Conceptual realism and objective idealism

Problem with Cartesian representationalism: it wants to separately understand minds (representings) and things (representeds). This creates a dualism when it becomes hard to understand their relationships (knowledge of the facts by the knowings, action on the facts by the will). Kant founded German idealism by removing this dualism, viewing the world as in conceptual shape. This is crazy if you think concepts are mental representations: Hegel’s non-psychological conception of the conceptual holds something as conceptually contentful if it stands in relations of material incompatibility and consequence1 to other such contentful items.

Conceptual contentSubjective formObjective form
Relation to consciousnessWhat it is for consciousnessWhat it is in itself
Kind of beingPhenomenaNoumena
Empirical contentAppearanceReality
Kind of necessityDeontic normative constraintsAlethic modal constraints
Example of necessityOne ought not have incompatible empirical+practical commitments, one ought acknowledge the consequences of what one acknowledgesAn object cannot have incompatibly properties and necessarily has properties that follow from its other properties

Genuine knowledge is when the same content shows up in both different forms. A fact is a thought that is true. They are not different kinds of things, as in the Cartesian or even Kantian picture. Kant only acknowledged the conceptual articulation of the subjective - Hegel pushes this further by understanding conceptual content such that the objective is likewise conceptually articulated.

Idealists are typically dismissed by acknowledging there was an objective world before there were any knowing subjects and there would have been such a world if there never had been any knowing subjects. This concern is addressed by distinguishing Sense dependence vs reference: there is a reference dependence between facts/objects/properties and the discursive practice of knowing subjects which is acyclic, but there is a mutual sense dependence between them: one cannot understand what one is saying when one says that there are objects/properties without understanding what one is doing in certain social practices (e.g. referring, predicating).

Normativity: status and attitude

Tree of distinctions with translation manual for Hegel’s vocabulary:

  • Normative statuses (“What Consciousness is in itself“)
    • Authority (“Independence”)
    • Responsibility (“Dependence”)
  • Normative attitudes (“What Consciousness is for Consciousness“)
    • Attributing (“What Consciousness is for another Consciousness”)
    • Acknowledging (“What Consciousness is for itself“)
Sense dependencenormative statuses normative attitudesnormative attitudes normative statuses
Source of authorityGod-given, part of natureConstructed from our practices of treating each other as authoritative/responsible
ProblemFetishism: it refied / projected / objectified social norms)Alienation: our norms no longer seem rationally binding.
NormsWe find normsWe make norms

Brandom reads Hegel as trying to synthesize the pre-modern and modern insights to avoid fetishization and alienation.

Autonomy is a social status: an authority to make oneself responsible (i.e. to institute a further normative status). It is a kind of independence to make oneself dependent by acknowledging a commitment. Kant thinks normative have a duty to acknowledge the autonomy of normative subjects. He thinks by our nature we just come with this duty and this authority.

Hegel derives these social statuses from reciprocal recognition. To genuinely make one self responsible, one must not only acknowledge that commitment but also acknowledge others as holding one responsible (furthermore, they must actually attribute that responsibility, taking one to be responsible). Hegel diagnoses some defective social situations as due to normative attitudes with asymmetric recognitive relations (e.g. superiority/subordination). Thus the attitudes of others (what one is for others) is as essential to what one acknowledges, i.e. what one is for oneself.

Meaning and belief are normative concepts. Meanings are norms for the formation of beliefs (i.e. adoption of propositional attitudes). Hegel thinks in terms of “the Concept” - a holistic constellation of ever-evolving meanings and beliefs each sensitive to changes in the other. The mutual dependence of meaning and correctness (in contrast to Carnap’s language-theory distinction) was rediscovered by Wittgenstein and Quine’s Two Dogmas.

Kant understands sense impressions as inexhaustible by some finite set of judgments (there’s no bit that cannot be conceptualized, but conceptualizing all is an infinite task). Hegel interprets the same phenomenon as the instability of any set of determinate empirical concepts. If we unpack the norms for endorsing any finite set of judgments, we will be led to incompatible doxastic commitments.

Semantics: recollection and representation

How to synthesize the premodern notion of us finding norms vs the modern notion of us making them? Common law judges provide a model for how this works.

Retrospectively, a judge gives a rational reconstruction of what some legal concept means by looking at precedent and finding out what the norms were. This seems suspicious as a judge can tell whatever story they want - the previous use of a concept doesn’t objectively determine its rightful future use. But this is one-sided: the judge’s responsibility to the past is administered by future judges, as they will consider the ruling in context and decide whether it was itself precedential / progressive / responsive to the actual norms or not (e.g. if the reconstruction depended on ‘what the judge had for breakfast’). So law is both made (viewed prospectively, via making rational reconstructions) and found (viewed retrospectively, as part of a future rational reconstruction) by judges.

Hegel’s term for ‘rational reconstruction’ is recollection: a distinctive kind of making that is finding. This is a pragmatic account of institution of norms by attitudes (yet compatible with attitudes governed by statuses).

Conceptual idealism

Synthesis of conceptual realism and objective idealism - an account of the relations between objective reality and representational appearances in terms of the process of rectifying and (further) determining the conceptual contents of the representings.

  • Semantics (conceptual content / consciousness)
    • Hegelian senses (what things are for consciousness) are responsible to Hegelian referents (what things are in themselves) via representational responsibility.
  • Pragmatics (normative force / self-consciousness)
    • Normative attitudes instantiate normative statuses.
    • They also are responsible to normative statuses via representational responsibility.
  • Attitudes are responsible to content.

Postmodernity: reconciling traditional and modern insights

Conceptual content arises from normative force. Recollecting takes objective conceptual norms to be acknowledged by discursive practitioners and thereby makes those attitudes intelligible as adopting normative statuses.

Understanding the conditions of having determinate thoughts/intentions commits us to adopting to one another practical recognitive attitudes (e.g. forgiveness, confession, trust).2 Reciprocal recognition (over space or, as in the case of common law judges, time) requires a community built on trust. The social determinateness of meaning requires me, by writing something down and meaning something by it, to trust my being interpreted / redescribed by others.


  1. “determinate negation” and “mediation”

  2. This is akin to Kant deriving morality from a proper understanding of intentional agency (making explicit commitments already present in any discursive activity).