‘A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology’ by Robert Brandom reviewed by J. D. Evans

A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2019. 836 pp., $45.00 hb
ISBN 9780674976818

Reviewed by J D Evans

About the reviewer

J.D. Evans teaches at George Mason University. He is working on an interpretation of Adorno based …


Robert Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust is a culmination of an unlikely attempt by recent academic philosophers to bring Hegel together with American pragmatism and analytic philosophy. The ideal reader must keep in mind the details of Hegel’s Phenomenology, the broad strokes of modern philosophy (from Descartes to Kant), the history of twentieth century analytic philosophy (in particular Wittgenstein, Sellars, and Quine), contemporary debates in anglophone and German-language philosophy and Brandom’s own work. Perhaps only Brandom himself could do it. But there are rewards for the rest of us: A Spirit of Trust offers a coherent story of the history of modern western philosophy, a coherent interpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology and further explication of Brandom’s attempt to fully explain what a rational animal is.

Much of the book’s difficulty comes Brandom’s translation of Hegelian jargon. For instance, he reads Hegel’s ‘determinate negation’ as material incompatibility (‘spherical’ is a determinate negation of ‘triangle,’ in that ‘it is impossible for one thing at one time to exhibit both properties,’ (2)). He reads ‘mediation’ as material consequence (‘polygonal’ mediates triangle because ‘it is necessary that if a thing exhibits [the second] property, it exhibits the other’ (2)). This terminology is usefully clear, but it can be criticized for over-simplifying Hegel’s text. Brandom foresees this criticism, and heads it off a little, at least, by insisting that the object of his interpretation is not Hegel’s text, but the philosophy that the text is meant to express (307-312).

For Brandom, Hegel was trying to deal with two connected problems. The first comes from the skeptical argument that we cannot have genuine knowledge. Kant had shown that we can have knowledge of the phenomenal world, in the combination of the sensuous manifold and concepts. Straw-yellowness, ambrosiality, viscosity, coldness and so on all come together with the concept white wine; we know we want to drink it, even if it smells a bit like gasoline. For Kant, while the sensuous manifold is ever-changing, concepts stay the same. This leaves him with no way to explain where we get the content of our concepts. How do I know that white wine isn’t sherry? (The empiricist explanation – we know by drinking it, over and over – explains about the liquids, white wine and sherry, but not how we differentiate the concepts.) This is the first question Brandom’s Hegel wants to answer: how do we get determinate conceptual content?

The second question is rooted in moral relativism and modern individualism. Kant argued that human freedom is the ability to give one’s self the law. Modern subjects are free when we accept only those laws that we are willing and able to give ourselves. So, all moral norms have their origin in human consciousness. The problem with such norms is that they couldn’t possibly give us a reason to do anything. Today, I choose to obey the norm and not drink three bottles of wine before teaching; but tomorrow, who knows? If we claim that laws and norms are nothing more than the product of my decisions, how can we explain the fact that I am still bound by the laws and norms? In other words, why do we mostly follow norms when there is no God around to enforce them? For Kant, the reason was that we are rational. For Hegel, this answer is too empty. It does not explain particular norms and laws.

Brandom’s Hegel answers these two questions – that of determinate conceptual content, and that of the bindingness of norms – in the same way. The story he tells brings together many big ideas, including: that conceptual content comes from determinate negation; that conceptual content is developed by us, over time, and so is historical rather than unchanging; that concept use is normative rather than purely cognitive; and that normativity is a question of recognition, that is, it is social rather than individual (e.g., 636).

Many readers of Hegel will accept the broad outlines of this interpretation. It presents Hegel as putting Kant’s thoughts about normativity and concept usage in a social and historical story. Brandom’s reading is unique, however, in his explanation of what that society and what that history are. ‘Society’ is self-conscious individuals recognizing each other as norm-governed creatures, and thus holding each other (and themselves) accountable for the norms and concepts that they use; ‘history’ is the same thing, but reaching back, and forward, in time.

To explain this, Brandom often uses the example of common law jurisprudence, in which a judge decides a case based on legal precedent, rather than statute. If I, the judge, am asked whether my hometown of Gawler is allowed to ban Chardonnay sipping socialists, no statute law is going to answer the question for me. Instead, I must investigate relevant cases in the past on the question of banning socialists, and cases on the banning of drinking, and cases touching on wine drinking and socialism in general, and then decide this particular case based on those previous decisions. In turn, my decision will become a part of the common law tradition that I have appealed to in making my own decision. It’s always possible to ignore some cases and prioritize others; common law is never perfectly clear or complete; and it is far more flexible and responsive to change than a statute would be (e.g., 661). But for all that, judges mostly do follow precedent, even as they develop the body of common law.

For Brandom, this is how we get conceptual content as well. Consider another of his examples: the human hand. This concept has been available to most humans (604). But the concept has changed drastically. For Aristotle, the hand was not connected to the brain via the nervous system. More recent philosophers thought human hands were composed of Rutherford-Bohr atoms. These were both mistakes and we now have a better understanding of the concept human hand. Its determinate negations are clearer and more settled, as are its mediations: a hand is composed of atoms, but we have a better understanding of atom now, and so on. For all of that, our concept is not perfect. Previous concepts required revision, and ours will too because ‘sensuous immediacy overflows conceptual mediation’ (752). Our concept will seem primitive to those who come after us.

This is all explained within a familiar historical context, according to which pre-moderns thought that norms and concepts were naturally or divinely created. Moderns see that human beings are the source of those norms (compare Feuerbach’s argument about Christianity). This is liberatory, but also leaves us alienated, because we feel unbound by any norms – like the master in Hegel’s famous allegory. Modernity is the age of mastery.

But Hegel’s thought points us towards what Brandom calls a ‘post-modern’ stage of society and history (e.g., 738; this has nothing to do with the common use of the term). Were we fully living that stage, we wouldn’t reject Aristotle because he didn’t understand hands (or, more pertinently, slavery); instead, we would acknowledge what he contributed to the concept, and find a positive place for him in our ‘recollection’ of its development, while acknowledging his errors. In Brandom’s terms, we ‘forgive’ him. And we ‘trust’ those who come after us to forgive us for our errors about hands (and systematic oppression). This process of forgiveness and trust is bound up with our understanding that we are bound by the norms of which we are the source. We are bound because we hold each other accountable. For Brandom’s Hegel, this can only happen if we accept that we all act normatively, and not just in self-interest; and if we understand the process of conceptual content formation and norm formation – that is, if we understand our own rationality. One can only be a free individual within adequate processes of concept-content formation, and norm formation.

The most remarkable claim of A Spirit of Trust is that all this will lead us toward a ‘neoheroic form of practical normativity’ (756). The pre-modern hero of Greek tragedy is forced to take responsibility for his unintended crimes (Oedipus, the ‘father killer and mother fucker,’ (727)). The modern character accepts responsibility, but only for his own intended crimes (like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, perhaps). But postmodern people divide responsibility for errors. The individual is responsible for the act that they intend to perform – but the rest of us are responsible to them and that action. We must fit their intention and act into the larger story of concept and norm formation. We ‘all share responsibility for each action […] every deed now shows up as both a practical contribution to the content of all that came before it, and as acknowledging a recollective responsibility with respect to all those deeds’ (757). In this sense, Hegel’s work is a ‘semantics with an edifying intent’ (passim). To find help clarifying the links between privilege, structural injustice and responsibility after nearly 800 pages of technical philosophy is a pleasant surprise (though Brandom does not make this link explicit).

Many readers of Marx & Philosophy could find this book helpful. Brandom’s Hegel is strictly materialist, but not in the reductive, 18th century sense. Human thought is seen as a species of praxis, something that real individual people do with each other (‘Geist is us described in a normative vocabulary’ (640)). Brandom’s work on alienation is unorthodox and fascinating. In short, the relationship between Marx and Hegel will look very different if we think of it with this work in mind. Similarly, the critique of enlightenment is already present in this Hegel; enlightenment ‘construes universality and normativity as rationality,’ but in an alienated way. Real ‘universality is not to be reified as some kind of a thing […] but rather as implicit in the articulation of individuals in a community’ (524-5).

There are interesting similarities between Brandom’s work and recent critical theory. His attempt to find transcendental foundations in language look very much like Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action. His stress on recognition is close to Axel Honneth’s. And Brandom’s explanation of how normativity can exist in a materialist world, together with his pragmatist-colored Hegel, echo Rahel Jaeggi’s recently translated Critique of Forms of Life.

These comparisons highlight problems for all of these thinkers. Brandom and Jaeggi both argue convincingly against reductive, naturalistic or genealogical explanations for human behavior, and suggest that understanding this will have practical benefits; Brandom claims that ‘once we properly understand in [Hegel’s] recollective terms the process of experience that both determines and expresses conceptual contents, we will explicitly acknowledge practical commitments concerning how we ought to treat one another that we will see as having been implicit in our discursive activity all along,’ (637). But how or why our understanding of the normativity of experience affects practical commitments is unclear here, as it is in Jaeggi’s work. Similarly obscure is why Honneth’s giving us the proper understanding of the (normative) recognitive bases of our (non-normative) cognition is meant to make us better people. All three thinkers need to do more to get from their transcendental arguments to moral, political or social consequences.

That is not really a criticism of this book. Brandom’s goal is to make Hegel explicable to a new audience, to make the importance of his philosophy plain and to further develop his own impressive body of work. He has succeeded, and his success throws up fascinating questions for both American philosophy and critical theory.

19 August 2019


  1. This looks like an interesting book. I wonder what ‘Brandom’s Hegel’ would make of real material conditions under which a developing understanding of our collective responsibilities lie? What the relation might be between the urge to forgive and the recalcitrant criminal or oppressor who persists in their oppression? Great review.

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