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.

One Response to “Critical Brandomianism”


  1. […] Having ended my last post by foreshadowing a discussion of some connections between Brandom and Freudianism, I’m instead […]


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