[Reflections on reading Robert B. Brandom, “Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel’s Idealism”, in his book Tales of the Mighty Dead (Harvard UP, 2002).]
Both Kant and Hegel were writing in a time of thorough-going Enlightenment. For the most part they had moved beyond many of the basic philosophical tasks that kept the early modern philosophers busy, such as staking out what we can be certain of, distinguishing reality from appearance, working out a system of substances, accidents, and causal powers, charting how far human freedom extends, explaining moral obligation, and setting the foundations of political stability. In the span of time separating Descartes and Kant, a Newtonian and Lockean framework had come to dominate the European intellectual scene, which meant that the foundational questions of science, religion, and politics had largely been settled, at least in general outline. The urgent questions for Kant and Hegel were more institutional in nature: how can our social and political institutions be rational? How is the rationality of institutions connected to the rationality of individuals? Or, to put the big question in burdensome Kantian style, what is necessary for the possibility of Enlightened citizens in Enlightened institutions?
In the context of these concerns, what was important about individual human beings for Kant was their capacity to engage in conversations about what is true. Enlightened citizens do not merely squawk in response to environmental pokes and prods; they make assertions for which they assume responsibility. In asserting a claim, they signify that they accept the consequences of that claim, and are willing to provide justification for the claim. Enlightened citizens, in short, think of themselves as grown ups who can engage in a discourse of reasons, and can responsibly navigate their way through dialogues with other similarly Enlightened citizens, giving reasons to one another and responding to them with further reasons.
But at the same time, of course, Kant knew that humans are animals in the natural world, and so this raises a problem. How can animals in the natural world operate as Enlightened citizens? Or, to return to Kantian jargon again, what is necessary for the possibility of animals operating in such a way? The answer to this question was Kant’s set of Critiques. The overall picture Kant offered in answer to this question was that human animals must be able to plug themselves into a system of concepts and judgments that define the structure of rationality. The situation is analogous to learning a language. French has its own grammar and vocabulary, and when I learn French, I learn how to speak according to its structure. Similarly, according to Kant, human animals somehow become able to think and speak in the language of reason, which has its own grammar and vocabulary. But unlike any particular natural language, the language of reason is precisely what enables us to make objective claims about reality, morality, and justice. The language of reason is necessary for the possibility of our efforts in science, morality, and politics — in any language whatsoever.
Kant offers very little insight about the origins or ontology of this language of reason. His concern is to lay out its structure and justify its use, not explain how it came to be. Perhaps he had good reason to claim that no such explanation is possible for us, since it is itself the language in which all explanation takes place, and so it cannot reach outside itself and tell its own origin story. But this is the task Hegel set for himself, and when we experience the vertigo inherent in his attempt — to account for the origins of the framework by which we provide all possible accounts — we might forgive him for writing such maddeningly torturous prose. His answer has something to do with a grand Idea unfolding its own character over time through human history. In any case, what results from his account is the view that Enlightenment is not the expression of a fixed and unchanging system, but one that evolves as we evolve, discovering for ourselves what counts as good reason.
And so it is with Hegel that we find the highest optimistic hope in Enlightenment: not that we fully know how to be Enlightened citizens, but that we can get better at it by working at it, in constant dialogue with one another. For Hegel, there is no way we can fail in the grand project, because every local failure shows us what we should have known, or should have been paying attention to. The deepest challenge to such high-flying optimism is that there is in fact no way to structure an advanced society that does not oppress and marginalize people, or require slavery, or flatten out individuality and suppress creativity and authenticity. Those challenges, in short, are the criticisms of Marx, Foucault, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.
Those criticisms must be seriously considered. But there is a cloud of implausibility hanging over them, I think. If the critics of Enlightenment are right, then it is somehow impossible for us to make better and more just societies through rational discourse. Perhaps we can do so by some other means (like trusting to humanity’s innate sociability, or becoming who we are, or something), or perhaps there is really no such thing as a “more just” society, but in any case, the critics charge that rational discourse of the kind that Kant and Hegel sought to establish and explain is of no help at all. And that seems to me very implausible. Civic life has become more humane and just over recorded history, and I think the sort of rational discourse championed by the Enlightenment has had something to do with that improvement. The suggestion that if we all just stopped trying to engage one another with reasoned arguments, then life would get better, or even get no worse, seems absurd to me.
Still, the critics of Enlightenment rightly point out the various ways humans have screwed up, and can do better. They tell us that we must not allow our concerns for efficient and flexible markets and systems to force us treat human beings as mere means; we must encourage the arts and pursuits of authenticity; we need “outsider critiques” of what our institutions are forcing us to do to one another and to ourselves. In short, the critics can be regarded as critics of the imperfect manifestations of Enlightenment — but not of Enlightenment itself. Any rational discourse must be critical if it is to also be constructive.