Cover page

Series page

Key Contemporary Thinkers Series includes:

  1. Lee Braver, Heidegger
  2. John Burgess, Kripke
  3. Michael Caesar, Umberto Eco
  4. Filipe Carreira da Silva, G. H. Mead
  5. Claire Colebrook and Jason Maxwell, Agamben
  6. Jean-Pierre Couture, Sloterdijk
  7. Gareth Dale, Karl Polanyi
  8. Oliver Davis, Jacques Rancière
  9. Maximilian de Gaynesford, John McDowell
  10. Gerard de Vries, Bruno Latour
  11. Reidar Andreas Due, Deleuze
  12. Neil Gascoigne, Richard Rorty
  13. Graeme Gilloch, Siegfried Kracauer
  14. Sean Homer, Fredric Jameson
  15. Rachel Jones, Irigaray
  16. S. K. Keltner, Kristeva
  17. Moya Lloyd, Judith Butler
  18. James McGilvray, Chomsky, 2nd Edition
  19. Dermot Moran, Edmund Husserl
  20. Marie-Eve Morin, Jean-Luc Nancy
  21. Stephen Morton, Gayatri Spivak
  22. Timothy Murphy, Antonio Negri
  23. James O’Shea, Wilfrid Sellars
  24. William Outhwaite, Habermas, 2nd Edition
  25. Herman Paul, Hayden White
  26. Ed Pluth, Badiou
  27. William Scheuerman, Morgenthau
  28. Severin Schroeder, Wittgenstein
  29. Anthony Paul Smith, Laruelle
  30. James Smith, Terry Eagleton
  31. Felix Stalder, Manuel Castells
  32. Christopher Zurn, Axel Honneth
Title page

Copyright page


Für meine Mutter

Anneliese Löffler


This book is the fruit of intermittent extended periods of close study of Brandom's work over the course of the past two decades, starting with a graduate seminar on Making it Explicit at Northwestern University in the Fall of 1996, co-taught by Tom McCarthy and my dissertation adviser-to-be Michael Williams. Over the years, numerous teachers and colleagues have influenced my thinking about Brandom's work, and issues related to it. In addition to Michael Williams and Tom McCarthy, I am indebted to Cameron Bunker, Gary Ebbs, John Fennell, Chris Gauker, Michael Glanzberg, Sandy Goldberg, Jürgen Habermas, Steven Hendley, Cristina Lafont, Mark Lance, Chris Latiolais, Axel Mueller, Jay Rosenberg, Kevin Sharp, Jeremy Wanderer, and Meredith Williams.

Special thanks to my colleagues Jeff Byrnes, Andrew Spear, and Dwayne Tunstall at Grand Valley State University for doing a reading group together on the Spirit of Trust manuscript in the summer of 2014. The mix of Jeff's Heidegger-honed boundless creativity, Andrew's dogged neo-Cartesian brilliance, and Dwayne's living, breathing erudition about Hegel and classical American pragmatism, as it came alive in our discussions, has widened and deepened my interpretation and appreciation of Brandom's work considerably – and probably in more ways than I am aware of.

I am deeply grateful to two anonymous reviewers of an earlier draft of this manuscript for their generous, constructive, and helpful feedback, which has helped me to significantly improve this manuscript. Of course, I alone am responsible for any remaining mistakes and shortcomings.

Heartfelt thanks to Pascal Porcheron, the editor of this volume at Polity Press, and Ellen MacDonald-Kramer, the assistant editor, for all their work and kind assistance. Their encouragement, patience, flexibility, and helpfulness made working on this project much easier than it would otherwise have been. Many thanks also to Ann Klefstad for copy-editing the manuscript and to Rachel Moore for her work on the production of the book.

At last, thanks from the bottom of my heart to Carla Jackson for her loving patience and joyful, caring presence and companionship.


The following abbreviations for works by Robert Brandom have been used in this text.

AR     Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
BSD     Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism. New York: Oxford University Press.
EE     From Empiricism to Expressivism: Brandom Reads Sellars. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
MIE     Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
PP     Perspectives on Pragmatism: Classical, Recent, and Contemporary. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
RP     Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
SOT     A Spirit of Trust: A Semantic Reading of Hegel's Phenomenology. 2014 draft,∼brandom/spirit_of_trust_2014.html. Accessed 04/02/2014.
TMD     Tales of the Mighty Dead: Historical Essays in the Metaphysics of Intentionality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Robert B. Brandom is an American philosopher, influential on both sides of the Atlantic. Brandom was born on March 13, 1950. He received his BA degree summa cum laude in 1972 from Yale University, majoring in philosophy, and his Ph.D. degree in philosophy from Princeton University in 1977. In 1976 he joined the Philosophy Department at the University of Pittsburgh, where he has been a faculty member ever since and is currently a Distinguished Professor.

Brandom's most influential teachers at Princeton were Richard Rorty (his Ph.D. thesis supervisor) and David Lewis. In a 1999 interview, Brandom describes his relationship with his two mentors as follows:

My aim in working with them was to address the sorts of problems that Rorty is concerned with, but to do so with the tools and methods of our day of which Lewis is the master. Rorty said of his own teacher Wilfrid Sellars that in him one finds the spirit of Hegel bound in the fetters of Carnap. If so, that is true of me as well. It might be said that I have aimed to present the spirit of Rorty – not so much bound in the fetters of Lewis, as expressed with the precision of his language.

(1999: 1)

These reflections neatly characterize Brandom's central philosophical aspiration throughout his career to the present day. On the one hand, Brandom is inspired by Rorty's pragmatist vision that the key to understanding what makes us humans rational and capable of empirical knowledge is looking at our ability to communicate linguistically with each other. Brandom's work thus focuses squarely on the issues at the heart of theoretical modern Western philosophy: the nature of human reason and knowledge. And Brandom wants to tackle these issues in broadly Rortyan pragmatist terms – specifically, in terms of our ability to engage in linguistic, communicative social practices. On the other hand, Brandom's ambition is to pursue this pragmatist project with the clarity and rigor that David Lewis is famous for. Rather than merely glossing over the many philosophical and technical challenges his grand project poses, Brandom tends to tackle them at length and with an orientation to detail. This combination of a sweeping pragmatist vision about traditional modern Western philosophical themes and tenacious efforts to see through the details makes Brandom's work both exciting and difficult. Brandom's books tend to be long and dense, and the vocabulary in which he approaches these themes tends to be unfamiliar. The present book aspires to be a guide for the uninitiated through this thicket. It is no proper replacement for wrestling with Brandom's work oneself, but hopefully will provide inspiration and assistance.

In the quote above, Brandom also mentions the two philosophers who are most influential on his efforts to work out his Rorty-inspired project: G. W. F. Hegel and Wilfrid Sellars. Brandom sees his massive 1994 book Making It Explicit as an attempt to work out – without explicitly engaging with Hegel and in language palatable to a contemporary “analytic” philosophical audience – ideas at the heart of Hegel's philosophy, in particular Hegel's idea of the institution of reason and concepts through mutual social recognition and his understanding of reason and concepts as essentially holistic (1999: 2). The depth of Brandom's engagement with Hegel becomes more apparent in some of his subsequent work, which elaborates and refines the theory developed in Making It Explicit in the form of explicit interpretations of aspects of Hegel's work – culminating in the forthcoming Spirit of Trust, a commentary on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Moreover, Brandom's appropriations of Hegelian ideas are simultaneously appropriations and developments of themes of the work of Wilfrid Sellars (1912–1989), the great American critic of empiricist philosophy and, until his death, Brandom's colleague at Pittsburgh, in particular Sellars's neo-Kantian (and neo-Hegelian) conception of reason as essentially normative, his inferential role semantics, his theory of empirical knowledge, and his theory of logical and modal concepts as categorical in a broadly Kantian sense.

Of course, Sellars's work – not to mention Hegel's – is often seen as no less difficult and obscure as it is profound. While Brandom's work is not, I think, obscure, he shares with Hegel and Sellars a relish for a big, unified philosophical vision as well as a predilection for systematic thinking, in the sense that he tries to derive ambitious metaphysical or epistemological theses from a relatively small set of principles (principles of the workings of language in communication, for him) while aspiring to Lewisian standards of clarity and rigor. This is perhaps the reason why the reception of Brandom's work thus far has on the whole been keener and more energetic in continental Europe than in England and North America. Studying Brandom's work requires the patience to read through big, dense books, and the openness not only to look at old issues from a vantage point that is at once complex and unfamiliar but also to take a second (or first) look at some philosophers and ideas that – at least in mainstream Anglo-American “analytic” philosophical circles – are routinely dismissed as nebulous and (therefore) irrelevant. Such patience and openness tend to be more prevalent among philosophers trained in continental Europe, where philosophy in the “analytic” tradition, while influential, is not as dominant as it is on the other side of the Atlantic (or the Channel), where the vocabularies that academically trained students of philosophy are exposed to come from more varying philosophical traditions, where the legacy of German Idealism is entrenched and alive, where academic philosophy is perhaps still less professionalized, and where philosophy seminars tend to revolve around big, clunky books rather than short, elegant papers. If this diagnosis is accurate, my hope is that the present book may especially be of some assistance to Anglo-American analytic philosophers, in taking a crack at Brandom's work – though, again, this book cannot replace studying the work itself.

With Jeremy Wanderer's Robert Brandom, a terrific introductory monograph to Brandom's work already exists. The present volume is similar in aspiration and target audience, but, besides taking into account Brandom's most recent work – including the so-far-unpublished Spirit of Trust (the 2014 manuscript version of which has been available via Brandom's website for some time) – it naturally differs from Wanderer's book somewhat in focus and (some) interpretations. Our most important interpretive difference, I think, is that while Wanderer reads Brandom's pragmatism as a non-explanatory descriptive approach to reason and linguistic meaning – as an attempt to describe how reason and meaning are essentially tied to processes of linguistic communication – I read Brandom's pragmatism as an attempt to explain reason and meaning in terms of communication, which is how Brandom's pragmatism is more commonly interpreted. However, like Wanderer, I too treat all of Brandom's work, whether systematic or dedicated to the interpretation of historical texts and figures, as aimed at articulating and refining his pragmatist vision of language, reason, and knowledge. Brandom's work has developed significantly since the publication of Making It Explicit. However, later works are, I think, best seen as expansions and refinements of the comprehensive theory of linguistic communication first presented in that landmark book, and I feel, accordingly, free throughout to cite freewheelingly from Brandom's oeuvre in its entirety, without worrying much about its chronological order (unless indicated otherwise).

Chapters 1 and 2 introduce Brandom's fundamental theoretical commitments – his pragmatism, his inferential role semantics, his conception of reason as irreducibly normative and instituted through a process of mutual social recognition – by, respectively, placing his project in the context of more mainstream approaches to language and linguistic communication and introducing Brandom's appropriation of the German Idealist tradition. Chapters 3 through 8 then gradually add more detail to these fundamentals: his normative pragmatics, that is, his scorekeeping model of linguistic communication (chapter 3); his key semantic notions of inference and substitution and his theory of anaphora (chapter 4); his account of empirical knowledge (chapter 5); his theory of logical vocabulary (chapter 6); his theory of representation and communicative success (chapter 7); and his theories of objectivity and of the sociohistorical process of instituting conceptual norms through discursive practice (chapter 8).