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Comment on Robert Brandoms Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegels Idealism*

John McDowell

In this paper, Robert Brandoms reading of Hegel takes place, as I think he would acknowledge, at some distance from the texts. The interpretation is largely sustained by an appeal to the philosophical candlepower of the thoughts he attributes to Hegel. He postpones to a less constricted occasion the task of reading his story into Hegels words. Evaluating the interpretation, on the showing it makes here, must thus turn largely on the so-called Principle of Charity. This sort of procedure is surely proper. But it poses a problem for a sceptical commentator with a time limit. Spelling out my scepticism would require me to take issue with the whole semantical vision of Brandoms Making It Explicit (Brandom 1994). Failing that, I am going to do two things: first, raise some questions about Brandoms use of Kant; and second, broach a doubt about the philosophical outlook Brandom finds in Hegel.

I The Kant who serves as foil to Brandoms Hegel strikes me as nearly unrecognizable. My disquiet at this is not alleviated if Brandom says he uses Kant only as an expository device. I take Hegel to have been a perceptive reader of Kant, but Brandoms Hegels readings of Kant seem inept. I shall consider two aspects of this: first, the two-levelled story about the institution and application of concepts, and, second, the Kantian origins of the idealist semantic thesis itself. Brandom represents Kant as holding that the content of an empirical concept must be completely determinate in advance of its application in judgement. It must be already settled, for any possible course of experience, whether or not the concept fits. This sets up Kant as Carnap to Hegels Quine. Brandom offers a textual argument for this, and a philosophical one. The textual argument alludes to Kants distinction between determinant and (merely) reflective judgements in the third Critique. The philosophical argument is that only complete prior determinacy of concepts could allow employments of the understanding in empirical judgements to be constrained by sensibility, as Kants position requires. But the sharp distinction in the third Critique seems irrelevant. Its purpose is to isolate the special subject matter of that work: judgements that are merely reflective, in that, starting with given particulars, they fail to arrive at concepts that can figure in determinant judgements about those particulars. This leaves
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Kant free to hold that when we do make determinant judgements, as in the application of ordinary empirical concepts, our judgements have not only their determinant aspect but also a reflective, or concept-forming, aspect. (There is a fine reading on these lines in Longuenesse 1998.) There is no ground here for saddling Kant with the idea that the content of concepts has to be fully fixed in advance of their application. The philosophical argument seems no more telling. All that is required for the understanding to be constrained by sensibility is that a given empirical concept must definitely fit certain possible courses of experience, and definitely not fit others. Brandoms alleged requirement of complete prior determinacy that fit or not must be settled for any possible course of experience gets no purchase here. Nothing debars Kant from the thought that in our practice of empirical judgement we are responsible not only to our concepts but also for them: for their maintenance and improvement, including further determination of their content. (That is the only sense I can make, in this context, of Brandoms talk of institution.) The idealist semantic thesis is that the unity of the concept is the same as the unity of the I. In the passages Brandom cites, Hegel clearly finds some such thesis in the first Critiques Transcendental Deduction. But how can Brandoms Hegel represent himself as following Kant in this profoundest and truest insight, when what he proposes to make of the insight is that concepts can be modelled on selves that selves can be treated as the fixed, or relatively unproblematic, end of an analogy from which we are to project ourselves into an understanding of the supposedly more problematic case of concepts? In the Kantian thesis, the unity of the I is the unity of apperception, the unity of the I think that must be able to accompany all my representations. And surely it is exactly not a Kantian idea that we should look for a self-standing account of the I of the I think, from which we might subsequently work towards an understanding of concepts. In Kants view there is nothing to the I of the I think except the unity of conceptual consciousness. (The alternative is to fall into the illusions of rational psychology.) Brandoms Hegel offers a self-standing account of the social constitution of selves, and exploits it as the basis for an account of concepts. This cannot be represented as simply giving Hegelian substance to an abstract Kantian structure. On the contrary, it replaces what in Kant is a single unity not intelligible except in both its guises, subjective and objective with a supposed opportunity for linear explanation, in which the relatively problematic is explained in terms of the relatively unproblematic. To me this sort of thing seems even less characteristic of Hegel than of Kant. But my present point is that it fits badly with the claim of Kantian filiation that Brandom cites. I do not believe Hegel sees Kant as a pretext for overcoming a separation between instituting and applying concepts, or as encouraging the idea that we can explain concepts in terms of selves. This reinforces my inclination to sympathize with the scepticism Brandom anticipates as to whether Hegel is so much as concerned with the issue Brandom addresses these considerations to, an issue about the determinacy of the contents of empirical concepts. It may be relevant to
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John McDowell

note that, contrary to what Brandom suggests, what is called experience in the Phenomenology is not our day-to-day coping with the world we perceive and act in, which would be an appropriate frame for that concern of Brandoms. Experience in the Phenomenology describes, rather, the fate of a succession of transcendental conceptions, of the subjective and the objective as such.

II According to the autonomy thesis, one is bound only to what one acknowledges that one is bound to. But not just any case of taking oneself to be committed can determine the content of ones commitment. Otherwise the idea of commitment becomes empty; whatever seems to one to be what one is committed to is what one is committed to and that only means that here we cant talk about being committed , to paraphrase Wittgenstein. Now Brandoms Hegel thinks the only way we can secure this required distance between the content of a persons commitments and her takings of herself to be committed is to have the norms administered by someone else. Whether I am committed is up to me; what I am committed to is up to others, who hold me to my commitments. The only way to secure the required distance? We have to evaluate the interpretation in terms of the Principle of Charity, and it is legitimate to wonder about other candidates. If we are thinking of a commitment explicitly undertaken, why not say its content is determined by the norms of the practice in which the undertaking is a move? (For instance the language in which a promise is made.) Similarly with allegiance to the norms of a practice of, say, enquiry and communication (an allegiance that is not in general explicitly undertaken): why not say the practice determines the content of its practitioners commitments? We can see individuals as related to practices (languages, traditions) by a combination of dependence and independence very like the one Brandom considers. To stay with an instance of Brandoms: the tradition of common law is both authoritative over the decisions of judges and dependent on them for its unfolding. For Brandoms Hegel, however, these relations of mutual subjection to authority figure not between individuals and practices, but only between individuals and other individuals. What we are offered is not exactly a reduction of practices to relations between individuals, because the class of individuals who matter for the content of someones commitments is open-ended, so materials for a reduction are never completely in hand. But it seems fair to say the conception is reductive in spirit. The idea of an individuals allegiance to a practice is replaced by the idea of an individuals subjection to the assessments of other individuals. Can this picture make sense of acts within a practice? A common-law judge aims to be faithful not just to the judgements she counts as precedents, but to the tradition that she takes them to have aimed, with more or less success, to be faithful to. The quasi-reductive picture threatens to leave the tradition itself out, and hence to be unable to accommodate such aims. It does not help if we appeal to the risk that a future judge will deem the present judges decision unfaithful to the
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tradition. There is just the same problem about seeing the future decision as responsive to the tradition, if there is nothing to the tradition except mutual dependence between individuals. So why should we find the quasi-reductive picture promising? Brandom hints at an answer on these lines: Hegel anticipates a problem later uncovered by Wittgenstein, about how practices can embody determinate norms, and the quasireductive picture solves that problem. But what Wittgenstein uncovers is the illusion of a problem, to which he traces avoidable philosophical anxieties about the determinacy of the contents of norms embodied in practices. The implicit Principle-of-Charity case for Brandoms reading seems seriously defective at this point. And surely Hegel is the last person to be metaphysically repelled by a conception of practices or traditions as transcending the individuals who act within them. In other contexts, Brandom has diagnosed a lingering individualism behind my refusal to embrace the kind of account of the conceptuality of thought, and hence its objectivity, that he here claims to find in Hegel. (See Brandom 1996.) But the quasi-reductive picture of practices or traditions seems a much better candidate for such a diagnosis. And in that case reading it into Hegel, of all people, seems bound to misrepresent him. John McDowell Department of Philosophy University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh, PA 15260 U.S.A. jmcdowel+@pitt.edu

REFERENCES
Brandom, R. (1994), Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Brandom, R. (1996), Perception and Rational Constraint: McDowells Mind and World, in E. Villanueva (ed.), Perception (Philosophical Issues, 7). Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview. Longuenesse, B. (1998), Kant and the Capacity to Judge. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

NOTES
* Brandoms paper is published in this issue, p. 164189.

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