Realism and Correlationism: Kant and the Short Argument

Meillassoux takes the correlationist to rely on the following argument:

thought cannot get outside itself in order to compare the world as it is ‘in itself’ to the world as it is ‘for us’, and thereby distinguish what is a function of our relation to the world from what belongs to the world alone. Such an enterprise is effectively self-contradictory, for at the moment when we think of a property as belonging to the world in itself, it is precisely the latter that we are thinking, and consequently this property is revealed to be essentially tied to our thinking about the world. (AF: 4)

This argument is a form of what Karl Ameriks calls the ‘short argument’ to idealism, which often gets attributed to Kant. However, Kant does not make this short argument. Ameriks traces this form of argument to Reinhold, and he notes that it does sometimes appear in the post-Kantian tradition. So, we find Reinhold claiming the following:

What is represented, as object, can come to consciousness and become represented only as modified through the form of representation, and not in a form independent of representation, as it is in itself. (Versuch: 240; quoted in Ameriks FoA: 129)

Reinhold takes it that a need to represent objects for them to be given to consciousness ensures that we cannot come into an epistemic relationship to those objects which could be disentangled from our representations:

The concept of a representation in general contradicts the representation of an object in its distinctive form independent of the form of representation, or the so-called thing in itself; that is, no thing in itself is representable. […]

[T]he object distinguished from the representation […] can only be represented under the form of representation and so in no way as a thing in itself. (Versuch: 244, 246)

So, for Reinhold, because we cannot get outside of our representations, then objects cannot be represented as they are in themselves.

If the correlationist — whatever ‘originary correlation’ they are meant to argue for, and whatever it means to say that they cannot consider its terms independently — has to rely upon this argument as it stands, they are in trouble. This is because the conclusion it argues for is trivial given the way key terms in the argument are understood. Reinhold is trying to prove that we cannot know things in themselves, where he takes knowledge to require that objects are represented to us. But if he tacitly understands ‘things in themselves’ just to be what is not representable, then the conclusion follows all too easily. Thus, on its own, this argument ought to convince no-one.

Meillassoux’s presentation of the argument proceeds in a similar fashion. It seeks to establish an (underspecified) ‘essential tie’ between thought and things in themselves. Like Reinhold, this is meant to undermine the possibility of an epistemic relation to the world as it in itself independently of thought (one that the realist requires to distinguish primary and secondary qualities). The way that it does this is by simply noting that we cannot think of features of the world in itself without the world in itself being the object of that thought. Thus, we must always factor in a correlation between thought and the world in itself when attempting to reflect on the latter. Again, the shallowness of this argument ought to be transparent. Knowledge of the world in itself, as required by the realist, is denied to us because thinking is always present when thinking about the world in itself. However, this is only because here we are to understand knowledge of the world in itself as knowledge where thought is not present. The opposition is simply defined out of existence. Nothing is demonstrated by this argument, and it is no more contentful than Reinhold’s efforts.

* * *

Even with Meillassoux’s distinction between weak and strong correlationism, and the specification of different possible correlates than simply thought and world, I am not yet clear in my own mind what the status of the correlationist’s claim that thought and world must be thought together is meant to be. So, I am hesitant to assert or deny that particular philosophers are correlationists. Besides, I am not sure how useful a discussion along the lines of ‘is x really a correlationist?’ would be. Still, insofar as transcendental idealism can be thought of as introducing some significant relation between thought and world, whether we understand this idealism as metaphysical, formal, methodological or whatever, then it may bear considering in this context.

However we understand the relation between objects and cognition in Kant, I have claimed that we do not find a ‘short argument’. Yet, Kant does claim that objects conform to the conditions of cognition. So, we can ask, how does Kant’s position differ from the ‘short arguments’ dismissed above? This ought not to be of mere historical interest insofar as it can furnish us with alternative arguments for either correlationism or a more plausible relative of it. Speculative realists have an interest in attending to other such strategies insofar as their own positions can develop in dialogue with a wider range of opposition than the colourless proponent of the short argument.

Transcendental idealism famously effects a Copernican turn. Instead of assuming that all our knowledge must conform to objects, Kant ventures a hypothesis: objects must conform to our knowledge. This claim has proven difficult to understand. It is clear that Kant is not asserting an empirical idealism, which holds that objects have a metaphysical dependence upon our epistemic activity or our ‘representations’. Kant denies this when distinguishing his position from what he calls Berkeley’s dogmatic idealism. In the Prolegomena, he calls his position formal idealism, and any dependence of objects upon our knowledge is restricted to the forms of our knowledge. In the Analytic of the first Critique, regarding the categories of the understanding, Kant denies he is engaged in a traditional metaphysical investigation of being qua being (A247=B303). However, it can appear that the Aesthetic claims that our forms of sensibility, namely space and time, are ontological conditions of objects (although Kantians such as Henry Allison and Graeme Bird forcefully argue against such a reading). Whatever the right interpretative approach here, obviously some important connection between formal conditions of knowledge and objects is being asserted. But why? The answer provides some possible motivations for something like a correlationist position which are not simply versions of the short argument.

Kant makes his speculative Copernican hypothesis because he is dissatisfied with metaphysics. When compared with mathematics, say, which also seeks knowledge which is not directly empirical, it can hardly be said to be on the ‘sure path’ of science. For Kant, this was illustrated by the hollowness of metaphysical inquiry into the nature of the soul, God and world, reflected in the the interminable debates in rational psychology, rational theology and rational cosmology which are diagnosed in the Transcendental Dialectic. The problem, he thinks, is that metaphysics has employed theoretical reason in illicit ways, beyond its proper bounds. Traditional metaphysicians have failed to take into account the anthropocentric forms of human cognition, and so constantly come to grief by asking of reason what it cannot deliver. However, this is merely a sketch of some of the territory. There is no swift move from registering the forms of human cognition and towards sealing us off from a non-human world. From the bare fact that it is our cognition, it does not follow that it cannot deliver things in themselves. To attribute such a short argument to Kant on this basis is to ignore the details of Kant’s examination of cognition and his lengthy inquiry into metaphysics.

If transcendental idealism does ultimately count as a form of correlationism, this will be on the basis of the determinate limits on knowledge explored in Kant’s inquiries. These include sensible conditions, intellectual conditions, cognitive conditions governing the relation of the sensible and intelligible (e.g. the discursivity thesis), and rational conditions pertaining to the proper use of practical and theoretical reason. Each is supported by argument and analysis, which vary in success. For example, the intellectual conditions on empirical knowledge include conformity to the categories of the understanding. These conditions on thought are backed by an examination of the forms of judgement, which many people have found problematic and dogmatic. This set of conditions will probably not be the most troubling for the speculative realist though (Kant allows that we can think the thing itself — though whether that is just as a limiting concept is debatable). Rather, it will be the sensible conditions which will be most problematic. These sensible conditions enable objects to be given. Thus, they provide the main receptive framework for cognition, where the understanding provides the main spontaneous framework. Objects are given to sensibility according to its forms, namely space and time. This can seem an unassuming empiricist move: we know about things through spatio-temporal experience. But it goes beyond this insofar as Kant’s Copernican turn makes an a priori pure form of intuition logically prior to objects. Objects are given according to this pure intuition, such that they have formal properties in conformity with this pure form. This can be understood in more or less metaphysical terms. It is where realists will doubtless demur though, since it can seem to impugn the independence of objects from our cognitive apparatus.

Why does Kant embrace something like correlationism here? Some reasons are arguably idiosyncratic. For example, Kant thinks that we require pure forms of intuition to help apply the categories of the understanding (such as existence or plurality) to sensible objects — they bind the a priori and the empirical together ‘schematically’. Also, given his understanding of geometry and arithmetic, pure forms are meant to explain the synthetic a priori status of mathematical knowledge.

What may have a wider resonance though is the role of forms of intuition in grounding Kant’s revised metaphysics. Kant thinks that reason can be shown to fail when, like the rationalists, it strays from the path of possible experience. This was what led metaphysics into darkness. But if objects have to conform to the forms of intuition, then their formal properties can be grasped a priori. So, for any object which is given to us, we can justify limited metaphysical knowledge of it with reference to the pure forms, since nothing can be given that does not conform to these forms. Kant sums it up like this: “reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own.” Now, by my lights, Kant’s specific appeal to pure forms of intuition is not ultimately successful. But it does give a substantive argument for a correlationist-like understanding of the relation between objects and cognition. Furthermore, it outlines a strategy which I think can be made to work, albeit in a heavily revised form, with respect to the normative bases of cognition (and which, in time, I hope to outline).

* * *

A final thought on the question of metaphysics. The metaphysics which Kant seeks to cut down to size is an unbridled rationalism. But speculative realism has typically championed a kind of empirical metaphysics. It seeks to be porous with respect to scientific discovery: it is science which is to be the leading-edge of ontology. I have some limited sympathy with this approach with respect to certain theoretical endeavours, and agree that on the whole there is no need for a metaphysical grounding for science, provided by philosophy. However, I wonder quite how speculative realism will come to understand the status of its own metaphysical claims.

Alexei has raised the problem of normativity in this area: does a radical materialism have the resources to account for its own justification? We are all naturalists now — after a fashion, at least. But speculative realists have adopted a particularly strident form, which does not seem to be friendly to normativity. Just witness Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound. Can it understand, or sufficiently redescribe, the context in which it puts forward its own theory, such that it can allow that such a theory is meaningful, justifiable and truth-apt, whilst cleaving to a sparse materialist metaphysics which admits values, if it all, only in an anti-realist fashion? I will have more to say about this at a later date.

Ethics and the Moral Law, Part III: Paul and Psychoanalysis

In this final post, I want to explore a psychoanalytic interpretation of St. Paul, developing suggestions by Slavoj Žižek amongst others as to how Paul can be read in this fashion. One way to frame this approach is in terms of this question: what, if anything, constitutes the distinctiveness of moral norms? One answer to that question would be to say that they are individuated by being categorically binding on us, holding irrespective of our desires or projects. The way of taking Paul outlined here would warn against dangers attendant to this conception of moral norms which, in setting up an inflexible standard against which we are judged, leads to unproductive results: namely, a psychic economy ruled by the principle of guilt which encourages us to remain submerged in an unhealthy obsession with our own transgressions of law. As he is presented here, Paul seeks to retain the spirit of an engagement with law—the sanctity of the content of what the law demands—while avoiding the problematic effects of the unconditional injunctions that are imposed through the articulation of this spirit in law. To borrow a phrase from Hegel, his aim is thus taken to be “to strip laws of legality, of their legal form.”

All this raises the question of why, if law is so problematic, it arises in the first place. It is often claimed that moral norms have a special role in regulating our relationship with others. A framework of moral norms introduces a common reference point to allow for planning and co-ordination of actions, especially amongst strangers, as well as supporting valuable behaviour such as reciprocity. Insofar as these norms are articulated in laws—whose formal properties introduce universality and unconditionality to them—then this adds a further measure of stability, increasing the degree and predictability of responsiveness to them. Žižek’s explanation of the origin of law takes this to be important, though not for simple prudential reasons, but rather because it helps erase the traumatic contingency present in the actions of others:

the advent of Law entails a kind of ‘disalienation’: in so far as the Other itself appears submitted to the ‘absolute condition’ of Law, the subject is no more at the mercy of the Other’s whim, its desire is no more totally alienated in the Other’s desire … it opens our access to desire by enabling us to disengage ourselves from the rule of the Other’s whim.

So, the specific problem of negotiating our relation to others calls for a system of law that makes obedience unconditional, seeking to dissociate compliance from our whims. Yet this creates a new problem, for the nature of the injunctions imposed is superegoic. As Jodi Dean explains this aspect of law:

This traumatic, senseless injunction is also the psychoanalytic notion of the superego. Superego issues unconditional commands, telling us what to do, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing even to consider our specific circumstances, needs, or desires.

Here we find a description that seems to be of a piece with morality as construed categorically.

A misconception that it would be easy to arrive at would be to suppose that, insofar as we accept there is a superegoic dimension to law—some oppressive moment within it such that we are brutalised by an insistent challenge to fulfil a set of absolute demands—then Paul’s problem with law would be that it leads to such a stark and demanding task for us. However, matters are more complex given the superego’s equally important ties to enjoyment which arise in two ways. Firstly, the absolute injunctions of the superego are not just occasions for guilt, for there can be a perverse satisfaction in the very act of renouncing one’s ‘official’ desires. Examples of this narcissistic attachment to asceticism abound, from the stereotype of the old Irish woman who is prepared to go to preposterous lengths to accommodate the smallest desires of her guests, to the Nazis described by Arendt who got a kick out of committing acts they genuinely considered to be disgusting and unspeakable but were carried out all in the name of the greater good of the Fatherland. Secondly, one of the injunctions of the superego is itself ‘Enjoy!’, such that we can find ourselves feeling guilty and inadequate if we do not squeeze every drop of satisfaction out of our leisure time, if our social calendar is not brimming over with enticing engagements, and so on. Thus, the superego stands in a complex relation that ties together both guilt and enjoyment. So, on the one hand we have the public moral law whose presuppositions are that although we may find enjoyment in transgressing the law, we will feel guilty if we do. However, the peculiar logic of the superego means that our attitude to the public law is accompanied by an ‘obscene’ underside such that we can equally find enjoyment in renouncing our desires and not transgressing the law, and so too we can feel guilty if we do not follow through on our desires and fail to break the law.

Along these lines, the problem for Paul might then be construed not simply as the fact that we are averse to the weighty impositions of the law but rather that we are simultaneously too attached to them in other respects. Not only does law prohibit sin, it orders our psychic life around what is forbidden—sin becomes a structure for organising one’s enjoyment, which given the haywire network of relations between duty, transgressions of the law, guilt and enjoyment, makes the sinful at once abhorrent and desirable. The way to escape this problem would be to find a way of carrying out the task of the law, which is to manage interpersonal relations, while suppressing the ‘obscene’ underside to law.

Žižek’s suggestion as to what Paul’s solution to this problem is picks up on Paul’s opposition of the law to love. We are to be reconciled to our neighbour by loving them as themselves. Žižek opposes other modes of reconciliation to this model, most notably any approach that tries to bridge the gap between me and others based on the rights of the other. As Dean puts it:

The symbolic neighbour is the abstract subject of rights. Here my respect is ultimately my respect for law, my sense of duty to the law. And this of course reconnects me to my complex relationship to law, my enjoyment of law as well as the enjoyment I get from transgressing it.

Paul’s solution is supposed to be a recommendation to embrace one’s neighbour in their very giveness—including their strangeness, unintelligibility, wickedness, and so on—and not as an abstract subject whose place is delineated by law.

Given that we now begin to relate to our neighbour outside of the framework of law, does this mean that we can simply transgress the law? Perhaps the best way of taking Paul here would be as saying that by radically refusing to interact at a disengaged level, willing only to do one’s duty, to contribute no more than what is due, our relations with people are no longer appropriately measured by the yardstick of law. No doubt we will end up conforming to what the law would have required of us if we fully embrace the maxim of love for one’s neighbour. However, the mode of engagement with the world that made talk of law intelligible will have been superseded—it will be ill-fitting and, moreover, even judging oneself at all by the old standard of law, even if not cleaving to it, risks rehabilitating an unhealthy relation to the notion of sinfulness.

Ethics and the Moral Law, Part II: Saint Paul

This is the second post on law and its place within ethics. Here I examine St. Paul’s thoughts on these matters. I should add that I am not too familiar with many of the details of Paul, so please look kindly on any errors or omissions.

The context of Paul’s writing

Although Paul has been subject to political and philosophical appropriation, we ought to keep in mind the religious context of his extant writings. His letters are written to fledgling Christian communities, variously intended to counsel, cajole and console their immediate readers on religious affairs and matters of communal conduct that are entwined with these. They are not primarily theoretical treatises but rather practical interventions undergirded by an implicit framework threaded through Paul’s thought that must often be inferred by piecing together the apparent presuppositions of disparate sections of text. This means that in trying to discern a relatively consistent Pauline position we are often confronted with ambiguities to resolve as to the scope of what Paul says—whether and how far it is intended to carry beyond the particularities of the specific context that surrounds it, and if his thought remains viable when so extended. I shall mention two of these ambiguities that we should take into account.

Firstly, we are concerned with Paul’s thought on law, but given the religious context there are two sets of possibilities to consider as to what ‘law’ amounts to and whether its meaning remains consistent throughout. One way of taking Paul is as questioning the Abrahamic law of the Jews, one tied to them in their particularised status as the people of the covenant, and thus a law that is not truly universal. Alternatively, it may be the very form of law in general that Paul is questioning, whether truly universal or not. So too, we might take whatever law it is in question as being a narrowly religious matter, important insofar as it affects our relationship with the divine. Or instead, we might conceive the law as pertinent in its relationship to a richer ethical conception of the good of which the divine may be an integral component but not of exclusive importance, being supplemented by the value deriving from a properly ordered relationship towards ourselves and others. This also leads us to the second question as to the scope of Paul’s thought. That is, how far it is dependent upon his soteriological concerns, which for us becomes the following question: do viable philosophical positions remain when we subtract Paul’s conviction that Jesus is the Son of God? Both these issues—over the meaning of ‘law’ and the centrality of soteriology—I merely wish to flag here as something that we should recall throughout. Given the particular approaches to Paul considered here, the assumption will be that (unless otherwise stated) the law in question is universal and of relevance to wider ethical matters. The soteriological elements of Paul’s thought will be touched upon in the following section.

Pauline biblical scholarship and the Law

Modern biblical scholarship on the question of Paul’s attitude towards law can be divided into two main camps. Each finds Paul to have a different problem with the law (either Judaic or universal). We can briefly characterise them as follows. Until the late nineteen-seventies, a Lutheran perspective on Paul’s treatment of law was orthodox. It takes Paul’s problem with law to be its tendency to encourage an attitude that overemphasises works to the detriment of faith: the notion that salvation is primarily a matter of external practice rather than our subjective comportment towards the divine and the mercy of God. The so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’ has challenged this diagnosis of Paul’s criticism of law, claiming instead that the problem with law is, as it is often put, simply that it is not Christ. This Christological interpretation of Paul is variously finessed by commentators, but a common core is constituted by the idea that the law has been fulfilled, in the sense of supplanted, by the resurrection—this event making the law redundant, or at least marginal. Here, I shall concentrate on the first approach outlined.

What I have called broadly ‘Lutheran’ interpretations give a central place to the idea that a fixation on law will give rise to a misplaced works-righteousness. There are several ways of taking this criticism of law.

Firstly, we may think that it proclaims a simple doctrinal error that is liable to lead the Christian astray. The problem with conceiving law as integral to salvation would be that it attributes duties as a condition of being saved, whereas a Lutheran protestant will affirm that the Christian is ‘justified by faith alone’. This is not a problem with law per se, only its relation to salvation. For it is quite consistent to suppose that we are subject to the authority of law (whether particularised or universal) and even that this is a good thing, only that our soteriological standing swings freely of matters of law—even religiously sourced laws—being secured by our faith alone. Thus, it seems that not much light is thrown on the role of law from these considerations. A second way of taking the criticism that law encourages a misplaced works-righteousness is to suppose that there is a contrast being drawn between the righteousness secured by our doing the work mandated by law and the righteousness to be found in God. The problem with law identified here would be that it nurtures a prideful attitude that focuses upon one’s personal achievement in carrying out the demands of the law. For if salvation is conceived primarily as a matter of our relation to the dictates of law, of meeting a fixed criterion, then we could be thought to be insufficiently humble inasmuch as we are led to conceptualise it as product of human labour rather than bestowed by God—something that disregards the gift of God’s grace. Again, as a freestanding critique of the role of law then this is not hugely enlightening.

However, if we probe a little deeper into the assumptions behind these positions we can make some progress. For we can ask why it is that the Lutheran thinks that we can only be justified by faith alone and that confidence in law would be misplaced and sinful in its pride. What lies behind both these positions is a fundamental pessimism about humanity’s capacity to do good and thus somehow earn their salvation instead of being dependent on divine dispensation. Our only hope is justification by faith since we cannot achieve it on our own, and from this it also follows that trusting in human dutifulness to the law as a means of salvation is a vain overestimation of our own powers. Of particular philosophical interest here is the belief that it is not so much man’s appetitive weakness that is to blame—that we will inevitably transgress the law through our susceptibility to the temptations of sin—but rather that it is our reason that is deficient. What we are incapable of doing is determining what the law requires, our post-lapsarian state leaving us with an insufficient capacity to work out the ends proper to man, the law that we are subject to in connection with these ends and the correct application of this law in concretio, without the intervention of God’s grace at every step.

One way of extracting a philosophical lesson from this purportedly Pauline insistence upon fide sola is to notice its implications for the relation between the right and the good. We can frame this matter through the claim that the view of Paul presented is an anti-constructivist one. Constructivist accounts of a discourse (say, ethics or science, etc.) take the truth-value of the propositions that compose it to be a function of correctly following a certain procedure in reasoning to these propositions; there is no anterior fact of the matter divorced from the procedure. For example, a scientific constructivist might explicate the truth of a physical theory by saying that all it means to say that the theory is true is that the scientific method was correctly followed in formulating it, where this method would be constituted by a set of rules pertaining to standards for the collection of data, allowable inferences from this data, coherence with other well-established theories, and so on. Note the relation this establishes between the ends of a constructive procedure and the principles that make up this procedure. Ordinarily, we take norms for action to be answerable to our goals—what recommends following a certain procedure is that allows us to achieve some end that is of prior value; indeed, we appraise such norms based on their success in this respect. Those who are constructivist with respect to a certain domain reverse this relationship in that they take potentially correct ends to be delimited by a set of authoritative principles governing action. In other words, they privilege the right (that mandated by some set of rules governing obligations and permissions) over the good (the proper ends of ourselves or our practices); in conjunction with ‘materials of construction’ (what the constructive procedure is applied to), the former will determine the latter. 

Paul might be taken to be criticising views that give such a primacy to the right on two counts. In warning us about giving too much weight to law, alongside a pessimistic view of human reason (which it must be said is hard to discern in Paul’s text without independent Lutheran assumptions), Paul’s criticism of works-righteousness could be construed along the following lines. If it is following the law that secures salvation (where we might substitute the achievement of ethical good for salvation), then we must be able to grasp this law and apply it correctly in concretio for it is only by correctly following the procedure set out by the norms encoded in the law that we are able to secure salvation. However, since human reason is deficient in its ability to correctly understand and apply the law on its own, we must rely on the grace of God if we are to carry out the work of the law. So, even if at an explanatory level we suppose that the right (in the form of the law) determines the good (in the form of the meritorious works that secure our salvation) it would be wrong to take up an attitude of righteousness with respect to works of law-following. This is because at the level of practical action we cannot achieve the right—we cannot first follow the procedure correctly–-if we do not have the faith that makes us receptive to grace which allows us to enact the law. Thus, it will always be an error to fixate on the law, for without humbly turning away from the question of our own righteousness, of our place as measured against the criterion of the law, in order to stand in God’s righteousness (a move away from being concerned with our own value and toward a faithful conviction in God’s) we are unable to grasp the law at all. An initial disregard for the law thus becomes a condition of following it at all.

If we try to translate this into a more secular critique though, we face some problems. For example, why should we accept scepticism about the power of reason if we can no longer in good faith indulge in the jouissance provided by self-abasing Protestant stories about the post-lapsarian feebleness of humanity? Perhaps if, in a Humean fashion, we thought that the legitimate role of reason was merely instrumental, not itself setting ends but merely devising means. Given such a model, we might share the suspicion over our ability to successfully reason about the law, for we might think that reason had no substantive role to play in discovering or directing our proper ends. Thus, taken simply by itself, reasoning about the principles embodied in the law would have no claim to be able to determine what we ought to do. As independently unattractive as such a conception of reason is anyway, the Lutheran-Pauline position is even more sceptical about the powers of reason than this though. For the proponent of a merely instrumental reason would accept that we could adopt the principles of the law for some further reason (a desire to please God, say, not simply reasoning to them for their own sake). Yet, the Lutheran- Pauline position would maintain that we could not even follow the law in this instance, since their scepticism extends to our ability to ascertain the correct application of the law, utilising it even when we have decided that it is fitting for us to adopt it. It is hard to motivate such a pessimistic conception of reason when divorced from a religious setting.

Perhaps we can make something of the warning about an excessive fixation on law though. For although we can read the Lutheran-Pauline position as being one that announces our utter dependence upon the mercy of God, that human effort is insufficient to achieve salvation, we can also see it as containing a lesson about the subjective attitude that we should take towards law. So instead of seeing our ability to correctly follow the norms embodied in law as dependent on the de facto dispensation of grace from God, we might see the structure of our attitude towards God as the real achievement that allows us to correctly follow the law. The idea here would be that in privileging faith over law we can discern a schema that can be applied outside a narrowly religious context. For we can understand Paul’s talk of faith (pistis) as the hopeful waiting upon grace (kharis), but take this to be a placeholder for the wider need for a certain openness—receptivity—to something beyond the law. We are still dealing here with a supplemental approach to the law, one that denies that we can just follow the law by straightforwardly understanding its dictates, but the locus for this necessary supplement to law would no longer have to be a divine one.

A secularised way of taking Paul along these lines could develop the thought that salvation cannot simply be earned by the mechanical adoption of some procedure derived from law. We might think that a narrow concern with meeting the letter of the law will miss its true purpose, ignoring what it is that animates it and makes it valuable at all (whether this be God or the achievement of human good). Thus, we risk tacitly treating law as itself constitutive of the good, as an end in itself, rather than an instrument to achieve our true ends. This is not an epistemic matter of, as it were, simply recalling in the abstract that the law serves a purpose beyond itself. Rather, if the law is to function as an instrument, we should attend to both its final purpose and what it is instrumentally applied to. Conceived as an instrument for achieving ethical good rather than salvation, in the schema previously outlined we can substitute an openness to grace (to direction by God) for an openness to secular factors which can guide our application of the law in concretio. As in the religious case, this will supplement the necessarily relatively ‘thin’ directives of the law with a ‘thicker’ method that can help guide us in what to do in actual practice.

One suggestion as for a secular factor able to play this role, substituting for pistis in Paul, would be enculturation—the habituation into a social tradition that allows us to recognise certain reasons as compelling. This would be a more intelligible variety of influence on our ability to apply the law, rather than being a mysterious openness to grace so as to receive a measure of God’s ‘maker’s knowledge’ of the law, it would reflect an attunement to the social ground that provides the context in which the function of the law, in enabling us to achieve certain goods, becomes intelligible. In this way, by supplementing a tight focus on the letter of the law alone—one that sees only a list of demands divorced from their rationale—with the resources required to reach a richer understanding of the tasks animating it, it should be possible to apply the law more adeptly.

Ethics and the Moral Law, Part I: Anscombe

Larval Subjects has a good post up on deontological ethics. I am sympathetic to some of his antinomian sentiments, though I often find myself drifting back and forth between Aristotle and Kant in ethics (being the good Hegelian that I am). I’ve written a little bit about law-conceptions of ethics and their critics, and thought this would be a timely opportunity to post some of the results. This first post will deal with Elizabeth Anscombe and the second will move onto Saint Paul. Readers interested in this topic might also want to have a look at this previous post on Hegel and laws or this one on Anscombe and MacIntyre.

Modern Moral Philosophy

At the centre of Anscombe’s attack on modern moral philosophy, set out in her classic paper of the same name, is the concept of moral obligation. Part of the reason that her treatment of this concept is of interest is that she is sensitive to the historical grounds of its employment, noting the context in which it arose and became a fundamental notion for modern moral thought in an attempt to show that only under certain conditions–ones that are no longer widely believed to hold–is it coherent to speak of an emphatically moral obligatoriness.

Here I want to question the historical narrative that Anscombe presents us with, arguing that it may be problematic on two counts. These potential difficulties will be explored with reference to the religious elements of her account, where the divine law is invoked as the only viable way of construing moral obligation. The second of the worries I shall highlight is that she overlooks the diversity of thought within what she calls the “Hebraic-Christian ethic.” For Anscombe is too hasty insofar as she tacitly ascribes a relative unity to Christian thought in supposing that such thought should be seen as going hand in hand with the view that morality is seen as originating in divine law. But before addressing this point, another objection to her historical narrative will be considered-one that promises to be more threatening to her positive project-which claims that, even within the tradition of those who have believed morality to stem from divine law, Anscombe mischaracterises the way this has been conceived. Firstly though, some of the relevant main features of Anscombe’s strategy will be outlined briefly.

Anscombe’s strategy

Anscombe’s paper opens with a statement of three theses, the second of which will concern us here:

the concepts of obligation, and duty-moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say-and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of ‘ought’, ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives of survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.

Here we see the historical dimension to Anscombe’s thought: emphatic moral concepts once made sense given the context of an earlier ethics, but without such a context they no longer do, becoming confused and out of joint to the extent that our use of them is actually harmful. The context that the emphatically moral sense of ‘ought’ arose from, and in which it is thought to have its natural home, is that of a law conception of ethics. Thus, ‘ought’ gained a moral sense in certain circumstances that was synonymous with the sort of requirement or obligation that one could be said to be subject to through coming under the authority of a law. Anscombe claims that it acquired such a special sense (that is, one in addition to the sense of ‘ought’ in which to say that a machine ought to be oiled means that it is liable to break otherwise) through the enormous influence of Christianity. For it had a law conception of ethics that understood what it is to be ‘bad qua human’ to be a failure connected with falling short of a divine law.

Given this diagnosis, it is not immediate apparent what Anscombe’s strategy is. As is suggested by the quote above and by other sections of her paper, it might simply be to drop talk of the moral ‘ought’ altogether, reverting to what Williams calls ‘thick’ moral concepts, such as justice or honesty. This rejection of the moral ‘ought’ would be premised upon the unsustainability of the law conceptions of ethics without which it loses its meaning. Anscombe certainly is disparaging of modern attempts to rehabilitate the notion of an ethics of law, like certain understandings of Kantian self-legislation. Yet Anscombe was herself a Christian who held to the divine law, so where does that leave her position? It seems that it should be read as an attack on the incoherence of those who employ emphatic moral concepts yet themselves lack an adequate law conception of ethics that would make these concepts intelligible. For her then, a law conception of ethics is not untenable in itself, but only insofar as it is divorced from the support of a religious framework. The crucial phrase in her second thesis comes when she says that emphatic moral concepts ought to be jettisoned because they are derived from “an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives.” Recognising the de facto decline of a religious moral culture in favour of a secular one, Anscombe would be warning against importing concepts that only make sense in the first tradition into the latter climate where, without the necessary framework guiding their use, then they are bound to become mangled and perverted, as she thinks happened in the post-Sedgwick English tradition. So, whilst herself holding onto a Catholicised Thomism that combines law and virtue, she would be recommending a non-divinised virtue ethics for those unwilling to embrace a religious ethics.

Obligation and law

Having now outlined some aspects of Anscombe’s argumentative strategy, the first potentially problematic feature of Anscombe’s position that I want to consider stems from her treatment of the concept of law. In doing so, I want to pick up on the unease that has been expressed to a greater or lesser extent in different places with respect to the details of how she seems to understand this concept, its relations to those such as commandment and its place in the Christian tradition. One way to begin to articulate concern with Anscombe’s position in this respect would be to focus on her idea that emphatic moral concepts have lost their roots: their connection to a tradition that both illuminates them and endows the moral ‘ought’ with a meaning over and above what she calls that of “a word of mere mesmeric force.” For Anscombe’s suggestion as to how they lost their grounding, through the loss of their connection to the religious framework of divine legislation, highlights a potentially problematic understanding of what moral obligatoriness amounts to. This is one that both can appear independently unattractive and also at best marginal within the very Christian tradition that it is meant to be representative of.

Thomas Pink claims: “For a virtuous action not only to be virtuous, but actually to be morally obligatory, in Anscombe’s view, just is for that action to be commanded of us by a moral law-giver.” If this is what it means to be morally obligatory, then continuing to talk in terms of this emphatic moral obligation in the absence of the inferentially constitutive concepts of God, divine authority, commands that are promulgated to us, and so on, is liable to lead to some confusion. It is certainly something along these lines that Anscombe is getting at when she says, “It is as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten.” Yet, is this what moral obligation means, either now or even at the height of theories of divine law in the late Middle Ages? Here we might question two aspects of the definition of moral obligation. Firstly, we can ask a question implicit in Pink’s work, is moral obligation reducible to the dictates of the divine law? Secondly, as Onora O’Neill hesitantly wonders in connection to Anscombe, is divine law here actually understood as divine command?

There clearly is a Christian tradition that locates the source of moral obligation in God and whose proponents are often referred to as ‘divine command theorists.’ Yet, this does not mean that for them moral obligation simply is divine command or legislation–that the former is semantically or explanatorily inexplicable without reference to the second. We can quite consistently suppose that all moral obligation has its source in God’s dictates while explaining what moral obligation is, or taking it as primitive, in a way that makes it independent of the divine. This is to say that the concept of moral obligation can be distinct from the concept of what is divinely dictated, even if moral obligation happens to arise through divine command or legislation. For it may be that coming to be morally obligated to do something requires certain conditions to be fulfilled–whether that is being commanded to do so by God, being the action that maximises utility, etc.–yet the moral obligatoriness does not have to be identified with its cause; the moral obligation is the normative claim upon us, and this we do not have to identify with the authoritative structures that generate this claim on us. This line of thought cautions against the potential category error of simply equating an object or event (e.g. God commanding you to do x) with the normative power it gives rise to (e.g. the moral obligation to x), for even if it is the former that give rise to the latter this does not mean that the latter are no more than the former. Thus, it may seem that Anscombe would have to do more to bridge the gap between moral obligation and divine dictates if she is to show that moral obligation becomes incoherent when removed from a religious framework, with it lacking some sort of independent basis.

The second question raised asks about Anscombe’s understanding of law. She often uses ‘law’ and ‘command’ in a seemingly interchangeable way, but does this accompany a deeper conflation of the concepts of law and command? O’Neill expresses the suspicion that Anscombe actually thought in terms of divine command when claiming to be discussing divine legislation, ignoring the crucial formal differences between laws and commands, instead treating divine law as fiat. But what is characteristic of laws is their universality, something O’Neill expresses by saying that they “prescribe for all cases within their scope.” We might think of this in Kantian terms, as no doubt O’Neill is predisposed to, whereby this universality characteristic of law is important insofar as its moral function is to confront the temptation to make an exception in one’s own case. Transfigured into a religious dimension this might become an insistence on law so as to oppose something like the following thought, ‘Ordinarily doing this would be wrong, but God has special plans for me that require me to do it.’

Evidence that O’Neill points to so as to demonstrate this lack of awareness of the distinct formal structure of laws is Anscombe’s focus upon the source of law, this being her only objection to those who advance law conceptions of ethics without a divine element. To expand upon O’Neill’s hints, perhaps a good example of this is Anscombe’s brutally swift dismal of Kantian self-legislation:

Kant introduces the idea of ‘legislating for oneself’, which is as absurd as if in these days, when majority votes command great respect, one were to call each reflective decision a man made a vote resulting in a majority, which as a matter of proportion is overwhelming, for it is always 1-0. The concept of legislation requires superior power in the legislator.

Yet this rather misses the point, for with respect to the notion of self-legislation the emphasis is very much on the legislation rather than the role of the self (O’Neill may demur at this point). What is important here is not the misleading picture of the agent that somehow binds or outvotes itself, but rather the fact that the agent is following maxims with the formal structure of laws, stripped of all partiality. In following these rationalised maxims, ones where no unjustifiable exceptions are made simply because it is I who is acting, we act in a way proper to being whose nature is itself infused with rationality, with the laws thus no longer being alien impositions: this is the self-legislative component.

Anscombe shows little sensitivity to the formal universality of laws, here or elsewhere. Her focus is upon the source of law, which she thinks must be divine if it is to be sufficiently authoritative, appears indifferent to the fact it is law under discussion at all. This seems to prevent her from appreciating some of attractions of the key alternative law conceptions of ethics that are relatively independent of a divine legalism. So, given that Anscombe thinks that emphatic moral concepts only make sense when allied to a law conception of ethics, of a legalistic sense of right and wrong, then it may seem little wonder that she is eager to recommend rejecting talk of the emphatic moral ‘ought’ for those who wish to adhere to a secular ethics. Yet, as we have seen, even the divine command tradition itself, not to mention other strains of Christian thought, does not seem to provide her with unambiguous support. This is because the implications of Anscombe’s second thesis may seem to require that the emphatic moral concepts are prone to be deployed incoherently outside of a divine command conception of ethics because all there is to moral obligation is to be divinely commanded, whereas it seems we could employ an independent notion of moral obligation, as someone like Suarez purportedly does. Arguably, this is not a decisive objection though insofar as we may think that even with some understanding of what moral obligation would amount to outside of the explanatory framework of a divine law conception of ethics, there would be still be systematic pressures disposing us to incoherent moral judgements insofar as we would still be unable to make sense of the source of moral obligation since secular ethics will not appeal to God as legislator and will require some as yet unproven stand-in. In this situation, we may be best advised to explore the aretaic alternatives like Anscombe suggest.

St. Paul and Hegel

Here, in this section I want to pick up on what it is a surprising omission from Anscombe’s account given her Christian convictions, even given the polemical style of her paper. This is that there is next to no consideration of anti-legalistic conceptions of ethics from those within the Christian tradition. Her references to ‘Hebraic-Christian’ thought occlude not just minor cosmetic differences amongst religious thinkers about the relation between law, morality and the divine but also radical disagreements over the relation of these three notions. Here, I shall briefly point to two such thinkers, Saint Paul and Hegel–hardly insignificant figures.

Paul had good reason to confront a law conception of ethics inasmuch as it was a pressing political issue within the early Church. The evangelising that Paul dedicated his attention to was faced with a pressing practical problem, one that required Paul to devise a theoretical, but no less concrete, solution. (Here we can see why Paul’s reputation amongst Marxists as the Lenin of Christianity is well deserved!) The problem concerned the issue of whether new initiates into the Church should be required to hold to the Abrahamic law; a matter that crystallised over whether they ought to be circumcised or not. Paul was torn between placating Jewish Christians who were predominantly in favour of a hardline adherence to the Jewish law and the Gentile Christians who were not eager to adopt a strange new set of legalistic injunctions.

It can be tempting to read this debate as one with a narrow relevance, of a dispute over the merely particularised traditional law of the Jews and so of little relevance to our concerns, those of the moral law in general. However, this would be a mistake. This is because Paul stresses throughout his letters that what is at stake in this conflict is Christian identity as such, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. Condensed in this opposition is not the particular ethnicised law of the Jews against its rejection; rather, it is the opposition between particular law and the universal ‘cosmic’ law. In rejecting the disjunction of Jew or Gentile, in saying neither/nor, Paul thus rejects law in general. Or rather, he asserts the priority of love over law, which it is tempting to read as akin to an assertion of the priority of the good over the right. Paralleling this subsumption of law under love is one that similarly subsumes duty under grace (kharis): one is not redeemed by works, one cannot ‘earn one’s due’ that way. So, rather than the divine acting as a source of legislation as in Anscombe, Paul thus marginalises any legalistic obligatoriness more forcefully than she does. Although all this is articulated in a religious mode, Paul is rather paradoxically in many ways a stridently secular thinker; at least, he has been easily appropriated by some materialists in this spirit. For obvious reasons though, he is not a central figure in moral philosophy, despite his relevance to issues such as the law conception of ethics and although much of his thought is deep and tacitly argumentative enough to merit it.

Finally then, we can go on to consider Hegel as another anti-legalistic thinker who remains in the Christian tradition, but again whose opposition to a law conception of ethics is somewhat different than Anscombe’s critique. The Philosophy of Right does have a place for moral laws within the structures of Sittlichkeit, though arguably in a muted and secondary role. Here though, I shall maintain the religious theme by considering Hegel’s early theological writings, which attack law conceptions of ethics in an even more polemical fashion than Anscombe.

Of particular relevance here is the extended, unpublished essay, ‘The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate.’ This represents Hegel’s first extended reckoning with Kant and in which the latter’s legalism along with his formalism is indicted. The hero of the tale, who Hegel often opposes to Kant, is Jesus. This is a Jesus who is a radically anti-legalistic figure, as can be seen from a representative passage:

The spirit of Jesus, a spirit raised above morality, is visible, directly attacking laws, in the Sermon on the Mount, which is an attempt, elaborated in numerous examples, to strip laws of legality, of their legal form.

The morality that Jesus is said to be above here is, of course, Kantian Moralität; and the problem with this morality is ineluctably entwined with its articulation in laws to which we are obligated. More fully, this problem is the split that Hegel sees it as nurturing within the subject between reason and inclination, divisively setting two aspects of the subject into conflict.

Hegel’s solution is, unsurprisingly, a complex one but as with Paul there is no straightforward rejection of law. Rather, in a deeply Pauline fashion, Hegel appeals to the fulfilment (πλήρωμα) of law through love: one that, so to speak, suspends its letter in the name of its spirit. The full details would take us too far afield, so all I wish to note are the deep affinities between these two Christian-centric critiques of law conceptions of the ethical. This makes it all the more strange that Hegel never explicitly mentions Paul. Nevertheless, my closing suggestion is that they might be profitably read together against Anscombe as anti-legalistic thinkers who take this opposition to law to be at the very essence of the Christian tradition and not a melancholy necessity imposed by its decline.

Draft Review of Hammer’s ‘German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives’

Comments, whether stylistic or substantive, very welcome!

Espen Hammer (ed.): German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives, London, Routledge, 2007, pp. 339. £18.99 pbk. ISBN 0-415-37305-0.

Update: I’ve taken down this post as the review is now forthcoming in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy in early 2009. Look out for it there…

Update II: The review is available online to subscribers here.

The Authority of Reasons

We might think that Brandom’s constructivism—with its claim that norms are only authoritative for us to the extent that we acknowledge them to be—is the most faithful way of developing the Enlightenment idea of a self-authorising subject. However, it is not clear that such a constructivist approach to normativity is stable, and furthermore it threatens to leave us with a deeply unattractive conception of freedom. There are several ways of spelling out these particular worries, but a common thread running through them is a suspicion concerning the move from a situation where we are not subject to the force of reasons and to one where we are so subject.

If Brandom’s constructivism is meant to be a radical one, applying to all norms inclusive of the fundamental norms of rationality, then we are in a position where prior to engaging in self-legislative activity then legislating in one way rather than another will be unconstrained by reasons. But if that is so then the sort of freedom that we are exercising in our decision to legislate in a certain way will be empty, being little more than ‘arbitrary self-launching’ (in Larmore’s phrase). With no basis to decide how to legislate, the power to do so appears devoid of the liberatory potential it seemed to promise. So, this suggests that we must admit that at least some sort of rational constraint on our activity must be operative prior to the process of binding ourselves through self-legislation. But if we can be realists about the sorts of reasons that these norms provide us with, why not be realists about other sorts of reason too? Moreover, to the extent we are not realists in some particular domain, the sort of freedom that the constructivist can thereby offer us will appear, if not incoherent, then at least unfulfilling insofar as self-legislation not already subject to rational constraint can now seem to slide into mere caprice.

These sorts of considerations, advanced against Brandom’s broadly constructivist attempt to reconcile freedom and rational constraint, suggest that we would fare better with a realist approach that does not make the authority of reasons to compel us a product of us taking them to be authoritative. However, this move raises a whole new set of difficulties. If we are to appeal to the existence of reasons possessing an authority independent of our endorsement, then ought we not offer a theory that explains the metaphysical status of these potentially mysterious items, along with an account of how they come to have any bearing upon our everyday activities?

McDowell’s appeal to such independent reasons recognises some philosophical demands here. However, the thrust of his approach is to try to make it respectable to refuse to give a theory that provides a philosophical grounding for such reasons in such a way as to straightforwardly refute a sceptic about them. In this way, it is in deep sympathy with the spirit of Wittgenstein’s therapeutic approach to philosophy, which McDowell draws on heavily.[1] This project should not be confused with one that dogmatically asserts its confidence in the existence of such independent reasons, and instead it is one that requires real philosophical work in an attempt to justify its opposition to the demand to give such a theory. This makes it a non-standard case of realism and is perhaps best approached without such a label in mind.

McDowell’s early work on ethics gives some sense of his overall approach to reasons in general.[2] In that work, he agrees with ethical anti-realists like Bernard Williams that values—for our purposes, the source of ethical (and aesthetic) reasons—are not part of the ‘absolute conception of the world,’ in the sense in which they are not there independently of us as ethical agents and inquirers. However, McDowell does not draw a straightforward anti-realist moral from this though. Instead, he exploits an analogy with secondary properties, such as colour, to show that there is another sense of a reason being there independently of us that is much less objectionable:

Values are not brutely there—not there independently of our sensibility—any more than colours are: though, as with colours, this does not prevent us from supposing that they are there independently of any apparent experience of them.[3]

Suggestive as this analogy is, philosophical controversy over the status of secondary properties like colour can threaten to obscure what I take to be McDowell’s central point here. This point is that just because an appeal to our responsiveness as human agents to features of the world is required to understand something (colour, ethical value, beauty, danger, etc.) this should not impugn the sense in which we can characterise that thing correctly or incorrectly; the status of our judgements about it are not thereby second-rate. McDowell echoes this point when he goes on to object to the projectivist’s conception of what belongs to reality originally and what has to be projected on to it. This distinction between what the projectivist takes to belong to reality, McDowell claims stems from “a contentiously substantial version of the correspondence theory of truth, with the associated picture of genuinely true judgement as something to which the judger makes no contribution at all.”[4] It is this conception of what true judgement consists in (something specifiable from outside of our own perspective as beings-in-the-world) that McDowell thinks is undermotivated; and it is this idea which provides a way into understanding aspects of his later work which will concern us.[5]

In place of his analogy of reason-giving values with secondary properties, McDowell later comes to articulate his position in dialogue with the post-Kantian philosophical tradition. This leads him to many of his most notable formulations, such as the idea that the conceptual sphere is unbounded. What this might mean, and why anyway would want to maintain it, we will now go on to see. This will provide us with a general conception of what McDowell thinks responsiveness to reasons that are there anyway is which is not limited to ethical or aesthetic reasons. This should allow us to grasp what McDowell takes rational constraint to consist in and thus also how he proposes to understand our freedom as coming to act under such constraint.

McDowell gives a simplified account of Kant’s response to (what he takes to be) Hume’s position.[6] Hume is supposed to have thought that reason is unable to find an intelligible order in the world beyond that which it itself produces in operations that themselves must be understood to take place in a nature devoid of intelligible order. For example, Hume famously denies that reason can justify the judgement that events cause one another rather than have merely been constantly conjoined, since there is no basis for supposing that the second event followed from the first of necessity, which is what the concept of causation implies. Kant rescues concepts like causation from this Humean scepticism (one which McDowell also advances reasons for thinking is incoherent on its own terms) by opposing the disenchanted conception of nature that figures in Hume’s thinking. For him, the world must be taken to have an intelligible order—to stand inside the space of logos or reasons—though this is taken to operate on two levels: transcendental and empirical.[7] Seen from a transcendental perspective, the world is seen to be constituted from a joint cooperation between a meaning-conferring structure of subjectivity and a meaning-lacking ‘in itself’ that exists independently of this structure. McDowell thinks that such a conception of how world possesses an intelligible structure succumbs to a pernicious form of idealism that, through making the world in some sense a product of ourselves, cuts us off from the world as it is in itself rather than connects us to it.

In place of Kant’s transcendental perspective, McDowell thinks that we only need call upon the empirical perspective, along with the dispensing with the idea of an ‘in itself’ in a move familiar from Kant’s successors. For McDowell, it is important to hold onto the idea that our judgements mirror the world but holding onto this idea requires thinking of the world as always-already apt to be conceptualised. As McDowell puts it:

mirroring cannot be both faithful, so that it adds nothing in the way of intelligible order, and such that in moving from what is mirrored to what does the mirroring, one moves from what is brutely alien to the space of logos to what is internal to it. […] [T]he natural world is in the space of logos. [8]

This position is thus a variety of epistemological rationalism which expresses the idea that the world can be grasped through the use of reason without us necessarily falsifying that world by projecting structures onto it that are not already present in it.[9] If this idea that the world already falls within the bounds of the space of logos—the intelligible order which can support normative relations—can be defended then it would seem to open up the possibility of rational constraint being exercised by objects in the world. This is because events in the world (smoke rising from a building; someone being cruel to their friend; a rainbow arching over a hill) would no longer have to be articulated in propositional attitudes or cause beliefs in a network of social scorekeepers in order to be the sort of thing that it makes sense to understand as a reason for something (to believe there is a fire; to condemn an action; to take your surroundings to be beautiful). These things would already be the sort of thing that can be a reason and the awareness of which can be drawn upon to guide action.

In Mind and World, McDowell seeks to exorcise an anxiety relating to the possibility of empirical content that would threaten to close down the option of giving an account of rational constraint by the world that proceeds in the foregoing way. McDowell’s strategy is repeatedly mischaracterised, so it is important to accurately state his aims: to hold onto a minimal empiricism and the idea that the logical space of law is different in kind than the logical space of reasons.

The first desideratum is a version of Quine’s idea that experience must constitute a tribunal that rationally constrains our thoughts. This thought is that, without the sort of constraint that through experience allows the world to reveal to us what we should think, then the very idea that thought is about the world at all must be relinquished. This is because for a belief to possess empirical content is for it to purport to be about the world in some way, and this means that it is essentially something that can be appropriately or inappropriately held to be the case. Given our natures as embodied spatio-temporal agents, it is through experience that the world can exercise a rational constraint upon us. If we are forced to give up this sort of rational constraint then the idea that thought can bear upon the world at all is also threatened.

The second desideratum builds upon but importantly modifies Sellars’ thoughts about the logical space of reasons. For Sellars, when we talk about reasons (for example, discussing claims to knowledge or justification) then we invoke a characteristic mode of intelligibility that can be contrasted with the sort of intelligibility invoked when we explain one thing by showing how it is a causal consequence of another. The logical space of reasons supports normative relations such as implication, entitlement, probabilification and so on which can be contrasted with these causal notions.[10]

McDowell thinks we will get into trouble if we identify the logical space of laws with the logical space of nature. For those, such as Brandom, Rorty and Davidson, who appreciate Sellars’ insight that the logical space of reasons constitutes an important mode of explanation that is irreducible to the logical space of laws, the problem is that if these two logical spaces are dichotomous, and nature is the logical space of laws, then it seems that normative relations between nature and our reason-governed practice are impossible. This threatens minimal empiricism, which depends upon rational constraint from the world, and this in turn threatens to make empirical content unintelligible, as we have seen. However, McDowell thinks that we can deny that the logical space of nature is identical to the logical space of laws. He admits that the huge success of the hard natural sciences is undeniable and that these sciences rely on a nomothetic model of explanation in which phenomena are elucidated by subsuming them under the strict causal laws. However, he thinks that only a misplaced scientism would force us to say that this is all there is to nature. If this separation of the logical spaces of nature and law is possible then we ought to be able to hold onto both the Quinean and Sellarsian insights, and so thereby retain the conception of a reason that is authoritative independently of our treating it as such. To make this sort of move plausible, McDowell proposes a ‘reminder’ that tries to characterise the sense in which we are both ineliminably part of nature but also guided by reasons. This reminder draws upon Aristotle’s notion of second nature: that ordinary human adults who are brought up in the right way can grasp reasons. As McDowell articulates it:

Once we remember second nature, we see that operations of nature can include circumstances whose descriptions place them in the logical space of reasons, sui generis though that logical space is.[11]

This is meant to be a truism, but in a Wittgensteinian spirit, one that we are prone to forget about since it is so often before our eyes.

Although McDowell believes that socialisation is essential to the process of “having one’s eyes opened to reasons at large by acquiring a second nature,”[12] he does not think that this should lead us down an anti-realist path. In fact, he goes as far to characterise his position as a ‘naturalised platonism.’ The sense in which McDowell’s attitude towards reasons is platonistic is that what counts as a reason for something is not specifiable by reference to facts about us that are specifiable prior to characterising us in terms of the space of reasons. This represents McDowell’s anti-reductionist tendencies, emphasising the autonomy of the space of reasons from the sort of explanation offered by the natural sciences. However, from the other direction, this platonism is essentially naturalised because reasons are the sort of things that can be grasped by mature humans.[13] Nor is this merely a lucky coincidence but something pivotal to the idea that mature humans are agents who have the world in view at all. The key to understanding this thought is to recall that McDowell’s response to Kant involves championing the idea that the world is always-already apt for conceptualisation and thus essentially reason-giving for us.

[Notes below the fold]

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Brandom’s Circular Semantics?

The aspects of Brandom and McDowell’s projects that I am focusing on — namely, freedom and rational constraint — sit alongside sustained attempts to understand intentionality. Both are aware that from a certain vantage point, phenomena like meaning can appear mysterious. An approach to language that typifies such an attitude would be the ‘Augustinian’ model that Wittgenstein sets out in the Philosophical Investigations in which, confronted with a name abstracted from the pattern of its usage, its purported ability to designate its bearer seems inexplicable.Whilst sharing an acknowledgment that an air of mystery can hang over semantic properties, Brandom and McDowell adopt different strategies for dispersing it. Adumbrating these strategies will set the stage for a hesitantly advanced objection to Brandom.

Brandom opposes his semantic theory to a position he calls representationalism. The representationalist treats representation as an explanatory primitive, attempting to understand the concepts of reasons and truth in terms of it.This specific explanatory move between representation and the concepts of truth and reasons, he thinks has met with some success. Starting with a set of representational primitives corresponding to subsentential expressions (such as singular terms and predicates), the representationalist can proceed to specify truth conditions for sentences in which those expressions feature. Then, on this basis, correctness of inference can be explained by specifying the truth-preserving routes between such sentences. Brandom’s main objection to such accounts is not concerned with the strategies employed by the representationalist once representational primitives are in play; rather, he thinks that no congenial understanding of this sort of representational content and our relation to it is to be had.

The rival approach that Brandom champions is inferentialism, which adopts inference as primitive in semantic explanation. As I’ve discussed previously, he thinks that he can give an account of inference which is built upon the social practice of assessment of discursive activity. This account attempts to understand what inference is by appeal to our practice of treating the commitments-whether doxastic or practical-which people acknowledge as committing them to further things. With this account of inference in place, Brandom embarks on an ambitious project that seeks to reduce appeals to representation to something that can be constructed from an account of the social activity of holding each other to the consequences of the commitments that we have undertaken. To put it in Brandom’s idiom, we are to ground an inferential semantics in a normative pragmatics.

For Brandom then, the representationalist has got things backwards. By trying to reduce inference to a function of the prior relations between representational contents, she will have deprived herself of the very resources needed to adequately characterise talk of representation: namely, a conception of inference. In motivating and defending a prior account of inference, Brandom hopes to clarify the foundations of his explanation of semantics in a way that he thinks the representationalist has been unsuccessful at doing. Thus, he begins with a conception of inference understood in terms of the social practice of playing the game of giving and asking for reasons rather than in terms of representations in which subsentential expressions designate objects or properties. Then, he exploits this non-representational conception of inference to explain how we can retain our ascriptions of intentional content to sentences, along with many of the other central features of language that representation had been invoked to explain.The problematic, designational conception of reference attaching to the representationalist model of semantic explanation can thus be avoided; reference as traditionally conceived is “explained away.”So, we are meant to be reassured that the semantic properties of language, as something whose intentionality may have quite understandably struck us as mysterious on the representationalist’s necessarily incomplete story, are not threatening after all. We just need to reverse the order of explanation that we pursue, showing how semantic features are grounded upon the familiar but nonetheless crucial activity of treating people as having a set of doxastic and practical commitments.

McDowell accepts that the strategy of Brandom’s representationalist is unworkable but thinks that reversing the order of semantic explanation will fare no better.What McDowell questions is whether, faced with an initially puzzling concept like representation, the way to remove this puzzlement is by reconstructing that concept-say, by showing that its explanatory role can be mimicked without appeal to it-before being entitled to resume our use of it. The problem with the representationalist model was supposed to be that it lacked the resources to explain how subsentential expressions could designate things, what this designation consisted in and how this linked up with the practice of using language. McDowell thinks that the problem here is treating representation as a primitive explanatory item, intelligible apart from the wider context in which it has an intelligible semantic role. It is this failure which generates the confusion, not simply the idea that names can designate objects. As such, we do not need to reconstruct a conception of representation by appeal to practices of social assessment that may be able to do a similar job, but to provide the necessary context in which representation makes sense. In this case, we can bring in an account of inference not as a competitor to the traditional conception of representation but rather as the needed supplement to make that (unreconstructed) conception intelligible. Thus, McDowell thinks that he can agree that semantics must be understood with reference to inference, and thus as inseparable from the practice of treating some things as reasons for others, without endorsing the inferentialist order of explanation.

Brandom retorts that he is aware that he has alternative options open to him that do not consist in focusing upon different primitive explanatory categories, and that instead he might have tried to explain semantic properties by appeal to both representation and inference.However, he thinks that if his more ambitious project, employing a more austere set of tools, is successful, then it should be preferred. This is because he thinks that it would have the advantage of being a reductive explanation and so would have the theoretical virtue of parsimony on its side. It is not clear, however, that this sort of response will fully address McDowell’s worries, since McDowell’s target includes both the idea that a reductive account is needed and whether we can give a good explanation of semantic intentionality by suspending our appeal to the concept of representation until it can be reconstructed in different terms. We need not follow this debate further though, since enough has been said to allow us to be able to connect these approaches to semantics to the issues of freedom and rational constraint.

The debate as sketched above between Brandom and McDowell centres on the adequacy of Brandom’s inferentialist strategy in semantics. The main issue was whether semantics could be understood without its traditional representational dimension and with merely a normative-pragmatic one. I do not intend to address this potentially wide-ranging question but rather an offshoot of it. This further question is whether rational constraint from extra-social reality can be accommodated by a semantics based upon a normative pragmatics without a representational dimension.

We can begin to frame this worry about rational constraint as follows. Brandom’s semantic inferentialism is a rejection of representationalism in favour of a normative pragmatics that understands inferential relations as products of a social practice of keeping track of what we take our fellows’ doxastic and practical commitments to be. What we want to know is whether this sort of normative pragmatics can accommodate a specific kind of norm: rational constraint by extra-social reality. This is the sort of norm that will be in play when objects exert authority over our thinking; and this is something that is required to make sense of the idea that the thoughts generated in the course of our inquiries are answerable to what we are inquiring about.

The problem arises from the order of explanation that Brandom pursues. Eschewing a more modest approach that would propose to understand semantics in terms of both representation and inference, he seeks to explain it only in terms of inference, where this latter notion is explained in terms of the social practice of giving and asking for reasons. This appears to require that this normative pragmatics does not stand in need of explication by appeal to the sort of intentionality that its role in grounding semantics is meant to explain. But it would seem that this normative pragmatics cannot itself be elucidated independently of the semantics that it is called upon to explain, which Brandom will require it to be. This is because norms for rational constraint, such as those determining the propriety of empirical judgements, are not fully intelligible as such prior to an account of intentionality. So, for example, an empirical judgement is essentially something that is subject to a norm which determines whether it is correct or incorrect; and if we fail to grasp this fact, we will mischaracterise judgement. The crucial aspect of the rational constraint exercised by such norms though is not just that they determine whether a judgement is correct or incorrect, since any arbitrary norm could sort performances into correct or incorrect ones according to some standard. What is distinctive of such norms is that they tie the propriety of performances like judgements or thoughts to how things stand in the world: specifically, what such judgements and thoughts are about. Therefore, given the strictures that he himself places upon it, Brandom’s account appears circular. The reason for this is that he appeals to a supposedly self-standing social model of normativity to explain intentionality, but to explain a crucial subset of norms that compose this social model we must rely upon an account of intentionality that by Brandom’s lights we ought to be precluded from appealing to.

A defender of Brandom might object that understanding rational constraint in this way is anachronistic given the new inferentialist project which rejects both representationalism and the weaker two-pronged approach including representation and inference. So, unlike someone like Rorty, who rejects the idea that the world can exert a rational constraint on our practices, we might think that Brandom’s accepts this sort of constraint because he believes himself to have found a way to domesticate the idea. One of Brandom’s advances over Rorty could be seen to be his realisation that rational constraint upon our practices exerted by how things stand in the world is achievable from within the bounds of sociality rather than requiring some problematic, non-causal relation to obtain between us and empirical objects.In other words, recognising the importance of intersubjectivity as the locus through which normative claims must pass for their authority to be intelligible does not forestall the possibility of objectivity but is the conduit through which that objectivity is realised. So, given this social basis for rational constraint, alongside the rejection of traditional representational relations, is it not mistaken to accuse Brandom’s account of normative pragmatics of presupposing semantic features that it is meant to explain? For it may seem that it is only the old, representationalist conception of rational constraint that needs to invoke a semantic relation between thought and judgement and objects to which they are answerable.Therefore, in keeping with Brandom’s demanding order of explanation, the normative pragmatics that explains semantics would not require an appeal to semantic notions to explain it.

This would be to tell only half the story though. Whilst Brandom is opposed to a representationalist understanding of intentionality, modelled on a designational relation between a name and the object bearing that name, his positive project wants to understand a different sort of intentionality, namely the “propositional contentfulness of attitudes.”This sort of intentionality is the sense of ‘aboutness’ in play, for example, when we say that to suspect that the cat is on the mat is to hold an attitude about the cat being on the mat. If understanding the normative pragmatics that is called upon to explain Brandom’s inferential semantics depends upon a prior understanding of this sort of intentionality, then it will be circular. Although understanding the norms for rational constraint that Brandom invokes does not rely on the representationalist, designational model of intentionality, it seems that it does rely on an understanding of propositional content; therefore, it will lead to circularity. To establish that for Brandom rational constraint implies intentionality of this sort, consider what Brandom says about how rational constraint is to be secured:

If a suitable story is told about how [non-inferentially elicited judgements] are rationally criticizable by those who key their correctness to their correspondence to the facts reported, and about their entitlement to the reliability of the noninferential process that elicits them, then rational constraint by how things actually are is secured.

Thus, on this account, it seems that to fully understand norms for rational constraint then we must already grasp the intentionality of thought and judgement as things that purport to correspond to the facts, even if we do not give a representationalist account of this purport. But for Brandom, our entitlement to this sort of semantic concept is meant to be secured only after it has been demonstrated that an independently intelligible normative pragmatics can be shown to have made it respectable.

Again, an objector might claim that Brandom’s project has been misunderstood here. For when Brandom sets out to construct an inferentialist semantics based upon a normative pragmatics, he does not have to show that all norms are intelligible prior to the employment of semantic concepts. Rather, he sets out a formal account of how the game of giving and asking for reasons is structured in such a way that moves within that game can be ascribed intentional content. It is central to this project to give an account of the social practices that confer intentional content in virtue of our activity of tracking and instituting normative commitments. But this is very far from giving a full-blown theory of normativity, and arguably nor does this seem to be required to complete Brandom’s project in semantics. He is happy to admit the limited scope of his ambitions, at least in Making It Explicit: “The methodology of MIE requires appealing to the very weakest, most primitive sort of social normativity possible.”This appeal, he continues, is not meant to serve as a basis for understanding all aspects of normativity. This suggests the possibility that an account of norms for rational constraint can be understood in a different way to the norms undergirding semantic content. So, if the account of normative pragmatics that underlies Brandom’s semantic inferentialism does not have to include an account of norms for rational constraint then the charge of circularity can be avoided because semantic concepts will no longer be required to be employed in the normative pragmatics that is supposed to explain them.

The problem with a response of this kind is that there is good reason for thinking that the intelligibility of Brandom’s inferential semantics is in fact dependent on an account of norms for rational constraint. This is because it is the connections outside of the practice of giving and asking for reasons, whereby how things are in the world can exert an authority on how things ought to stand within the practice, which prevents the practice from becoming a self-contained game. It is in light of this sort of normative (rather than exclusively causal) significance which worldly happenings can have that it makes sense to suppose that the performances which make up a linguistic practice have a bearing upon those worldly happenings. One way to put this point would be to say that what it is to have the world in view (to borrow a McDowellian phrase) is to be connected to something that essentially, and not merely accidentally, reveals to us what it would be correct to say about it. Absent this presumption that what we do with words is appropriately responsive to what we take to be the case, it is hard to see what the why this linguistic activity should also count as semantic activity-as  something that qualifies as being about the world rather than simply generated in interaction with the world.

The charge against Brandom is not that he denies the connection between semantic content and rational constraint in general. The objection is rather that the order of explanation that his pursues, subsuming semantics under a normative pragmatics, cannot accommodate it at the right point. Specifically, on his account we should be able to explain why the activity of keeping track of the changes in normative commitments brought about by the performances of our fellows allows us to ascribe intentional content to some of those performances; and we should be able to do this without already invoking semantic concepts. However, it seems to be a condition of those performances being able to have a semantic content at all that they be subject to norms of rational constraint. But to explain what is involved in rational constraint then we must already invoke semantic content, which is the very thing that we wanted to explain. Thus, Brandom’s account will contain a pernicious circularity in virtue of the role that rational constraint must play within it.

Draft of Chapter 2: Brandom on McDowell on Freedom and Rational Constraint

Here is a preliminary draft of the second chapter of my thesis. The aim of the chapter is to explicate the relation between freedom and rational constraint in both Brandom and McDowell. I don’t try to assess either position at this stage but simply to try and frame their projects as involving attempts to develop Kantian accounts of autonomy that bear upon my project of exploring the relation between the senses in which we are both free but nonetheless subject to external constraints. The first half deals with Brandom, reworking and revising some of the things that I have written here on him. The second half is new material on McDowell and needs the most work still to expand upon and sharpen up. As ever, any comments are warmly appreciated!

Update:Two years and many revisions later, this material is no longer the basis of a thesis chapter, but dismembered parts have still found their way into the final draft.

Hegel and the Form of Law

I love Hegel’s prefaces. In many ways, this makes me a bad Hegelian since Hegel is always complaining about prefaces, at least in philosophical books. He thinks that they can be nothing but “external and subjective remarks” by the author, never getting to the heart of the matter, which for him is the actual development of the concepts and principles that the work concerns. So too, in the Phenomenology (para. 70) he wryly observes that sticking to prefaces and book reviews is a “common way a man can take in his dressing-gown” and which shirks the “labour of the concept [Begriff]”. Nevertheless, I think that Hegel himself writes particularly good, engaging prefaces, which are often less stiff in tone than much of the books they introduce.

When re-reading the Preface of the Philosophy of Right, I came across the following interesting passage:

The particular form of guilty conscience revealed by the type of eloquence in which such superficiality flaunts itself may be brought to your attention here and above all if you notice that when it is furthest from mind [Geist], superficiality speaks most of mind, when its talk is the most tedious dead-and-alive stuff, its favourite words are ‘life’ and ‘vitalize,’ and when it gives evidence of the pure selfishness of baseless pride, the word most on its lips is ‘people’. But the special mark which it carries on its brow is the hatred of law. Right and ethics, and the actual world of justice and ethical life, are understood through thoughts; through thoughts they are invested with a rational form, i.e. with universality and determinacy. This form is law; and this it is which the feeling that stipulates for its own whim, the conscience that places right in subjective conviction, has reason to regard as its chief foe. The formal character of the right as a duty and a law it feels as the letter, cold and dead, as a shackle; for it does not recognise itself in the law and so does not recognise itself as free there, because law is the reason of the thing, and reason refuses to allow feeling to warm itself at its own private hearth.

p.7, Knox translation, bold mine

In this passage, Hegel rails against those who would reject the notion of law and its philosophical analysis in ethical and political matters. In the previous paragraph, he singles out Fries for criticism, who he reports as saying “[i]n the people ruled by a genuine communal spirit, life for the discharge of all public business would come from below, from the people itself; living associations, indissolubly united by the holy chain of friendship, would be dedicated to every single project of popular education and popular service”. (Fries was a contemporary post-Kantian, whose theoretical philosophy includes what is—perhaps unfairly—often thought of as a psychologistic reworking of the transcendental deduction. Politically, he was a nationalist liberal not a million miles away from Hegel, although they disliked each other personally (see Pinkard’s biography of Hegel).)

The first thing that I wondered after reading the original passage was whether this was not just a rebuke to Fries and his ilk but also an implicit criticism of Hegel’s early position, set out in his unpublished Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate. In that work, Hegel tries to cast Christianity as a radically anti-legalistic religion, as against the supposed Judaic obsession with a rigid divine code delineating what is permissible and what forbidden. So too, the central categories that he employs in his analysis include ‘life’ and ‘love’. As such, we might think that his insistence on law in the Preface of the Philosophy of Right, and his scornful attitude towards bonds of mere feeling—what we might gloss as appeals to life and love as ethico-political concepts—represents a rebuke of his earlier self.

On closer inspection though, I think that Hegel’s position is remarkably consistent, especially considering that the Philosophy of Right (1821) is the last of Hegel’s books whilst the Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate (1799) comes a good seven years or so before Hegel even completes the Phenomenology. To see this, we need to have a clearer understanding of both what the critique of law comes to in the early book and what Hegel finds problematic in the position of those who would reject law in the later book.

Hegel’s early opposition to law is expressed in this passage:

This spirit of Jesus, a spirit raised above morality, is visible, directly attacking laws, in the Sermon on the Mount, which is an attempt, elaborated in numerous examples, to strip the laws of legality, of their legal form. The Sermon does not teach reverence for the laws; on the contrary, it exhibits that which fulfils the law but annuls it as law and so is something higher than obedience to law and makes law superfluous.

p.212 Early Theological Writings trans. Knox

What is going on here? To begin, we can examine Hegel’s claim to strip laws of their legal form. This might mean a number of things, which we can bring out by contrasting law with other normative vehicles. We might distinguish laws qua universal, applying impartially to all, from commands qua singular, directed towards an individual (e.g. ‘Thou shalt not steal’ versus ‘Lieutenant, report to base!’). Stripping laws of their legal form might be thought of as a move from a conception of ethics as a neutral set of injunctions that have equal force for all and to a more context-bound conception of the force of ethical demands; perhaps that would be one in which the intelligibility or traction of ethical responsibilities would be dependent upon a ‘thick’ background of conditions that relate those responsibilities to the particular engaged perspective of the agent.

Another option arises if we contrast law with desire. Whilst the validity of a law is categorical, the reason-giving properties of a desire are hypothetical. In other words, if a law has a legitimate authority, it is not for us to decide whether we ought to follow it; whereas if we have a genuine desire, it only provides us with a reason if we decide to endorse it. In this way, we might read Hegel as rejecting the idea that ethics is intelligible or valid independently of the attitude that we take towards ethical responsibilities.

There are four possible claims here then generated by two readings of two contrasts with laws. The two readings are semantic and normative ones: that the intelligibility (semantic) or bindingness (normativity) of ethics is dependent upon some further thing. The two suggestions for this further thing were brought out by contrast to commands and desires. The first contrast suggested a possible dependence upon the particular ‘rich’ context of the agent (e.g. social role or identity, place within an institutional structure or practice, etc.). The second contrast suggested a possible dependence upon the attitude of the ethical agent towards the responsibility in question. As such, the four positions are semantic contextualism, normative contextualism, semantic attitude-dependence and normative attitude-dependence.

Having set out these options, I want to set them aside. Although each of them arguably has a Hegelian ring (although I would be wary of attributing them all to Hegel), I do not think that any of them is what Hegel is driving at here. Rather, I think that, in talking of “stripping laws of legality, of their legal form”, Hegel has their imperative form in mind. This is neither their universality (as denied by contextualism) nor their attitude-independent validity (as denied by normative attitude-dependence). So, the idea is that what the law mandates (its content) still has a claim upon everyone regardless of the situation they find themselves in, and too regardless of what they think or feel about it. But while Hegel’s Jesus’ Sermon still “exhibits that which fulfils the law”, it “annuls it as law“.

What does this mean though? Bob Stern helpfully draws a comparison with Kant’s notion of the ‘holy will’ on this point. For Kant, a holy will is one that does not feel a tension between morality and sensibility (perhaps through having no sensibility, as with God), and so one which acts perfectly rationally. Such a will would be under no strict obligations—would not feel the force of compulsion to do its duty—because the countervailing pressures of pathological desire would be absent from it. Whilst this is not a perfect analogy to what Hegel is after, I think that something like it comes into play. The idea seems to be that when we approach responsibility in the right way we can transfigure it from a law which governs us into an non-coercive act of love. As Hegel puts it:

To complete subjection under the law of an alien Lord, Jesus opposed not a particular subjection under a law of one’s own, the self-coercion of Kantian virtue, but virtues without lordship and without submission, i.e. virtues as modifications of love.

p.244

But does Hegel retain such a conception of the perils of law in the Philosophy of Right? Can’t we see in his early work a “special mark which it carries on its brow”, namely, “the hatred of law”? It might seem as if Hegel’s talk of love is saccharine romanticism, no better than the “immediate sense-perception” and “caprice” that he later finds in Fries. I do not want to suggest that there are no discontinuities between Hegel’s two positions, but I think they are very much more minimal than this characterisation suggests.

Firstly, Hegel’s discussion of love is in reference to a theoretical concept that he develops throughout the Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate rather than gesturing towards some sort of emotional state. The role that love plays in Hegel acts as a forerunner to his concept of Spirit, although undergoing some important revisions before emerging as that latter idea. Even so, in its original use it does not merely pick out a feeling (in the crude sense of a ‘mental state’) but a complex interpersonal relationship that binds people together.

Secondly, I think it is important to recall Hegel’s insistence that the content of law still be ‘exhibited’. That is, the law still specifies what we ought to do; the question is how we are to relate to that responsibility, not whether or not it is actually reason-giving for us. That is why I did not want to assimilate Hegel’s point to what I’ve called normative attitude-dependence: the idea that we have to first endorse something for us to have a reason to pursue it. By acting in a certain way, the law-form becomes superfluous for us, but that is not what Hegel will later paint Fries’ position as leading to. He seems to suggest that Fries is negatively determined by his rejection of law, such that he must reject law and turn to bonds of brotherhood and friendship as a separate normative or political standard.

Finally, I think the crucial part of the long passage quoted from the Philosophy of Right is this: “for it does not recognise itself in the law and so does not recognise itself as free there”. Here, Hegel makes it clear that he is not recommending law just for its own sake, or for its practical efficacy, but as something in which an agent can recognise themselves as free. An appeal to what Hegel calls “the broth of ‘heart, friendship, and inspiration'” fails to secure the right subject-relation in which people can be free. Indeed, excessive focus upon spontaneous upwellings of emotion and creativity can make law seem fusty, alien and oppressive, rather than being the true foundation of freedom.

I take it to be a key feature of Hegel’s mature views that freedom (secured by a relation to law) requires two central components: that certain objective conditions obtain and that certain subjective conditions obtain. It is in light of this two-fold approach that I suggest that we can find a perspective from which the apparent tension between Hegel’s early and late conceptions of lawfulness can be resolved. In the early Hegel, the pressures shaping his reaction to Kantianism mean that the emphasis is laid upon these subjective conditions—namely, our orientation towards our responsibilities, how we think, feel and enact them. In the later Hegel, his more conservative tone (whether genuine or feigned to avoid the real threat of censure) leads to an emphasis upon the necessity of our duties as citizens and ethical beings, as well as the broad shape of the objective social structures needed to realise our freedom, and which Hegel thought that progressive modern states were approaching.

Nevertheless, I think we can see both early and late Hegel as bringing together substantially similar subjective and objective conditions, taken as encompassing our own comportments and wider societal structures understood via an analysis of the concepts of right, in his diagnoses of modern life. Both share the idea that the form of law, of universal principles, can present a threat to liberty. This is so whether the danger is agents becoming self-alienated through enslavement to laws they legislate to themselves, or through the all-too-familiar alienation engendered by the impersonal legal-bureaucratic sphere that underlies the institutions of modern public life. But it seems to me that neither of Hegel’s positions represents a rejection of law which would seek to replace the law with something else (e.g. desire, well-being or community).

For the early Hegel, the solution is an ethics that attempts to ameliorate the imperative form of law which brought an oppressive element with it. As for St. Paul though, whose influence I see throughout that book, ‘love fulfils the law’, rather than replaces it. (I am not sure how well this fits with the picture of Paul and the law presented by Adam here.) I have taken up the suggestion that such an ethics is partially illuminated by reference to the ‘holy will’; and if it is right to say that God is love, then a will infused by love may merit description as such a holy will. But again, there is an important sense in which law remains in place regardless; the universal demands of politics and ethics have normative force whether or not we can escape the alienating effects of the law-form.

In the mature Hegel, the insistence on the absolute injunctions of the law are easier to see. But this remains coupled with an analysis of the necessary response to laws if they are to set us free rather than dominate us. We find Hegel saying of laws, “they are not something alien to the subject. On the contrary, the subject bears spiritual witness to them as to its own essence.” Here, I suggest both subjective and objective aspects are in play. To overcome alienation from laws will require us to understand them in a way that shows their inner rationality, so that we can come into a ‘homely’ affective and cognitive relation to them. The flip-side of that is ensuring that they, and the institutions and practices that give body to them, actually be rational such that we can express our freedom through them.

Brandom as a reader of Kant: A revised account of key Brandomian themes

If anyone can stomach yet another tract on Brandom, I’ve been trying to come at the themes of autonomy and objectivity from a different angle. The results are somewhat lengthy, again, so I’ve put them below the fold.

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