Recollection and forgiveness in Brandom’s Hegel

December 4, 2020

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.

3 Responses to “Recollection and forgiveness in Brandom’s Hegel”


  1. Hi, Duncan,

    It is a great pleasure to find you engaging once again with Brandom, and I look forward to your responses to A Spirit of Trust once you’ve had time to read it. Meantime, I want to focus on your questions, – “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?” – which, I think, miss an important point in BH’s conception of “forgiveness”:

    You question whether the great horrors of history such as the slave trade and the Holocaust should be “forgiven” and of course the knee-jerk reaction of All Right-Thinking People is that they shouldn’t, – but that is because they think of forgiveness in purely negative terms, i.e., in terms of not hating, of not desiring to harm. That isn’t BH’s idea of forgiveness.

    Just before the passage you quote from p. 625, we have the following: “Concrete practical forgiveness involves doing things to change what the consequences of the act turn out to be.” It’s only what the forgivers do that makes it possible for a Whiggish story of the whole sequence of events to be told.

    Concerning the Holocaust, etc., what the Nuremburg process actually did was very mixed. It established the principle that agents of the state could be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity, which was good, but it subjected those it convicted to punishment, i.e., to deliberate harm, some of them to being hanged, which, in BH’s terms, was bad.

    Why bad? Because the best possible outcome of the process would have been unreserved and therefore penitent public confessions from each of the accused, together with an acceptance by them of the need to submit to whatever conditions were practically necessary to calm the reasonable fears aroused by their crimes; but the “hard-hearted” Nuremburg process, which set out to justify their being punished, was incompatible with the trust which would have made such confessions possible.

    It’s no doubt quite unrealistic to imagine that the Nuremburg convicts would have been capable of such confessions at the time of the trials, though it’s not unthinkable that some of them might in due course have come round to that, and it’s that possibility, I think BH would say, the process ought to have been aimed at. Simply hanging the unrepentant convicts failed to produce a consequence better than the crimes of which they’d been convicted. There was no chance, as it were, of the Erinyes being transformed into the Epimenides.

    Let us remember, after all, that the Nuremburg process took place less less than a century after the allies who sponsored it were themselves engaged in the other atrocity you mention, i.e., slavery and the slave trade. Indeed, it wasn’t till after the Nuremburg process was completed that France ceased to insist on payment by Haiti of the debt imposed on it to cover the losses incurred by French slave-owners dispossessed of their human property by the Haitian revolution.

    “Judge not that ye be not judged” is simple common sense because none of us has clean hands. For example, we have abolished capital punishment because we know that retaining it would inevitably lead to people being put to death who’ve been wrongly convicted; but notice that we persist with non-capital punishment, – letting them “rot in hell”, as the Daily Mail recommends, – despite the regular revelations of people being wrongly convicted of lesser crimes and punished by vicious prison sentences; despite the fact also, as I don’t need to tell you, that what counts as “crime” is determined ideologically, e.g., the drug-trade and the vast ramifications of corruption that attend it created by the insanity of prohibition. Notice also Elizabeth Bernstein’s excellent analysis of the ideological construction of prostitution in “Temporarily Yours”.

    Enough for the moment. Very best wishes,

    Chris.

  2. Phil Says:

    I’ve never read Brandom (or Hegel), but I’m fascinated by this concept of forgiveness, of applying a great-souled reading to actions that retrospectively seem partially (or almost entirely) base. (You seem to be suggesting that Brandom misses a third category of noble-but-evil, incidentally; I’m not convinced this is either necessary or sustainable. The ascetically dedicated Nazi who sincerely believes in creating an ethno-state doesn’t seem obviously base, but I don’t know if he really poses any more problems than the common-or-garden racist who’s nice to his neighbours and loves his Mum. Trying to gain advantage by harming other people is base, ISTM, even if you’re harming them by the thousand and you never get to cash in the advantage.)

    The key thing, perhaps, is that forgiveness doesn’t simply mean wiping the slate – as if to say, we don’t have to choose between Alex who switched to Ecover, Bernie who researched the full costs of the supply chain and bought gallon bottles of own-brand detergent instead and Charlie who climbed the corporate ladder and donated a million quid to Greenpeace; we can just give them all a retrospective pat on the head and say that they were all trying to do the right thing. We don’t have to choose, of course, but what is incumbent on us is to recover, and attempt to realise, the nobility within each compromised practice – which is something we can only attempt in our own (compromised) practice. Perhaps.


  3. Correction: Of course, I meant “Eumenides”. No idea where “Epimenides” came from.


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