Note IV

Writing in the introduction to his recent book on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Robert Brandom has this to say about the contrast between the modern and premodern experiences of normativity:

The implicit principle of traditional forms of life is the status-dependence of normative attitudes: the authority of how things ought to be over what we should strive to do. The founding principle of modernity is the converse idea of the attitude-dependence of normative statuses. At its base is the thought that there are no normative statuses of responsibility or authority apart from our practices and practical attitudes of taking or treating each other as responsible and authoritative.

This difference shows up in the historical transition from Aristotelean to modern science, during which teleology was drained from the scientific image of the natural world and replaced by law-governed efficient causality. The disappearance of natural telos corresponds to the loss of objective normative statuses—that is, natural facts about how things should be—which could provide objective reasons for judgements of correctness with regard to conduct or function. Among other things, the premodern recognition of objective normative statuses underpinned forms of social determinism, with individuals understood as bound to roles and duties fixed within an objective social order indifferent to preference. Governed by this picture, the tragic dimension of premodern life is characterised by the concept of fate.

In modernity norms are understood as products of subjective normative attitudes. The latent tendency hovering over this conception is the collapse of normative judgement into arbitrariness. If what is right is reducible to what one takes to be right, then in what sense can a judgement of rightness ever be binding? If a moral principle conflicts with desire, then on what basis should the moral principle be taken to be overriding, if its own authority is ultimately also licensed by subjective attitudes? If one has the authority to choose one’s own set of values, then one can also authorise oneself to swap them for another set at some later date. But if this is the case, then it seems that no-one can ever be unconditionally committed to anything. The tragic dimension of modernity is correspondingly characterised by alienation, as the attitude-dependence of normative statuses undercuts the stability of spaces of shared value, purpose, and meaning.

Brandom uses this contrast to frame what he takes to be Hegel’s overarching aim in the Phenomenology: to trace a middle path between the premodern and modern understanding of normativity, integrating the benefits of both at the same time as bridging their tensions. What this requires is the development of a relevant account of “dependency” such that normative statuses can be understood as dependent on normative attitudes without this entailing a collapse into arbitrary subjectivism. This would provide an escape from the frying pan of fate which does not lead into the fire of alienation. Reading Hegel as a philosopher of normativity allows Brandom to convey the developmental account of the “shapes of consciousness” in the Phenomenology as a movement through various structures of authority, one that gradually converges on a synthesis. According to Brandom, this culmination is the postmodern form of Geist defined by dyadic reciprocal recognition (or trust) along its social axis and recollective rationality (or forgiveness) along its historical axis.

Brandom’s book (A Spirit of Trust) is a densely woven knot of close argument, deploying many of the tools of analytic philosophy to draw logical threads between Hegel and the likes of Kant, Frege, Wittgenstein, and McDowell. It will likely take a long time to parse all of this in even the most rudimentary way, so I’ll probably content myself with extracting snippets here and there, and drawing tentative links with other things I’ve been thinking about. One of those things is the tension between the political concepts of individual and collective agency. It seems to me that there is a close parallel between two of the limiting poles of this conversation—which I’ll characterise as reductive collectivism, at one end, and reductive individualism, at the other—and the two experiences of normativity Brandom links with fate and alienation, respectively.

While these two poles could no doubt be defined explicitly, their difference can be illustrated in a much more concrete and (imo usefully) banal way by the example of a group of friends trying to decide on a restaurant. We all know how this goes. We also know how it goes wrong. Perhaps each friend is so unwilling to budge on their own preference that the decision process stalls in deadlock. Or perhaps, at the other extreme, everyone is so unwilling to put any effort at all into making a decision, waiting for someone else to make a suggestion, that the process never even gets off the ground. These two failures of group decision making correspond to reductive individualism and reductive collectivism, respectively.

Brandom’s Hegel suggests that we consider these situations from the point of view of their authority structures. The authority in question is the authority that individuals attribute to various types of reason to act. The reductive individualist recognises only their own preference as providing authoritative reasons to act—the preferences of other group members are not taken to be authoritative in the same sense. The reductive individualist simply does not recognise the existence of the normative “group” as anything more than the bundle of individuals that constitute it. The reductive collectivist, in contrast, does not recognise any of their own preferences as authoritative, and attempts to defer all authority to the group itself, effectively reifying it in a way that erases the fact that it is constituted by individuals, including themselves. This actually undermines the group’s existence as an agent, by starving it of inputs. As such, both reductive collectivism and reductive individualism represent ways in which collective agency can be undermined. The individualist is left eating alone, alienated, while the collectivist is left hanging on fate’s whim.

I use this example just because it makes the way out of this dilemma seem really obvious. Group decision making processes work perfectly well when participants are prepared to recognise both their own and other’s preferences as holding equally authoritative stakes. Individual preferences can then both be voiced and revised as consensus is shaped through dialogue. This is just the presence of the everyday forms of social feedback that constitute the basis of collective agency. The normative attitudes (of some degree of deferral of authority to others1) are what implement this negative feedback loop. Reductive individualism is what happens when these attitudes are insufficiently strong to lock the loop in; reductive collectivism is when the loop is so strong that the group becomes too rigid to act. The sweetspot exists at a point where we neither deny that our own desires can provide us with reasons to act, nor that the desires of others can, even when they may conflict with our own.

As a final thought, I’d like to consider how this restaurant situation starts to hone in on some of the disorienting effects of technologically mediated sociality. I remember someone making the point that the anxiety many people experience around text messaging has to do with the fact that no-one can agree whether they should be using letter-writing protocol—where you are not expected to reply immediately but should say something considered when you do—or conversational protocol—where replies are immediate but can be throwaway. The anxiety seems to arise not from any particular set of conventions but from the inability to come to an agreement about which ones to use. This represents a break in the feedback loop that would normally allow a normative context to stabilise. These kind of effects haunt modern socialisation, especially in the urban context (I can certainly speak to London in this regard). Either people find it difficult to get together because everyone is running around doing their own thing, or it feels oddly flat when they do, because no-one has any energy left for decision making. This strain on social fabric—the diminishment of collective agency—is experienced as a collapse into both reductive individualism and reductive collectivism simultaneously. We are left in the odd state of being endlessly (and uselessly) bounced back and forth between these two poles. Campbell Jones has made a similar point about climate habits in The Subject Supposed to Recycle, in which he argues that the shifting of responsibility onto the individual and away from corporations produces an environmental consciousness stuck between catastrophy and complacency.

What’s exciting about Brandom’s reading of Hegel is that it can potentially offer a diagnosis of the estrangement of modernity, not from the typical large-scale economic or semiotic perspective, but from the interpersonal normative perspective. Much of this account will hinge on the idea of a reciprocal structure of authority—the mutual acknowledgement between individuals of a certain kind of unconditional authority2. This will be made sense of via the argument that authority is metaphysically incoherent in the absence of a corresponding responsibility (this is Brandom’s gloss of the master-slave dialectic.) This promises to provide a critique of both the kind of hard Kantianism that conflates the the categorical imperative’s being unconditional with its being fixed without exception (as if it were hermeneutically closed, and there was no work left to be done in articulating its content with regard to particular applications), and the kind of Humean voluntarism that understands reciprocity as possible only when conditioned on mutual self-interest.


  1. It is interesting to compare this with Žižek’s development of ‘interpassivity’ (in The Interpassive Subject)—when, for example, the canned laughter in the sitcom laughs so that you don’t have to—which depends on a similar kind of deferral, or ‘substitution’ in Žižek’s terminology.

  2. Much hinges, then, on what it means to ‘recognise’ another as authoritative, and how such practices institute social obligations between recognisers. In a famous monograph Marcel Mauss’ argued that gift exchange has historically been the primary social technology for establishing social bonds in human societies:

The potlach, the distribution of goods, is the basic act of ‘recognition,’ military, juridical, economic, and religious in every sense of the word. One ‘recognizes’ the chief or his son and becomes ‘grateful’ to him. (Marcel Mauss, The Gift, Routledge 2002 p52)