When introduced to a new concept, do you prefer to be given a definition for it in terms of other concepts, or do you prefer a story of how the word came to be used as it’s used? Which kind of account is more enlightening?

  • “Electrons”, “haploidism”, and “sulfur” are popularly regarded to have a nature. These are the proper subject matter of the Naturwissenschaften.
  • “Freedom”, “skepticism”, and “the right to vote” are popularly regarded to have a history. These are the proper subject matter of the Geisteswissenshaften.

This can be applied to philosophy itself or major topics in philosophy (ethics, philosophy the mind, epistemology, mereology). It is a meta-philosphical problem to establish what kind of account is satisfactory. This distinction underlies a fork in the road for new German graduate students in philosophy: Kant oder Hegel?

Put another way: Verstand (understanding) or Vernunft (reasoning)

Rorty/Hegel can be thought of as making the meta-philosophical claim that the only (specifically) philosophical form of understanding is that of retrospective, reconstructive narratives.1


  1. Brandom says one’s sympathy to Rorty is directly proportional to the extent one does find stories over definitions satisfying.