Left and right Brandomianism

December 2, 2020

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.

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