Brandom’s master strategy

Below the fold are my attempts to get a better handle on Brandom’s overall strategy. I also revisit some of the same themes with respect to autonomy outlined in the previous post on Brandom, although I haven’t quite digested all of Shawn’s helpful comments on this material yet. Shawn has some posts of his own up on Brandom’s Woodbridge Lectures over at Words and Other Things for those of you who have not already seen them.


From the outset, it is important to distinguish the order of explanation that Brandom pursues from the substantive relations between the different levels in his account. Doing so will allow us to clarify the role of the three conditions just mentioned that Brandom holds the adequacy of his account to. Before examining these conditions, we can begin by outlining the structure of the explanation that he gives and then go on to examine what, by Brandom’s lights, are some of features of what he is explaining.

(a) The explanatory story

There are three main ‘levels’ in Brandom’s account: semantics, pragmatics and logic. At the highest stage of generality, there are two basic explanatory moves between these terms. Firstly then, semantic content is understood in terms of pragmatics. The key move here is to explain what representation is by appealing to the notion of treating something as a representation. Secondly, features of this pragmatics are then understood in terms of the logical relations it involves. Here, the notion of treating something as a representation is itself elucidated by a logical codification of this practice. So, where the first move attempts to understand representation in terms of the practice of treating things as representations, the second move tries to throw light on this latter notion by using logical apparatus, like material conditionals and the analysis of anaphoric reference, to explain the normative ‘significance’ of making certain moves in this practice. What this amounts to should become clearer when we begin to fill out the details of the account.

Brandom is concerned to avoid what he takes to be two common mistakes that accounts like his could run into. The first problem he calls regulism, where all norms are taken to be explicit rules or principles. The second problem he calls regularism, which individuates norms by appeal to regularities in practices. Examining them in turn will help us get a better grip on the two main explanatory moves outlined above.

For Brandom, the importance of semantic content is to be found in its role in settling the normative significance of certain of our actions; and it is this role that animates our everyday ascriptions of intentional states to ourselves and others.[1] On this story, we understand the semantic content of a proposition if we understand when it is rationally appropriate to perform an act that expresses this content, as well as grasping what other acts its performance commits and entitles us to perform. (In fact, Brandom’s substantive story will claim that all that this content really consists in is government by the relevant norms.)[2] So, for example, to take an utterance to express a belief that the cat is on the mat is to take it to be subject to normative assessment in two ways: in virtue of its truth, determined by how things stand with the objects it represents, and in virtue of its inferential justification, determined by whether it is permitted or entailed by other commitments and entitlements of the agent.

Brandom’s complaint against the regulist is that since they think all norms take the form of explicit rules or principles then, a fortiori, they will think that the norms that determine semantic content will be similarly explicit. What this means is that, for the regulist, whether it is appropriate to perform a particular intentional action, like making a meaningful utterance, should be determined by reference to a principle that sorts correct usage from incorrect usage. But this is thought to be mistaken, on the basis of ‘Wittgensteinian’ considerations:

Norms explicit as rules presuppose norms implicit in practices because a rule specifying how something is correctly done (how a word ought to be used, how a piano ought to be tuned) must be applied to particular circumstances, and applying a rule in particular circumstances is itself essentially something that can be done correctly or incorrectly.[3]

The idea here is that an explicit rule can always be interpreted in such a way as to allow or disallow the particular action assessed, where appeal to other explicit rules to settle the application of the original rule are themselves open to the same problem as to how to settle their correct application. To prevent a regress of rules, Brandom supposes that we must appeal to a different form of norm that does not stand in need of interpretation: namely, an implicit norm grasped in practical activity. This is what Brandom takes Wittgenstein to be appealing to when he says that “there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘obeying the rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases.”[4]

We should now have more a sense of the impetus for Brandom’s first move, which tries to explain semantics in terms of pragmatics, intentional content in terms of practical norms, and the propositionally explicit in terms of an implicit know-how displayed in an ability to make moves in a norm-governed game. As we saw earlier, Brandom wants to make a further explanatory move which tries to elucidate practical abilities of this sort, throwing light upon their implicit normative dimension, utilising logical apparatus in particular to do so.[5] With his account avoiding regulism and thereby coming to understand semantics in terms of norms implicit in practice, by following the fallout from Brandom’s attempt to avoid regularism, we should be able to grasp the remaining aspects of his methodology. Thus, having seen the outlines of how he proposes to understand semantics in terms of pragmatics, we should then be in a position to understand his analysis of the pragmatics that got employed in the former explanatory move.

The issue is now how we ought to understand the notion of norm implicit in practice, and Brandom’s first suggestion (which he goes on to reject) is in terms of regularities in practice. On this suggestion, regulism is avoided because there is no appeal to an explicit principle that divides performances with intentional content into correct and incorrect ones. Rather, such performances are understood to be correct if they conform to a pattern of behaviour, whereas they are said to violate the implicit norm if they deviate from it. However, Brandom objects to this regularist position by pointing out that all behaviour displays many regularities, and as such there is no such thing as a performance being regular tout court.[6] Specifying a particular regularity that ought to be conformed to is said to simply postpone the problem unless an account of this norm can be given — an account that Brandom thinks is not forthcoming. Thus, the regularist understanding of implicit norms solely in terms of regularities in performance is rejected.

If explicit norms are rejected in favour of implicit norms as explanations of the standards governing the propriety of intentional performances, and practical regularities are rejected as explanations of implicit norms, how then does Brandom propose we understand these implicit norms? The first step in the solution is as follows:

there is another move available for understanding what it is for norms to be implicit in practices. This is to look not just at what is done-the performances that might or might not accord with a norm (be appropriate or inappropriate)-but also at assessments of propriety. These are attitudes of taking or treating performances as correct or incorrect … [where] such assessing attitudes can also be understood as implicit in practice.[7]

These assessments of propriety are modelled as sanctions, such that to treat a performance as correct is to respond to it in practice with a reward or to refrain from punishment, whereas to treat it is incorrect is to respond with a punishment or to refrain from a reward. Here, then, sociality enters the picture for the first time, such that how our fellows relate to us, and we to them, is appealed to as element in the explanation of implicit norms. However, for Brandom, invoking the responses of others to us is not in order to perform a naturalistic reduction of normative propriety to social behaviour specifiable in non-normative terms. Rather, Brandom holds out for the possibility of a picture in which it is ‘norms all the way down’ since he thinks that reductive strategies, even with appeal to communal assessment, ultimately fall prey to the same gerrymandering argument that faced regularism, albeit at the higher level of sanctioning activity itself.[8]

(b) The substantive story

Given the rejection of a naturalistic reduction of normativity to non-normatively specifiable social behaviour, it remains to be seen why the invocation of assessments of normative propriety will be relevant to explaining implicit norms. Although I do not want to make too much of the distinction, to answer this we should move from the broadly methodological considerations that we have dealt with so far, pertaining to the form of Brandom’s explanation, to a consideration of his more robust theoretical commitments. So, where for the most part the material we have examined till now has related to the resources available to understand semantics and pragmatics, especially as regards their normative dimension, we will now introduce a position that says something about what normativity actually consists in.[9]

In a claim whose historical underpinnings we will return to, Brandom asserts that norms are ‘instituted’ by the practical activity of acknowledging them by treating them as having authority over ourselves and others. In Brandom’s idiom, we can say that for him normative status (what we are obligated and permitted to do) arises out of normative attitude (what we and others take it that we are obligated and permitted to do). If this is the case, then assessments of normative propriety will have a pivotal role in explaining the implicit norms that Brandom thinks underlie performances with intentional content. For, these norms would develop out of the practice of treating performances as correct or incorrect, and so modelling the structure of these assessments of propriety should reveal much about the role of the norms that are thereby instituted.

How we are to understand this process of normative assessment is controversial though. To remind ourselves of what shapes Brandom’s account of it, we can set out three conditions that he thinks need to be met by his account as a whole. I have formulated them as follows:

Normative Phenomenalism: (i) As an explanatory condition, the only resources we have for understanding normative status are the practices of taking or treating something to have a certain normative status. (ii) As a robust condition, normative authority is instituted by the practice of taking or treating something to have a certain normative status.

Realism About Conceptual Propriety: The propriety of taking or treating a performance with conceptual content as correct is determined by the object(s) that the concept is used to represent.[10]

Autonomy: Whether someone undertakes a commitment to be bound by a norm is up to them, although what they are thereby committed to is not.

The role of autonomy and the qualified form of realism in relation to sociality has been dealt with previously, where we saw these are the considerations that lead Brandom to reject an I-we model of communal assessment in favour of a network of I-thou scorekeepers.

All we need comment on here to complete our overview of Brandom’s overall strategy is the role that logical analysis plays in explicating the normative pragmatics which Brandom uses to explain features of semantics. We have seen that Brandom wants to explain how it is that language can express propositions explicitly by appealing to norms implicit in practice. These implicit norms are to be made less mysterious by supposing that they arise from assessments of normative propriety, which is what we (as individual scorekeepers) take appropriate performances for someone to be-an attitude which we express through the use of sanctions. The role of logical apparatus is to explicate this implicit practice of treating performances as correct or incorrect in light of the performer’s normative commitments and entitlements, and which as a practice, in turn, confers semantic properties upon performances.[12] Exercising the practical ability to keep deontic score in this way is to treat performances as inferential consequences of each other, as embodying commitments and entitlements. Logical locutions can be used to make explicit the logical relations implicit in such practice.[13] As such, Brandom wants to undertake a fine-grained analysis of this practical ability that draws out its fundamentally logical structure. So, his analysis of this content-conferring pragmatics makes use of apparatus like conditionals and negation to make sense of the practice of treating performances as consequences of, and compatible or incompatible with, other performances.[14] Thus, he rounds out his account of pragmatics by showing it to map onto logical structures such that the use of logical expressions can make it explicit.

(c) Autonomy revisited

When we combine the above account of Brandom’s strategy with the previous piece on Brandom which focussed on issues to do with conceptuality, autonomy, sociality and objectivity, then it seems that we have a reasonably comprehensive view of his project. However, the precise role of autonomy in acquiring normative commitments is not yet clear.

To begin to see this, consider what Brandom says about undertaking commitments:

for someone to undertake a commitment, according to this story, is to do something that makes it appropriate to attribute the commitment to that individual.[15]

If we look to the phenomenalist strand of Brandom’s account, which emphasises the attitude-dependence of normative statuses, then this seems all well and good. So too, it appears that this is compatible with the autonomy condition, which says that whether we commit ourselves is up to us, although what the normative significance of that commitment will be is not up to us. It appears compatible because it is up to us whether we perform the act that makes it appropriate to attribute a certain commitment to us. So, for example, it is up to me whether I make utterances like ‘I like The Smiths’ or ‘One of my favourite albums is The Queen Is Dead’, or perform other acts such as listening to Smiths records; and if I do not do these things then it seems that others will not take it to be appropriate to ascribe to me a commitment to the proposition that I like The Smiths.

However, it is not in fact up to us (as individuals whose deontic score is being kept) what counts as performing an act which makes it appropriate to attribute a certain commitment to us. This is because the propriety of attributing commitments to me will be determined by the activity of scorekeepers who, through their practical activity, treat my action as undertaking a commitment or not doing so. For Brandom:

all that is required to make sense of the normative significance of the performance as an undertaking of commitment is an account of what it is to take or treat someone as committed to do something.[16]

Given a consistent pattern of attributions by scorekeepers, it may be possible for me to predict how an act of mine will be treated by them. In this case, we might think that it will be up to me whether to undertake a certain commitment since I can be reasonably confident that performing a certain act will elicit the attribution of that commitment to me, although I may not be aware of all the inferential consequences of undertaking that commitment-all the others things it entitles and commits me too. But on this story, it also seems entirely possible for me to undertake a commitment through the performance of some action but for me to have no idea that I have done so. Here the Queen’s schilling example is a good illustration. It is up to the drunk whether to perform the act of accepting the schilling, and thus there is a very weak sense in which he adopts the commitment to join the navy himself, since he does something that purportedly makes it appropriate for others, like the recruiters, to attribute this commitment to him. Presumably Brandom thinks that they correctly attribute this commitment to him though, in which case the autonomy condition would have be fulfilled in this example, which suggests that this condition is itself very weak and so unsuitable to capture the sense of autonomy in play in the threatened paradox that motivates our inquiry into Brandom’s project.[17]

Why not make the autonomy condition stronger then, giving more of a role to the agent undertaking the commitment, so as to exclude cases like the Queen’s schilling? One reason is that the motivation for making the distinction between whether and what we are committed to, and assigning these to the agent and scorekeepers respectively, is so as to preserve the sense in which autonomy is rooted both in the self and is nonetheless binding through others holding us to our commitments. (We might wonder whether Brandom’s model is really the best way of satisfying this constraint, but we can pass over this worry for now.) Even if we accept this condition though, it may be possible to give the agent a more pronounced role in the administration of their normative commitments without fatally weakening the sense in which autonomously adopted commitments can also be robustly binding.

The second obstacle that would have to be overcome if we are to do this is to allow cases where it seems that we can legitimately fail to recognise commitments we have undertaken. To take one of Brandom’s examples, saying ‘This is copper’ invites attributions of commitments such as that, ceteris paribus, the object is reddish-brown-ones, that is, the agent would take themselves to be adopting. But also, one will be undertaking commitments that one may not recognise, such as that the object in question will melt at 1084C. Assuming that we do not want to exclude examples like these, we will need some way of understanding autonomy that allows benign cases of undertaking commitments of which we are unaware but does not allow problematic ones like the Queen’s schilling.[18]

What then is so objectionable about Brandom’s tacit acceptance of the Queen’s schilling example as a case of autonomous adoption of a commitment? The problem seems to be the complete lack of awareness displayed by the drunkard, who does not even countenance the possibility of his act being taken as the basis for the attribution of a commitment to him. Whereas in the copper example, the speaker manifests an intention to commit themselves to some proposition about the object in question, and also knows that whilst their grasp of what copper is does not go very deep, there is a settled scientific consensus about copper that non-expert scorekeepers will defer to. In short, they are aware of the sort of practice that one might reasonably be said to be participating in by uttering ‘This is copper.’ There are no shortage of models for understanding and motivating the requirement for such a grasp of the practical context of an action as a condition for acquiring normative commitments through its performance.[19] Supplementing Brandom’s account with a richer understanding of autonomy along these lines should make for a more powerful, and thus more interesting, position to assess.


[1] “The theoretical task of the intentional content of a state or act is to determine, in context, the normative significance of acquiring that state or performing that act: when it is appropriate or correct to do so and what the appropriate consequences of doing so are. The content is to determine proprieties of use, employment, or performance for states, acts and expressions that exhibit or express such contents. The content must (in context) settle when it is correct to apply a concept in judging, believing or claiming, and what correctly follows from such an application.” MIE, p.18.[2] MIE, p.663n.89.[3] MIE, p.20. It should be noted that Brandom’s reading of Wittgenstein here is highly problematic, even by his standards. For specific criticism of Brandom on this point see McDowell, J. (2002) ‘How not to read Philosophical Investigations: Brandom’s Wittgenstein’, in R. Haller and K. Puhl, eds., Wittgenstein and the Future of Philosophy: A Reassessment after 50 Years, Vienna: Holder, Pichler, Tempsky, pp. 245-56. Although still reasonably introductory, the reading that best captures the spirit of Wittgenstein’s thought on these matters is McGinn, M. (1997) Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations, London: Routledge, ch.2.[4] PI, §201 quoted in MIE, p.21.

[5] “One of the leading ideas of this enterprise is that developing an account of how semantics is rooted in pragmatics (meaning in use, content in social-functional role) is an exercise not only in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind but also in the philosophy of logic. Discursive practice is understood in terms of reasoning and representing, but above all in terms of expressing-the activity of making it explicit. The expressive role distinctive of logical vocabulary is its use in making explicit the fundamental semantic and pragmatic structures of discursive practice, and hence of explicitness and expression.” MIE, p.650.

[6] See MIE, p.28, where Brandom appeals to Saul Kripke’s notorious appropriation of Wittgenstein in his (1982) Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[7] MIE, p.63.

[8] MIE, p.36.

[9] The claim here is that just because we can or must understand A by making reference to B, does not mean that B constitutes A, either in part or whole. On the question of the relation between norms and assessments of norms, Brandom endorses a version of this thesis: “normative statuses could be taken to be unintelligible apart from normative attitudes without thereby being taken to be instituted by and therefore in some sense to supervene on those attitudes.” MIE, p.50. In this case however, Brandom does happen to think that there is such a constitutive connection between norms and assessment of them.

[10] So, for example: “our use of the term ‘mass’ is such that the facts settle whether the mass of the universe is large enough that it will eventually suffer gravitational collapse, independently of what we, even all of us and forever, take those facts to be. We could all be wrong in our assessment of this claim, could all be treating as a correct application of the concepts involved what is objectively an incorrect one.” MIE, p.53. See also, p.137: “actual practical attitudes of taking or treating as correct institute the normative statuses of materially correct inferences, and these material proprieties of inference in turn confer conceptual content-that content nonetheless involves objective proprieties to which the practical attitudes underlying the meanings themselves answer.” Or again: “Our cognitive attitudes must ultimately answer to … attitude-transcendent facts.” (ibid.)


[12]
“[L]ogical vocabulary is distinguished by its function of expressing explicitly within a language the features of the use of that language that confer conceptual content on the states, attitudes, performances, and expressions whose significances are governed by those practices.” MIE, pp.xviii-xix.

[13] This is why material inference is so important for Brandom rather than the merely formal structures studied by traditional logic that do not concern themselves with the content of what is being reasoned about. It is crucial for Brandom’s logical expressivist project to be able to capture the notion of a materially correct inference-one whose correctness depends on its content, like ‘Sheffield is north of Birmingham, therefore Birmingham is south of Sheffield’-because of the fundamental role that such inferences play in our actual practice.

[14] In fact, his program is more ambitious than this, since he uses identity and quantificational locutions to account for the role of relations of substitution characteristic of the use of singular terms and predicates, as well as giving an analysis of anaphoric reference in logical terms which explains some of the deep structure of scorekeeping practices.

[15] MIE, p.162.

[16] MIE, p.162-3.

[17] Nor does it appear to live up to the strong claims that Brandom seems to align himself with in his discussion of Kant at MIE, p.50.

[18] A non-theoretical case of the same phenomena which it seems we should not exclude from the realms of autonomous action would be certain sorts of promise-making. So, for example, if I sincerely promise to help you move house, then it seems that my obligation to do so is not rescinded just because I did not realise what a large undertaking this would be, even if had I realised I would not have promised.

[19] Perhaps the most congenial to Brandom’s project would be a variation on the model of implicit apperception that is developed in Pippin, R. (1989) Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ch.1f.

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