Why Read Hegel Now?

Major themes of Kant

Normativity of intentionality:1

  • Knowers (resp. agents) distinguished from natural creatures not because of special mind-stuff but because judgments (resp. intentional doings) are things they are responsible for. They are commitments of ours (resp. exercises of our authority).
  • Rational commitments / responsibilities are those where it is appropriate to ask for the reasons justifying them.2
  • Normativity of representation:
    • We understand ” represents ” as saying that makes itself responsible to , which sets a standard for the correctness of ’s judgment. 3
  • The basic Kantian normative status is the authority to make oneself responsible (commit oneself) by taking oneself to be responsible (acknowledging a responsibility). This makes oneself a person, giving oneself dignity which others have a duty to respect.
  • This is an example of institution of norms by normative attitudes, a theme of the Enlightenment.

Distinction between empirical concepts and categorial concepts

  • Concepts which make it possible to describe/explain empirical happenings
  • E.g. without modal concepts, “cat” and “red” would merely label, rather than describe. (Essential to description is being able to explain, which requires subjunctive robustness).
  • These pure categorial concepts are a priori because no particular empirical concept is needed to know how to use them; insofar as one uses any empirical concept one already knows everyone one needs to do to know how to apply the pure categorial concepts.

Distinction between quid facti and quid juris (Reasons vs causes)

  • Kantdepsychologized” epistemology by seeing it as a normative discipline, orthogonal to the causal picture of interest to empiricists like Locke and Hume.
  • But this distinction led to a dualism between facts and norms now.
  • Hegel can be seen as showing us how to accept the normativity of the conceptual without creating a dualism.

Major themes of Hegel

Social account of normativity:

  • Norms are social statuses (part of the world) but instituted by attitudes via a process of reciprocal recognition.
  • To genuinely be a normative self is to be recognized by those one recognizes as such. (A social status, not Kant’s version of “self binding” nor Descartes’ mind-stuff between one’s ears)


  • Normative creatures don’t have natures, they have histories.
  • Self-conscious creatures: what they are for themselves (attitudes) are essential to what they are in themselves (statuses). Practical self-consciousness changes our statuses, awareness of that change (theoretical self-consciousness) changes our attitudes…which affects our statuses.4
  • To know what they are, you have to know how they got to be that way.
  • Normativity itself has a history. Our understanding of it radically changed with the advent of modernity (scientific / political / artistic / philosophical movements all seen as part of one occurrence).

How Should We Read Hegel Now?

Brandom’s reading of Hegel is deeply informed by his inferentialist understanding of linguistic meaning. Some commentators discredit this as a “misreading” which takes too much license and strives from the meaning of the text. But Brandom defends it as a Hegelian reading of Hegel.

(Natural language) meanings shouldn’t be modeled on self-contained, determinate, defined objects + their properties. There is not a single dimension of “resemblance” which we can measure the distance of interpretation of a text to the (literal / original) meaning of text.

Applying Duhem-Quine thesis to hermeneutics says that our context is essential to how we interpret a text. Not all contexts are equally interesting, but all provide perspectives.

De re readings of a text allow one to make combine the speaker’s knowledge and commitments with the dead author - Russell can ask whether Plato’s use of “part” and “whole” referred to subset or element of. We can look back at the past (given our present commitments and knowledge) and say what people then were not in a position to realize they were really talking about.

This philosophy of hermeneutics is precisely in accord with Hegelian recollection, hence Brandom finds it especially appropriate for applying to Hegel’s own texts.


  1. Rediscovered in 20th century by Wittgenstein: see A children’s game

  2. (we may not always have good answers to such demands)

  3. Shopping list

  4. The attitudes and statuses never perfectly coincide (the gap between them drives the process of development). The limit of them aligning is the transparent Cartesian kind of self-consciousness and concepts which are immutable/determinate in the definitional sense.