25 June 2008

Double-Checking References Is Good

I'm reading Brandom's "Sketch of a Program for a Critical Reading of Hegel". So far, it's the best bit of Brandom-on-Hegel I've come across; I can more-or-less see how Brandom could think that what he calls "determinate negation" is actually what Hegel calls "determinate negation".

But I was pretty surprised to see this:

When [Hegel] says, for instance, that “In this motley play of the world […] there is nowhere a firm footing to be found” (EL, § 123) he might not mean just that we can’t be sure that what seems now to be firm won’t at a later point slip. Some of his formulations
suggest that he is putting forward the much stronger claim that the very idea of an adequate, stable system of determinate empirical concepts is deeply incoherent.

Now, EL §123 struck me as a weird place for Hegel to say something about this, and the claim itself struck me as odd. So I looked it up. It's from the second part of "Essence", "Existence" -- as a first complaint, Brandom gives the citation wrong, since the remark is from the Addition, not the paragraph proper. Here's how Geraets/Suchting/Harris give the passage:
This is the general shape in which the existing world is presented initially to reflection, namely, as an indeterminate multitude of existents, which, being reflected simultaneously into themselves and into something else, are in the mutual relationship of ground and grounded with regard to each other. In this motley play of the world, taken as the sum total of all existents, a stable footing cannot be found anywhere at first, and everything appears at this stage to be merely relative, to be conditioned by something else, and similarly as conditioning something else. The reflective understanding makes it its business to discover and to pursue these all-sided reflections; but this leaves the question of a final purpose unanswered, and, with the further development of the logical Idea, the reason that is in need of comprehension therefore strikes out beyond this standpoint of mere relativity.
"At first" seems like the sort of phrase that modifies Brandom's quoted sentence in an important way: Hegel is not saying that this is how things are, but that it appears that this is how things are, from the standpoint of "Existence". That this is patently unsatisfactory is blamed on "reflection", on the Understanding, and is said to be left behind by "the reason that is in need of comprehension". Specifically, the "pan-relationalism" of §124 is aufgehoben in the movement to categories like "substance and property", "contingency and necessity", "causal relation" etc. The appearance that everything is "merely relative" is overcome by realizing that not all relations are of equal standing; the endless play of conditions becomes the orderly proceedings of mechanical, chemical, and organic happenings, where the "bloomin', buzzin' confusion" of existents show themselves as related in determinate ways. Hegel's problem, at this point, is not that we might be wrong about how things are; his problem is that the standpoint of "Existence" can only comprehend the relations between events as a sort of vapid holism: "Everything is related to everything". At this point in the dialectic, there's not yet anything sufficiently determinate that we might get it wrong.

You may notice that Brandom's quoted phrase is not present in this passage in the form in which he quotes it. Googling reveals that he's actually quoting the Wallace translation, not Geraets/Suchting/Harris, despite the fact that only the latter occurs in his bibliography. Tut, tut, Professor Brandom.

But that is not the only problem. For here's the Wallace translation, with what Brandom omitted in bold:
In this motley play of the world, if we may so call the sum of existents, there is nowhere a firm footing to be found: everything bears an aspect of relativity, conditioned by and conditioning something else.
So: Here Hegel's "motley play of the world" is just "the sum of existents". It's a very restricted sort of "world"; it's the "world" that can be in view if one is restricted to the categories so far introduced in the Logic. Brandom makes it sound like Hegel is here talking of the world as experienced; Hegel doesn't even have things in view yet. ("Thing" begins in §125.)

I don't know how a misreading this severe can happen. The only explanation I can think of is that Brandom works from notes he's made, or something like that, rather than actually looking at the texts he's citing.

But even with all that, it's the best Brandom-on-Hegel article I've yet seen.

3 comments:

jambontoo said...

I enjoyed reading your comments on Brandom's quite egregious and self-serving misreading of Hegel. Your grasp of the latter is impressive, though I think you are rather charitable in your explanation of the former.
Dan Breazeale

Daniel Lindquist said...

Given how many Hegel passages Brandom cites in this paper (it's not uncommon to see three or four strung together in a sentence), I think he must honestly regard his program as a plausible one for "critically reading Hegel". Considering how wild his misreadings are, I don't know how he could have done this if he isn't working from scattered notes & fragments. The Wallace quotation, I think, makes it particularly clear that something weird is going on in how he handles Hegel's texts. If you're just working with, say, books with margin-scribbles & highlighting, that is not something you can flub up. It'd be like, SAT-level reading comprehension difficulties.

I'm not sure how I'm being particularly charitable, though. I honestly can't think of how else something this weird could happen. I guess it's thinkable that Brandom is purposefully misrepresenting Hegel, but what would be the point of that? Hegel's name isn't that highly-regarded; I would think Brandom could stand on his own two feet, without having to "find" his program in Hegel. If nothing else, citing Davidson, Sellars, and Rorty as his inspirations strikes me as a pretty solid lineage; Hegel's name simply isn't needed. But maybe I overrate those three, or underrate the mantel of Hegelianism.

What about Dan Breazeale?

J said...

A real issue (tho' my attic greek is not so great) concerns Hegel's reading of Heraclitus (and other philosophers, for that matter). Flux, change, process: ok, copacetic. How that jibes with Hegel's insistence on spirit and Geist, if not dualism does not seem so clear. (and I wager Nietzsche thought that as well: Hegel, following Kant (and the dialectic, so called, via the 3rd Antinomy), had continued the theological errors.

Heraclitus appears to be a sort of early physicalist---maybe more Quinean (at least in the sense of denying identity) than a metaphysician.........there is as some have noted an "entropic" aspect to Heraclitean thought as well, which does not seem so Hegelian. They both are fond of war, however. Javoll