different theoretical dispositions might draw from the Brandomian-Hegelian treatment of genealogy.  Incredibly crudely put, those lessons are “Ha! That showed those genealogists the inadequacy of their perspective!” versus “See! Nothing wrong with genealogy at all, it’s perfectly compatible with rationalism!”  And one can roughly align these perspectives with a ‘right’ and ‘left’ Brandomianism – Brandomians more inclined to focus on non-reductive accounts of the rational legitimacy of norms, versus Brandomians more inclined to focus on the practice-theoretic explanation of norms in terms of normative attitudes.

My theoretical orientation, I think, pretty clearly falls on the quote-unquote ‘left’, genealogical side of this dispositional divide.  Hopefully in future posts I’ll both do more to unpack this preference, and also perhaps add some much-needed nuance to this schema.