Continuing my new practice of posting random, slight thoughts, I wanted to put up something on Oskar Lange’s papers ‘On the Economic Theory of Socialism’.  These papers are part of the famous ‘socialist calculation debate’, which I hope to eventually discuss in more depth – but for now I just want to make a few short comments on Lange.

Lange’s argument is notable, in part, for abandoning what might be taken to be many of the precepts of Marxist economics, and making its case for socialist economics in a manner broadly compatible with neoclassical economic theory.  I think this is on balance a good thing – as I’ve discussed on the blog before, I don’t think the labour theory of value has anything much to recommend it, and I think Lange’s refusal to self-ghettoise his arguments within an alternative ‘paradigm’ to mainstream economics is a good approach. (Though so too is pluralism of analytic tools and frameworks!)

Anyway, Lange’s argument is basically that it is possible to construct a socialist system – meaning a political-economic governance system in which the state owns and controls the major industries – the behaviour of which is formally identical to a fully competitive market economy, as the latter is described by neoclassical economics.  Very crudely put, Lange argues that the state can choose to set prices in a way that is responsive to supply and demand, just as market actors determine prices in a way that is responsive to supply and demand, and that a state apparatus organised in this way will result in the same formal outcomes as a fully competitive market.  Moreover, Lange argues that a socialist economy organised in this way would have major advantages over a market economy.

What are those advantages, as Lange sees them?  The first advantage is distributional: because a socialist system can distribute the social product more equitably than a market capitalist system, there will be greater welfare dividends from the achievement of neoclassical equilibrium.  Lange also argues that a state setting prices can incorporate factors into those prices that are omitted within a competitive market context.  But the other major advantages that Lange highlights do not distinguish a socialist system from an idealised market system, but rather distinguish it from ‘actually existing’ capitalism.  Here Lange’s argument is an interesting one: if you want to achieve the efficient outcomes associated with a fully competitive market equilibrium, actual capitalist markets are hopeless.  If the neoclassical ideal of efficiency is your policy goal, Lange argues, you’d be better off with the socialism he describes.  In Lange’s words:

Only a socialist economy can fully satisfy the claim made by many economists with regard to the achievements of free competition.

This argument has several elements.  The core one is that ‘actually existing capitalism’ is not in fact characterised by the free competition described by neoclassical equilibrium theory, but rather by oligopoly and monopolistic competition.  These economic forms – by extracting rent (charging above competitive market values), suppressing competition, and preventing the development and adoption of technological innovations – hold back the key virtues of capitalist markets.  They are specifically opposed to technological progress and to economic efficiency.  Moreover, Lange argues, the suppression of viable competition is likely to lead to an outcome in which investors cannot find adequate returns on capital.  This in turn leads to under-utilisation of economic resources, unemployment, and economic crisis.  

Lange argues that this kind of crisis of oligopolistic capitalism can be addressed in one of three ways.  First, large businesses can be completely broken up, to try to achieve a true competitive market – but this is incompatible with the economic benefits associated with large-scale production and returns to scale.  Second, government can attempt to intervene in a limited manner to constrain oligopolistic power – but this is likely to fail due to regulatory capture.  Third, the government can simply take control of the relevant industries, and administer them according to Lange’s preferred ‘socialist competition’ governance structure.  This, Lange argues, is the only realistic approach compatible with continuing economic progress.

So, that’s Lange’s core argument.  I think it’s fair to say that the concluding elements of that argument probably looked more plausible during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Lange was writing, than they do today.  Although Lange does not argue that the contradictions of an oligopolistic capitalism lead inevitably to socialism, he does clearly think that capitalism’s ‘progressive’ potential – in the sense of technological innovation and ongoing revolution of economic production – is largely exhausted.  This seems to me to be another example of the besetting Marxist weakness of assuming (or hoping) that the current crisis of capitalism is likely to be the terminal one.  The suggestion of Lange’s argument, I think, is that oligopolistic capitalism is not necessarily a ‘stable political-economic equilibrium’.  And this is one of the ways in which Lange is interestingly close to the Austrian economists with whom he is arguing in these papers.

The Austrians with whom Lange is arguing are also worried about the inefficiencies of a nominally capitalist system that is characterised, in practice, by substantial government intervention and oligopolistic corporate structures (though Austrian anxiety is of course directed more at the former than the latter).  Like Lange, the Austrians believe that partial and limited government intervention in the economy is not a sustainable political-economic equilibrium, but is rather the thin end of the wedge that is likely to lead to full socialisation of the means of production.  Lange’s argument is that the ideal of neoclassical competitive outcomes is only possible via two governance structures: pure market competition, and socialisation of the means of production.  The Austrians and the socialists – the two poles of the calculation debate – can be seen as advocating for each of these poles.

In fact, though, ‘unstable’ social situations can maintain themselves for an extremely long time – perhaps indefinitely.  No crisis need be terminal.  More than 80 years after Lange published his papers, the dominant current political-economic situation is still the ‘unstable’ structures of oligopolistic capitalism with heavy state intervention in a market economy.  This probably says something about the status of such arguments from economic efficiency, and the purported tendency – whether understood with positive or negative valence – for state intervention in the economy to lead to ‘fully socialist’ outcomes.


I think I’m going to try to start putting up briefer and slighter posts on here (not that previous posts have necessarily been very substantive, but you know what I mean…) – making points on this website that I might previously have made via microblogging.  Apologies if this reduces the quality of the blog still further, but who knows, maybe there’ll be some gains too.  

In that spirit, then, I saw some posts on econ twitter the other day about Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson’s 2001 article ‘The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development’, which I wanted to associate around briefly.  In that article AJR argue that much of the growth rate differential between former European colonies can be explained by the difference between two categories of institutions established by colonial powers.  In AJR’s words:

At one extreme, European powers set up “extractive states,” exemplified by the Belgian colonization of the Congo. These institutions did not introduce much protection for private property, nor did they provide checks and balances against government expropriation. In fact, the main purpose of the extractive state was to transfer as much of the resources of the colony to the colonizer. At the other extreme, many Europeans migrated and settled in a number of colonies, creating what the historian Alfred Crosby (1986) calls “Neo-Europes.” The settlers tried to replicate European institutions, with strong emphasis on private property and checks against government power. Primary examples of this include Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.

I’m (obviously) no economic historian, but it seems important to register that, although this characterisation does seem to pick out important differences between ‘fully extractive’ colonies and settler colonies, AJR’s characterisation of European settler colonies also doesn’t exactly fully capture their governance practice.  

Taking the case of New Zealand – the case cited in that paragraph that I probably know best – to what extent is it accurate to say that 19th century New Zealand governance institutions were characterised by “strong emphasis on private property and checks against government power”?  Or, as AJR put it later in the article, by “constraints on government expropriation”?

On the one hand, it’s clear what AJR have in mind here: early settler-colonial NZ did indeed establish a set of institutions that can be characterised as “Neo-European”, importing institutional frameworks that centred property rights and representative government.  On the other hand… to take only the most prominent single case, the invasion of the Waikato and the confiscation by the crown of millions of acres of land does not seem like an exemplar of checked government power or institutional constraint on government expropriation.  Quite the reverse: the full-scale military conquest of the agricultural heart of the North Island, and the seizure at gunpoint of vast tracts of land, seems almost like an exemplar of how little constrained from expropriation a government can be.

Obviously there’s a huge amount said and written on these issues, and all the points I’m making here are desperately obvious – I am making no claims to novelty or insight.  Still, I think this is relevant to the issue of what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘classical liberal institutions’.  It is common for advocates of classical liberalism (and I am not now talking about AJR’s work, but associating more broadly) to make the case for their preferred institutions on grounds similar to those articulated by AJR in this paper.  That is to say: whatever the limits of classical liberalism in terms of ‘voice’, the institutions of classical liberalism are taken to serve as a constraint on state power.  Self-evidently, though, this point needs to be, at a minimum, extremely heavily caveated, to accommodate the massive use of state power in the service of domination and expropriation that is such a prominent feature of actually-existing liberal institutions.  Just as advocates of communism cannot simply appeal to the ideals of human flourishing and egalitarianism without reckoning with the actual history of policy-driven famines, dictatorship, political repression, and other crimes of actually-existing communism, so advocates of classical liberalism cannot simply appeal to the ideals of limited government and protection against expropriation without reckoning with the actual history of forced dispossession, seizure of resources, genocidal violence, and other crimes of actually-existing liberalism.  Taking such history into account – and explaining how and why one’s preferred institutional structures are not likely to reproduce it – should, in my view, be a criterion of adequacy for any normative institutional political-economic project, of whatever political persuasion.

Brandom on evil

May 21, 2021

In this short post I want to make a very simple point, which I’ve already made in this earlier post – this time with reference to Brandom’s actual text.  The issue is what Brandom means when he uses the term “evil”.

In Chapter 16 of ‘A Spirit of Trust’, Brandom offers his interpretation of Hegel’s “parable” of the “evil consciousness” and the “hard-hearted judge”.  The ultimate goal of this parable is to mobilise the categories of confession and forgiveness in a way that, Brandom’s Hegel believes, can participate in the ushering in of the “third stage in the development of Spirit” – an age of spirit characterised by the social practices of Trust.  My goal in this post isn’t to discuss that dimension of Brandom’s Hegel’s argument, but just to talk about the category of evil, as Brandom presents it in this section of text.  I’ll take the opportunity, though, to say that there are interesting defences of Brandom’s commitment to forgiveness, from Christopher Eddy and Phil, in comments to that previous post.  (One day, hopefully, I’ll actually get round to speaking to those issues in more depth on the blog.)

So – I’ll quote Brandom and then comment.

The two parties to this morality tale, the judged and the judging consciousness, personify the two social perspectives on the application of concepts in judgment and exercises of practical agency that are familiar to us from our consideration of Hegel’s theory of action. These are the first-person context of deliberation (Vorsatz-Handlung) and the third-person context of assessment (Absicht-Tat).

We are considering an action or actions taken by the ‘evil consciousness’, and the assessment of those actions by the ‘judge’.  

As our story begins, the recognitive attitudes in virtue of which the acting consciousness is denominated “evil” or “wicked” [böse], and the judge “hard-hearted,” are niederträchtig ones.

In this scenario, the one being judged might hope to claim that their actions were carried out in conformity with a norm, and should therefore be judged favourably.  But the judge refuses to interpret the actions in that light.  The judge, rather, adopts a ‘small-souled’ attitude, by interpreting the actions as guided not by norms but simply by attitudes.  In this sense, the actions are “evil”.  In Brandom’s words:

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 acknowledgment of a commitment.

The argument that Brandom’s Hegel will go on to make, here, is that any action can always be interpreted in these ‘hard-hearted’ terms: every action is always and everywhere motivated by attitudes, even if it is also guided by norms.  It is always possible, therefore, to ‘debunk’ the claim that an action is normatively guided, by appeal to the purely psychological attitudes that are the only way in which any action in conformity to a norm could ever, in direct terms, be motivated at all.  Brandom’s Hegel will go on to argue against this ‘hard-hearted’ ethical/political perspective on semantic grounds.

In this post, though, I just want to stick with this concept of evil.  I want to say, again, that this is, to my mind, a strange and limited understanding of evil.  Yes, one way of understanding of “evil” is as meaning “performing actions that completely disregard normative considerations, and instead respond only to the agent’s personal wants, desires, etc.”  But evil actions can also be performed out of a sense of duty.  There can be evil norms.  The problem with mid-twentieth-century central European Nazism wasn’t that an entire community decided to start acting purely selfishly, without any regard for duty or responsibility to a larger normative framework.  The problem was that Nazism established a set of norms that were themselves monstrous, and that people acted in accordance with those norms.  People acted in evil ways precisely because they were acting in accordance with evil norms.

Now, one can imagine responses to this line of thought. For example, it could be argued that an evil norm isn’t really a norm, because we’re simply defining norms as guiding conduct properly or correctly, and ‘evil norms’ guide conduct improperly and incorrectly.  From this perspective an ‘evil norm’ would be a contradiction in terms, and ‘evil norms’ should instead be understood as (let us say) bad social conventions masquerading as norms.  I don’t like the asymmetry of this position, whereby my good norms are norms, but your bad norms are mere conventions – but one can imagine an argument being offered along these lines.  Nevertheless, I don’t think even this response deals with my core objection, because even from this perspective, the person being judged is not acting selfishly, but is rather attempting to act in accordance with what they take to be their duty.  And if we were to say, further, that although they believe themselves to be acting in accordance with a norm, they are deluding themselves, and are in truth merely acting in accordance with attitudes… well, wouldn’t this be the very quintessence of the ‘hard-hearted’ or ‘small-souled’ perspective that we’re meant to be arguing against?

That last paragraph is perhaps a bit involved and inarticulate.  My core point is just that I do not like a theoretical position that understands “evil” as a selfish disregard of norms, when I think that acting in accordance with bad norms is one of the major sources of evil in the world.  Further, I think this is a central problem with the critical chapter 16 of ‘A Spirit of Trust’.

There’s lots more that could be said about all this – and hopefully I will say some of it on the blog before too long! – but just making this quite basic point is enough for now.

The Kammerdiener

May 18, 2021

Ok.  Having ended my last post by foreshadowing a discussion of some connections between Brandom and Freudianism, I’m instead going to do something completely different, and put up a very rough and ready overview / set of notes on chapter 15 of ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  I’ll probably mostly just write about ‘Brandom’ here, rather than ‘Brandom’s Hegel’, etc., but you know what I mean.  Fair warning that this really is very much in a ‘notes to self’ space, but unfortunately that’s largely what the blog is for.

So.  First let’s pan back to the overall Brandomian (/Hegelian) apparatus.  In MIE Brandom was centrally preoccupied with the distinction between normative statuses (like ‘being committed to something’) and normative attitudes (like ‘taking somebody to be committed to something’).  A major component of Brandom’s overall project in MIE was to explain normative statuses in terms of normative attitudes – that is, to give an account of normative statuses as fully instituted by normative attitudes – without falling into a ‘reductive’ account that might lead us to believe we could simply replace talk of normative statuses by talk of normative attitudes (as if normative statuses don’t add anything or mean anything beyond the attitudes that institute them).  For Brandom, normative statuses are instituted by normative attitudes but are not reducible to them.

ASOT carries over this dimension of MIE wholesale.  ASOT also, I think, devotes quite a bit more time and elaborates in much more depth a set of commitments that Brandom, following Hegel, calls ‘objective idealism’.  This is the idea (and I’m sure my phrasing is too crude here) that the world itself (the objective world, which exists independent of our attitudes to it) is ‘conceptually articulated’ in a specific sense.  That sense is a homology between the normative, deontic structure of commitments and the alethic modal structure of the real world.  The normative inconsistency of holding both the beliefs “it is raining” and “it is not raining” (for some specific time and place, etc.) matches the objective incompatibility of the states of affairs captured by those concepts.  This fact about the world (in its modal articulation) and our beliefs about the world (in their normative articulation) contain – at least potentially – the very same conceptual content.  This is Brandom’s Hegelian ‘cashing out’ of the Wittgensteinian precept:

When we say, and mean, that such-and-such is the case, we – and our meaning – do not stop anywhere short of the fact; but we mean: this – is – so.

At the end of Chapter 15 of ASOT, Brandom says that his use of the term ‘norm’ captures both of these forms of conceptual content – the content of our commitments, and the structure of the world to which we refer.  We therefore, I think, have a three-stage movement from ‘subjectivity’ to ‘objectivity’ in this element of Brandom’s argument: we have normative attitudes – social practices which are not themselves norms; we have normative statuses, which are instituted by normative attitudes, and which are both properly normative but also still ‘subjective’ in the specific sense of being dependent for their existence on normative attitudes; and finally we have the ‘conceptual’ structure of reality itself, which as conceptual is also (definitionally, for Brandom) normative, but objectively so, in the sense of possessing ‘conceptual’ (and hence normative) content independent of our social practices.  There are, then, two quite different senses in which ‘norms’ can exist independent of any given social practice, for Brandom, associated with these two quite different (but complexly related) senses of ‘norms’ – the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’. 

This is all very telegraphic on my part.  I haven’t worked through these elements of Brandom’s system, and I’m sure I’m mis-stating things in all kinds of ways.  Moreover, I guess I’ll put down a marker here that I have some (preliminary and underinformed) misgivings about this commitment to / articulation of ‘objective idealism’ (or at least about my sense of what might easily follow from it) – but I’m just going to bracket all of that.  The point here is just to get to a place where I can talk about the rest of chapter 15 of ASOT.  

So – putting aside ‘objective idealism’ for now, the core of chapter 15 relates to different possible attitudes to the relation between norms (in the sense of normative statuses) and normative attitudes.  Specifically, chapter 15 of ASOT is structured around what Brandom calls two ‘meta-attitudes’ towards social action – the ‘great-souled’ and ‘small-souled’ attitudes: edelmütig and niedertrӓchtig.  Brandom uses the terms ‘edelmütig’ and ‘niedertrӓchtig’ throughout, but I’m going to go with ‘great-souled’ and ‘small-souled’ because I don’t read German and it seems a bit weird to act as if I can.

Here we go, then.  Brandom kicks off this discussion by quoting Hegel’s discussion of the Kammerdiener – the ‘valet’.  The valet, for Hegel, embodies the ‘small-souled’ attitude by interpreting every action in terms of non-normative, purely self-interested motives.

[I]t holds to the other aspect … and explains [the action] as resulting from an intention different from the action itself, and from selfish motives. 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]; for, qua action, it is the actuality of the individual. This judging of the action thus takes it out of its outer existence and reflects it into its inner aspect, or into the form of its own particularity. If the action is accompanied by fame, then it knows this inner aspect to be a desire for fame. If it is altogether in keeping with the station of the individual, without going beyond this station, and of such a nature that the individuality does not possess its station as a character externally attached to it, but through its own self gives filling to this universality, thereby showing itself capable of a higher station, then the inner aspect of the action is judged to be ambition, and so on. Since, in the action as such, the doer attains to a vision of himself in objectivity, or to a feeling of self in his existence, and thus to enjoyment, the inner aspect is judged to be an urge to secure his own happiness, even though this were to consist merely in an inner moral conceit, in the enjoyment of being conscious of his own superiority and in the foretaste of a hope of future happiness. 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. No man is a hero to his valet; not, however, because the man is not a hero, but because the valet—is a valet, whose dealings are with the man, not as a hero, but as one who eats, drinks, and wears clothes, in general, with his individual wants and fancies. 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.

There’s lots that could be said about the class conflict and anxiety dimensions of all this – but that can wait for another time.  Brandom interprets the core philosophical issue at stake here as the analysis of social action in terms of norms or attitudes:

The Kammerdiener does not appeal to norms in his explanations of behavior. The attitudes of individuals are enough. The public official says that he acted as he did because it was his duty. The Kammerdiener offers a competing explanation that appeals only to his desires. What his duty actually is, what he ought to do, plays no role in this account.

In Brandom’s philosophical vocabulary, then, we have an account of social action in terms of adherence to norms, and an account of social action in terms of normative attitudes alone.  The ‘great-souled’ account sees agents as moral entities, guided by norms, which are something distinct to and transcending normative attitudes.  The ‘small-souled’ valet analyses social action purely in terms of normative attitudes, without norms themselves entering into the picture.

It’s probably worth flagging right away that there’s already a bit of a slippage, or at least potential for ambiguity, here.  ‘Normative attitudes’ are not, of course, the same as ‘self-interest’.  It would be perfectly coherent to analyse a person’s actions as motivated by their belief in norms, while rejecting the idea that the norms they follow are really norms (or should be).  So the ‘norms versus self-interest’ dichotomy doesn’t in fact align with the ‘norms versus attitudes’ dichotomy.  In this respect, I think, this element of Brandom’s argument is reminiscent of the section, early in MIE, in which Brandom discusses the purportedly non-normative action of ‘beating people with sticks’ – a passage which involves an in-my-view similar unaddressed ambiguity.  (I think I’ve discussed this section of MIE on the blog before, but in any case this is not the place to go haring off into exploring the parallels.)

We really, then, have at least two different tensions here: between ‘real’ norms versus merely ‘perceived’ norms, and between ‘duty’ versus ‘self-interest’ – and this pair of dichotomies doesn’t necessarily align.

Be that as it may, Brandom is – as often – basically interested in the issue of normative nihilism.  He is bothered by the idea of a global critique of normativity, that would simply get rid of normative statuses and understand the world in terms of normative attitudes alone – a philosophical approach he illustrates with Gilbert Harman’s analysis of moral norms.  The ‘small-souled’ perspective is, for Brandom, the avatar of this philosophical approach.

How should we understand the relation between these two ‘meta-attitudes’ – the ‘great-souled’ attitude that believes in the objectivity of norms, and the ‘small-souled’ account that reduces norms entirely to normative attitudes?  Brandom next argues that there are four relevant ‘meta-meta-attitudes’, which adopt different analytic perspectives on the relationship between the great-souled and small-souled meta-attitudes.

These meta-meta-attitudes are as follows (I’m just going to quote Brandom, then maybe I’ll gloss a little):

  1. “The first way of understanding the relation between the edelmütig normativist and the niederträchtig naturalist is as a cognitive disagreement about a matter of objective fact. They disagree about the correct answer to the question: Are there norms, or not?”
  1. “It is possible to adopt instead an almost diametrically opposed subjectivist meta-meta-attitude. According to this way of thinking, the normativist and the naturalist employ different vocabularies in describing the world. Using one rather than the other is adopting a stance.”
  1. “The third construal of the niederträchtig and edelmütig meta-attitudes toward norms and normative attitudes is then that they are recognitive attitudes that have the effect of practical commitments.”
  1. “There is, however, a fourth way of understanding the status of these two stances. Its leading thought is that we have always already implicitly committed ourselves to adopting the edelmütig stance, to identifying with the unity that action and consciousness involve, to understanding ourselves as genuinely binding ourselves by conceptual norms that we apply in acting intentionally and making judgments.”

In my own words, these meta-meta-attitudes are as follows.  First, we can understand the great- and small-souled meta-attitudes as disagreements about the ‘furniture of the world’ – whether there really are such things as norms.  Second, we can understand these meta-attitudes as available cognitive perspectives, either one of which can be voluntarily chosen as our analytic framework.  Third, we can understand these meta-attitudes not as cognitive perspectives, but as practical attitudes or social practices that can institute or not the norms with which they are concerned.  Fourth and finally, we can argue (with Brandom and Hegel) that it is impossible to adopt a contentful attitude – conceptual or practical-recognitive – without already adopting a ‘great-souled’ practical and conceptual attitude, even if only implicitly.  From this analytic perspective, some version of the ‘great-souled’ attitude is a condition of possibility of any and all of these other approaches – and so the matter has, as it were, been decided in practice already.

This is of course Brandom’s argument – and I think it has much to recommend it.  However, there’s a lot more to say, and I do want to mark some at least cautious and preliminary points of divergence from Brandom’s approach.  Maybe I’ll manage to get to that in my next post in this series!

Critical Brandomianism

May 16, 2021

I want to start a chain of thought about ‘critical Brandomianism’, where this post is the first link in that chain.  Like most of this latest round of Brandom posts (and indeed as is common in the blog overall), this is going to be a bit hasty and sloppy. Moreover, this first post doesn’t amount to much more than throat-clearing  But I want to draw some connections between two different elements of Robert Brandom’s recent project – his discussion of genealogical modes of explanation (see for example here), and his work on expressivist logics (see for example here).  I want to connect these to ‘critical theory’ in some sense – specifically, in the first instance, the sense of the role that broadly Freudian categories can, in my view, play within a pragmatist rationalism. Then, perhaps, eventually, I’ll move round to some other forms of critical theory.  Obviously this is going to be all over the shop a bit, but so it goes – that’s what the blog is for.

Let me start, in this post, by panning back and discussing what I’m after in a broad sense in this engagement with Brandom’s recent work.  Of course, in the first place, I’m just after working through Brandom in order to expand my philosophical knowledge and horizons, etc. etc.  But I also think that Brandom’s apparatus can be ‘put to work’ in ways that stand in some tension with what may appear to be the ethical-political-philosophical direction that Brandom’s own work points.  Put very crudely, I take the interpretive project here to be as follows:

Brandom’s early- to mid-career work (i.e., most centrally, ‘Making it Explicit’) I take to ‘cash out’ much of the promise of the US pragmatist tradition.  MIE gives accounts of central categories of analytic philosophy – truth, meaning, objectivity, etc. – in a way that grounds our understanding of those categories in a theory of practice.  That is to say, for Brandom, social practice is the bedrock of philosophical explanation.  Moreover, MIE ‘cashes out’ this pragmatist project in a way that finally (in my view) adequately explains why that project does not succumb to relativism.  That is to say, MIE cashes out categories like ‘truth’, ‘objectivity’, etc. in ways that actually give these categories the force that many critics of pragmatism have taken to be the criteria of adequacy for a philosophical account of such categories – criteria of adequacy that pragmatism has frequently been taken not to meet.  I’ve written on this on the blog before at length, and also here, and this is now the starting-point of my engagement with the Brandomian apparatus.

Ok. So that’s early- to mid-Brandom.  Then in his recent work on Hegel (‘A Spirit of Trust’), Brandom gives a lengthy interpretation of the Phenomenology that basically interprets Hegel in these terms, too.  That is to say, Brandom takes Hegel to have a fundamentally social- and practice-theoretic approach to philosophical explanation.  Hegel, Brandom believes, is embedding the Kantian ‘transcendental idealist’ apparatus within a social-theoretic account of what transcendental idealism means.  For Brandom’s Hegel, “transcendental constitution is social institution.”

Of course Brandom is far from alone in interpreting Hegel in social-theoretic terms – this is not an original contribution of ASOT.  What’s most striking about Brandom’s Hegel is, rather, how Brandom interprets Hegel’s categories as expressing the same core claims as Brandom’s own inferentialist semantics.  But Brandom’s Hegel is not just ‘Making it Explicit’ in a new costume (though it is that).  ASOT also goes beyond MIE, by embedding that earlier work’s emphasis on practice theory within a more thoroughgoingly historicist account of social practice.  There was always, and necessarily, a diachronic dimension to Brandom’s account of semantics, but in ASOT that diachronic dimension is much more foregrounded, and the ‘philosophy of history’ elements of the Phenomenology are more central than were historical considerations in MIE.  I take this to be a development within Brandom’s own thought, not just a feature of his interpretation of Hegel.

Now, I have some objections to the philosophy of history articulated in Brandom’s Hegel interpretation.  I want to write that up properly at some later date, having done a lot more homework, and I’m only going to gesture at a critique here.  But, putting things very telegraphically, my view is that the role the category of ‘forgiveness’ plays within Brandom’s Hegel is extremely unfortunate, and commits ASOS to a form of ‘Whiggish’ philosophy of history that does not have to – and, moreover, should not – follow from the other commitments and insights of the work.  We can, I believe, maintain the practice-theoretic and historicist insights of Brandom’s Hegel, without taking ‘forgiveness’ as the core meta-conceptual category structuring our understanding of history (and, therefore, of the future).

I take this to connect to the different attitudes to genealogical interpretations that I discussed in an earlier blog post under the heading ‘left and right Brandomianism’.  If ASOT has (as has been sometimes claimed) moved analytic philosophy into its Hegelian phase, then there remains the question of what we do with such an analytic Hegel.  Are we ‘right Hegelians’ (taking this philosophy of history and of social practice to justify the supposed rationality and inevitability of status quo forms of domination) or are we ‘left Hegelians’ (leveraging the Hegelian apparatus into intellectual resources for the critique of existing power structures)?

Obviously my project here is in the space of the latter.  A little like the (much maligned) ‘analytical Marxists’, who sought to re-articulate Marxist claims in the idiom of analytic philosophy and mathematical economics, with the goal of achieving greater clarity around core theoretical positions (a project that I think was basically a good idea, however flawed it may have been in execution), Brandom’s Hegel gives us a set of metatheoretical resources that can be put to work on other theoretical projects.  The project of turning Hegel “right side up again” can both centrally draw upon, and in some areas depart from, the Brandomian apparatus.

Of course, such a project doesn’t have to be a Marxist one.  In the next post in this series, I want to make some gestural remarks about the relation between Brandomian expressivist logics and Freudianism. Among other things, hopefully this can serve as an illustrative example of the general direction of travel I’m after here.