Reason, Genealogy and the Hermeneutics of Magnanimity

Robert Brandom (born 1950) is an American philosopher who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. He works primarily in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and philosophical logic, and his work manifests both systematic and historical interests in these topics. He earned his B.A. from Yale University and his Ph.D. from Princeton University, under Richard Rorty and David Kellogg Lewis. Brandom is broadly considered to be part of the American pragmatist tradition in philosophy.

Brandom’s work is heavily influenced by that of Wilfrid Sellars, Richard Rorty, Michael Dummett and his Pittsburgh colleague John McDowell. He also draws heavily on the works of Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Gottlob Frege, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

He is best known for his investigations of linguistic meanings, or semantics. He advocates the view that the meaning of an expression is fixed by how it is used in inferences (see inferential role semantics). This project is developed at length in his influential 1994 book, Making It Explicit, and more briefly in Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism (2000).


Robert Brandom, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, University of Pittsburgh, argues that genealogies (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault) present the revenge of naturalism on rationalism. Hegel teaches us how to replace the genealogical hermeneutics of suspicion with a hermeneutics of magnanimity that allows us to see naturalism and rationalism as complementing rather than competing with one another.

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8 responses to “Reason, Genealogy and the Hermeneutics of Magnanimity

  1. I need to watch this again sometime, as sympathetic as I am to Donald Davidson’s (a common root for all of us schooled by Rorty) I think that this almost Habermasian line that Brandom has been taking/making misses out on too much of our being-embodied, being-in-the-word, and the Derridean always already of communication as miscommunication, and something also of the sort of analytic-philo/AI/Esperanto way of offering a kind of prescription as description here that always sends me back to the rough ground of Wittgenstein and ordinary language folks, but as I said this is more of a loose/impressionistic sketch than a close “reading”. Will be interested in what more careful interpreters make of it.

  2. Interesting blog, guys — I expect to stop in regularly.

    I’ve not read any of Brandom’s work, but my curiosity was piqued by Ray Brassier’s and Pete Wolfendale’s commendations of his ideas. The core element of what I took away from this lecture is that norms and rules aren’t universal and static; rather, they emerge in conjunction with the specific applications that illustrate them. Brandom uses case law to illustrate: faced with the necessity of rendering a specific decision, a judge assembles a set of prior specific decisions, infers from them a general principle implicit in those decisions, then applies that general principle in making the decision at hand. Brandom isn’t claiming that these tacit norms had been there all along waiting to be discovered and made explicit. Rather, there is a subjective selection and assembly process involved. A different judge deciding the very same case might well draw on a different set of precedents, identify a different tacit norm, render a different decision. In both situations, the decision is embedded in prior social practice and an agreed-upon methodology, thereby lending individual decisions normative societal weight.

    I had been wondering why Pete Wolfendale would have endorsed the Accelerationist Manifesto recently published online and currently being subjected to “weird readings” by Craig at Noir Realism. Per Brandom, I can see that these guys are attempting to make explicit and perhaps normative certain strands that have been implicit in political, economic, and technological practice through recent history. Accelerationism is the central strand around which they weave the rest of their position. Okay, that’s fair enough; a lot of theory and cultural studies people perform this same sort of making-explicit function across a variety of domains.

    At the end of Brandom’s talk someone asked him if his theory wasn’t Whiggish, bestowing truth value on tradition. Brandom said no. Citing Hegel, he said that this practice of generating norms by making the tacit explicit often manifests itself as a kind of drunken brawl, with various competing traditions staking deontological claims, and with these traditions themselves morphing continually with new specific instantiations. But Brandom isn’t a let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom sort of guy either, suggesting that all of these competing and evolving norms are equivalent to one another as creative gestures. Brandom’s central project is neither to valorize nor to debunk this socio-historical practice, but rather to acknowledge the interplay between causes and reasons, between unconscious and conscious, between desires/preferences and universal standards. To render the tacit explicit is to subject an idea or practice to rational scrutiny and empirical investigation.

    So, returning briefly to the newly explicated norm at hand, surely Pete and company aren’t expecting Accelerationism to be embraced as a universal truth that has been embedded throughout history and that is only now being made explicit and normative. Their Manifesto draws explicit attention to acceleration as a pervasive causal factor and asks readers whether the cause should be promoted to a reason, to a norm of Accelerationism. Now that they’ve performed this service, it becomes a shared responsibility of the readers to act as judges, systematically and consciously evaluating the case they’ve set before us. Maybe during critique some other tacit commitment, either in the Manifesto or in other relevant cases, is made explicit. Then we would be embodying collectively the iterative process that Brandom describes in his talk.

  3. Fantastic summary Ktis!

    I think the kind of ecology of enacted normative procedures Brandom suggests can be understood as a kind of struggle for existence among accepted norms as behavioral adoptions and enforcements. It is the selective drawing upon of past and current social practices and frames of reference that generates (makes explicit) each new arrangement. And each new arrangement will always be a mix of contested, adopted, rejected, and agreed upon elements, more or less intensively taken up. This makes for many tensions, conflicts and possible alliances between people who activate a diverse range of value-ations and, perhaps more powerfully, emotional circuits. And so the constant working out of assessment, reaction, action, reassessment makes for a kind of collective cognitive (and here I mean all of cognition including affects) processing which obviously results in many kinds of explication. For me, the most interesting question becomes trying to understand how ‘power dynamics’ shape each ‘evolutionary’ normative configuration. Hence Foucault and his projects, and the suggestion of different epistemes.

    In terms of the new Left Accelerationists, I think you make a very astute point. They are trying to render acceleration as an acknowledged reality and then develop or make explicit normative positions about what this might mean for us socially, in terms of an ethics of possible community. But can we actually establish norms while dealing with The Great Zoom? Isn’t a constant ideological vertigo a key feature of the total reorganization of material-energetic conditions?

    I do tend to agree with the move to try and fill the vacuum of interpretation existing in relation to such processes – what I believe is a kind of negative acceleration, or ‘collapse’, opposed to the techno-utopian positive acceleration (brave new world) of Pete and the gang. We need to get some type of cognitive grasp on the situation as we move through the ZOOM (in either its negative or positive varieties) if we stand any hope of adapting, surviving or avoid imploding under the weight of change. We need to draw upon as many precedents, cases and methodologies as possible in order to make sense of and perhaps guide the direction of what is essentially a massive planetary transition.

    And this is exactly what post-nihilist praxis is for some of us. As we approach escape velocity previously existing norms have dissolved and we are being forced to cope-with and try to develop new modes of thinking and relating adequate to what is a seriously messy and precarious species-relevant situation. Do we need new “norms” and pretensions to the ‘universal capacity reason’? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe we can adopt new forms of reasoning which move beyond the human compulsion for transcendentalisms, that in the contemporary context only result in the erection of new secular Gods and theologies, towards more embodied and vigorous sense-abilities and response-abilities? Perhaps a post-nihilist turn instead takes the death of idols and the utter failure of transcendentalist pretensions (onto-faiths), already ushered in by the corrosive effects of empiricism, semio-linguistics and neuroscience – among other cultural and intellectual developments (two world wars, Freud, Einstein, etc.) – as an opportunity for developing a new kind or relationship with the wider field of extensive and intensive forces, afforded by the emergence of hyper-reflexive orientations of the senses and cognition. Perhaps if nihilism is about seizing important “speculative opportunities” then post-nihilist praxis is about turning those opportunities into action, without returning to an age of complicit certainty.

  4. Brandom explicitly acknowledges Foucault’s place in the development of the hermeneutic of suspicion, which he accepts as a crucial antidote to the idea of norms as eternal, transcendental, ideal, certain. But he’s not going to support the dissolution of norms in the acid of power relations, or of unconscious desire/drive, or of politico-economic false consciousness. And he is going to endorse reason and “the corrosive effects of empiricism” as valuable practices for evaluating the implicit causes and reasons behind what people do. Certainly the corrosion wears away transcendent certainty, but it also might leave some nuggets worth preserving, building on, acting on. It’s far from clear whether this modernist sort of ongoing critique and renorming makes any practical difference when confronting the ZOOM, or whether they’ll just get swept away in the backdraft.

    In a sense acceleration is a conservative praxis, calling for more of the same at an ever-faster rate of delivery. But your idea of “escape velocity” interjects an abrupt discontinuity from the past. Certainly Land wants to escape from the merely human, though in his nihilistic book on Bataille to accelerate into the posthuman explicitly means becoming-dead. It’s not obvious to me whether you regard the escape as catastrophic or liberating. To embrace both: is that nihilistic or post-nihilistic?

    I’ll continue to “watch this space” as you all sketch out possible contours of the post-nihilist praxis, which from your description sounds like an exhilarating and terrifying adventure.

    • “he’s not going to support the dissolution of norms in the acid of power relations, or of unconscious desire/drive, or of politico-economic false consciousness. And he is going to endorse reason and “the corrosive effects of empiricism” as valuable practices for evaluating the implicit causes and reasons behind what people do.”

      Nor should he. Norms are basic relational heuristics and habits organically arising among egoic primates. They are what happens when determining relations are made explicit and then augmented and encoded by humans. We don’t want to get rid of normative statements or communally recognized practical algorithms, we only seek to temper and limit abusive tendencies and increase our reflexive enactment and deliberation of norms. Post-nihilist thinking operates via transformed (skillful) normative semantics which respect natural flows of projective meaning while simultaneously activates the senses, and prioritizes transparency in speech and intention. Some sort of pragmatism in order here.

      I think the assumption that the ZOOM is a unified force or tends toward an integrated “solution” or conclusion is wrong. There are so many processes at work: with differential accelerations and decelerations, territorializations and deterritorializations, proceeding at different rates and on different scales – and marshalling a variety or resources. We need to think about the range of systems involved and the intensity of particular interactions, as creating various zones and trajectories. Things are not just ‘accelerating’, they are flying apart in different directions and at different rates. The details are important. In this sense linearity itself (time) is breaking down.

      • well I’m not sure I believe in the existence of ” communally recognized practical algorithms” except in a loose familial resemblance kind of way and there doesn’t seem any way to do away with normative statements but in the social realm I think we should pay close attention to when prescription is offered in the guise of description, and more generally (and alas vaguely) this tendency to endorse “reason” (as opposed to giving reasons,being suggestive, voicing interests/preferences) and making space for what can’t/hasn’t been made explicit, is along the lines of my objection above, we don’t need to dissolve “norms” (can’t corrode what never existed) just pay attention to their use. Exit homo seriosus and enter homo rhetoricus…

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