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In 2019, the Pittsburgh philosopher Robert Brandom’s magnum opus A Spirit of Trust was published by Harvard University Press. Brandom can be an intimidating figure: fully fluent in analytic philosophy and prone to tackling the thorniest works with a confident tone. Brandom introduces a huge range of reference points, from Immanuel Kant to Noam Chomsky to Algernon Charles Swinburne, across a few pages to underline his points. He calls this strategy a “polyphonic” approach to writing. A philosopher’s philosopher, Brandom has never made any pretense of belonging to any other academic discipline. As such, his best known works can be daunting for newcomers.

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A Spirit of Trust is a case in point: Brandom breezily tackles the logical progressions Hegel pushes through in the Phenomenology of Spirit, always with an eye on the implications for contemporary pragmatist philosophy. The book is intended as a kind of introduction, but it would probably not serve as a helpful entry point for anyone not already familiar with German idealism.

The cover of Robert Brandom's A Spirit of Trust
Harvard University Press

Thankfully, beginning with some of Brandom’s earlier pieces, and a vivid series of examples that runs through them, can help us understand his insights in much simpler terms. While Brandom has never made any effort to be a populist thinker, his entire career has repeated a relatively small number of ideas, each of which he explored from multiple angles.

The Philosopher’s Parrot

In Jeffrey Williams’ excellent and concise interview, “Inferential Man,” Brandom tells Williams that his key aim as a philosopher is to explain the distinctive ways that humans behave, especially their tendency to give reasons for things that they do, say, or believe. According to Brandom, this tendency to explain oneself is definitively human. Humans are rational beings insofar as they offer reasoning for their actions, their beliefs, and their thoughts. Brandom calls himself a rationalist, in that he sees this feature of humans as truly distinctive. But to speak of humans as rational is to invite the question of how we compare to the animal kingdom.

Brandom compares a parrot prone to repeating the word “red” with a human using the same word. A human usually deploys the words they use as an exercise in language. As linguistic research, following the pioneering work of Noam Chomsky, has repeatedly shown, humans are actually remarkably prone to avoiding repetition. Each sentence we use is very likely to be a unique collections of words, even if describing a topic that seems simple, especially once we strike out formalities (“Good morning,” “How are you?,” “See you later”). Parrots, by contrast, are overwhelmingly prone to incessant repetition, and can only tenuously be described as using human languages. They deploy the word “red” as an effectively interchangeable sound, learned through listening to humans, without a basic grasp of the ends toward which we use our words.

Brandom has repeatedly used the distinction between sapience and sentience to account for this underlying difference. While most animals are in some way sentient (they have thought processes), they largely lack the self-consciousness that defines human sapience. A human using the word “red” is pulling from examples of red items they’ve found out in the world. A parrot is simply repeating a single syllable that it has encountered. A human who is asked what color their basket is and replies “red” is engaged in an exchange quite different from a parrot who replies the exact same way to the exact same question.

This particular comparison between humans and parrots is Brandom playing off the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s challenge that even if a lion were able to speak, we would not understand them. Even a talking creature we can understand is making sense in a completely different way.

Keeping Score

In Brandom’s writing, the sentience-sapience distinction appears repeatedly, including in his book Articulating Reasons, where Brandom argues that the upshot of sapience is that humans are uniquely able to make commitments. Whereas many animals are sentient beings, they cannot provide an account of themselves in the way that humans can. Sapience comes accompanied with what Brandom calls “scorekeeping,” or managing one’s commitments. As the philosopher Allan Gibbard put it in a 1996 commentary: “Sapience requires acknowledging what one is thinking, and this acknowledging involves keeping score on oneself.”

For Brandom, score-keeping is the key feature of human rationalism: we identify the meaning of terms as we use them personally. We each use terms relevant to our lives in a wholly particular way, while navigating conventions and the expectations of those around us. These vocabularies belong to each of us, but can only be deployed when expressing our points to others. Brandom takes the distinctive quality of human word choice to be that humans align concepts through assigning normative meanings to them, making what he calls a commitment.

Commitments are a broad matter for Brandom, and can cover a huge range of claims, from asserting personal preferences to assertions concerning “natural facts.” Brandom’s bold claim is that each of these commitments are tethered to a community that accepts them and develops them as its agreed-upon wisdom. Whatever the underlying truth of the topics under discussion, meaningful dialogue relies on addressing an audience that appreciates what you mean by each term (what Brandom calls a community). A commitment is intended to help us make sense of normativity—the expected order of both language and society.

Queen Takes Pawn

An example that Brandom is very fond of deploying is games of chess. He points out that one cannot simply declare oneself a chess grandmaster. The only means of becoming a grandmaster is to take part in chess matches at championships and win. In this way, becoming a grandmaster of chess axiomatically requires conforming to the conventionally accepted rules of the game. It is a matter decided upon by the social practice of playing chess, in accordance to the rules established by each championship. Very little is left subjective. Barring some cheating scandal, it’s hardly up for discussion whether someone is a chess grandmaster or not.

Those who already have a grounding in German idealism may well recognize this account of mutual definition through participation as belonging to G.W.F. Hegel, who called this kind of interaction reciprocal recognition. Brandom’s earlier work, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, mostly avoided directly referencing this source for his thinking, but it became something of an open secret.

Analytic philosophy has rarely been a friendly place for extended and sincere engagements with Hegelian insights. In analytic circles, Hegel is perceived as a quasi-mystical figure best left to the dustbin of history. But over the years, Brandom has grown less and less cautious in making this influence on his thinking explicit (culminating in A Spirit of Trust). Today, Brandom is known as one of the “Pittsburgh Hegelians,” along with fellow philosopher John McDowell.

A Penny in the Pocket

While the example of chess might be uncontroversial as an example of commitments and communities, Brandom also explicitly includes the natural sciences. Here, he uses as an example the act of saying that one has a copper coin in one’s pocket. While copper is a substance with objective qualities (for instance, its melting point) nevertheless this requires a community to agree on standard definitions (and to express this in a shared language or number system). Any claim considered definitive of copper (for instance, that its melting point is 1,984°F) refers to these linguistic conventions for calibrating units. This is not always a straightforward matter, as we saw with the recent re-measurement of the kilogram. Whatever the natural sciences discover, they cannot even begin the work of explaining the world without certain conventions of meaning.

Key to all this, the title of Brandom’s best known work, Making It Explicit, relates what he sees as the crucial process of human thinking: explication. More than any other distinction, exploring the implicit-explicit split has defined Brandom’s intellectual career. Explicit statements are always necessary to navigate between the way that things “just are.” They assign “normative statuses.”

This process of setting the normative can be a messy one. Not every social convention runs as formally as the scientific method or as smoothly as a chess championship (typically). Through the motions of history, normative boundaries can become unclear: there was a point at which the claim “two men cannot marry” might be made with total certainty by a Roman Catholic priest (a commitment that almost certainly reflects the status of things in his own church). But across more and more of the world, this claim does not carry any normative status, since it is no longer the law of the land.

Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

In these more controversial contexts, the process of deciding the correct course of action to reflect any prevailing normative order will be a divisive one. All kinds of grounds for disagreement arise. In Making It Explicit, Brandom uses the example of a naval flogging: upon seeing a fellow sailor flogged, it’s possible to approve or to have no opinion on the matter. It’s also possible (and perhaps likely) that the observing sailor might disapprove, seeing the punishment as an injustice. But there is not only one reason to feel that way: one might oppose one’s shipmate being flogged on the grounds that she had not broken the rule, or that the rule itself was unjust, or that the rule was correct but flogging seemed too harsh a punishment. While the upshot to each type of injustice is a similar emotional and moral reaction, each position has subtly different implications for further action.

One helpful example to consider is a city in Northern Ireland: officially, Derry was renamed “Londonderry” as one feature of colonial rule, with the city’s 1662 charter still appealed to in 21st-century court rulings confirming it’s controversial official name. Whereas members of Northern Ireland’s unionist community (primarily Protestant) would refer to the city by its formally correct name of “Londonderry,” the area’s nationalist community (primarily Catholic) reject the imposition of England’s capital. To the majority of locals, the city is simply called “Derry.”

There is no ultimately correct answer to the question of whether “Londonderry” or “Derry” is the correct term. In various contexts, using one name or the other would be likely to cause offense, or at least result in the locals correcting you. In this case, the normative status is quite mixed, with road signs on different sides of the border bearing different names. But thanks to this ambivalence as a commitment, the use of one name or the other can be quite telling. Communities play a key role: through the play of giving reasons, and asking for them, a social process institutes the normative conditions we might later take for granted—or defines contests that we might expect to be settled.

Brandom follows a trend in contemporary thought that asserts the preeminent importance of communities in making sense of the world, not least in the context of historical conflicts.

One of the more obvious implications of this focusing on social setting of knowledge (tethered to personal “score-keeping” of tracking reasonable commitments) is an acceptance of the flexibility of meaning. The reasons given and accepted in whatever circumstance are of pre-eminent importance. There is, for Brandom, no greater success with words than mastering their deployment in the relevant context. This is an approach that often gets denounced as “relativism.”

The Color of Death

Brandom addresses the charge in an essay called “Inferentialism and Some of Its Challenges.” He writes:

In a culture in which white is the color of death, and things associated with death are to be shunned or avoided—a culture, to be sure, that would mean something somewhat different than we do by their word corresponding to our “white”—the connection between the visible presence of white things and the practical response of shunning or avoiding, which their practitioners endorse by using the concept in question, is an inferential one in the broad sense…

So while there is no fixed connotation to the color white, neither are associations a complete free-for-all. Our expression is always constrained and directed by the associations people draw from our language, actions, or attire. Cultures build up associations ,which we then deploy within them and across them. These chains of associations constitute “inferentialism.”

In other words, Brandom’s approach provides a way for a reunion between the main branches of contemporary philosophy. Brandom refuses to pick between the conventionally accepted canon of analytic and continental philosophy, instead explicitly reading them together. Brandom has addressed this potential in one of his wittier essays, “Untimely Review of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit” (2008), where he treats that famous 19th century treatise as if it was recently released, even claiming it was implicitly responding to 20th century Wittgenstein.

Truths That Are True in Any Context

The term “inferentialism” itself is inspired by the late Pittsburgh philosopher Wilfrid Sellars. A great critic of empiricism, Sellars spent much of his career opposing what he called “the myth of the given.” For Sellars, there was never any underlying truth that could be “dug down to” and then taken for granted. Empiricism is built atop shifting and unsteady sands.

In developing the implications of Sellars’ work, Brandom follows his mentor, the late pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty. Both Brandom and Rorty have done their best to provide an account of meaning that can survive Sellars’ thoroughgoing attack on the very foundations of thought. Without any melodrama, the context can be described as a crisis of reason. If there are no truly reliable points of fact, how can we present our thinking in ways that do more than express our personal sensibilities? Many contemporary thinkers are convinced this is impossible: that each perspective outlined expresses only the interests of a particular standpoint. And that any argument, however delicate, can ultimately only be a self-concerned power play.

In response to this kind of corrosive skepticism, Brandom’s interest in Hegel seems rather hopeful. We are obliged to make sense of the world, and have no “given” that we can depend on across every context. But we are never left attempting this alone. Reasons both arise from communities and are appeals to them. To offer a reason requires not only expressive work, but also engagement with an audience familiar with the terms we use, to whom we can explain our convictions, beliefs, and actions. It is always a reciprocal matter.

It’s for this reason that Brandom’s latest book is titled A Spirit of Trust: whereas what is taken to be the sharpest social theory today often places an emphasis on suspicion, ambivalence, and doubt, this approach to philosophy takes a bolder approach. It seeks neither to return to empiricism and the certainty of the senses nor to abandon any hope of explaining the world. Offering reasons is neither purely a matter of individual taste nor of digging deep down for truths that are true in any context. For Brandom, expressing ourselves and offering (explicit) explanations is an inevitable and defining feature of human life. And these are practices we can only ever attempt together.

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International Phenomenological Society