Robert Brandom – “Reason, Genealogy and the Hermeneutics of Magnanimity”

This will be our reading for January 13.  You can find all the details at our page.

1. A Metanarrative: from Disenchantment to Disillusionment

1. A certain arc of 19th century thinking is marked by two points.  The first is Hegel’s “To him who looks on the world rationally, the world looks back rationally,” and the second is Nietzsche’s “When you stare long into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you.”  Hegel’s statement is the optimism of the Enlightenment, while Nietzsche’s points ahead to the Enlightenment’s unfinished business.  Both of them are a “rationalizing narrative of progress”; for Hegel, there is a disenchantment by reason, and for Nietzsche, there is a disillusionment with reason.

2. It was essential to the Enlightenment’s self understanding that it see itself as something new.  It defined itself by the contrast between the light of reason it sought and the darkness from which it arose and would always be threatened by: superstition, prejudice, and dogmatism.

3. The fundamental innovation of the time was not the focus on reason; Socrates already did that.  What was new was the identification of reason with freedom.  The Christian tradition had already said something similar: the truth shall set you free.  The Enlightenment, however, spoke of reason in its critical function.  The only authority it would admit was the authority of the better reason, and there was no higher judge of reasons than the ‘natural light’ each individual was equipped.  This is why Kant’s “Dare to understand” was the motto of the Enlightenment.

4. An age in which individuals accept no authority other than their critical capacities is, for Kant, the whole of the enlightenment.  Emancipation is the replacement of one model of authority by another.  The model to be replaced understands authority as the obedience owed by a subordinate to a superior, and the more emancipated model understands authority to be exclusively the force of impersonal reason, accessible by all: “Reason, for Kant, can be accordingly be identified as freedom in the form of autonomy.  The authority of the superior-in-power is abolished.  Authority resides only in one’s own acknowledgement of reasons, which are reasons for all alike” (2).

5. Hegel was the first to see the Enlightenment as more than an intellectual movement.  It was also an economic, social, and political change.  Reason itself was a vast metanarrative, a story of reason as sovereign in both individual self-consciousness and institutions.  It is also the history of the progress of freedom.  This is how two strands of the Enlightenment come together: it was not only faith in the sovereignty of reason, but the self-conscious realization of that sovereignty, which is the emancipatory power of reason.  Freedom only takes concrete form in the appreciation of the genuine form of reasons: “This is reason’s disenchantment of the subordination model of authority, in favor of the model of autonomy as consisting in acting for reasons” (2).   

6. This blend of reason and freedom is the heart of German Idealism.  Ideas which were implicit in modernity were seen as becoming explicit.  This move from the implicit to the explicit is where what Brandom calls European naturalism takes its revenge on European rationalism, in the form of genealogy: “Genealogies directly challenge the very idea of the normative force of the better reason” (3), which is the core of the rationalist challenge to the subordination model of authority.  Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are the usual suspects here, those whom Paul Ricoeur called the masters of suspicion.

7. To back up a little, Kant enforced a line between reasons and causes, basically a line between how we justify a belief and the origin of the belief.  The masters of suspicion, on the other hand, insisted reason is causal all the way down.  In Habermas’s terms, they uncovered “systematic distortions in the structures of communication,” such as economic roles for Marx, expressions of the will to power for Nietzsche, and the lingering echoes of Oedipus for Freud.  A moderate version of genealogy says these causal factors shape the reasoning of subjects, and leaves open the emancipatory possibility of making these distorting factors explicit in order to break their hold over reasoners.

8. Brandom is more interested in the strong version of genealogical analysis.  The problem is not that causal factors distort reasoning, but that causal factors masquerade as reasons.  Reasons are reducible to blind causal processes, and are basically just rationalizations.  Genealogical explanations are about the relations between the state of believing and the content that is believed; a belief is held because of the contingencies of the life of the believer, and involves facts which are irrelevant to the truth or falsity of what is believed.  The key point here is that the availability of a genealogical explanation for a belief can undercut its credential as something to which one is rationally entitled to belief.  For example, if the believer did not have a bourgeois upbringing or were not driven by resentment, they would not have these beliefs about the labor market.

9. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud offer natural histories of the advent of beliefs, and the rational credentials of these beliefs are irrelevant to these histories.  Brandom quips, “To him who looks on the world reductively, the world looks reductively back” (4).  That style of critique brings with it its own metanarrative: rational necessity had replaced theological necessity, and produced a disenchantment of the world.  But here, natural necessity replaces rational necessity and so produces disillusionment.

10. The Enlightenment disenchanted the world, but left the knower in place with a divine spark of reason.  However, disillusionment taught us that the knower is also an object.  This seems to mean that the force of the better reason is just an illusion arising from the play of natural causes.  However, the metanarrative of genealogy as unmasking illusions of reason depends on the forcing a choice between reasons and causes; we may be able to refuse that choice.

2. Global Reductive Genealogies and Semantic Naiveté

11. While Marx and Freud give localized genealogies of specific discursive practices (political economy and psychology, respectively), Nietzsche points to a more globalized position: a thorough genealogy might not only undercut the rational credentials of some of our beliefs, but the idea of rational credentials itself.

12. Globalized genealogical accounts have a common form.  They present causal histories of states of believing, and render any appeals to reasons as superfluous.  Basically, all the explanatory work can be done by causes.  Then, they show the tactics by which believers conceal these underlying processes.  Our idea of ourselves as rational animals is shown to be an illusion: we are rationalizing animals.

13. At this level of generality, the genealogical challenge is a naturalistic reduction of the normative “force of the better reason.”  It says that a complete explanation for why people take some claims as reasons for other claims only needs to appeal to their attitude of taking these claims as reason, not to any fact about what really is a reason.

14. Brandom thinks there is a structural defect to this story, a defect he calls semantic naiveté. Genealogy wants to dissolve the rational links between attitudes, and semantic naiveté takes for granted the conceptual content of these attitudes.  If the attitudes are not conceptually contentful (but are only the result of causal forces such as the will to power), then the question of rational relations between them does not even arise, no more than it does for whirlpools.  The problem for the strong genealogical model is the difficulty it has in understanding the content of beliefs apart from their situation in a normative space of reasons.

15. The issue is the relation between the contingencies governing attitudes, and the norms to which they are subject.  The contingencies are the causal forces, like class ideology, and by attitudes he means beliefs.  In other words, the issue is the relation between causal forces and norms.  Observations about the causal forces provide the genealogical basis for criticizing the norms; but this move presupposes something about the relation between attitudes and norms that is common to both rationalism and genealogical critiques.  The person who diagnosed this and offered an alternative is Hegel.

3. Discursive Norms and Attitudes and the Threat of a Norm/Fact Dualism

16. So far, Brandom has described genealogy as a critique of ourselves as rational, and as being rooted in Kant’s distinction between reasons and causes.  This needs to be refined.  Kant’s revolution was to recognize the normative character of the discursive.  In a break with Cartesianism, he distinguished judgments and actions from the responses of nondiscursive creatures not with an ontological appeal to mental substance, but deontologically.  Judgments and actions are things their subjects are responsible for; what we believe and express are commitments, and are exercises of the sort of authority discursive creatures have.  Responsibility, commitment, and authority are all normative statuses.  Concepts, which articulate judgments and actions, are, for Kant, rules.  These rules determine what we have made ourselves responsible for, what we are committed to, and what we have invested our authority in.   

17. In a practical sense, responsibility, commitment and authority are normative statuses because we have reasons for those commitments.  Concepts are rules for reasoning; when they articulate the contents of judgments and actions, they determine what counts as reasons for or against those judgments and actions.  They tell us what would entitle us to, or justify us in, taking on these commitments: “As discursive creatures, we live and move and have our being in a normative space of reasons” (7).

18. “After Descartes, the challenge was to find a place for mental stuff in a natural world of physical stuff.  After Kant, the challenge became finding a place for norms in a natural world of facts” (7).  The danger is that this could produce a new dualism between norms and nature (Brandom says a distinction becomes a dualism when the relations between the terms are unintelligible).  Brandom’s main argument is going to be that the conflict between global genealogies and our understanding of ourselves as rational depends on a set of assumptions, which he calls semantic naiveté, that would turn Kant’s distinction into a dualism.  However, these assumptions are incorrect.

19. Kant saw that the Cartesian epistemological concerns had a more fundamental semantic question underlying them.  This was basically his refutation of idealism: when we understand what it means for our thoughts to be purported representations of the world, then the skeptical question of whether they can ever correctly represent something is ill-posed.

20. Kantian rational creatures apply concepts in judging and acting, so these discursive activities presuppose the availability of the concepts they use.  However, where do these concepts come from?  Once the discursive machine is in place, new concepts can be created, but where did it come from in the first place?

21. Hegel reads Kant has having a two-stage story: the norms that govern empirical discursive activity arise from transcendental activity (which is a sort of logical necessity).  The empirical always already has a stock of concepts.  First the transcendental activity, then the empirical judging.  Brandom wants to say that “the use of language to express judgments must be understood as effecting both the institution of conceptual norms and their application” (9).

22. Any two-stage story is committed to “semantic purity”; the concepts are not affected by their use in judgments or how the world is.

23. Semantic purity makes sense for artificial language, but trying to apply it to natural languages results in semantic naiveté.  Two stage stories about natural languages makes conceptual content something magical, and this is basically Hegel’s criticism of Kant: he was uncritical about the source of particular concepts.  Hegel’s alternative is a basically pragmatist account of how natural language both institutes and applies conceptual norms.

24. This is relevant to genealogical critiques because these critiques explain away norms in favor of attitudes; this must assume that propositional attitudes can continue to be meaningful once the normative relations between judgments has been left behind.  If propositional attitudes do not continue to be meaningful, then what is being explained genealogically can no longer be described as beliefs about the world.  Basically, disillusionment about the reality of norms entails semantic nihilism, and the genealogist’s own claims become meaningless.

25. The rest of this essay will explain how a competing one-stage theory can explain how the institution of norms is compatible with the possibility of genealogical explanations of the norm-instituting acts.

4. From Verstand to Vernuft

26. He begins comparing the place of universals, or conceptual norms, in Kant and Hegel.  Kant is committed to a kind of semantic purity: concepts are uncontaminated by epistemic particulars (judgments, in Kant’s terms).  Concepts are independent, and constitute the “semantic authority” of the understanding. This pure independence is an asymmetry between the understanding and receptivity; concepts are hashed out a priori, and this semantic authority holds sway over the “epistemic authority” of judgments which correctly apply the concepts.

27. For Hegel, the relations between universals and particulars is construed in terms of authority (the moment of independence of concepts) and responsibility (the moment of dependence).  Authority and responsibility are symmetric and reciprocal.

28. In Hegel’s symmetric account, the application of one concept (as universal) to a particular carries with it the obligation to apply other concepts to that particular as well in order to articulate the concept.  This precludes one from applying other, incompatible concepts to that same particular.  This is the authority of universals over particulars, and the responsibility of particulars to universals.  For Kant, this was entirely a semantic, a priori matter.

29. There is a corresponding authority of particulars over universals.  If a concept is applied to a particular, but the expected rational consequences do not follow, or if it leads to incompatible concepts being bundled together with the judgment, then a different concept is required.  Our judgments shape our concepts just as much as our concepts shape our judgments.

30. For Hegel, determinateness is a kind of individuality: the characterization of a particular by a universal, which has the form of a fact.  For Kant, concepts shape judgments, while for Hegel, judgment is the process of determining concepts.  Vernuft is the set of concepts and judgments which Hegel calls the capital-C Concept, and it develops by the interplay of universals and particulars.  Judging is the development of individuals: the semantic shaping of concepts and the epistemic discovery of which universals apply to which particulars.

31. Kant’s version of pure semantic authority, without responsibility, seems to leave no room for epistemic constraint.  In short, it is subjectivist.

32. Rather than a single individual dividing the epistemic and semantic labor within themselves, the division of labor needs to be social.  In judging, I decide which concept I apply to a particular: my authority in judging (autonomy for Kant, independence for Hegel) is balanced by a responsibility to other speakers (dependence).  I have committed myself to and made myself responsible for content, and that content is held as determinate by fellow speakers who are authorized to hold me responsible for it.

33. The Kantian subject, which commits itself to determinate concepts and binds itself to norms, is a social achievement.  The self-conscious individual only appears when particular organisms stand in relations of recognition to one another, and so are characterized by the universal that is the recognizing community.

34. There are three elements to the relation between particular and universal in Hegel.  First, there are the semantic relations between particulars as singular terms and universals as predicates combined in judgments.  Second, there are the ontological relations between particulars as objects and universals as properties, which are facts.  Third, there are the social-normative relations between particulars as individual humans and universals as recognitive communities, in which the particular people become self-conscious members of the community.

5. The Normative Structure of Tradition and Reason’s March Through History

35. Hegel makes Kant not only social, but also historical.  The connection between the historical and the social is that the determinateness of conceptual norms (semantics, for Brandom) is only intelligible in the context of relations of authority and responsibility on the side of the practical force of those terms (pragmatics, in a broad sense).  The process of determining conceptual contents as a normative structure of a tradition.

36. Genealogical analyses must take conceptual norms as given, and then it points out the contingencies in the application of these concepts.  In doing so, it must ignore the way in which the application of norms is at the same time the institution and determination of norms.

37. For Hegel, the principle task of reason is to “give contingency the form of necessity”.  For Hegel, “necessity” means according to a rule.  So reason’s job is to put the contingencies the genealogist points out into a normative shape.  Genealogical explanation does not undercut reason; it underlines the need for it.

38. The process of putting contingent elements into normative shape is a “retrospective rational reconstruction“; a reconstruction of the way concepts have been previously applied shows how those applications gave a determinate content to the concept.  It turns a past into a history.  A good example of this working is in the idea of precedence in common law; the judge must decide which cases are relevant for the present facts, and then find in those cases some previously hidden element of the norm developing across those cases.

39. This process gives contingency the form of necessity with its retrospective view, and by incorporating that contingency, gives determinate content to the norms as they develop.

6. From Semantic Naiveté to Hermeneutic Magnanimity

40. It is entirely possible to explain every action from the perspective of a genealogical reduction.  Take the line Hegel quotes, “No man is a hero to his valet; not, however, because the man is not a hero, but because the valet—is a valet. . .”.  Hegel says, “. . . 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 to the agent.”

41. What Hegel calls the “universal aspect” is the normative element.  The hero is a hero insofar as he acts according to the norms that articulate his duty; the valet sees him from a genealogical perspective, in non normative, reductive terms, and so explains everything from selfish motives.

42. Hence, Hegel anticipated the “great unmaskers,” and saw that every application of a norm was liable to genealogical reduction.  However, the genealogical view is one-sided; it fails to see that a norm can also be active, and that a contingency can be given the form of necessity.

43. Hegel says the valet has an impulse to debase.  His term for giving contingency the form of necessity is magnanimity; it is a kind of norm-instituting recognition.  The retrospective element, which is responsible to past applications of concepts, is forgiveness, while the prospective element, which has authority over the future use of concepts, is confession.  “What one forgives is the normative contingencies that infect prior applications of concepts.  One forgives them not wholesale, by a grand gesture, but by the hard retail work of constructing an expressively progressive historical narrative in which they play presidential roles as making explicit aspects of the developing conceptual content that are now revealed as hitherto having been implicit” (18).

44. Concrete magnanimous hermeneutic forgiveness is about finding a norm to which the application of the concept being forgiven can be seen to contribute.  For Hegel, this is “making what happens into something done.”  The magnanimous reader confesses the contingent inadequacy of every particular; one cannot find a story in which every contingency is given a normative status.  One asks one’s successors for givenness for the failure one one’s own attempts at forgiveness.  “The [magnanimous] rational, rationalizing process in which conceptual norms are instituted by diachronic magnanimous reciprocal recognition is a structure of trust: trust that one’s trespasses will be forgiven as one forgives those who have trespassed” (19).


2 thoughts on “Robert Brandom – “Reason, Genealogy and the Hermeneutics of Magnanimity”

  1. I do believe all the concepts you have introduced on your post. They’re very convincing and can definitely work. Still, the posts are too quick for beginners. May you please prolong them a bit from next time? Thank you for the post.

  2. Magnificent site. Lots of useful information here. I am sending it to a few pals ans also sharing in delicious. And obviously, thanks on your effort!

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