Systems of Philosophy: On Robert Brandom’s “A Spirit of Trust”

By Crispin SartwellMay 14, 2020

Systems of Philosophy: On Robert Brandom’s “A Spirit of Trust”

A Spirit of Trust by Robert Brandom

ROBERT BRANDOM IS one of the few living philosophers who can, without exaggeration, be compared to the philosophical giants who once bestrode the earth, or at least loomed large in the study, from the 17th through the 19th centuries: Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel — system-builders who intended to explain all of reality, and ourselves, to ourselves, insofar as we and it were explicable (a matter about which they disagreed). Brandom’s long-awaited book A Spirit of Trust is an achievement in that classical vein, and quite a surprising one in this period of punctilious specialists.

Many streams run together in Brandom’s philosophy, which emerges from the American pragmatism of C. S. Peirce and John Dewey; from many strands of analytic philosophy, including those emanating from Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and W. V. Quine; from the “Pittsburgh School” of Wilfrid Sellars and John McDowell (Brandom himself has spent his entire career at the University of Pittsburgh); and, it turns out, from G. W. F. Hegel.

But this book, and Brandom’s now-vast oeuvre as a whole, is much more than synthetic: A Spirit of Trust amounts to a comprehensive, coherent, original philosophical system extending across philosophy of language, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of history, ethics, and even political philosophy. Brandom’s engagement with these areas is maximally ambitious. Despite its rather staid tone, the book displays the swashbuckling speculation and hermeneutical ingenuity of the best continental philosophy together with the rigor of the best analytic work.

By his own account, given in the afterword, Brandom has been developing an interpretation of Hegel in relation to his own philosophy in graduate seminars at Pittsburgh since 1980. Rumors about Brandom’s use of Hegel and unpublished pieces of this book have been circulating for many years among professors and graduate students. The application of his analytic philosophy of language to the broadest-scale ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of history, and metaphysics, as captured in this book, was always implicit.

The fundamental idea in A Spirit of Trust is one Brandom has been developing for decades. He formulated it most elaborately in his 1994 book Making It Explicit: linguistic meaning as well as truth and falsity is essentially a normative matter. The language of his semantic theory is the language of obligation and prohibition, authority and responsibility. “A judgment counts as representing some represented object,” he says in a paradigmatic formulation, “insofar as it is responsible to that object for its correctness, insofar as that object exercises authority over or serves as a standard for assessments of its correctness.”

Representing a particular thing in a particular way, or making a particular claim about it, carries with it a series of rational implications. In stating that the sky is blue on a sunny day, one is not only representing a discrete fact with a particular utterance but also committing oneself to a whole nexus of logical relations that the sentence expresses or contains implicitly. Whether you are quite aware of it or not, you are committed also to the claim that the sky is not chartreuse, and you are committed to the claim that the sky is the sort of thing that can be colored (unlike justice, for example). We would regard someone who held that the sky is blue but not colored to be plainly irrational, and someone who consistently ignored the commitments that his assertions entailed to be mentally ill or not a competent speaker of the language. If you claim that the sky is blue but not colored, you’re not just saying something false — you are showing that you don’t have the relevant concepts (“blue” and “colored”) at all. At a minimum, you are violating your rational obligations. Anyone’s ability to mean anything is made possible by social practices that hold people to such rational rules of entailment and incompatibility. This approach, in Brandom’s formulations, owes much to Kant and, especially, Wittgenstein.

The question of whether a certain sentence is true, for Brandom, is inseparable from rational standards about what it is permissible or obligatory to say or believe. This “deontic” account stands in contrast, Brandom says, to much of the Western philosophical tradition prior to Hegel (Descartes and Locke, for example), which often considered an assertion as a sort of picture, and purported to assess it for truth by whether the picture matched up to a real-world fact in a one-to-one relation.

This is a representational account of truth akin to what Brandom’s dissertation supervisor (and mine) Richard Rorty called “the mirror of nature,” and against which Rorty railed throughout his career. Brandom’s complex alternative is that our descriptions constitute a system of socially constituted rational commitments, and that only linguistic rules, socially articulated and enforced, are capable of giving our words any meaning at all. Saying something meaningful requires making explicit what is already implicit in our use of concepts, rather than matching or failing to match an external reality.

This sounds quite as though it is going to descend into a coherence theory of truth, or even into the sort of linguistic idealism and relativism often associated with Rorty. Brandom is concerned to answer such criticisms, though not merely to reject them. He asserts the necessary isomorphism between what things are in themselves and what they are for consciousness; he claims that the universe itself is conceptually ordered, or at least that we cannot understand it as not being. In the physical world, and not just in the mind, nothing can be both entirely blue and entirely chartreuse. Brandom’s take on the relation of human intelligence to the real world is complex and cannot be fully captured in this space, and rarely has any philosopher given a more elaborate account of any matter than Brandom gives this one.

This is also only one of a dozen interlocked fundamental theses that are put forward and carefully explored in this astonishing book. Brandom develops fundamentally original positions with implications for everything from narrative theory to the free will problem to the nature of the political state. He generally attributes these positions to Hegel, though I would generally attribute them to Brandom. Nevertheless, traditional interpretations of Hegel are enhanced and challenged by being driven in this direction; Brandom recovers myriad details of Hegel’s masterwork The Phenomenology of Spirit — the nature of “historical dialectics,” for example — and stacks them into a fully coherent system. We might split the difference by attributing the ideas here to Brandom’s Hegel, who is no less systematic than Hegel himself, though he is far clearer; even Brandom, a heroic close reader, calls various passages of the Phenomenology “gnomic.”

Brandom’s normative accounts of meaning and truth have been fully developed in his previous books (especially Making It Explicit), but using Hegel’s terms — unlikely though this may seem — clarifies and enriches the position, as well as tying it profoundly to the history of philosophy. But as the book goes on, Brandom, with Hegel’s help, expands a technical theory of linguistic meaning into a structure for understanding ourselves and the universe as a whole. Analytic philosophy of language, in Brandom’s hands, becomes cosmic (as it occasionally does, such as in the work of David Lewis and Timothy Williamson).

One of the most fundamental ideas Brandom draws from Hegel is that we cannot, right now, know exactly what we mean, just as thirsty people in 1700 couldn’t have known that, in wanting some water, they wanted the chemical compound H2O. As concepts are clarified over time, we come to see more about what we already mean. This entails that meanings can only be fully established retrospectively. In Hegel’s famous formulation “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk,” we can come to know what something is or the content of a concept only when that item or concept is finished in virtue of being fully developed or made explicit. The progressive history by which we come to know what we mean and hence come to approximate the truth is built into the structure of our concepts from the beginning.

For example, Newton’s physics was not merely contradicted by Einstein’s. Newton’s physics made Einstein’s possible, and was taken up by Einstein even as it was transcended. Here, Brandom develops a clarifying account of Hegel’s dialectical philosophy of history. We should not simply dismiss Newtonian physics as false, for it was a necessary stage on the road to truth, on which we’re still journeying. Newtonian physics was part of the “truth process” already implicit in the vocabulary that Newton inherited (the concept of force, for example); it consisted in those concepts working themselves out in history. To understand the place of Newton’s physics in the progressive unfolding of the truth is, in Brandom’s rather surprising formulation, to “forgive” Newton as having provided a necessary phase on the way to greater truths. To forgive him is, among other things, to refrain from dismissing him as merely asserting falsehoods. In his philosophy of history, Hegel notoriously extends a similar spirit of forgiveness to “world-historical” figures such as Caesar and Napoleon: perhaps they were in some sense bad people doing bad things. But if we can contain our judgment or outrage for a moment, Hegel claims we can see that what they did was a necessary moment in a progressive history, carrying us all forward.

Indeed, Brandom seems to argue that the possibility of any of us communicating with anyone else requires us to practice this sort of retrospective forgiveness. He ends up suggesting with Hegel that even the most glaring or monstrous errors are redeemed by structures of meaning into necessary rational steps in the process of unfolding the truth or coming to see what we already mean. This begins to look like an entire moral and political philosophy, resting on universal forgiveness for and redemption of our errors. Toward the end of the book, Brandom draws the most comprehensive conclusions imaginable:

The sort of Hegelian semantic self-consciousness that consists in understanding our discursive activity […] obliges us to be certain kinds of selves, and to institute certain kinds of communities. In particular, the sort of theoretical understanding he teaches (the explicit acknowledgment of what he shows to be implicit in our discursive practice) obliges us in practice to forgive and trust one another […] A proper understanding of ourselves as discursive creatures obliges us to institute a community in which reciprocal recognition takes the form of forgiving recollection: a community bound by and built on trust.

In some ways, Jürgen Habermas has ended up at a similar position: deriving a concept of selfhood and community from practices of discursive rationality. This is, of course, where things get speculative, or where Brandom’s precision necessarily loosens, even as the longtime reader of Brandom suddenly realizes (appropriately enough) that this is where his ethics of language was always going, that all of this was, perhaps, already implicit in Making It Explicit.

There are, however, many places where Brandom’s expansion of philosophy of language to totalistic metaphysics could be gainsaid. For example, it is not entirely clear to me that, on Brandom’s account, it is really possible to know anything without knowing everything, and it is not clear that he can exclude retrograde, useless, or malicious errors from being in some sense true once we approach them in “a spirit of trust.” Indeed, this too is Hegel’s position: the intelligence of each of us, with all its apparent mistakes, is a little bit of the intelligence of God. But it requires more than Brandom’s technical apparatus to take us there. God rarely comes up explicitly in A Spirit of Trust, though forms of collective consciousness centered around shared linguistic practices, which may be what Hegel means by “the Absolute,” do. But the divine does bob up from time to time, and Brandom indicates that God “is not (as Faith thinks), an objective, independent being, but a product of [Faith’s] own thought and practice,” and real for all that, by Brandom’s ontology. He attributes the divinization of linguistic rationality to Hegel but more than hints that he endorses it himself.

If one were in the mood to attack the whole thing, one might run it backward from the conclusion. If this is where Brandom’s theory of meaning ends up — in a crypto-Christian spirit of universal forgiveness for alleged error, or in a Hegelian delineation of the supposedly necessary structure of human history, or in treating our rationality, if any, as divine — there must be something wrong or questionable in the initial normative theory of meaning.

As in Rorty, Brandom’s theory of meaning and truth and (hence) of mind and reality is relentlessly linguistic, and though he tries to take the sting out of this in many ways — much more thoroughly than Rorty ever did — he does not seem to have a principled place for a reality outside of language; indeed the idea of “reality outside of language” appears only as a presupposition of certain linguistic practices, rather than as a flat acknowledgment that we are organisms inhabiting a material environment: “[T]he notion of there being a way things determinately are, in themselves — that is, independently of what they are for us [is] an essential structural element of the concept of theoretical and practical consciousness.” That is not exactly, or not at all, the same as asserting that there is indeed a world independent of our ways of thinking about it.

Brandom’s position, in addition, is overweeningly rationalistic; I am not convinced that my obligation to believe of a blue thing that it is not also chartreuse is, all things considered, much like my obligation not to hurt people for no good reason. That is, the “deontic” status of rational norms is fundamentally an assumption rather than a result, something that is supposed to be self-evident or entailed by our existing practices. But if I (like the arch anti-Hegelian Søren Kierkegaard, for example) resolve to embrace a paradox, or if I am simply indifferent to certain rational implications of what I already believe, how could we show this to be “impermissible”? I’ll believe what I like, thank you very much.

I will also remark that the book is excessively repetitive. In a Hegelian manner, each re-summary of the basic ideas is intended to enrich our understanding by recontextualization. Still, it might profitably have lost a couple of hundred pages or more (the book’s “conclusion” is a 120-page summary of the previous 600 pages, which already present many recapitulations along the way). But my predominant responses as I finished A Spirit of Trust’s long haul were gratitude that such a project can be undertaken even now (let alone completed with such distinction) and envy of the intellect that was capable of producing it. The index must in itself have been a Herculean labor.

In 1979, just after Brandom finished his dissertation under Rorty, the latter argued that philosophy was over and, I can attest, strongly suggested to his own students that pursuing an advanced degree in the discipline was futile. Agree or disagree with any of his particular assertions, Brandom’s career, which culminates for a second time in this book, is a decisive demonstration that philosophy, even in its grandest systematic ambitions, isn’t over after all.


Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Entanglements: A System of Philosophy.

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Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Beauty: A Quick Immersion (Tibidabo, 2022).


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