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InteranimationsReceiving Modern German Philosophy$

Robert B. Pippin

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780226259659

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2016

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226259796.001.0001

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Robert Brandom’s Hegel

Robert Brandom’s Hegel

(p.29) 2 Robert Brandom’s Hegel

Robert B. Pippin

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

Brandom is drawn to Hegel as an early, implicit, illuminating manifestation of his own account of the essential elements of a successful explanation of intentionality: that it be functionalist, inferentialist, holist, normative, social pragmatist, and historically inflected. Brandom wants to claim that intentionality depends on normativity, the achievement of socially recognized normative statuses constituted by normative attitudes, and in such a context, Brandom’s Hegel has to qualify as the most promising Brandomian, avant la lettre. My questions in this chapter are whether the full dimensions of Hegel’s understanding of the relation between practical and theoretical philosophy are available to Brandom, whether Brandom’s account of the role of history in Hegel is sufficiently robust, and whether his approach has accounted for Hegel’s conception of idealism.

Keywords:   Robert Brandom, Wildrid Sellars, John Haugeland, de dicto, de re, Donald Davidson, reliable differential, responsive disposition, score keeping, Queen’s schilling

Bob Brandom’s marvelous Tales of the Mighty Dead is an essay in “reconstructive metaphysics,” especially the metaphysics of intentionality. Not surprisingly, he is drawn to early, implicit manifestations of his own account of the essential elements of a successful explanation of intentionality: that it be functionalist, inferentialist, holist, normative, social pragmatist, and, we now see more clearly, historically inflected. Brandom himself wants to claim that intentionality is not the primordial phenomenon in human mindedness; it is derivative, depending on normativity, that is, the achievement of socially recognized normative statuses constituted by normative attitudes, and in such a context, Brandom’s Hegel has to qualify as the most promising Brandomian, avant la lettre. “Making it explicit” is as important to Hegel as to Brandom. Hegel’s notions of being-for-self and being-for-others, and their inseparability; the contrast between certainty and truth; the attack on any logical or empiricist atomism; the insistence on holism; the rejection of any Cartesian dualism between body and mind in favor of a compatible and systematically connected distinction between the factual and the normative;1 the achievement of socially recognitive statuses as essential to (p.30) the possibility of intelligibility and understanding—all these and more have strong roles to play in Brandom’s theory too.

I want to raise a number of questions about Brandom’s Hegel, but I should admit at the outset that the relevance of those questions will depend on just what Brandom means by the de re method of interpretation he defends at the beginning of TMD.2 I note that on the one hand, Brandom admits that his methodology involves “selection, supplementation and approximation,”3 “selection” being the source of potential controversy since it is easy to imagine it functioning as a Get Out of Jail Free Card whenever questions about textual fidelity arise. This “selection” issue is especially critical because, as Brandom of course knows, Hegel’s theory of normativity in his Phenomenology is much, much broader in scope than the issues in Hegel about which Brandom has, up to this point at least, commented. Hegel’s theory ranges over religion, art, burial practices, the Crusades, slavery, phrenology, hedonism, morality, and forgiveness. Indeed, Hegel’s version of the theory seems to do, in effect, exactly what Noam Chomsky worried about when criticizing Donald Davidson (past winner of the international Hegel Prize). When Chomsky accused Davidson of “erasing the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around the world generally” and complained that this would push a study of language (conceived in either a Davidsonean or a Brandomian/Hegelian, holist way) into a “theory of everything,” Hegel would simply nod and agree and wait (p.31) for what he would recognize as some sort of criticism to appear.4 Das Wahre ist das Ganze, after all. While it is of course possible to “select out” most of Hegel’s account in order to concentrate on “what in Hegel’s idealist, pragmatist, historicist holism might be relevant to a theory of conceptual content,”5 that possibility at least raises the question of whether those elements in Hegel’s thought are isolatable in this way, whether, seen in the light of Hegel’s full theory of normativity and especially normative change (in effect what Hegel understood as his philosophical “theory of everything”),6 even the role of such notions in an account of conceptual content will have to look different.

So there is some danger that the somewhat broader questions I want to raise could look irrelevant to the specific purpose to which Brandom wants to put Hegel’s “objective idealism,” or that they can be treated as topics for further study, once the nature of conceptuality is clear. But I don’t think that the tasks can be divided like this, and I take my bearings on the issue from Brandom’s own self-imposed requirements, as when he asks questions like: “Do the notions of objective idealism and conceptual determinations that result from the two Hegel chapters [in TMD] fit well with other things Hegel says?”7 This is just the question I want to pose,8 especially because (p.32) I am not sure that Brandom can get what he wants out of Hegel without something like Hegelian, comprehensive “theory of everything” questions inevitably arising. (I have also not found it possible to deal with Brandom’s Hegel without importing a good deal of Brandom’s Brandom, in Making It Explicit.9)

There are several examples of how that problem arises. I only have time to discuss four well-known Hegelian claims and Brandom’s take on them (or the absence of a take), and, as is common in these encounters, no time at all to describe how much I have learned from these extraordinary and inspiring essays. (i) Hegel’s philosophy is an idealism. (ii) This idealism is a holism. (iii) Rational norms must be understood as socially instituted over time. This means that their binding force comes from our having subjected ourselves to them (they are “self-legislated”) and that later norms can be understood as the result of various breakdowns and crises in earlier institutions. Indeed, in Hegel’s account our being able to understand them as such responses is a crucial feature in the claim that later norms are more developed, a more successful actualization of the appeal to reason in human affairs, and so that they make possible a greater realization of freedom. At the very least one important aspect of this development must involve, Hegel thinks, some sort of social “struggle for recognition,” sometimes violent, resolvable at all only in a state of true mutuality. (iv) Finally, philosophy is historical, fundamentally, and always “of its time,” where that means several controversial things. The most controversial was just mentioned: human history should be understood as the progressive realization of freedom, and this because reason is more and more “actual” in human affairs and freedom is self-rule according to laws of reason.

In each of these four cases, not only are Hegel’s broader ambitions curtailed by Brandom, but the absence of these broader goals means that questions have to arise for Brandom’s project that cannot be answered with the resources developed by it.

(p.33) I

The first issue is idealism, a term Hegel uses in a wide variety of ways.10 But whatever else he means, he certainly also means to signal an attack on at least one dogma of empiricism. The first three chapters in the Phenomenology of Spirit are clearly out to argue that no story about the origin of concepts, and no use of such a story to defend the objectivity of concepts, can rely on appeal to any putatively immediately given or noninferentially warranted content, sensory or otherwise, as foundational or as tribunal. The unavailability of any sort of directly intuited item, even in concept realism or rationalist theories of noesis, means that we will need a different sort of story to justify the normative constraints imposed on the origination and explanation of judgmental claims, where they can be justified. This does not mean that one of those constraints cannot be something like “what experience won’t let us say about it,” but the nature and workings of that constraint will have to be different from any appeal to immediacy, the given, etc.

This can fairly be called an idealism since it seems to make the possibility of experience, experiential knowledge, and explanatory success dependent on conceptual rules that are not themselves empirically derived, given that the possibility of empirical experience already depends on such discriminating capacities. Thus it can be said that such required discriminatory capacities and processes are “contributed by us,” and are contentful only by virtue of their role in our practices, not by virtue of some story that can be traced back to something directly available in experience.11 Since many people for many years understood Kant’s version of this claim to be saying that such a dependence meant we could not be said to be experiencing external objects in the normal sense but only mind-dependent entities, appearances, or Erscheinungen, and since whatever else he is saying, Hegel is clearly not saying that, at least in Hegel’s case we will have to be careful about what such dependence amounts to.

(p.34) Brandom proposes a helpful distinction at this point. He suggests that we should distinguish between sense-dependence and reference-dependence and that doing so helps us see there is no evidence that Hegel understood his own claim of dependence as anything but sense-dependence; that is, that he did not believe all finite particulars were existentially dependent on concepts that could pick them out, or that such objects could only exist when and for as long as they were thought by a human or a divine mind. Rather, in the examples used by Brandom, “the concepts of singular term and object are reciprocally sense-dependent. One cannot understand either without at least implicitly understanding the other and the basic relations between them.”12 Likewise with the concept “fact” and “what is assertable in a proposition”; likewise law and necessity on the one hand, and counterfactually robust inference on the other.13 Reciprocal sense-dependence like this—essentially between modally robust material exclusions in reality and subjective processes for identifying such exclusions and trying to avoid incompatible commitments—thus helps one interpret some of the well-known battle cries in Hegel’s assertion of his idealism, such as, in his Differenzschrift, “The principle of speculation is the identity of subject and object,”14 i.e., the principle of speculative idealism is the reciprocal sense-dependence of subjective processes and meaningful claims about objects.15

This interpretation of “objective idealism,” the claim that the intelligibility of the notion of an objective world is dependent on, and is only intelligible in terms of, the subjective process of acknowledging error in experience, or rejecting incompatible commitments, is clearly a variation, albeit a weak variation, on Kant’s radical Transcendental Turn, such that all “object talk” could amount to (the only determinate experiential content that could be given the notion) is rule-governed synthetic unity, that the object is just “that in the concept of which the manifold is united.” But this Kantian (p.35) heritage would also seem to raise inevitably the Kantian question of just how robust Brandom’s version of this dependence is, what I called his weak Kantian variation.16

That is, when Kant claimed that there is a “sense-dependence” between a notion like “event” and “capacity to distinguish a succession of representations from a representation of succession,” and that this discrimination must itself be possible because otherwise there could not be a unity of apperception, and that it is only possible on the condition that all elements intuited successively in a manifold follow from another (some other) according to a rule (with necessity), he was not making the rather anodyne observation that the meaning of any claim to discrimination and unity in our experience is dependent on what could count as discriminable to us, given whatever capacities to discriminate we possess, and so whatever discriminatory capacities we do have constitute in some way what intelligible claims about discriminable objects could meaningfully amount to. That sort of observation only gets its bite in positions like psychologism, or the positivist notion of verificationism, or in Kant’s transcendental “necessary conditions for the possibility of experience” project, with its accompanying need for a deduction, or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus idealism in which the limits of language are the limits of the world, and I do not yet see where Brandom thinks his version gets its bite or is more than anodyne. Moreover, for Kant, because object talk is sense-dependent on our epistemic conditions, Kant feels he has to raise the question: “Granted, this is the only way we could make experiential sense out of ‘event,’ but what of events in themselves, considered apart from our conditions for meaningful claims about events?” This sort of question may already be a mistake (and Hegel certainly thought it was), but it is not clear why or in what sense it is on Brandom’s account. It is only the great generality of the claims about objects, facts, and laws that makes such a question otiose for Brandom; that is, who could disagree with the claim that the way one understands facts is tied to what one understands by the content of assertions?17

(p.36) This is important in a Hegelian context because Hegel believed in radical conceptual change, at what Kant would regard (in horror) as the categorical or constitutive, empirically unchallengeable level. This means that it must be possible that a kind of gap can seem to open up in some sense-making practice, the appearance of a gap between what Hegel calls (subjective) certainty and what he calls “truth,” which for now we can just mark as the beginning of some sort of insufficiency in that heretofore smoothly running practice. This gap is internal to a practice; it is not an empirical insufficiency, or a skeptical doubt about objects as they would be in themselves, and if we follow Brandom’s reformulations, this must be understood as a kind of “meaning breakdown.” This all suggests that at the very least we should say that whatever subjective capacity or process we try to identify as “all that an object or objective structure or value claim or obligation claim could mean for us” will have to be provisional (it will always be indexed to a historical time and historical community) and that some account of the nature of this provisionality is called for. Emphasizing Hegel’s interest in basic historical change in constitutive normative commitments is not necessarily inconsistent with Brandom’s take on Hegel, but I take it as significant that Hegel wants to make this point by discussing the relationship between “the This” and sense certainty, “the thing and many properties” and perception, “force” and the understanding, “life” and self-consciousness, reason and itself, and so on, and does not make a case for a general dependence between discriminable and discriminating capacity. That is, there is a determinate account of what this sense-dependence could actually amount to and what these covariations could look like, and it is especially significant that he tells the story of these putative dependencies and the “experience” of their insufficiency in a kind of idealized narrative. And in order eventually to get real historical development into Hegel’s story of objective idealism, the constitutive (and socially instituted) dependence at issue will have to start out with more substantial claims just so that various specific historical failures (especially failures not due to empirical discovery) can be accounted for.

This issue of normative change will return a few more times. For now, (p.37) we can note simply that for all that Brandom has helped us see how Kant changed the subject—from the character and quality of our grip on concepts to the question of the concepts’ normative hold or grip on us—we also need to see how Hegel refocused the issue yet again, how he emphasized as of the greatest importance how a concept can come to lose that normative grip. In typical Hegelian fashion, it is only by understanding that that we understand what such a grip amounts to in the first place.18

The point is also important when we are talking about thick normative concepts and the sort of binding force they can be said to have in Hegel’s account. For the basic ethical notions Hegel is interested in also function as instituted (made more than found) and constitutive. One becomes a citizen by being taken to be one, recognized as one; there are citizens only insofar as there are these rules applied in discriminating social roles, and yet it is still possible for such a practice to begin to fail in some way not at all tied to something essential in citizenship-in-itself that a former practice had simply “missed” (as, for example, in Hegel’s account of the failures of Roman or Jacobin citizenship), nor (to anticipate again) tied simply to what a later community in fact “reconstituted” as citizen. Of course, since Brandom sides with Quine against Carnap, he is happy enough to admit even radical meaning change “within” experience, and he has his own common-law analogy to explain it and its progressive character. More on that in the last section below.


Brandom’s holism has already been manifest. It is paradigmatically what it is by virtue of its “material exclusions”: excluded are any strict concept-intuition, or conceptual scheme versus content dualism, or any conceptual content atomism. He gives us several formulations of the position, many quite illuminating about historical changes in the modern notion of representation. (As in the dawning realization that “the vertical relations between thoughts and things depend crucially on the horizontal relations between thoughts and thoughts.”)19 This theme in Hegel brings us to the heart of Brandom’s own theory of inferentialist rationality, his account of double-book (p.38) deontic scorekeeping, and his rich account of the variety of material inferential relations.20 There is no way to do any justice to the details of what he takes to be manifestations of that theory in Hegel, or how extraordinarily illuminating much of that discussion is. I need to concentrate on the main potential problem Brandom detects in Hegel’s version of holism.21

It is this. Brandom distinguishes between “weak individuational holism” and “strong individuational holism.” The former holds that a necessary condition for the possibility of the determinate contentfulness of concepts is “articulation by relations of material incompatibility” (where, given his dependence claim, he means by such relations both those for properties and states of affairs, and for propositions and predicates). Strong holism claims that articulations by material incompatibility are sufficient for determinateness.22 Since Hegel does not seem to start off with an antecedent set of possibilities, such that knowing what a concept excludes helps establish something like the location in logical space for such a concept (as in a disjunctive syllogism, say), and holds that immediacy as immediacy (such as direct receptive immediacy) is indeterminate (and this is the notion Brandom will want to “supplement” or alter), Hegel can seem to understand determinacy as wholly a matter of these relations of material exclusion, or what Brandom calls “symmetric relative individuation.” But if everything is determined by relations of material exclusion, then “the relata are in a sense dissolved into the relations between them,” and we have the obvious problem: “Relations between what, exactly?”23 (This is actually an old problem in discussions of Hegel. The earlier and very important manifestation of Hegel as a strong individuational holist was the British “internal relations” monist version of Hegel’s metaphysics.)

(p.39) However, there is an assumption in this question that seems to me un-Hegelian, a kind of misleading either/or exclusive disjunction. It seems plausible to assume that in coming to understand more and more about a concept’s content, in the course either of empirical discovery or changing normative practices, we can just make do with some provisional, fixed designation of the relata, either a provisional definition or paradigm-case locator, which itself is subject to change in the light of broader inferential articulation, perhaps even very extensive alteration. We could even isolate and treat as privileged a small set of clear inferential articulations, holding in place what we are treating as relata so that we can explore various other inferential articulations (of it, that relatum, so loosely but effectively defined). We could do this just pragmatically, without any commitment to essentialism or analyticity or there really being a privileged set of inferential relations. For example, ultimately the notion of human subjectivity, marked originally by simple consciousness—in Hegel the possibility of a subject having a take on an object—comes to have over the course of the Phenomenology a “content” that is a function of very many various reflective and social and ethical capacities that Hegel (mirabile dictu) argues are ultimately necessary conditions even for the possibility of a simple take on an object. I see no reason to think that in order to present a theory like this, once we understand this array of capabilities, Hegel also owes us an answer to the question: Yes, but what is the relatum here, what is that which has these capacities or contains these inferential possibilities? There are always provisional ways of picking out designata in order to introduce a more extensive capability, but only a grammatical illusion (a “paralogism,” as Kant put it in this particular case) created by this “that which” locution would lead us to think we need a fixed relatum all the way through. (Even Kant’s own Merkmale theory of concept determinacy allows great flexibility in the settling of such determinacy.)24

I suspect that Brandom introduces this question and tries to solve it because he is worried about making Hegelian objective idealism compatible with some sort of direct constraint by the sensible world (a way to fix the relata in inferential relations in a way that does not involve representing, claim making, or content, but that ties our concept application to a deliverance of (p.40) sensibility), because he wants to preserve in some strongly intuitive way a strict covariation between subjective processes and objective facts and objects (relations with no fixed relata are obviously counterintuitive in this regard) and because he is thinking of what he takes to be a Sellarsian picture of how that happens. What Brandom often refers to as “the Harman” point is supposed to help, a distinction between inferential relations and inferential processes.25 As he puts it: “Inference is a process; implication is a relation.”26 This distinction will allow us to be more careful in understanding what we mean when we link conceptual content to “relations” of material exclusion. In Hegel’s account that means that we should not be trapped into seeing material exclusion everywhere as relata simply standing in relations (or as, per impossibile, standing in nothing but relations). Objective relations of incompatibility can only be made sense of, in Brandom’s sense-dependence claim, as processes of resolving and avoiding subjective incompatibilities of commitment, and fixed concept determinacy must be explicable under these “objective idealist” conditions. Once we understand that the relations in question count as implication relations just by constraining rational belief change, by playing that role in an ongoing inferential process, and we understand how that process works, then our earlier worry about Hegel’s strong holism will not look so suspicious.

For, according to Brandom, we always, in our discursive practices, have to start with some sort of antecedently differentiated datum—he suggests signs like proposition letters. (This is supposed to satisfy our intuitions on the “object side.”) This analogy trades on “orthodox mathematical abstraction by the formation of equivalence classes.” His point is clearer, I think, in his summary of Hegel on perception.

In his Hegelian example of property determinacy, Brandom tries to make more concrete this model of holistic role abstraction by going over the supposed “stages” in Hegel’s account, where properties are first thought of atomistically, determinate apart from any relation to another, and then, given the indeterminacy of these results, thought of wholly in terms of excluding incompatible material relations, a stage that according to Brandom threatens the dissolution of relata mentioned before. These relations among (p.41) roles can now be thought of as consisting wholly in relations because “immediacy,” marking as a kind of sign the content of experience responded to differentially, has already made it possible to track a class or set of such markers, even though on their own they remain a je ne sais quoi. The key is (and it is impossible to stress it too much) that this immediacy is not representational, a sign of something else. Our ability simply to respond differentially and noninferentially is making a contribution to the process of determination of content (to that which is in relation) but initially only in our differential responsiveness and by such items expressing potentially a higher-order inferential discrimination implicit in the discriminability of the item but not directly apprehendable as such. We must do that work of determination in this process. “One must build the holistic roles in stages, starting with something construed as immediate, and then investigating the mediation implicit in taking it to be determinate.”27

This view of the relation between immediacy and mediation (and the insistence that immediacy play some sort of role like this in experience) strikes me as quite Sellarsian (at least as Brandom interprets him) and suggests the same problem one finds in (Brandom’s) Sellars. The problem is the un-Hegelian language of “stages” rather than “moments” (in the German sense of elements, das Moment, instead of the notion of temporal stages, der Moment), and this way of linking us to the sensible world by merely causally elicited “responses.” Brandom’s Sellars chapter is called “The Centrality of Sellars’ Two-Ply Account of Observation,” and the “twoness” involved is similar to what was just summarized. The first ply is what results from a “reliable differential responsive disposition” (or RDRD). We share with nonhuman animals, some machines, and even some normal objects the ability to respond differentially and reliably to distinct environmental stimuli. But these responses, even if they involve the uttering of a word, are not representational, do not yet have content, and for Sellars this is primarily because no commitment to anything has been established. That happens only with concept application, and attribution of commitment by others. (There are several ambiguous formulations about this issue. In the second Hegel chapter, Brandom says, with respect to immediately elicited responses, that in these cases particulars exercise an “authority over the universals or concepts that apply to them.”28 But since these responses are merely elicited, or (p.42) “wrung” from us, the question of authority should not arise. According to Brandom, authority, or a normative claim in general, is something granted, not elicited.)

The greater problem comes when one tries to establish a connection between these two dimensions, since the first is a matter of what is simply causally elicited and the second involves a normative commitment not presumably simply provoked, caused, or directly elicited by the RDRDs. These responses thus do not seem to be doing any “guiding,” and when considered just as RDRDs, they appear to be normatively inert with respect to what I end up committed to.29 If even perception is “normative all the way down” (and “reliable” already indicates that), then these causal episodes of elicited responses look like window-dressing designed to comfort a potential reliabilist or externalist or cognitivist. Brandom claims that while some of that might be true, there could not be a global independence of observational response from concept use, and he notes that “purely theoretical concepts do not form an autonomous language game, a game one could play though one played no other.”30 But the reason he immediately gives is that “one must be able to respond conceptually to the utterance of others to be talking at all.”31 This almost concedes that what counts as reliable responsiveness (something that must be established for there to be any relation between these two “plies”) is itself mediated by the social normativity Brandom is elsewhere eager to stress. If others in the discursive community administer such things as the “reliability” ascription, something of the content of such a norm will eventually begin functioning for individuals as norms, internal to the discrimination process itself, as a constituent of the sensible uptake itself. Brandom thus concedes that our very dispositions can be said to change as a result of systematic sources of error.32 And Brandom himself also concedes that for thick moral concepts it is hard to imagine two such separate strands, such that one could differentially respond to instances of courage or cruelty, in a way that was just causally elicited.33 Since whatever else it is, Hegel’s philosophy is systematic, it is hard to imagine that the inapplicability to this case of the “build in stages” picture of the immediacy-mediation (p.43) relation that Brandom proposes would not mean that something is wrong with the core picture.

The moral here seems to me to redound back to Brandom’s account of Hegel on immediacy. Rather than having “stages,” all in some way or other modeled after the Sellarsian two-ply, reliable-responder/normatively-committing observer, Hegel’s position seems to me to be a more thoroughly “processual” holism. His position on the mediate character of even direct sensory experience is not poised to collapse everything into a “strong individuational holism,” nor to adopt Brandom’s building stages model, but to deny the separability of immediate and mediate elements, even while insisting on the contribution of both. In Hegel’s account, I am suggesting, and in full Brandomese: The failure of atomistically conceived property determinacy is meant to signal not that our immediately elicited perceptual responses should therefore be construed as nonrepresentational, signlike discriminable items that will form something like the basis of an abstraction to roles that are inferentially articulated but that a fuller, more adequate picture of this one-ply but complexly and inseparably structured dimension of experience is required.34 To be sure, this will seem to give us a much less robust picture of answerability to the world and a more important role for answerability to each other, but since in Brandom’s account any immediate element in experience does not cause or on its own constrain concept application, he has that problem anyway. In the Sellars chapter, after noting the very basic theme of his inferentialism, that “grasping any concept requires grasping many concepts,” he also has to ask a question that is not helped by his elaborate account of holistic role abstraction. The question is: “How good must one be at discriminating … in order to count as grasping the concept?” He answers that it is a matter wholly of how one is treated by the other members of the linguistic community, a matter of having achieved a “social status” by having been recognized as having achieved it. This, it seems to me, both undermines the real role any appeal to our immediate responsiveness (p.44) to the world plays in discursive practices and reraises the problem of an inferential positivism. Our common sense and somewhat realist intuitions still require some response here: What is the community relying on when such a status is granted? Merely what future communities might, probably, decide? What constrains the granting of such status?35 Isn’t the basic question just pushed back a stage? Hegel has an answer to this, but it involves that ambitious theory of the realization of freedom and “meaning breakdowns” noted earlier and about to arise again.


This last issue—our collective responsibility for our norms—obviously raises the question of the nature of the “Brandomian socialism,” what he calls the semantic pragmatism, crucial to his theory of normativity and therewith of possible conceptual content, and the way he accounts for the historicity of norms and normative change. In neither case, I want to argue, is there “enough” of a Hegelian notion of sociality or historicity at work. Here is a summary formulation of the sociality-of-norms claim.

What is needed is one of the most basic Hegelian emendations to Kant’s normative rationalism: an understanding of normative statuses such as commitment, responsibility, and authority as social achievements. Hegel construes having bound oneself by applying a concept as occupying a certain sort of social position, having a certain sort of social standing.36

All of this seems to me quite right and a substantial and extremely valuable reformulation of the Kant-Hegel relation. It is when Brandom goes on to discuss the nature of this social status that his account seems to me not so (p.45) much wrong as critically incomplete. In Brandom’s account (as well as in his account of Hegel’s position), what commitments you undertake are up to you, but the content of those commitments, just what you are committing yourself to by committing yourself to claim P, is not; that is “administered” by others. (“I commit myself, but then they hold me to it.”)37 These other scorekeepers also resolve questions about what commitments you are in fact entitled to make, independently of what you claim to be entitled to. As we saw earlier, what it is to have achieved the social status of a competent concept applier is and is only a matter of being recognized as such by other scorekeepers.

Brandom’s language of normative commitment being a matter of “having bound oneself” is quite true to the deeply Kantian position on normativity, as necessarily self-legislated, which Hegel took up and vastly expanded, himself following many of Fichte’s crucial emendations of the notion. I could not agree more that this is the heart of the heartland, what distinguishes the rationalism of the Kantian and post-Kantian German tradition from its rationalist predecessors.38 Kant’s notion that we are only bound to what we bind ourselves to shows up everywhere in what we call German Idealism, reappearing in Fichte’s notion of self-positing and clearly manifest in Hegel’s otherwise mysterious claims that Geist is a “product of itself,” or that the Concept “gives itself its own actuality.” It is, however, a highly metaphorical notion in all three thinkers; there is no original moment of self-obligation, any more than there is a Fichtean I that initiates experience de novo by positing a not-I. The metaphor is also very hard to interpret discursively; it can seem, as McDowell has put it, that Brandom is committed to a position “that brings norms into existence out of a normative void.”39

However, because Hegel formulates the claim in the first person plural, and as something that occurs over time, any worry about a transition from a normless to a normative situation is much less relevant to him. There is no original normless situation, only an ongoing, continuous historical process of initiation or socialization into a community’s normative practices, demanding allegiance in all sorts of practical, engaged and largely implicit (p.46) ways, and receiving it in an equally various number of practices of consent, affirmation, or sustenance, and in a variety of modalities of self-legislation and self-obligation.40 Hegel thinks that art, for example, is one of these modalities. As noted above, though, if the “autonomy thesis” is “what makes them [norms] binding is that one takes them to be binding,”41 it is extremely hard to present a nonmetaphorical notion of this self-imposition. As soon as we move beyond explicit assertoric judgments (“That metal is molybdenum”)42 and explicit performatives (“I promise to drive you to the airport tomorrow morning”),43 more practical and implicit modes of “commitment” are much more difficult to discern, both for an individual and for any potential scorekeeper. (We can tell something by what a person does and what he is willing to say or has said, but the situation gets immediately very complicated once we venture beyond assertions about molybdenum or promises about driving.) Moreover, equally important, just because such practices are rarely explicit or well defined with respect to their scope, there is also an ongoing unavoidable contestation about the claims made on behalf of such rules over historical time, about attribution and entitlement claims and denials, as the context of application changes and strains the original understanding. The issue Hegel is most interested in is one we would now call the basic difference (if there is one) between the matter-of-historical-fact normalizing practices of the scorekeeping police and some sort of progressive normative development. And this still leaves a lot metaphorical since, in the phrase of Haugeland’s that Brandom borrows and makes use of—“transcendental constitution” is always “social institution”44—there is no clear nonmetaphorical reading of just how “societies” can be said to “institute” anything (or, especially, try and yet fail to do so, ending up with mere coercive enforcement of some against many or many against some, rather than something that can be understood as a self-obligation to a self-legislated rule). There is at least no reason to think this occurs at something like a constitutional convention of original, basic rule making and pledges of allegiance, and there is plenty of reason to think it is a problem that requires (p.47) some answer if we are talking about genuinely normative social engagements, and not just “carrots and sticks” success at socialization.

Indeed, Hegel believes that a kind of systematic sense can be made of the continuities and crises in attempts at institution and maintenance of allegiance—“wholesale,” not just “retail,” to invoke a Brandomean turn of phrase—and that without this systematic story we are left with no way to distinguish later normative improvements from later reconfigurations of social power in enforcing a new regime.45 Without this more ambitious enterprise, a social pragmatist inferentialist holism like Brandom’s is indistinguishable from a kind of “inferentialist positivism.” I mean by this that while Brandom can avoid what he calls regularism or can justify attributing an original intentionality to a community and not just note regularities in behavior (that is, he can justify the claim that its participants are playing the normative game of giving and asking for reasons and therewith both undertaking as well as attributing and assessing commitments of others), this does not yet explain how either an external interpreter or internal participant can properly challenge the authority of the norms on the basis of which the attributions and assessments are made, or how those norms can fail to meet those challenges. Brandom can describe what happens when such a challenge occurs, but he wants to stay out of the question of the putative merits of challenges in general. That is for the participants to thrash out, and his (Brandom’s) own account remains “phenomenalist.”46 Without that further account, though, we remain mere historical sociologists (or underlaboring explicit-makers); to be sure, makers explicit of what participants (p.48) count as the distinctly normative, and of its history, but resigned to recording the sorts of challenges and defenses “they” would regard as appropriate then and there, or scoring them on our current scorecard, but without an account of how “they” got to be “us.” While illegitimate claims to normative authority, in other words, are clearly still putative norms, and while, when they are invoked, the game of giving and asking for reasons has begun, unless we can go on to ground the difference between merely putative and genuine claims to authority, the distinction between manipulated or coerced behavior and norm-responsive conduct will be empty. Threatening you offers you in some sense a reason to obey me, and you would be obeying in some sense in a way responsive to a reason, your interest in your well-being. But it is hard to see how one could describe that as your being responsive to a claim for a distinctively normative authority.47 (“Positivism” is an apt word for this not only because Brandom’s take on idealism can sound a bit like verificationism,48 but because in normative terms, from his first writings on Christianity and the early Christian community until his last writings on politics, Hegel’s self-identified chief problem was what he called “positivity.” He meant by this the successful administration of what appear to be norms but, even with actual acknowledgment and the attitudinal support of individuals, still must count as missing some crucial element that would distinguish an alienated from a truly affirmative [self-imposed] relation to the law.)

I do not at all want to give the impression that Brandom is committed to what he calls an “I-We” conception of sociality.49 He makes crystal clear in chapters 1 and 8 of MIE that he does not, that his sociality is of the “I-you” variety. By the “scorekeeping police” I mean here whatever, for most scorekeepers, (p.49) when each distinguishes the difference between what another takes to be “what ought to be done,” say, and “what ought to be done,” will end up determining how they make that distinction in a way that is shared and thus determining “how the attitudes of those who keep score on each other are answerable to the facts.”50 Again, as just noted, Brandom does not want to go there, or go any farther than this. He thinks the conditions for the success of his theory are satisfied when he explains what “objectivity” will amount to in his inferentialist semantics (it amounts to being able to make this distinction between normative status [objectively correct] and normative attitude [taken to be correct]; all else is part of the messy contestation that philosophy cannot judge).51 We need to stop with this understanding of objectivity as “a structural aspect of the social-perspectival form of conceptual contents.”52 We should be philosophically satisfied with the claim that “the permanent possibility of a distinction between how things are and how they are taken to be by some interlocutor is built into the social articulation of concepts.”53 This formalism is the most profoundly un-Hegelian aspect of his theory. From Hegel’s point of view, we will not really know what being able to make this distinction amounts to (as distinct from, say, what individual perspectival scorekeepers have in various times and places taken the distinction to amount to) unless we track the distinction as “realized” concretely and come up with some way to understand if we are getting any better at making it. (If we don’t do this, we have what I called inferentialist positivism.)54 Put in a formula: Brandom believes that meaning or conceptual content is a matter of use, inferential articulations within a social game of giving and asking for reasons. He is right that Hegel agrees with this, but Hegel also claims that the question of the authority of the articulations scored in certain ways at certain times is also indispensable to (p.50) the question of such content, and that we cannot understand that dimension except insofar as the possible articulations are, as he says everywhere, “actualized,” verwirklicht. (For example, in Hegel’s account, understanding why the basic norms of ancient Greek ethical life failed as they did, began to lose their grip, tells us something we need to know and could have come to know in no other way, about the difference between the purported authority of an appeal to a norm, and actual authority.)55 As we shall see in a minute, this ties Hegel’s notion of philosophy much more closely to history than Brandom does.

The claim is that from Hegel’s perspective, the problem with Brandom’s version is not so much a problem as a gap, a lacuna that Brandom obviously feels comfortable leaving unfilled (cf. the earlier discussion here of the “selection” of only some Hegelian themes), but that seems to me indispensable. This might seem a bit unfair. After all, Brandom has roped Hegel into an extraordinary, impressive project that has accomplished a very great deal in itself and as an illumination of Hegel: a way of understanding scorekeeping practices sufficient to confer various sorts of conceptual content. These include nonlogical propositional content, contents associated with predicates and singular terms, pronouns, demonstratives and proper names, and even the logically expressive content of conditionals, negation, quantifiers and so on. And this is not to mention the ingenuity of the demonstration of how anaphoric chains work in communicative success, how one can secure both coreference and token repeatability “across the different repertoires of commitments that correspond to different interlocutors.”56 Nevertheless, however ungrateful it can sound, there is something crucial to Hegel’s project that does not appear in Brandom or Brandom’s Hegel. The issue is most obvious in cases where the main problem Brandom tracks—the problem of conceptual determinacy, conceptual content—intersects with the question of conceptual authority; cases where everyone understands what the concept is about, purports to be about (the putative content is determinate), (p.51) but where serious disagreement has arisen about whether that clear purport is fulfilled, justified, legitimate, whether the concept really picks out anything. (Since any application of a concept is a normative claim, a claim not that this is what has been thought to belong together, but this is what ought or even must be thought together, these two dimensions of the problem are obviously inseparable.) This distinction most interests Hegel when the issue is change or a partial breakdown with respect to fundamental, paradigmatic normative principles, what scorekeepers rely on when they distinguish between what another takes himself to be authorized to do and what he is really authorized (or forbidden or simply ought) to do, cases like divine and human law, the claims of faith and of Enlightenment, the claims of natural right, moral freedom, revolutionary political authority, or moral purity. (When scorekeepers cut up the normative world in a certain way, such as distinguishing between “the law of the heart” and “the frenzy of self-conceit,” their scores already mean something: they carry material normative implications, not accessible to the parties in play, often directly contrary to their own intentions, and not dependent simply on how future scorekeepers will as a matter of historical fact extend and supplement and alter the implications of their commitments. It is a limitation of Brandom’s account, and a mark of his differences with Hegel, that his theory of “meaning normativity” is reductionist in this way, reducible to the attitudinal states of individuals.)57

The most intuitively clear manifestation of this limitation and the positivism that results from it occurs in chapter 3 of part 1 in MIE, the “queen’s shilling” example. Brandom calls to mind the eighteenth-century practice wherein merely accepting the offer of such a shilling was counted as having enlisted in the queen’s navy. The practice was intended to allow a public (p.52) sign of acceptance for those illiterates who could not sign a contract, but was widely used by recruiters who essentially tricked drunken victims in taverns into such acceptance. According to Brandom, “Those who accepted found out the significance of what they had done—the commitment they had undertaken, and so the alteration of their status—only upon awakening from the resulting stupor.”58 I think most of us would say intuitively that the fact that others attributed such a commitment to an individual did not mean the individual was, in normative fact, truly so committed, that the practice counted an action as a commitment illegitimately, that it does not qualify as a commitment. But for Brandom, to undertake a commitment is just for an individual to do something that makes it appropriate for others to attribute a commitment to that individual, where “appropriate” is a matter of a standing actual practice. Brandom’s account will allow a distinction between what seemed a commitment but was really not (the recruiter mistakenly used the wrong coin), but not between what others count as a change in status and what really amounts to a change in status. All that the latter involves for Brandom is a change in the attitudinal states of others, and this position will not even allow the problem that bothered Hegel his entire career to arise: that problem of “positivity,” subjection by others, according to appropriate, public practices, to a status of “undertaken commitments” not recognized as such by the individual. What Hegel takes as deeply problematic is counted by Brandom as a wholly unproblematic example of attributing commitments. (In this regard, the fact that Brandom concedes that “the whole community” may end up wrong in the way they score, even “by their own lights,” is an idle concession. As his own theory would have it, unless we know what that concession includes and excludes, how it might actually be used in cases like this one, it is a concession without content, and Brandom’s own willingness to agree that our poor drunken sailor is in fact normatively committed to service in the queen’s navy—that he actually undertook this commitment—is not encouraging about what such a content might be.)59 While Brandom sometimes gives the impression that the (p.53) position defended in MIE or the position attributed to Hegel just leaves open questions about genuine versus illusory claims to normative authority, I would say that it is quite clear that he has already taken positions on normativity, commitment, entitlement, and obligation—the positions apparent in this passage.

What the issue comes down to is how, or to what extent, one can make a certain dimension of human sociality—the institution, sustenance, sanctioning, and administering of normative commitments—essential to one’s semantics without offering anything like a much fuller social theory, a comprehensive view of the social bond or a full blown normative theory, a theory of what counts as the distinction between “exercise of normative authority” and “exercise of coercive power.”60 To be sure, Brandom considers that he has provided a general account of normativity and a sufficient view of sociality. For the former he often invokes “Kant’s distinction between the realm of nature, whose denizens are bound by rules in the form of laws of nature, and the realm of freedom, whose denizens are bound rather by their conceptions of rules—that is, by rules that bind them only in virtue of their own acknowledgment of them as binding.”61 As noted, this does not help us much in trying to understand what counts as doing this (“acknowledging authority”) and what settles the question of the scope and content of just what I have bound myself to.62 When Brandom notes that the latter is (p.54) a matter to be administered by others, it is easy enough to imagine cases where that appeal settles nothing and only invites further controversy (as when actions are taken in my name by a supposedly representative assembly, where commitments are attributed to me by others on the basis of what, given the institutional rules of elections and representation, I can be said to have bound myself to).

Moreover, it is precisely this indeterminacy that is important to Hegel. His theory of, especially, practical rationality is such a radically historical bootstrapping theory that essential elements will go missing (such as this unavoidable conflict) if we stay at Brandom’s notion of “negotiation” between “those who attribute the commitment and the one who acknowledges it.”63 In a footnote, Brandom makes clear that he is well aware of this problem.

Talk of negotiation is bound to sound too irenic a rendering for the sort of strife and confrontation of inconsistent demands Hegel depicts. But, though the issue cannot be pursued here, I think there are good reasons to treat the martial, uncompromising language Hegel is fond of as misleading on this point. Nothing is absolutely other, nor are any claims or concepts simply inconsistent for him. It is always material incompatibilities of content (rather than formal inconsistencies) whose mutual confrontation obliges an alteration of commitments.64

This passage has an odd ring to it. As Brandom clearly suspects, it does have a “Can’t we all just get along” meliorism or irenecism that does not at all fit the Phenomenology. And it comes close to saying: if Hegel had understood Brandomian inferentialist semantics better (the resources for which are already implicit in other aspects of Hegel’s project), and so had not sometimes confused negotiable material incompatibilities with formal inconsistencies or the clash of brute otherness, he would not have indulged such “martial” tendencies. But there is no evidence that I know of, and none provided by Brandom, that Hegel’s emphasis on the “violence” that consciousness suffers at its own hands is just a result of such a view about brute otherness (p.55) or formal inconsistencies. There is plenty of room for what Hegel often treats as tragic conflict if those two points are conceded.65

Moreover, Hegel’s “slaughter bench of history” formulations are not the result of commitments in a philosophical anthropology (wherein, supposedly, a violent struggle for prestige and ultimately recognition as essential aspects of human nature are invoked as explicans for social and normative change). There is another reason why Hegel is so concerned in any account of the social mediation needed for communicative success, political stability, or ethical life66 that one never abstract from or in any way ignore that there are never simply human agents or subjects at play, that any such subject must always first be considered either subject to the will of another or able to subject others to his will, either bondsman (Knecht) or lord (Herr). This is because the status of person or free agent, someone capable of leading one’s own life, of seeing oneself in one’s deeds, is indeed, as Brandom rightly notes, not an ontological category for Hegel but a historical and social achievement. That achievement, however, has as its central task the problem of distinguishing between what we identified previously here as the difference between the administration of social power (perhaps complete with the “willing” submission of docile subjects) and the achievement of a form of life in which the freedom of one depends on the freedom of all. The whole ball game in Hegel comes down to the question of whether he has in fact discovered a historical, developmental way of making the case that this distinction can be made (without any form of moral realism or Kantian “moral law” universalism), and of saying what institutional form of life actually achieves these desiderata, and whether he is able to show that it is the unfinished and still unfolding achievement of modernity to have begun to do all this. Hegel’s claim to philosophical immortality rests on this novel attempt to make this distinction between putative claims to normative legitimacy that are in reality exercises of coercive power for the sake of unequal (p.56) advantage (nonreciprocal recognitive statuses) and successful claims to normative legitimacy, to do so by beginning with an image of a situation regulated exclusively by exercises of power, and to show that the ultimate unsustainability of such a relation can be demonstrated “experientially,” or “internally,” that ultimate achievement of agent status requires a recognitive social status that cannot be achieved by exercises of power alone.67 The nerve of this internally self-negating developmental process will ultimately amount to Hegel’s theory of freedom, both required for successful normative self-regulation but impeded or denied by just those forms of institutional practice that implicitly require that very status (of free subjects).

This turns out to be a long story, and I realize that Brandom thinks his version accommodates most of it. Indeed, in another essay on Hegel not included here, he has developed a rich and challenging reading of Hegel’s claims that recognitive relations can be said to “develop” out of erotic ones, that reflexive self-relations depend on being able to attribute normative attitudes toward others, and ultimately that I can be a subject that things can be for only by recognizing those who recognize me, by being recognized by all those whom I recognize, and by recognizing all those whom those whom I recognize recognize (including, ingeniously, me). This is the story for him of how one crosses “the crucial boundary between the merely natural and the incipiently normative.”68 But here again, at bottom, the crucial move occurs in attributing to others commitments or normative attitudes in the satisfaction of desire. I take the other to be a subject who takes this object to be suitable to satisfy his desire, not a being who merely differentially responds in a reliable way to what elicits such a response. And that again means attributing a possible difference for this other subject between what is taken to be an appropriate satisfier of hunger, say, and “what is.” And, again, this not only introduces us to the basic condition necessary for the attitude to (p.57) be a normative one (between what is taken to be K and what is K) by appealing to what unproblematically turns out to be empirically unsatisfying (a human cannot eat rocks), this simple empirical disconfirmation remains the only clear example we have of how this distinction can get cashed out. The absence of any such unproblematic “claim settler” in any more complex human claim to appropriateness or propriety is why, I am claiming, Hegel’s interest turns so quickly to the issue of a Kampf, a fight or struggle for recognition, again an issue that Brandom leaves out.69 It is also why, in Brandom’s account, the problem with the Master’s assertion of mastery is simply a matter of the Master “overgeneralizing” the human capacity for self-constitution by being insufficiently sensitive to the importance of the distinction between how I take things and how they are.70 But the Master in Hegel’s drama has not simply made an error. He represents an immediate option in the unavoidable struggle to determine how we shall make that distinction, once we move beyond the edible and the inedible and the like.

This Hegelian contestation also does not seem to me captured by the notion of ongoing negotiations between individuals and scorekeepers. For one thing, there is no reason to expect that a “neutral” notion of what counts as proper negotiation is available to both parties. The relevant distinction, therefore, to use Kantian and Sellarsian phrasing, is not so much between the space of causes and the space of reasons, between subsumption under law and acknowledgment of the concept of a law, but between the illusory appeal to legitimacy and authority, and a justifiable appeal—between, as it were, the fact of power and the fact of reason. The absence of such a common measure in what counts as negotiating is one of the reasons why the question of the proper distinction between the fact of power and the fact of reason constantly arises and why it forms the narrative core of Hegel’s Phenomenology. (I should also note that Brandom is certainly aware of this issue and raises such a “Foucault” problem in his response to Habermas. But here again he just notes that playing the game of giving and asking for reasons is (p.58) categorically different from doing things with words like exercising power, without telling us how to make that distinction, and as if the latter could not go on well disguised as the former, which, according to the early Foucault, it always does.)71


Brandom’s view on what he needs to say about human sociality to satisfy the requirements of his theory of conceptual content is certainly not one that leaves no room for the “challenges” that initiate “negotiation.”72 And he has provided a way to think about the developmental process that results from such challenges and responses. I have already expressed skepticism that the “negotiation” model will get us very far along on Hegelian tracks, but this image requires an independent hearing. There are two premises we need to examine first.

Brandom interprets Hegel’s striking remark that the “I,” the self-conscious subject of experience, is the concept, der Begriff, as that concept “has come into existence,”73 as affirming that, just as one becomes a contentful self only in recognitive relations with others, so concepts are contentful only in the social game of giving and asking for reasons, in the double bookkeeping game of undertaking and attributing/assessing. Spirit as a whole is modeled on being a self, and that means that it is “the recognitive community of all those who have such normative statuses, and all their normatively significant activities.”74 This interpretation is then linked to a fundamental Brandomian theme.

All there is to institute conceptual norms, to determine what we have committed ourselves to by applying a concept, is other applications of the concept in question. … Thus the applications of the concept … that have already been made already have a certain sort of authority over candidate future applications of the concept.75

(p.59) But also:

The authority of the past applications, which instituted the conceptual norm, is administered on its behalf by future applications, which include assessments of past ones.

The model is common-law applications of case law, where each judge inherits a tradition of past decisions about cases and must rely on, can only rely on, those past cases to decide about new, sometimes radically new, cases. The authority of the tradition “consists in the fact that the only reasons the judge can appeal to in justifying his decisions are procedural.”76 Brandom takes this to be a good model for the Hegelian dialectical claims for both continuity and change in a normative tradition, for the fact that normative developments are in some sense “found,” in another “made.” The model also fits Brandom’s theory well, and aspects of Hegel’s, because it is crucial to both that the normative significance of some move or commitment I make almost always “outruns” what I may consciously be taking myself to be committed to, and “catching up,” being able to make those further aspects more explicit, can look very much like Hegelian development or Bildung.77

This model is also said to have the additional benefit of explaining what Brandom thinks would otherwise be inexplicable: how Hegel can talk of the human community, Spirit as a whole, as a “self,” but yet insist on the irreducibly social character of that self. Who, in this sense, could be said to hold Spirit as a whole responsible to itself, since there is no other social subject outside of Spirit, in recognitive relations with it? These different time slices are said to answer that problem. “The present acknowledges the authority of the past, and exercises an authority over it in turn, with the negotiation of their conflicts administered by the future.”78

However, Brandom is out to solve a problem that Hegel does not have (any more than Brandom does), and the solution, the common-law analogy, while revealing in many respects, does not go far enough in capturing what Hegel means by tying “normative life” to historical time. The problem again (p.60) is that Hegel’s position is far more substantive, far less formal, than that attributed to him by Brandom. This is because one of the aspects of what has been made explicit across historical time is not just a set of particular normative commitments (which are administered, altered, and perhaps substantially revised by a successor ethical community) but the nature of normative authority itself, the “truth” that such authority is socially instituted, tied to claims of reason that are cashed out in terms of social roles embodied in institutions, institutions the basic structure of which have begun to develop in ways finally consistent with, rather than in underlying tension with, the true nature of normative authority. Mutuality of recognitive status (the true source of normative authority), is, Hegel argues, embodied in several modern institutions (the rights-protecting, representative modern state, the modern nuclear family founded on both romantic and parental love, and the modern property-owning market economy and civil society, as well as late Protestant religion and theology and lyric romanticism, the final culmination of art). These are not counted by Hegel as just proposals for future administration and alteration. Brandom’s common-law model works well when we consider how one might “update” Hegel’s substantive institutional story and extend the application of such a civil and ethical status to women and propertyless citizens, but not for the claims Hegel wants to make about the authority of these basic roles and functions themselves.79 Their authority stems from the developmental justification Hegel has provided for his distinct account of the nature and authority of freedom (“the worthiest and most sacred possession of man”).80 This is all parallel to the way in which Brandom’s own account of conceptual content is itself a normative claim, a claim that the matter ought to be rendered explicit in this way, as a matter of inferential articulation, instituted social statuses, and so forth, and is not itself the carrying-forward of a tradition (one among many other philosophical traditions), itself subject later to the “authority of the future.” Brandom’s account presumably has its own authority, assuming that (p.61) it is meant as itself a philosophical claim, not just the interpretation and application of other claims.81

For the same reason, the common-law analogy is too weak to capture Hegel’s account of conceptual change. As noted before, Hegel is trying to introduce into a distinct kind of historical explanation an account of the way normative notions can begin to lose their grip, thus are experienced with weakening authority, and that explanation counts crises like incompatible commitments or tragic dilemmas as arising from within the community’s own experiences, and not because a new case has contingently arisen. It is possible that some of these crises arise from trying to apply a familiar norm to a new, problematic case, but in almost all the significant cases in his Phenomenology, that is not so, and the account of the underlying crisis points to the developmental account of the relation between freedom and authority that makes up the basic “plot” of that book. Contemporary concept-appliers are not, in other words, guided only by past cases, constrained too by being subject to future judges. For the most part the nature of normative authority itself is up for grabs, and the Burkean, Whiggish claim at any point that such authority is best understood as transmitted by history, exercising authority over the present, would have to count as an episode in that contestation, and could not count as the general form of any such contestation. (p.62)


(1.) Brandom is, I think, profoundly right to say that for Hegel the realm of the geistig, the spiritual, is “the normative order” (“Reason, Expression, and the Philosophic Enterprise,” 94). See also Pippin, “Naturalness and Mindedness: Hegel’s Compatibilism,” and Brandom, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment, 30 ff. and 624 ff.

(2.) Brandom, Tales of the Mighty Dead (hereafter referred to in the text as TMD). Brandom understands philosophical texts in a way consistent with his way of understanding understanding: the meaning of these texts is a matter of inferentially articulated commitments; we understand what a concept in a particular text means by seeing how it is used by an author, what moves it licenses and what it prescribes, and how it would be understood (used) in the community at the time. Or, in a different approach, we can try to understand how an original concept would be used in a later context, such as ours. In this latter case, one is concerned not with what the author took to follow from her premises but with what really does follow. One can focus on what the conceptual content is about; what the author must be committed to if truth is to be preserved, given what one now knows, or given what logical expressive resources one now has. This is roughly what Brandom means by the difference between interpretations or “specifications of conceptual content” and “discursive scorekeeping,” de dicto and de re, and his importation here of his own semantic arsenal, with its core distinction between undertaking and attributing commitments, serves his hermeneutical purposes very well. As the magisterial chapter 8 of Making It Explicit argues, these two specifications are not ascriptions of different beliefs, beliefs with different contents. They “specify the single conceptual content of a single belief in two different ways, from two different perspectives, in two different contexts of auxiliary commitments” (TMD, 102).

(3.) Ibid., 111.

(4.) Chomsky, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, 146. See also Richard Rorty’s very valuable (non-Hegelian) response to such worries in “The Brain as Hardware, Culture as Software.”

(6.) Chomsky of course means that holist, conceptual-role linguists would have to be committed to a natural-scientific theory of everything; their version of language would not leave a discrete research program for modern neurolinguists.

(8.) This question of “responsibility” to the text is a tricky problem to raise since however one raises it, one can seem to be insisting on some kind of priority for de dicto interpretation, and that is not, I think, what Brandom means. This assumption would take us back to thinking of original or core meaning as locked up inside a text, instead of in the process-like, inferential way proposed by Brandom. De re interpetation is something else, something different, and equally respectable philosophically. Once Strawson, say, has discarded the problem of the justification of synthetic a priori judgments and Kant’s idealism claim that we only know appearances, there is not much in his de re reconstruction that Kant could have acknowledged as a commitment. But there is something of Kant left after the “selection” and “supplementation,” something of what Kant really looks like in the new context of Strawsonean descriptive metaphysics. What is left is the distinction between concepts and intuitions, the discursivity of the human intellect, and the idea of there being “bounds” to any experience we could make sense of. De re interpretation is a process, a way of navigating in our territory, but guided by some insight of a historical author. So even within interpretation understood this way, there must be this guidance, this responsiveness to, say, Hegel’s understanding of conceptual content, even when expressed throughout in a non-Hegelian, new “logical expressive” vocabulary. (This is already a version of a common and very sweeping intuitive reaction to Brandom’s inferentalism: that understanding the content of a concept cannot be exclusively understanding its inferential articulations since those material implications and incompatibilities must themselves be already guided by [are legitimated by appeal to] a grasp of something which directs such inferential processes. He has several ways of responding to this, and the issue will come up frequently below.)

(10.) Sometimes idealism is simply another word for philosophy; sometimes (it is claimed) it is invoked to attack any ontological commitment to finite particulars (cf. Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik 1:145; Science of Logic, trans. Miller, 154–55); sometimes (it is claimed) it means a Platonic claim that all of reality is actually a manifestation of “the Absolute Idea.”

(11.) In Hegel’s radical language, concepts are “self-determining.” He is forever saying that the Concept gives itself its own content. See Pippin, “Die Begriffslogik als die Logik der Freiheit.”

(13.) For a much fuller defense of such views, especially with regard to the role of singular terms, see chapter 6 of MIE. The great advantage of Brandom’s way of formulating the issue of idealism is that it demystifies the notion of a normative fact. See MIE, 625, and especially Habermas, “From Kant to Hegel: On Robert Brandom’s Pragmatic Philosophy of Language,” and Brandom’s reply, “Facts, Norms, and Normative Facts: A Reply to Habermas.”

(14.) Hegel, The Difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s Systems of Philosophy, trans. Harris and Cerf, 80; Differenz des Fichte’schen und Scelling’schen Systems der Philosophie, 6.

(15.) There is a form of reference-dependence in Brandom’s fuller account, but it is, as he says, “asymmetrical.” There could not be concept-wielding, judging subjects unless reality were conceptually articulated in the way Brandom proposes; but not vice versa.

(16.) These terms are all relative. Brandom’s version is much stronger than Kant’s in another sense, since he understands the inferential practices on which object talk (symmetrically) depends to be social in nature, to involve commitments undertaken and attributed to one by others. That is how he interprets Hegel’s sweeping remarks linking the structure of the subject with the structure of der Begriff (TMD, 216 ff.).

(17.) Put in a strictly Kantian way, on Brandom’s account it would seem that we could get by with an “empirical deduction” (indeed a somewhat historically open-ended account, without a firm distinction between pure and empirical concepts), and not require a “transcendental deduction.” And when Hegel calls the Phenomenology a “deduction” of the standpoint of philosophical science he seems to have more in mind than this general dependence claim.

(20.) See his introductory chapter in TMD, “Five Conceptions of Rationality,” for a lapidary summary, as well as Brandom, Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism.

(21.) A qualification here that introduces an issue too large for this context. Many times what Hegel means by “Das Wahre ist das Ganze” is not holism in Brandom’s sense but completeness, what the German literature discusses as the Abgeschlossenheit of Hegel’s system. This involves the claim that for a kind of concept (let us say, whatever sort is the subject of the Science of Logic), full determinacy (and we can never be satisfied with anything else) requires understanding the complete inferential articulations of any concept in a system that is itself complete or closed. (See Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik 2:486; Science of Logic, 826). Brandom has (wisely, I think) relaxed that requirement, but as noted at the outset, there is still some sense in which Hegel ties a theory of linguistic meaning to a “theory of everything.”

(23.) Ibid., 187.

(24.) See the discussion of empirical concepts in the second half of chapter 4 of Pippin, Kant’s Theory of Form: An Essay on the “Critique of Pure Reason.” See also John McDowell’s criticism of Brandom on concept determinacy in McDowell, “Comment on Robert Brandom’s ‘Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel’s Idealism.’”

(25.) That is, to use Brandom’s illustration: Modus ponens does not instruct you that from “If p, then q; and p” you should conclude q. You might have better reasons for not concluding q. Modus ponens only expresses a logical relation that constrains what we should do (never: all of p; if p, then q; and ~ q).

(27.) Ibid, 206. “Construed as immediate” already begins to give the game away.

(28.) Ibid., 224.

(29.) There is such an account in Sellars, but it depends on two notions that are best worked out in his Science and Metaphysics: Variations on Kantian Themes: picturing and analogy.

(32.) Ibid., 366–67.

(33.) Ibid., 367.

(34.) Cf. Hegel’s remark: “Die Kantischen Formen der Anschauung und die Formen des Denkens gar nicht als besondere isolirte Vermögen auseinanderliegen, wie man es sich gewöhnlich vorstellt. Eine und eben diesselbe synethetische Einheit … ist das Princip des Anschauens und des Verstandes” (Wissenschaft der Logik 2:327). An obvious concession here: this—“a fuller, more adequate picture, etc.”—is easy to say, harder to do. Brandom has made clearer than anyone else has just how tricky and complicated are the issues in perceptual knowledge, singular reference, and modality that have to be faced in an inferentialist, rationalist, social pragmatist position, whether it be Hegel’s or Brandom’s.

(35.) This is roughly the kind of issue that arises in the exchanges between Brandom and John McDowell. McDowell typically challenges the notion of self-legislation by claiming, “There is indeed a sense in which the source of the norms is in us. But what that idea comes to is not that we confer authority on the norms in an act of legislation that brings them into being as authoritative, but just that they are constitutive of the practice of thinking, an activity in which we realize potentialities that are our own” (“Self-Determining Subjectivity and External Constraint,” 106). But the complaint that any legislator is guided by the very norms of rationality that supposedly first have to be “conferred” can arise from any number of directions. Thus Habermas, “From Kant to Hegel,” 24. I do not believe that Hegel is subject to this charge of paradox. See my Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, chap. 3.

(37.) Ibid., 220.

(38.) I have defended this interpretation of post-Kantian philosophy in several papers since the later 1990s, and in Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life. See also Pinkard, German Philosophy, for a narrative of German philosophy that tracks developments in and responses to such an issue.

(40.) This is one reason why Brandom’s invocation of Pufendorf and the strong “imposition” metaphor, like a “cloak thrown over its [the natural world’s] nakedness,” is, from a Hegelian point of view, misleadingly subjectivist (see MIE, 48).

(42.) Ibid., 221.

(45.) Hegel, that is, believes that participants in historical communities can come to suffer in some distinct way from unreason, what Brandom calls incompatible commitments, and that this sort of suffering can explain the most important conceptual-normative change and can explain it as progressive (where it can). He thinks that appeals to reason have a social power that needs to be distinguished from the mere exercise of social power parading as adequate reason, even if philosophers can only do so retrospectively.

(46.) For Brandom intentionality is derivative; it depends for its explanation on normativity. This normativity is understood as a deontic matter, of normative statuses instituted by deontic attitudes. The dependence of norms on institution or imposition resulting from such attitudes is normative phenomenalism. This much—that normative statuses such as commitments are products of social practical attitudes—is not being disputed. The claim is that they cannot just be such products, full stop. For the content of the attitudes also needs to be explained, and for Hegel that will lead to a claim about the priority of “objective spirit” over “subjective spirit,” or the priority of “institutions of meaning.” Something counts as a gift not just because of the attitudes of participants sustaining the institution of gift-giving, since those attitudes already reflect the institutional rules for the practice into which individuals have been socialized.

(47.) It is open to Brandom to concede freely that scorekeeping practices can break down, change, etc. But if that is all we have to say about it, this looks like something that happened to the participants, rather than something they did—did to themselves and for an end. The former may be all we can finally say, but the latter is Hegel’s narrative ambition.

(48.) For Brandom’s differentiation of himself from verificationism, see Brandom, MIE, 121 ff. Making use of Dummett’s distinction, Brandom claims that the verificationists are right to tie meaning to circumstances under which a term can be employed, but they neglect that the appropriate consequences of its use are also as relevant.

(49.) This is another book-length theme with respect to Brandom’s Hegel interpretation. Hegel does speak of “an I that has become a we,” but he does not mean by this that what a “community” as a matter of fact takes to be true or right or obligatory is thereby the criterion of truth or right or obligatory or good for any individual “I,” which is what Brandom is worried about in “I-We” talk.

(54.) Again, I hope it is clear that this does not accuse Brandom of what he has called “regularism,” the reduction of norms to mere regularities in a practice. We can understand the difference between appeals to norms and summarizing “how we mostly go on” (for example, the latter can only in very odd circumstances be offered to someone as a reason, and, in Brandom’s language, commitments must be understood as instituted by proprieties of scorekeeping, not by actual scorekeeping), all while still remaining confused about how to differentiate appealing to an authoritative norm, and merely seeming to.

(55.) There are various ways of cashing out this notion of actualization. One would be the more traditional pragmatist emphasis on a kind of “coping successfully with reality” test, where, armed with various cognitive claims, one fails to achieve practical ends; this is the paradigm case for an empirical learning experience. See Habermas, “From Kant to Hegel,” 330. There are a lot of false positives in this approach, but in general it is closer to Hegel’s approach than Brandom’s, as in Hegel’s Jena writings on labor, the account of desire in the Phenomenology, and the required transition between observing and practical reason in the Reason chapter there.

(57.) Many of Hegel’s arguments for the priority of sociality are familiar by now. Participation in a certain form of social life is transformative as well as instrumentally useful, and so there is too great a contrast between what an individual becomes by such participation, and what he would have been without it, for the preinstitution individual to serve as a standard for the rationality and authority of the institution. Such social institutions are also originally formative of individual identities, and so would be conditions for the possible development even of rational egoists and rational egoist “culture,” and so cannot be viewed as the product, even ideally, of such individuals. And the institutions necessary instrumentally to protect and guarantee individual egoism or conscience-following cannot themselves be sustained effectively without relations of trust and solidarity that cannot be supported on considerations of individualist interest or individual conscience. Cf. Rousseau, Social Contract, bk. 1, chap. 8, and Pippin, “Hegel on Institutional Rationality.”

(59.) See Brandom on Dummett on Boche (Brandom, MIE, 126ff). Brandom is right that the explicative task of philosophy can help make clear that the consequences implied by the use of a term (like Boche) betray materially bad inferences (that all Germans are unusually aggressive and warlike), but he appeals here to an inference that everyone (or most everyone) would agree is simply empirically false. By and large that is not what is “discovered” or what is relevant in a claim that the status of a lord, or the nature of honor, or the private ownership of capital, all involve materially bad inferences, as if the badness of the inference can be discovered in this empirical sense. Even with Boche, it is highly unlikely that the use of the term became inappropriate when its empirical falsity was finally displayed.

(60.) There is a parallel here to a remark Brandom makes in Articulating Reasons, that “I have managed to say a lot about conceptual content in this essay, without talking at all about what is represented by such contents” (77). One might say that Brandom has managed to say a lot about the social administration of norms without telling us much about what a norm is (what it materially excludes) or what a society or social administration is.

(62.) There are also passages in TMD that give one pause about the firmness of the distinction between nature and norm, fact and ought. In the Sellars essay, he suggests that responsiveness to norms can be assimilated into, are just another manifestation of, reliable differential responsive dispositions, causally elicited, not the acknowledgment of what there is reason to say. See TMD, 360: “Besides these language entry moves, the language learner must also master the inferential moves in the vicinity of ‘green’: that the move to ‘colored’ is OK, and the move to ‘red’ is not, and so on. Training in these basic language-language moves consists in acquiring more RDRDs, only now the stimuli, as well as the responses, are utterances.” This sounds like Quine at his most behaviorist, not anything to do with Kant or Hegel. But see the bottom of page 626 of MIE on irreducible normativity. Does a trained-up language-language move that is essentially triggered by an utterance-stimulus count as a normative commitment?

(64.) Ibid., 388.

(65.) Antigone and Creon both agree that there is a divine law and a human law and that each should stick to its proper place. Their disagreement is both “material” and not one of brute otherness, but it is nonetheless tragic. They are both right, as Hegel reads it. For more on this issue, see Pippin, Hegel on Self-Consciousness, chap. 2.

(66.) The Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers “dance” of sociality, with entwined, shared commitments, while allowing each his or her own different moves, the particularity of each, is the image Brandom sometimes evokes. See the exchange with Habermas.

(67.) Brandom is certainly willing to state that the entire community may be wrong about what commitments they are entitled to, and that if so, this can only be wrong “by their own lights,” “wrong given how they have committed themselves to its being proper to settle such questions and assess the answers.” This is in footnote 29 to chapter 3 of MIE, on page 674. But Hegel does not treat this as something discoverable by an outside interpreter. He (Hegel) wants to understand what goes wrong in the actual game of giving and asking for reasons when things begin to “go wrong by their own lights,” how that “going wrong” experience plays a role in the establishment of what going rightly would be.

(69.) He does, in “The Structure of Desire and Recognition,” note that a commitment, especially a basic, or identity-constituting commitment, is the sort of thing one will have to make sacrifices for, but he treats the story of a risk of life as a “metonymy” for this sacrifice.

(70.) It is not clear to me why, on Brandom’s premises, he feels entitled to this flat-out claim about “overgeneralization.” Suppose as a matter of empirical fact that all the other scorekeepers agree that the Master is fully entitled to constitute himself as he will. What justifies Brandom’s claim to “overgeneralization”?

(72.) Cf. MIE, 178.

(74.) Ibid., 227.

(75.) Ibid., 229.

(76.) Ibid., 231.

(77.) Brandom calls this aspect of his project “semantic externalism.” See Brandom, “From a Critique of Cognitive Internalism to a Conception of Objective Spirit,” 250, for an interesting application of the notion.

(79.) Moreover, the common-law practice is underdescribed here. By some accounts, what a contemporary judge is trying to do in applying precedent to a new sort of case is to keep faith with an underlying moral principle, the same one animating the earlier decisions, presumably. By other accounts, when the question is what a decider of the earlier case “would now find rational,” the model of rationality is something like “insuring that everyone will be better off, in an economic sense.” In other cases, one tries very hard simply to imagine what a constitution framer or earlier judge would himself (that real person) actually decide now.

(81.) I assume it is obvious that Brandom’s antirealist, rationalist, constructivist account of norms in general will, if believed or “actualized” (verwirklicht), have all sorts of implications in the real world, from daily social practices to the law (where his position again sounds like legal positivism).