Draft of Chapter 2: Brandom on McDowell on Freedom and Rational Constraint

Here is a preliminary draft of the second chapter of my thesis. The aim of the chapter is to explicate the relation between freedom and rational constraint in both Brandom and McDowell. I don’t try to assess either position at this stage but simply to try and frame their projects as involving attempts to develop Kantian accounts of autonomy that bear upon my project of exploring the relation between the senses in which we are both free but nonetheless subject to external constraints. The first half deals with Brandom, reworking and revising some of the things that I have written here on him. The second half is new material on McDowell and needs the most work still to expand upon and sharpen up. As ever, any comments are warmly appreciated!

Update:Two years and many revisions later, this material is no longer the basis of a thesis chapter, but dismembered parts have still found their way into the final draft.

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2 thoughts on “Draft of Chapter 2: Brandom on McDowell on Freedom and Rational Constraint

  1. Hey Tom – Apologies for taking so long to post something on this – I’ve been meaning to comment since you put the chapter up, but the gap between what I was needing to write myself, and where my mind needed to be to comment adequately here, was too great :-) Hopefully this isn’t so late (or, as is more likely, too tangential) to be meaningful.

    First: this is quite beautiful – succinct, clear, well-structured, and nicely argued. I had a couple of questions – one on Brandom, that is more (I think) a matter of phrasing, than a matter of substance, and the other on McDowell, which I’m asking out of sheer ignorance, as I’m only just beginning to dip into McDowell’s work.

    On Brandom: when you talk about experience, you mention that it does not feature prominently in Brandom’s account, and emphasise Brandom’s reluctance to call on what a judgement is “about”, in order to ratify that judgement. You mention the social-practical character of Brandom’s argument, the “structural” nature of Brandom’s concept of objectivity (that “objectivity” arises as a sort of built-in normative ideal, in the game of giving and asking for reasons, via the social practice of deontic scorekeeping), and you conclude by saying that, for Brandom:

    we do not have to appeal to the deliverances of experience to supply a rational constraint upon our activities, since this is part and parcel of our ordinary activities of discussing, assessing, criticising and challenging beliefs. Brandom still thinks that “perceptual experience is the medium through which our thought becomes answerable to how things are”. But this is only through its causal role in ‘wringing’ perceptual judgements from us – judgements that derive any justification from our treating them as warranted, not from any objects they put us in touch with.

    Your summary of the argument sounds right to me – I just had a sort of double-checking question, about your intentions: Brandom will argue that there are circumstances in which perceptions or sensory experiences (of appropriately authoritative practitioners), do provide warrant for judgements – the issue for Brandom – the reason he places the stress where he does – I would take to be an order of explanation issue: that it is our social practices that decide in what circumstances experience provides a warrant, whose experience is adequate, under what circumstances, etc. I take this to be compatible with what you have written – I just wanted to double check to see if I am misunderstanding something (in Brandom or in your account). In other words, experience is still “there” – it’s just well downstream in the order of explanation to which Brandom wants to appeal, as a constituted (and therefore not “given”) entity. Does this make any sense?

    I am asking in part because of something you say toward the end of your discussion of McDowell, which seems to draw the distinction between the two in a way that would contravene what I’ve written above. You write:

    The advantage of McDowell’s model of experience is that an experience of something as such-and-so can be called upon in such an assessment.

    What confused me is that I think Brandom would probably also be happy with the notion that experience could be called on in judgment (so long as his order of explanation is otherwise preserved). And, when I was reading your discussion of McDowell, I had actually been expecting you to be building to a slightly different point (and please excuse this – I speak on McDowell with essentially no background, so the risk of my reading in something from my sociological background, into your discussion of McDowell, is rather high). Where it had sounded to me that you were going (and I would be quite sympathetic with this, as it relates to a criticism I would have of Brandom, as well) was an argument that McDowell’s approach – by providing a means for discussing the structuration of perceptual categories, and thereby linking such categories with conceptual ones – opens a potentially much more determinate way of considering plausible appeals to experience, than Brandom’s does (Brandom’s “sociality” is a massive black box, with very little even to indicate what sorts of things one might find inside…).

    The reason I’m interested in this question may not be at all clear: it relates to a sporadic sociological tradition of trying to respond to Kant by talking about the practical constitution of categories of perception and thought, such that these categories can be understood as intrinsically related, without resorting to a subject-object dualism or representational notion of perception. McDowell’s account, as you’ve presented it, sounds closer to me, than Brandom’s does, to the sort of sociological theory I’m referencing here – particularly the comment:

    receptivity will never be ‘sheer’ (as McDowell puts it); conceptual capacities will not be exercised on a preconceptual Given. Instead, intuition and judgement will share a conceptual form.

    As you’ve described in relation to McDowell, the sociological variant of this argument relies far less than Brandom would, on self-legislation providing ground for rational authority. I wasn’t sure, though – and I was wondering if you wanted to say more on this? – how McDowell understands the co-constitution of intuition and judgement? The sociological variants of this sort of argument refer back to social practice – to ways in which we enact categories of perception and thought, and therefore become primed to certain forms of receptivity – I obviously deploy a variant of this sort of argument, in my work with Marx. In any event, I’m not certain I’m making a great deal of sense with these comments :-) I’m basically asking if you would like to say more…

    Apologies for my disorganisation and lack of clarity in expressing what I’m after…

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment; I appreciate it!

    On Brandom, you’re right to say that experience, or at least perception, figures in his account (in the form of an appeal to perceptual judgement as part of a story about rational constraint) albeit further ‘downstream’ than in McDowell. However, I am not overlooking this story (which, as you point out, I narrate earlier in the draft) when I claim, “The advantage of McDowell’s model of experience is that an experience of something as such-and-so can be called upon in such an assessment [in light of reasons].” Part of the purpose of that section (‘Concepts and intuition’ ) is to try and draw out differences in the roles Brandom and McDowell ascribe to conceptuality. They are both hyper-aware of the problem of the Myth of the Given: something they take to arise from an understanding of rational constraint that would require us to cross a boundary between the conceptual and non-conceptual in our application of concepts.

    Brandom (along with Davidson and Rorty) avoids the Myth by giving perception a causal role, where the ‘antics’ of objects in the world impinge upon us through their generation of perceptual judgements. For Brandom, rational constraint can then be exercised between perceptual judgements and other conceptually articulated denizens of the (always-already social) logical space of reasons. The important contrast with McDowell is supposed to be how experience comes into play. In Brandom we jump straight from objects to perceptual judgements, since he thinks that a more robust level of experience is superfluous, being no more than needless mediation between us and the world (one that ‘turns no wheels’ so to speak).

    In McDowell, on the other hand, there is a level of experience, since McDowell thinks it important that judgement is a spontaneous exercise of conceptual powers, and thus something we are directly responsible for, and therefore cannot be something triggered more-or-less directly by the world (unlike, say, belief or experience). For him, we are presented with experience as something with conceptual content, through which the world can appear to in a determinate way, petitioning for a judgement that the world is such-and-so but not causally wringing such a judgement out of us.

    It is this conceptual form to experience which is meant to allow us to sidestep problems with traditional empiricism and thereby open up a viable normative path between mind and world as opposed to a barely causal one. In contrast to Brandom, who tries to secure such a normative link to the world (his ‘rational-constraint constraint’ ) by appeal to the practice of us taking each other to be entitled and committed to certain things that we ‘key’ to an independent world, McDowell can turn away from a conception of normative authority as endowed by our social practices. In other words, he is open to deny Brandom’s ‘normative attitude-dependence’ thesis, and the reductionist, anti-realist leanings that underlie it (which I’ve discussed in my previous post about the historical background and effect of the idea of Entzauberung on Brandom.) McDowell still takes the social dimension of human practice to be absolutely crucial to an adequate understanding of normativity, but he denies that its role gives support to a general anti-realism in this regard.

    For my purposes in this chapter, two things are important about McDowell’s account: it is less anti-realist than Brandomian social pragmatism, which becomes relevant for the story it tells about rational constraint (the first concept I’m investigating); and it points towards a different way of glossing freedom (the other concept I’m investigating). Both of these are reflected in their handling of the role of experience. So, while from one perspective, it can look like they end up with broadly similar positions, for my project this isn’t the case.

    As for your second set of questions, they merit an even lengthier reply! :) In lieu of that, I shall be brutally short.

    When you say, “Brandom’s ‘sociality’ is a massive black box, with very little even to indicate what sorts of things one might find inside”, then I think this is right if it is meant to point to the formal nature of Brandom’s project, such that he tells us a lot about the abstract structures necessary for recognisably linguistic practice to emerge but says comparatively little about quite how these structures are meant to be instantiated. This is something that he recognises and (to some extent) claims to be trying to rectify with his explorations of Hegel. I don’t think that he anticipates or thinks that his theoretical projects require the sort of detailed examination of sociality that you seem to be looking for. Whether he’s right is of course another matter…

    As for the issues arising from the sociological tradition of approaching Kant that you raise, again these seem formulated at a different level to the investigations that McDowell (and Brandom) undertake. If you’re asking about the relation between intuition and conceptual content, in the sense of how do we come to experience something in a certain mode or as a certain kind (e.g. this object as a red triangle, or this type of exchange as natural), there is a complex rather Aristotelian story about this to be found hovering about in McDowell. However, much of this operates at an explicitly logical level which you may find unsatisfactory for your purposes. You might find more of use in his treatments of Bildung and second nature, but often these discussions break off just when things are getting juicy. Alas!

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