A Review of A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology by Robert Brandom
Department of Politics, Whitman College, Washington
Robert Brandom has offered a rich and even profound reading of Hegel that should be of interest to generations of analytic philosophers. However, his approach eschews the radical potential of Hegelianism for both emancipatory and reactionary politics. Consequently, its value to progressives may be limited.
Hegel – logic – reconstruction – negative dialectics
Robert Brandom, (2019) A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
One of the defining characteristics of analytic philosophy was supposed to be a hostility to Hegel and everything he stood for. Bertrand Russell’s scathing interpretation of British idealism and the subsequent caricature of Hegelianism, and to a lesser extent Marxism, as mystical pseudo-scientific positions are representative. In his short section on Hegel in The History of Western Philosophy, Russell mocks Hegel as a figure of mere ‘historical’ interest and claims that out of a logical mistake concerning the properties of things ‘arose the whole imposing edifice of his system. This illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise.’2 Even worse were the conclusions of figures like Karl Popper, arguably the most important analytic philosopher of science in the twentieth century. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper joined the Neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer3 in claiming that the ‘illiterate charlatan’ Hegel was a theoretical precursor to fascistic totalitarianism. His unscientific conception of reason as embodied in the total state rather than the individual paved the way to the effacement of the latter in the course of history, by inspiring generations of Germans and others to surrender themselves to fascism. This nefarious influence went far beyond the philosophical community, as it had an impact on students and intellectuals who might otherwise have little interest in abstract debates about determinate negation or Hegel’s reading of Genesis. As Popper puts it:
In our own time, Hegel’s hysterical historicism is still the fertilizer to which modern totalitarianism owes its rapid growth. Its use has prepared the ground, and has educated the intelligentsia to intellectual dishonesty… We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish.4
This incredibly harsh reception, both philosophically and especially politically, marked the analytic reception of Hegel for much of the twentieth century. Figures like John Dewey were a notable exception to stony silence at best and hostility at worst, and it should go without saying that an association with Hegelianism did little to help the reputation of these figures. Things were somewhat better in Anglo-American political theory and the rest of the humanities, where Hegel continued to be a major source of inspiration for everyone from Marxists like Fredric Jameson to (now reformed) neoliberal apologists such as Francis Fukuyama.5 None the less, few would have expected analytic philosophy departments to budge. But in the last few decades, a thaw has begun to settle in as larger numbers of serious analytic thinkers have started to say nicer and nicer things about the dense German Aristotle. Richard Rorty famously opined that Hegel has given us a way to understand pragmatic hopes for rationalistic and scientific foundationalism.6 Charles Taylor tirelessly promoted Hegel as a major thinker whose work in virtually every corner of philosophy deserves serious consideration. Fellow Pittsburghian John McDowell readily publishes essays treating Kant, Hegel, and Sellars as equally relevant philosophical authorities. And now Robert Brandom has produced a massive new book – weighing in at almost 850 pages – that is allegedly going to firmly move analytic philosophy into its ‘Hegelian phase’.
Rethinking Hegelian Epistemology and Logic
A Spirit of Trust is a book decades in the making by the major progenitor of Pittsburgh Hegelianism. As with any tome of this length by a serious living philosopher about an infamously dense predecessor, it is literally and figuratively heavy lifting. It is to Brandom’s credit that one never feels lost or overwhelmed by the material’s density. His prose is crisp but relaxed, gently guiding the reader through a reconstruction of the Phenomenology. The confidence and ease with which Brandom makes his case testifies to decades spent working the material, and there is no doubt he makes a compelling argument for why analytic philosophers should – nay must – take Hegel seriously on their own terms. In this review, I will briefly discuss the epistemological and linguistic points of Brandom’s reading while summarising his fascinating arguments for interpreting Hegelian reasoning on contingency, necessity, and determinate negation as an innovative form of modal logic (p. 141). But the main focus of this review will be on the normative and historical dimensions of Brandom’s project. In particular, what it has to say for leftists and radical theorists who might be suspicious of any efforts to smooth down the sharp edges of Hegelian dialectic.
One of the most important things to note is that Brandom’s work is undoubtedly a reconstruction rather than, as the title suggests, a reading of The Phenomenology of Spirit. A reconstruction is, in Habermas’s words, where ‘one takes a theory apart and puts it back together in a new form, in order better to achieve the goal which it set for itself.’7 This can be a vital effort for keeping a thinker evergreen, or introducing them to a new and perhaps sceptical readership; Strawson’s classic analytic interpretation of Kant8 comes to mind. And indeed there has been a wealth of Hegel reconstructions since right around the time the man himself passed away, from the Right and Left Hegelians all the way down to Slavoj Žižek’s9 Lacanian interpretation in the similarly door-stopping Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism.10 The danger in such efforts is not primarily exegetical. There will no doubt be some Hegel scholars who take issue with Brandom’s cursory reading of the Hegelian infinite – an ‘alarming term [which has] mathematical connotations that are actively misleading (for us post-Cantorians) and theological ones which are largely unhelpful’ (p. 218) – or his insistence that the sections ‘Religion’ and ‘Absolute Knowing’ in ‘a real sense … comment on a development that has already been completed by the end of Spirit’ (p. 583). That is, of course, important in the sense of interpreting the book as Hegel himself meant it. For the rest of us, the price of a little infidelity to the text is well worth it to have a Hegel who is fresh and continuously relevant two centuries after he wrote the Phenomenology. Brandom’s passion for the material, and his own philosophical chops, ensure that this ambition is readily accomplished.
Brandom’s interpretation of Hegel’s epistemological and logical philosophy builds on his earlier research in Making it Explicit and other works blending German Idealism and American Pragmatism. The fundamental insight is that the world for us is not strictly represented, as per the conceit of English empiricism – even in its guise as Popperian fallibilism. Instead it is constructed together as a form of holistic ‘objective idealism’, as Brandom puts it. Even our modal11 conceptions of necessity and contingency depend in a deep sense on ‘norm-governed activities of accepting and rejecting commitments … of sense dependence’.
The objective world [is still] conceptually structured in the sense of consisting of facts about objects and their properties and relations, articulated by alethic modal relations of relative compossibility and necessitation, even in worlds that never included knowing and acting subjects who applied normatively articulated concepts in undertaking and rejecting commitments. The mind-dependence of the objective world asserted by this dimension of Hegel’s idealism – call it ‘objective idealism’ – is not of the objectionable Berkeleyan reference-dependence kind (what Kant calls ‘subjective idealism’), but of the much more plausible (or at least colorable) sense-dependence kind. We can understand and describe possible worlds without subjects to whom deontic normative vocabulary applies as none the less making applicable alethic moral vocabulary. But our capacity to make sense of such possibilities depends on our being able to engage in practices made explicit by the application of deontic normative vocabulary. (pp. 83–4.)
What then is logic, and to a certain extent philosophy itself? It is, in a profound respect, an organ for self-reflection to make explicit the practices and norms implicitly embedded in the normative vocabularies of linguistic communities. It is not a predictive science in the sense favoured by some cruder analytic thinkers, since it can only encapsulate its own time in thought. Philosophy and logic cannot move from discussing the modally possible to describing the necessary path which will be taken by our normative vocabularies in the historical course of a community. But it can provide a retrospective explanation, and more problematically – as we will see – a kind of justification, for the present. In this respect, Brandom’s Hegel is close to the later Wittgenstein; a point made consistently in the latter parts of the book. As he puts it, ‘like Hegel, Wittgenstein thinks it is absolutely essential to appreciate both the [status-dependence of discursive normative attitudes with the attitude-dependence of discursive normative statuses as] complementary aspects of discursive social practices.’ (p. 654.) In other words, the task of philosophy is in a sense therapeutic and impartial; in the end it leaves the world as it is in actuality, but reconciles normative contradictions within thought. This is where Brandom’s position remains a form of idealism, committed as it is to interpreting and forgiving the world without aspiring to change it. It is also where I argue Brandom’s position runs into political problems. When the contradictions of thought reflect those of the material world, forgiveness may not be on the cards.
On Negative Dialectics and the Threat of Post-Modern Conservatism
The primary area where such discussion moves from being a scholarly dispute to one with material stakes is on the question of Hegel’s normative and political theory. If Plato was a philosopher who tried to influence real-world politics and faltered, Hegel and his progeny are on the opposite end of the spectrum. He has been claimed by everyone from Marxists to strict right-wingers like the late Roger Scruton in Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition.12 This is largely due to the richness of Hegel’s texts, which in true dialectical fashion rarely take one side of an argument without acknowledging the power of its opposite. Revolutionaries and reactionaries both can find mana for their cause in the Phenomenology, and of course have done so many times down through the centuries. In other words, how Hegel is interpreted matters for concrete politics, at least in so far as any polysyllabic philosopher does. This means that Brandom’s reconstruction can be mined for its own normative and political insights and implications; and left-wing theorists should decide what is of use and what needs to be resisted.
Brandom’s explicit normative and implicit political argument is to portray Hegel as offering a ‘Whig’ vision of history.13 This is to say that, despite Hegel’s own acknowledgement of history as a ‘slaughter bench’, he none the less is fundamentally an optimist. A large part of Brandom’s emphasis on recollection and forgiveness, at the individual but also the historical level, concerns the recognition of failure as an integral part of a progressive process of arriving at the age of trust. As Brandom puts it:
Forgiving (recollectively recognizing) on this account, is hard work. It cannot be brought off with a single, sweeping, abstractly general gesture… In addition to fulfilling one’s commitment to practically affect the consequences of the doing one is forgiving, one must produce a concrete recollective reconstruction of the deed, under all its intentional and consequential specifications. Recollection is a making – the crafting of a distinctive kind of narrative – that is successful only insofar as having the form of a finding. What is found is found as having been all along implicit. (p. 746.)
In other words, we should situate ourselves as the owl of Minerva at dusk, forgiving the historical past its failures in order to reconstruct it as a narrative of normative progress towards an epoch of recognition. By doing so, we progress towards integration of the ‘other’ and our conflicts with them into a narrative of success, achieving an end to alienation in communal holism which still maintains and enriches each individual.14 Of course it was not always like this; tremendous sacrifice was required along the way. Brandom here traces the familiar German narrative of spirit as progressing from a world where normative meaning was first located externally to the subject, in the sacred world around them, and eventually arriving at a Kantian modernity where it comes from within. The result was secularisation and the emergence of liberal values. But Brandom goes further than even Hegel himself, in insisting that we have now entered an increasingly post-modern era where the atomised liberal individual herself is incorporated into a community of trust and generates normative meaning deliberatively in cooperation with others.
This is an inspiring story, but also a problematic one. Brandom’s reading of Hegel and his musings on the post-modern epoch of trust are fundamentally, like Rorty’s, a story of hope. The problem is that there is very little about postmodernity which inspires hope; indeed the emergence of hyper-partisan post-modern conservatives like Trump and Viktor Orbán atop the ruins of neoliberal hegemony suggests ours is not a spirit of trust but of deepening agonism and alienation.15 A Gramscian spirit of pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will would seem more appropriate. The problem is that there is little reason for pessimism in Brandom’s Hegel, since, fundamentally, we must forgive the past in order to justify the present. But this very much runs the risk of generating a kind of uncritical naturalism of the status quo with its material contradictions and ideologies. Here, the young Marx’s16 striking critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right seems on point, as does the Adornian argument about the tyranny of positivism.17 When we take the world as it is and seek to recollectively justify it, we endorse a form of naturalistic positivism which can quickly service ideology. This is, of course, the main thrust of Slavoj Žižek’s very different interpretation of Hegel. The Slovenian firebrand might argue that Brandom repeats the classic error of interpreting Hegel as a metaphysical holist determined to show why communities are held together. Instead, we should understand Hegel as a materialist philosopher of the ontological gap who demonstrates why, even in a context where ideology convinces us to see stability, there is in fact intense instability. This of course would have more radical implications, since it would reveal the conceits of those who naturalise the status quo by exposing efforts to reconcile normative tensions as an ideological gesture which abstracts from the real gaps in the ontological fabric of the world. And it certainly resonates in our troubled times. As Žižek puts it in Absolute Recoil:
Our moment is more of a Hegelian one: not the moment of highest tension when the teleological (re)solution seems near, but the moment after, when the (re)solution is accomplished, but misses its goal and turns into a nightmare. At this moment the Hegelian problem is that of how to remain faithful to the original goal of the (re)solution and refuse to revert to a conservative position, how to discern the (re)solution in and through the very failure of the first attempt to actualize it.18
Our current epoch is indeed one where the purported spirit of trust which was to emerge in the neoliberal end of history is coming apart. The result has – so far – not been a return to progressive radicalism but towards reactionary politics which insists on a pseudo-Hegelian narrative of civilisational and national triumph being undone by the antagonistic leftist other and the subalterns they struggle to speak for. There is little that postmodern conservatives want more than for us to move away from political agitation and radical transformation, and to embrace a spirit of trust which quickly forgives the inequalities and violence of the past so that we may ignore them in the present.19 We should repeat the materialist critique of idealism here by observing that Brandom’s largely philosophical interpretation of the world ignores the social conditions which have been responsible for generating so much strife in recent years, and indeed pose a serious barrier to forming the kind of intersubjective bonds necessary for his account of post-modern normativity. These include the tremendous economic upswings which came to the fore during the 2008 recession, and reflected the fundamental inability of neoliberal hegemony to manage its contradictory imperatives through forms of neoconservative imperialism.20 It also includes the massive changes to how we communicate in a digital era, as we enter an epoch where ‘amusing ourselves to death’ through consumption of one-dimensional and hyper-partisan media becomes a genuine possibility.21 Indeed these political problems even have a bearing on Brandom’s epistemological ambitions for the spirit of trust, as we enter into a world where, in the words of Rudy Giuliani, ‘Truth is Not Truth’. These observations make explicit the ideological function of shared norms within hyper-partisan communities, as figures like Giuliani insist that genuine reflection be superseded by the enjoyment which comes from conformity and agonism.
None of this is to discount the many merits of Brandom’s book. It constitutes a major contribution to both the Hegelian tradition and philosophy more generally, and will no doubt be deservedly greeted as such. Its treatment of Hegel as a modal logician is especially innovative, and through more sustained dialogue with other philosophers working in that field could become an influential contribution. But progressives should be wary of looking to A Spirit of Trust for significant theoretical resources in our struggle against the rising tides of reaction and untruth. Genuinely achieving a post-modern community defined by a spirit of trust will require far more extensive and radical changes to the neoliberal status quo which end the material alienation of citizens across the developed world. Here progressives will likely find Hegelians like Žižek to be a firmer guide through troubled waters.
Brandom, Robert 2009, ‘History, Reason, and Reality’, in Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Brandom, Robert 2019, A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Brown, Wendy 2019, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Cassirer, Ernst 1974 , The Myth of the State, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Fukuyama, Francis 1992, The End of History and the Last Man, New York, NY: Avon Books Inc.
Fukuyama, Francis 2018, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Recognition, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Harvey, David 2007, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 1910 , The Phenomenology of Mind, translated by J.B Baillie, Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Press, available at: <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/phindex.htm>.
Marshall, David L. 2013, ‘The Implications of Robert Brandom’s Inferentialism for Intellectual History’, History and Theory, 52, 1: 1–31.
Marx, Karl 1992 , ‘Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State’, in Early Writings, translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
McCarthy, Thomas A. 1978, The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
McManus, Matthew 2019, The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism: Neoliberalism, Post-Modern Culture and Reactionary Politics, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
McManus, Matthew 2020, What Is Post-Modern Conservatism?: Essays on Our Hugely Tremendous Times, Alresford: Zero Books.
Popper, Karl 2003 , The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume Two, Hegel and Marx, New York, NY: Routledge.
Postman, Neil 2005 , Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, New York, NY: Penguin Books USA.
Rorty, Richard 2000, Philosophy and Social Hope, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Russell, Bertrand 1945, The History of Western Philosophy, New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Inc.
Scruton, Roger 2017, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, New York, NY: All Points Books.
Strawson, Peter 2019 , The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, New York, NY: Routledge.
Žižek, Slavoj 2013 , Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso.
Žižek, Slavoj 2014, Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso.
- 1. Thank you to Borna Radnik for his help in clarifying these points and polishing the piece.
- 2. See Russell 1945, p. 746.
- 3. See Cassirer 1974.
- 4. Popper 2003, p. 63.
- 5. Fukuyama’s interpretation of Hegel was deeply inspired by Continental thinkers, in particular Kojève’s eccentric reading. See Fukuyama 1992. Since the 1990s he seems to have moved to a more Taylorian focus on Hegelian recognition as a precondition for political stability, inspired by the rise of movements like postmodern conservative Trumpism. See the recent Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Recognition (Fukuyama 2018).
- 6. See Rorty 2000.
- 7. Jurgen Habermas, The Reconstruction of Historical Materialism, cited in McCarthy 1978, p. 233.
- 8. Strawson 2019.
- 9. Žižek’s Hegel is, perhaps inevitably, more creative than Brandom’s. It is also considerably more violent, closer to a synthesis than a reading or even a reconstruction. While the Sublime Object of Ideology is very much a Lacanian work with some Hegelian themes, by the time of Less Than Nothing Hegel has undoubtedly assumed pride of place among Žižek’s influences. But the Lacanian impact still resonates, particularly in Žižek’s arguments about how the ontological gaps in reality are filled in by ideology. By contrast, Brandom’s reconstruction of Hegel may not be entirely faithful to the letter of Hegel’s writing, but is very much driven by the text of the Phenomenology.
- 10. Žižek 2013.
- 11. It may seem unfair to demand this, given that A Spirit of Trust is already a very long work, but I would have found more engagement with figures who adopt a more stringent metaphysical realism about modal issues helpful. The arguments of Kripke and Lewis are both referenced charitably and frequently throughout the book, but there is not a systematic contrast to their arguments and the new Hegelianism Brandom is putting forward. This would have helped guide an understanding of the arguments about modal logic.
- 12. Scruton 2017.
- 13. See Marshall 2013, p. 19. See also Brandom 2009.
- 14. Brandom’s interpretation of the infinite is as a form of holism, which is why the interpretation of the Absolute at the conclusion to the Phenomenology is read as political and social rather than theological. This is probably necessary for the reception of Hegelianism in analytic – and indeed atheistic Continental – circles, but I am sceptical of the contention that Hegel himself did not have religious ambitions.
- 15. See Matthew McManus, The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism: Neoliberalism, Post-Modern Culture and Reactionary Politics (McManus 2019) and Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (Brown 2019).
- 16. Borna Radnik has brought it to my attention that paragraph 11 of the Preface to the Phenomenology stresses the negativity of the dialectic, implying Hegel may have had more revolutionary ambitions than Brandom suggests. The passage reads: ‘For the rest it is not difficult to see that our epoch is a birth-time, and a period of transition. The spirit of man has broken with the old order of things hitherto prevailing, and with the old ways of thinking, and is in the mind to let them all sink into the depths of the past and to set about its own transformation. It is indeed never at rest, but carried along the stream of progress ever onward. But it is here as in the case of the birth of a child; after a long period of nutrition in silence, the continuity of the gradual growth in size, of quantitative change, is suddenly cut short by the first breath drawn – there is a break in the process, a qualitative change and the child is born. In like manner the spirit of the time, growing slowly and quietly ripe for the new form it is to assume, disintegrates one fragment after another of the structure of its previous world. That it is tottering to its fall is indicated only by symptoms here and there. Frivolity and again ennui, which are spreading in the established order of things, the undefined foreboding of something unknown – all these betoken that there is something else approaching. This gradual crumbling to pieces, which did not alter the general look and aspect of the whole, is interrupted by the sunrise, which, in a flash and at a single stroke, brings to view the form and structure of the new world.’ I do think this contention is correct with regard to the Phenomenology, though Brandom could support his reading of Hegelianism by appealing to the more conservative Elements of the Philosophy of Right. See Hegel 1910.
- 17. See ‘Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State’ (Marx 1992, pp. 57–198).
- 18. See Žižek 2014, p. 37.
- 19. See Matthew McManus, The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism: Neoliberalism, Post-Modern Culture and Reactionary Politics (McManus 2019) and What Is Post-Modern Conservatism?: Essays on Our Hugely Tremendous Times (McManus 2020), for a more extensive unpacking of these themes.
- 20. See Harvey 2007.
- 21. Postman 2005.