Avello Publishing Journal issn: 2049 498x issue 1 Volume 4: The Paradox of Nietzschean Atheism

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Avello Publishing Journal

ISSN: 2049 - 498X
Issue 1 Volume 4:

The Paradox of Nietzschean Atheism

Reason, Genealogy, and the Hermeneutics of Magnanimity

Robert Brandom, University of Pittsburgh, USA.


This talk was presented to a Moral Sciences Club audience with D.H Mellor, Emeritus Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, University of Cambridge on 06/05/14. Professor Brandom's talk Reason, Genealogy, and the Hermeneutics of Magnanimity was followed by questions from Jane Heal, Simon Blackburn, Rae Langton, Tim Button, Tim Crane and Huw Price. The Q & A session is omitted from this chapter. The following article is not a comprehensive account of Robert Brandom's presentation, although it is structured in numbered paragraphs in the same aphoristic style as the publications of Friedrich Nietzsche. The form and content of the notes retain the style of Jacques Derrida's Glas (1974), however are presented with more clarity.

  1. Hegel: “To him who looks at the world rationally, the world looks rationally back” [Introduction to Lectures on the Philosophy of History] Nietzsche: “When you stare long into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you” [Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146]

  2. A crucial trajectory of nineteenth century thought expresses the revenge of Enlightenment naturalism on Enlightenment rationalism. The form that revenge took is genealogy.

  3. Genealogical explanations concern the relations between the act or state of believing and the content that is believed. A genealogy explains the advent of a belief, in the sense of a believing, (an attitude) in terms of contingencies of its etiology, appealing exclusively to facts that are not evidence, that do not provide reasons or justifications, for the truth of what is believed.

  4. A global Harmanian genealogical account addressed to the norms of reason generally contends that a complete explanation for people taking or treating some claims as reasons for others need appeal only to their attitudes of taking or treating some claims as reasons for others, not to any facts about what really is a reason.

  5. There is a structural defect that afflicts global reductive genealogical stories of this kind. They depend on what I call 'semantic naiveté': taking for granted the conceptual contents of the attitudes whose rational relations to one another one wants to dissolve genealogically.

  6. Kant brought about a revolution in our understanding of the mind by recognising the essentially normative character of discourse.

  7. In two-stage theories (e.g. Kant, Carnap) the semantic processes by which discursive norms are instituted are sharply distinguished from the epistemic processes in which those discursive norms are applied.

  8. Two-stage stories about the division of labor between semantics and epistemology – that is, about the relations between conceptual contents and their application in judgement – are committed to semantic purity. This is the view that the contents concepts possess are not at all affected by the use of those concepts in making judgements.

  9. Hegel, Kant, Quine, Carnap.

  10. The semantic challenge for the globalised Harmanian genealogist is to say how we are to understand the contents of the attitudes in favour of which genuine norms have been eliminated. The corresponding challenge for a one-stage account is to explain how institution of genuine conceptual norms is compatible with the possibility of genealogical explanation of facts of applying such norms.

  11. What semantic purity claims conceptual contents are pure of is contamination by the epistemic, that is, by knowledge claims, judgements as to how things actually are. The semantics of concepts (universals) is supposed not to depend at all upon epistemic commitments, that is, on judgements. Hegel's slogan for the conceptual sea-change he sees as necessary (and sufficient) for appreciating the interdependence of semantic and epistemic commitments is that we must move from understanding the conceptual in terms of static categories of Verstand to understanding it in terms of dynamic categories of Vernunft.

  12. Hegel understands determinateness (Bestimmtheit) in terms of what he calls 'individuality' (Einzelheit). Individuality, in turn, is a matter of the characterization of a paricular by a universal, which is something that has the form of of a fact or a judgment (in the sense of judgeable content, which, when true, is a fact). As Kant emphasized, concepts shape and articulate judgements. Hegel adds the idea that judgement is the process by which concepts are determined. The essence of Hegel's Vernunft conception is an account of the structure of the dynamic process in which the whole constellation of concepts-and-judgements (what Hegel calls 'the concept') develops by the exercise of the reciprocal authority of universals over particulars and particulars over universals. Judging, the application of universals to particulars, is the development of individuals: at once the semantic shaping and determining of universals and the epistemic discovery of which universals apply to particulars.

  13. What Heidegger called 'the dignity and spiritual greatness of German Idealism' is founded on Kant's reconstrual of self – conscious selfhood as consisting in freedom, in the sense of the authority to commit oneself determinetely, the capacity to bind oneself by conceptual norms, norms that are rational in the sense that they articulate what is a reason for a judgement or an action with that content. Hegel sees that self-consciousness in this normative sense is an essentially social achievement. The authority to make oneself responsible (for what one thinks or what one does) makes sense only in a context in which one can be held responsible. That requires two loci of authority and responsibility, and the selves that are the subjects of such statuses, Hegel teaches, are instituted by reciprocal recognition: that is, by individuals practically taking or treating one another as authoritative and (so) responsible.

  14. The metaconcept of Vernunft is a view about the process of determining conceptual contents, and the kind of determinateness that results. This process has the normative structure distinctive of a tradition.

  15. The idea that assessmentsof rationality are appropriately addressed only to the application of already fully determinate concepts is that product of a blinkered semantic naiveté. It ignores the fact that the very same discursive practice that is from one point of view the application of conceptual norms is from another point of view the application of conceptual norms is from another point of view the institution of those norms and the determination of their contents. Only when discursive practice is viewed whole does its rationality emerge. If the semantogenic practice by which conceptual contents are determined and developed is ignored, the distincive way in which reason informs and infuses discursive practice remains invisible.

  16. For Hegel, the principal task of reason is to 'give contingency the form of necessity'.

  17. Hegel's idea is that a distinctive kind of retrospective rational reconstruction of prior applications of a concept necessary and sufficient to exhibit those application as conferring a determinate content on the concept. One brings order to the discursive practice one inherits by discriminating within it a privileged trajectory that is expressively progressive, in the sense of making gradually explicit norms that then show up as having been all along implicit. Doing that is turning a past in to a history – a tradition.

  18. The best model I know of the kind of rational activity that determines conceptual contents by making or finding the right kind of history for themn is the jurisprudential one institutionalized and codified in case law.

  19. It is of the essence of the kind of rationality distinctive of this sort of concept-determining process to be articulated by these complementary perspectives: retrospective determining-as-finding and prospective determining-as-making, responsibility to the tradition one inherits and authority over the tradition one bequeaths.

  20. T.S Eliot: 'What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaenously to all the works of art which preceeded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.' [Tradition and the Individual Talent]

  21. No man is a hero to his valet; not, however, because the man is not a hero, but because the valet – is a valet...' The valet's [Kammerdiener]...dealings are with the man, not as hero, but as one who eats, drinks, and wears clothes, in general, with his individual wants and fancies. Thus, for the judging consciousness, there is no action in which it could oppose to the universal aspect of the action, the personal aspect of the individuality, and play the part of moral valet towards the agent. The valet...explains [the action] as resulting...from selfish motives. Just as every action is capable of being looked at from the point of view of the particularity [of the doer]... if the action is accompanied by fame, then it knows this inner aspect to be a desire for fame...The inner aspect is judged to be an urge to secure his own happiness, even though this were to consist merely in an inner moral conceit, in the enjoyment of being conscious of his own superiority and in the foretaste of a hope to future happiness,. No action can escape such judgement, for duty's sake, this pure purpose, is an unreality; it becomes a reality in th edeed of an individuality, and the action is therby charged with the aspect of paticularity. [Phenomenology of Spirit, M665]

  22. Hegel calls the genealogical valet's attitude 'Niederträchtigkeit': literally, something like a striving for the low, an impulse to debase. His term for the practical attitude of giving contingency the normative form of necessity is 'Edelmütigkeit': magnanimity. It is a form of norm-instituting recognition. Its retrospective recognitive aspect he calls 'forgiveness', its prospective recognitive aspect he calls 'confession.' What one forgives is the normative contingencies that infect prior applications of concepts. One forgives them not wholesale, by a grand gesture, but by the hard retail work of constructingan expressively progressive historical narrative in which they play precedential roles as making explicit aspects of the developing conceptual content that are now revealed as hitherto having been implicit.

  23. Hegel calls this 'making what happens into something done.' What the magnanimous interpreter confesses is the contingent inadequacy of each particular such forgiving rational reconstruction. One confesses that one is unable to find a narrative in which every contingency is given the normative status of a progressive precedential expression of th eunderlying conceptual norm. In confessing, one petitions one's successors for forgiveness of the contingent failure of one's own efforts at forgiveness. The edelmütigkeit rational, rationalizing process in which conceptual norms are instituted by diachronic magnanimous reciprocal recognition is a structure of trust: trust that one's trespasses will be forgiven as one forgives those who trespassed.

  24. Hegel foresaw the genealogical challenge to rational normativitythat would arise from a reductive naturalism and would result in a small-minded, niederträchtig valet's hermeneutics of suspicion. The hermeneutics of magnanimity and trust he recommends instead is not based on fine feeling or pious sentiment. Instead he argues that the only construal on which reason and meaning are threatened by the possibility of genealogy is a narrow, one-sided conceptionthat is mistaken because it is semantically naïve. In its place he puts a more capacious conception of Vernunft as compromising not only the norm-governed application of concepts but the process and practice by which their content is determined. At its core is the magnanimous hermeneutics that shapes genealogical contingency into a normative, rational form.

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