Rorty Interviews

rorty

A number of wide-ranging interviews with Richard Rorty can be found here:

‘A Talent For Bricolage’
‘Realists—Grow Up’
‘The Next Left’
‘North Atlantic Thinking’
‘Without illusion, but with conviction’

Rorty is laconic throughout, with my favourite example being when Joshua Knobe asks him why Putnam thinks he is a relativist: “Beats me. I wrote an article about it, but that was as far as I got.”

Norms, Rationality and Communication

az1

Over at his new blog Deontologistics, Pete has an interesting post called ‘Normativity and Ontology’ which (amongst other things) picks up some of the issues concerning normativity arising from recent discussions of speculative realism. He addresses these ideas from a distinctive position which combines metaphysical themes from Deleuze and Heidegger alongside contemporary pragmatist approaches to language in the vein of Brandom and Habermas. I’ll be interested to see how this project pans out.

Since my reply is a little long for a blog comment, I am going to respond to some of Pete’s claims here. On the whole, I am sympathetic to many aspects of his approach, though occupying some shared ground also helps to emphasise our points of contrast more sharply too. In what follows, I’ll take each point — whether critical or appreciative — as they appear. Finally, I have avoided discussing some of the more metaphysical issues raised here, since these will, I hope, feature in an upcoming post on Latour.

(i) Firstly, one relatively minor misgiving concerns the terminology of ‘deontology.’ Pete talks about “the philosophy of normativity (or deontology),” and this suggests that they amount to the same thing. But I think we have good reason for keping these terms distinct. Deontology is often understood to address duties, which its etymology suggests, with ‘deont’ being the Greek for that which binds. Some approaches to normativity, such as the one underlying the Brandomian incompatibility semantics, take obligation and permission as its key normative concepts. (In fact, these concepts appear to be interdefinable: what is permitted is what is not obligated not to do, and what is obligated is what is not permitted not to do.) These are manifestly deontological notions: they concern what one rationally must do. But normativity is a richer vista than deontology alone, even for Kant, whose moral philosophy provides the classic analysis of deontological concepts. Normativity can extend to notions like recommendation, beauty, guidance, virtue and value, none of which are most fruitfully thought in terms of a sphere of rightful action understood in a distinctly deontological way. In other words, the vocabulary of obligation and permission is too restrictive to capture many features of the normative domain. So, I am wary of talking of normativity and deontology as if they amounted to the same thing, especially as people like Brandom tend to elide the distinction.

az3

(ii) I think there is something right about Pete’s idea that we cannot escape “fundamental norms of rationality” and that — in a great phrase — we must accept this as a “primary bind.” But there is scope for disagreement between us here, though I am not sure how deep it goes. I agree that there is something self-defeating about explicitly rejecting norms constitutive of discourse and argumentation whilst one is engaged in that very practice. The thought is that we meet a kind of self-contradiction here: I implicitly endorse these norms (by entering into discursive practice), but then I explicitly deny them (once engaged in discursive activity). If you have to accept the authority of rational and discursive norms to qualify as denying their authority, there is a problem. We hit a kind of transcendental wall: it is a necessary condition of the possibility of explicitly rejecting the authority of these norms that we first accept or presuppose that self-same authority. Someone who tries to do so — who says, “Rationality has no claim on me!” — would best be described as confused, and not really understanding the concepts they are using, rather than making a substantive mistake.

This all assumes that we must at least implicitly presuppose some norms in order to qualify as sapient communicators (which I agree is a plasuible claim). In other words, my communicative activity must be guided by assumptions about what counts as a legitimate speech act. It will also be a further matter describing what such norms are — whether the principle of non-contradiction, modus ponens, substantive decision procedures, and so on.

az4

(iii) I think these issues go somewhat deeper though. So, whilst I am partial to some versions of the kind of linguistified transcendental argument outlined above, my more fundamental commitments differ from many of its advocates. One way to frame this difference is in a question: Does our inability to coherently reject fundamental norms of rationality, insofar as we engage in discursive activity, suffice to secure their authority for us? In other words, is assessment of rational competence dependent on the idea that we do (or cannot but) acknowledge rational norms insofar as we are discursive beings?

Pete gestures in an anti-realist direction on these matters, but then says something a little more ambiguous, which could be read in two ways. So, he begins with a rather Davidsonian claim:

One could potentially abandon such norms [of rationality], but one could only do it by becoming entirely irrational, by becoming such that we could not legitimately ascribe contentful beliefs to you.

Here, I agree. Our actual behaviour can come loose from fundamental norms of rationality, and when it does so substantially or consistently it becomes more and more difficult to frame it as the actions of an agent with a view upon the world. He continues:

The crucial idea that follows from this is a Brandomian/Kantian one: that what it is to be a subject is to be rational, i.e., to be bound by the fundamental norms of rationality. The subject is (just as the Kantian transcendental subject) just the unity of its responsibility in relation to such norms (which are analogous to Kant’s categories, as the fundamental rules governing cognition).

I find this a little more problematic — there is more to subjectivity than processing incompatible normative commitments, at least I hope so, for all our sakes! But this is a minor point insofar as I agree that this is an integral part of the picture. Next comes the more contentious idea:

The additional Kantian point is that the subject is only insofar as it binds itself to these norms, insofar as it makes itself responsible for its actions in accordance with them.

This, with its language of ‘binding oneself’ to norms, has an anti-realist tenor to it. In the background appears to be a nominally Kantian conception of the self-legislative activity of the subject, who institutes norms through its use of concepts in forming judgements and practical maxims. Normative authority, so understood, becomes attitude-dependent: we become responsible because (and only because) we make ourselves responsible. This is an approach to normativity which I think veers into incoherence.

az5

Problems with the self-legislative conception of normativity, where agents bind themselves to norms, arise when we ask whether the legislative process is itself subject to the authority of norms. It seems that there both must be and cannot be such norms. If there were no such norms, then the legislative process will be arbitrary: legislating in one way rather than another will be no more than caprice (and this would not seem to be enough to really put ourselves under obligations). But if there are norms for legislating one way rather than another, we will want to know their status. If they are self-legislated, we simply push the problem back because the question then becomes, on what basis were they legislated? If they are not self-legislated then we do not have self-legislation ‘all the way down.’ But in this case, if we end up embracing some form of realism about these norms, then it is natural to ask, why not be realists about other sorts of reasons? The advocate of self-legislation is not without reply here (indeed, they might appeal to something like the linguistified transcendental argument above to set basic criteria for legislation) but I think this dialectic ultimately forces them down the path to ruin.

Is this Pete’s approach though? Perhaps not, since he goes on to say:

However, one can only be responsible, i.e., one can only bind oneself to other norms, insofar as one is bound to the fundamental norms of rationality. This is to say that the structure of normativity in general is grounded in the norms of rationality.

If these fundamental norms of rationality are vindicated, then some sort of self-binding model might be rescued. But this, I think, would only at the price of redundancy, since it would not be us but the fundamental norms which determined how we ought to legislate which would be doing all the heavy-lifting. I think it is better to drop talk of self-binding or self-legislation and zero in on whatever underlies it. Obviously, there is more that can be said about this, but I’ll stop here for now.

Brandom, Habermas and the political

There are two very interesting new pieces by Brandom available on his website. The first is his attempt to reconcile his reading of Hegel with Habermas, which you can download here. [via Now-Times and Habermasian Reflections] This is a really excellent paper which does a good job of resituating Brandom’s theory of normativity, throwing new light upon it. The second piece is an interview with the European Journal of Political Theory, and can be found here. This is something of a departure for Brandom, who has often seemed a little reticent about political topics. There does seem to be a turn towards these issues though, beginning with his article on the Pragmatist Enlightenment and continued with his current engagement with Habermas (and he has even been teaching a course with 4 weeks on Marx). I hope there is more to come. The proceedings of the recent Genoa conference on Brandom’s recent philosophy of language are also available, although I have not had a chance to look at them yet. They can be found here. Finally, there is this little paper on the development of Rorty’s thought: a topic on which Brandom is always an insightful read.

The Year in Books

Academic presses are still creaking under the weight of books published, so you would be forgiven if the occasional gem passed you by. It being the end of the year as well, I thought I would flag some notable philosophy books published this year, as well as point to some to look out for in the coming year. I’d be happy to hear of any of your own picks for this year’s best too.

My favourite book to appear this year is one I’m still reading — Robert Pippin’s masterful Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life. As ever, Pippin manages to combine a wonderful lucidity of thought with a rich and suggestive prose style, which makes all his work a pleasure to read. This book develops the reading of Hegel which he shares with Terry Pinkard, which sees Hegel as engaged in the project of constructing a theory of normativity which would build upon, whilst radically revising, Kant’s talk of self-legislation. As long-time readers will be aware, I think this project is flawed both historically and philosophically. Nonetheless, Pippin has brilliantly buttressed his case here; and even where I think he goes astray, he is always insightful, especially when engaging with contemporary philosophical developments. If you have any interest in Hegel, metaethics or normativity, this comes highly recommended!

Another book in a similar vein, though this time arguing against a central role for autonomous agency, was Charles Larmore’s The Autonomy of Morality. Like Larmore’s other books, its mainstay is a collection of revised articles, loosly connected to the central theme. These are tied together by a central essay, arguing against Kantian constructivism as a metanormative theory. Larmore thinks that in place of a morality of autonomy we need to reclaim an autonomous morality. To unpack that slogan a little, he thinks that treating autonomy as a foundation for normativity is incoherent: any norms based upon autonomous endorsement alone will be little more than products of what Donald Regan calls ‘arbitrary self-launching’. Any putative norms arising from a process of self-legislation, so understood, cannot have a rational claim upon us. Instead, he thinks we must suppose that morality itself (and presumably other normative domains) is autonomous — independent of our practices, insofar as its ultimate authority is concerned.

My main reservations about his position arise with his conception of this independent normative realm — something he takes to be a robust metaphyiscal space, akin to the space of physical or psycholgical inquiries. In one essay, ‘Attending to Reasons’, he argues against the more Wittgensteinian conception of philosophical inquiry which animates McDowell’s work on just this sort of issue. It seems to me that Larmore lacks any good argument against such a position though; he simply restates the demand for philosophical explanation — e.g. surely we need to know what reasons are — which is the very thing that the Wittgensteinian tries to get us to loosen our grip upon by directing us to more modest questions about what we do and what we treat as a reason. This is a debate which needs reformulating if either side is to find traction with the other — something I am finding myself tasked with doing at the moment.

Talking of Wittgenstein, Oskari Kuusela’s The Struggle against Dogmatism: Wittgenstein and the Concept of Philosophy came out in April. This is another which I have not got all the way through yet, but the parts I have read are promising. The book is an attempt to describe Wittgenstein’s methodology, especially as it blossoms in the later philosophy. I had occasion this year to speak to Oskari whilst attending an event we were at, and I was struck by the intensity of his commitment to reading Wittgenstein with an anti-dogmatic tenor — one in which we have to radically rethink philosophy’s approach, as opposed to sliding into an equally formulaic characterisation of philosophy (e.g. the first thesis of Philosophy Club is that there are no theses in Philosophy Club…). What is particularly striking about Oskari’s approach is that it takes the question of methodology to be the beating heart of Wittgenstein’s work, whilst nevertheless letting us see how genuinely productive, progressive and insightful philosophy can still be done under its auspices.

I was rather less enamoured with Brandom’s Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism, in which he attempts to reconcile pragmatism and more mainstream analytic philosophy. He claims that it is pragmatism in both the classical and Wittgensteinian senses which are to be one side of this reconcilliation. However, Brandom’s Wittgenstein is the worst of caricatures — a sloganeer, reduced to spitting ‘meaning is use’ and other proto-systematic dictums. His is a decidely non-Kuuselic reading. This bears upon his recent book insofar as it is animated with the worst of Brandom’s habits, and indeed the red thread which will unravel most of his work: reductionism. Brandom seeks to describe a set of reductive relations between different sets of vocabulary (logical, modal, normative, intentional, etc.). My thoughts here are that Brandom is doing little more than repeat the mistakes of traditional metaphysical inquiry in a semantic key. The lure of reductive accounts is great, and they are quite rightly indispensable in the natural-scientific enterprise. But philosophy is neither natural science nor composed of formal systems like logic, and the understanding which a massive program of theoretical interdefinability promises is little more than a mirage. It is Wittgenstein himself who provides the greatest lesson about this in the development of his early work away from the false clarity of the thoroughgoing analysis of the logical structure of natural language. This is yet another reason why Brandom counting Wittgenstein as an ally, albeit a misguided one, is perverse.

On a happier note, the blogosphere’s very own Sinthome, of Larval Subjects, published Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence. The project is an exciting one: a rehabilitation of a Deleuzian metaphysics as the ground of rethinking the perennial philosophical questions surrounding the particular-universal, existence-essence and sensible-conceptual relationships. It is the last of these which takes centre-stage, with the guiding question being how we are to understand Deleuze’s ‘transcendental empiricism’, which seeks to unfold the productive conditions for experience. It is in virtue of this topic that those of you with a ‘post-Sellarsian’ temperament may find it particularly interesting, since it tackles questions surrounding the intelligible structure of experience, familiar in the neo-pragmatist literature, from an interesting angle. Unfortunately, it has proved a little too hard-going for a casual reader like myself with little exposure to Deleuze. I hope to have the stamina for another go in the future though.

McDowell-watchers will have noted John McDowell: Experience, Norm and Nature, edited by Jakob Lindgaard, which collects many of the recent essays on his work from the European Journal of Philosophy, including new replies by McDowell. The most notable addition is a new essay by McDowell in which he revised his long-held and controversial position on the propositional structure of experience, replacing it with a claim that experience is conceptual simply in virtue of its ability to be discursively articulated. This claim is ostensibly made in response to Charles Travis’ arguments about conceptual content, though I think it may come to be seen as being heavily influenced by the next book I’ll mention.

I’ve yet to read more than a handful of pages of it, but Micheal Thompson’s book Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought looks fascinating. In it, he undertakes an Aristotelian analysis of the concepts of life, action and practice, as the basis for a clear view of practical philosophy. As I say, I suspect that it is Thompson’s influence on McDowell which can account for some of the impetus for his revised position, as reflected in McDowell’s eagerness to make room for a distinct mode for the representation of life within experience. I am reliably informed that Thompson’s work is attracting a lot of attention amongst the Chicago-Pittsburgh circuit, and I would expect to see his work discussed widely in the future. Were I to hazard a guess for which philosophy book this year in the broadly conceived post-Kantian tradition will end up being most influential, it would be this one.

Next year will see another promising book on metaphysics, namely, Robert Stern’s Hegelian Metaphysics. It’s going to be a collection of some of his essays, both new and old, on Hegel and metaphysical themes. In particular, there’ll be essays on themes from Hegelian metaphysics, like concrete universality and the Hegelian conception of truth, alongside critical and comparitive essays on historical movements influenced by Hegel, like the classical pragmatists (especially Peirce) and the British idealists. Again, Deleuzian metaphysics comes up, with a defence of Hegel’s position against Deleuzian criticism.

Also next year, two McDowell collections appear, The Engaged Intellect: Philosophical Essays and Having the World in View: Essays on Kant, Hegel, and Sellars. The contents should be familiar to those already keeping up with McDowell’s recent work, though there is what appears to be a new essay on Hegel which I am keen to see. Korsgaard’s Locke Lectures, Self-constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity, also come out. From the lecture texts already online, this looks like it will be a good read, and will no doubt draw a lot of attention! (She also had a collection of essays out this year on similar themes, called The Constitution of Agency: Essays on Practical Reason and Moral Psychology.) A volume of essays on Making It Explicit is also due out, called Reading Brandom: On Making It Explicit. The contributors are not quite as illustrious as those for the McDowell volume in the same series, but it looks interesting nonetheless.

As I say, I am happy to hear your own notable philosophy books of the year!

Brandom’s Circular Semantics?

The aspects of Brandom and McDowell’s projects that I am focusing on — namely, freedom and rational constraint — sit alongside sustained attempts to understand intentionality. Both are aware that from a certain vantage point, phenomena like meaning can appear mysterious. An approach to language that typifies such an attitude would be the ‘Augustinian’ model that Wittgenstein sets out in the Philosophical Investigations in which, confronted with a name abstracted from the pattern of its usage, its purported ability to designate its bearer seems inexplicable.Whilst sharing an acknowledgment that an air of mystery can hang over semantic properties, Brandom and McDowell adopt different strategies for dispersing it. Adumbrating these strategies will set the stage for a hesitantly advanced objection to Brandom.

Brandom opposes his semantic theory to a position he calls representationalism. The representationalist treats representation as an explanatory primitive, attempting to understand the concepts of reasons and truth in terms of it.This specific explanatory move between representation and the concepts of truth and reasons, he thinks has met with some success. Starting with a set of representational primitives corresponding to subsentential expressions (such as singular terms and predicates), the representationalist can proceed to specify truth conditions for sentences in which those expressions feature. Then, on this basis, correctness of inference can be explained by specifying the truth-preserving routes between such sentences. Brandom’s main objection to such accounts is not concerned with the strategies employed by the representationalist once representational primitives are in play; rather, he thinks that no congenial understanding of this sort of representational content and our relation to it is to be had.

The rival approach that Brandom champions is inferentialism, which adopts inference as primitive in semantic explanation. As I’ve discussed previously, he thinks that he can give an account of inference which is built upon the social practice of assessment of discursive activity. This account attempts to understand what inference is by appeal to our practice of treating the commitments-whether doxastic or practical-which people acknowledge as committing them to further things. With this account of inference in place, Brandom embarks on an ambitious project that seeks to reduce appeals to representation to something that can be constructed from an account of the social activity of holding each other to the consequences of the commitments that we have undertaken. To put it in Brandom’s idiom, we are to ground an inferential semantics in a normative pragmatics.

For Brandom then, the representationalist has got things backwards. By trying to reduce inference to a function of the prior relations between representational contents, she will have deprived herself of the very resources needed to adequately characterise talk of representation: namely, a conception of inference. In motivating and defending a prior account of inference, Brandom hopes to clarify the foundations of his explanation of semantics in a way that he thinks the representationalist has been unsuccessful at doing. Thus, he begins with a conception of inference understood in terms of the social practice of playing the game of giving and asking for reasons rather than in terms of representations in which subsentential expressions designate objects or properties. Then, he exploits this non-representational conception of inference to explain how we can retain our ascriptions of intentional content to sentences, along with many of the other central features of language that representation had been invoked to explain.The problematic, designational conception of reference attaching to the representationalist model of semantic explanation can thus be avoided; reference as traditionally conceived is “explained away.”So, we are meant to be reassured that the semantic properties of language, as something whose intentionality may have quite understandably struck us as mysterious on the representationalist’s necessarily incomplete story, are not threatening after all. We just need to reverse the order of explanation that we pursue, showing how semantic features are grounded upon the familiar but nonetheless crucial activity of treating people as having a set of doxastic and practical commitments.

McDowell accepts that the strategy of Brandom’s representationalist is unworkable but thinks that reversing the order of semantic explanation will fare no better.What McDowell questions is whether, faced with an initially puzzling concept like representation, the way to remove this puzzlement is by reconstructing that concept-say, by showing that its explanatory role can be mimicked without appeal to it-before being entitled to resume our use of it. The problem with the representationalist model was supposed to be that it lacked the resources to explain how subsentential expressions could designate things, what this designation consisted in and how this linked up with the practice of using language. McDowell thinks that the problem here is treating representation as a primitive explanatory item, intelligible apart from the wider context in which it has an intelligible semantic role. It is this failure which generates the confusion, not simply the idea that names can designate objects. As such, we do not need to reconstruct a conception of representation by appeal to practices of social assessment that may be able to do a similar job, but to provide the necessary context in which representation makes sense. In this case, we can bring in an account of inference not as a competitor to the traditional conception of representation but rather as the needed supplement to make that (unreconstructed) conception intelligible. Thus, McDowell thinks that he can agree that semantics must be understood with reference to inference, and thus as inseparable from the practice of treating some things as reasons for others, without endorsing the inferentialist order of explanation.

Brandom retorts that he is aware that he has alternative options open to him that do not consist in focusing upon different primitive explanatory categories, and that instead he might have tried to explain semantic properties by appeal to both representation and inference.However, he thinks that if his more ambitious project, employing a more austere set of tools, is successful, then it should be preferred. This is because he thinks that it would have the advantage of being a reductive explanation and so would have the theoretical virtue of parsimony on its side. It is not clear, however, that this sort of response will fully address McDowell’s worries, since McDowell’s target includes both the idea that a reductive account is needed and whether we can give a good explanation of semantic intentionality by suspending our appeal to the concept of representation until it can be reconstructed in different terms. We need not follow this debate further though, since enough has been said to allow us to be able to connect these approaches to semantics to the issues of freedom and rational constraint.

The debate as sketched above between Brandom and McDowell centres on the adequacy of Brandom’s inferentialist strategy in semantics. The main issue was whether semantics could be understood without its traditional representational dimension and with merely a normative-pragmatic one. I do not intend to address this potentially wide-ranging question but rather an offshoot of it. This further question is whether rational constraint from extra-social reality can be accommodated by a semantics based upon a normative pragmatics without a representational dimension.

We can begin to frame this worry about rational constraint as follows. Brandom’s semantic inferentialism is a rejection of representationalism in favour of a normative pragmatics that understands inferential relations as products of a social practice of keeping track of what we take our fellows’ doxastic and practical commitments to be. What we want to know is whether this sort of normative pragmatics can accommodate a specific kind of norm: rational constraint by extra-social reality. This is the sort of norm that will be in play when objects exert authority over our thinking; and this is something that is required to make sense of the idea that the thoughts generated in the course of our inquiries are answerable to what we are inquiring about.

The problem arises from the order of explanation that Brandom pursues. Eschewing a more modest approach that would propose to understand semantics in terms of both representation and inference, he seeks to explain it only in terms of inference, where this latter notion is explained in terms of the social practice of giving and asking for reasons. This appears to require that this normative pragmatics does not stand in need of explication by appeal to the sort of intentionality that its role in grounding semantics is meant to explain. But it would seem that this normative pragmatics cannot itself be elucidated independently of the semantics that it is called upon to explain, which Brandom will require it to be. This is because norms for rational constraint, such as those determining the propriety of empirical judgements, are not fully intelligible as such prior to an account of intentionality. So, for example, an empirical judgement is essentially something that is subject to a norm which determines whether it is correct or incorrect; and if we fail to grasp this fact, we will mischaracterise judgement. The crucial aspect of the rational constraint exercised by such norms though is not just that they determine whether a judgement is correct or incorrect, since any arbitrary norm could sort performances into correct or incorrect ones according to some standard. What is distinctive of such norms is that they tie the propriety of performances like judgements or thoughts to how things stand in the world: specifically, what such judgements and thoughts are about. Therefore, given the strictures that he himself places upon it, Brandom’s account appears circular. The reason for this is that he appeals to a supposedly self-standing social model of normativity to explain intentionality, but to explain a crucial subset of norms that compose this social model we must rely upon an account of intentionality that by Brandom’s lights we ought to be precluded from appealing to.

A defender of Brandom might object that understanding rational constraint in this way is anachronistic given the new inferentialist project which rejects both representationalism and the weaker two-pronged approach including representation and inference. So, unlike someone like Rorty, who rejects the idea that the world can exert a rational constraint on our practices, we might think that Brandom’s accepts this sort of constraint because he believes himself to have found a way to domesticate the idea. One of Brandom’s advances over Rorty could be seen to be his realisation that rational constraint upon our practices exerted by how things stand in the world is achievable from within the bounds of sociality rather than requiring some problematic, non-causal relation to obtain between us and empirical objects.In other words, recognising the importance of intersubjectivity as the locus through which normative claims must pass for their authority to be intelligible does not forestall the possibility of objectivity but is the conduit through which that objectivity is realised. So, given this social basis for rational constraint, alongside the rejection of traditional representational relations, is it not mistaken to accuse Brandom’s account of normative pragmatics of presupposing semantic features that it is meant to explain? For it may seem that it is only the old, representationalist conception of rational constraint that needs to invoke a semantic relation between thought and judgement and objects to which they are answerable.Therefore, in keeping with Brandom’s demanding order of explanation, the normative pragmatics that explains semantics would not require an appeal to semantic notions to explain it.

This would be to tell only half the story though. Whilst Brandom is opposed to a representationalist understanding of intentionality, modelled on a designational relation between a name and the object bearing that name, his positive project wants to understand a different sort of intentionality, namely the “propositional contentfulness of attitudes.”This sort of intentionality is the sense of ‘aboutness’ in play, for example, when we say that to suspect that the cat is on the mat is to hold an attitude about the cat being on the mat. If understanding the normative pragmatics that is called upon to explain Brandom’s inferential semantics depends upon a prior understanding of this sort of intentionality, then it will be circular. Although understanding the norms for rational constraint that Brandom invokes does not rely on the representationalist, designational model of intentionality, it seems that it does rely on an understanding of propositional content; therefore, it will lead to circularity. To establish that for Brandom rational constraint implies intentionality of this sort, consider what Brandom says about how rational constraint is to be secured:

If a suitable story is told about how [non-inferentially elicited judgements] are rationally criticizable by those who key their correctness to their correspondence to the facts reported, and about their entitlement to the reliability of the noninferential process that elicits them, then rational constraint by how things actually are is secured.

Thus, on this account, it seems that to fully understand norms for rational constraint then we must already grasp the intentionality of thought and judgement as things that purport to correspond to the facts, even if we do not give a representationalist account of this purport. But for Brandom, our entitlement to this sort of semantic concept is meant to be secured only after it has been demonstrated that an independently intelligible normative pragmatics can be shown to have made it respectable.

Again, an objector might claim that Brandom’s project has been misunderstood here. For when Brandom sets out to construct an inferentialist semantics based upon a normative pragmatics, he does not have to show that all norms are intelligible prior to the employment of semantic concepts. Rather, he sets out a formal account of how the game of giving and asking for reasons is structured in such a way that moves within that game can be ascribed intentional content. It is central to this project to give an account of the social practices that confer intentional content in virtue of our activity of tracking and instituting normative commitments. But this is very far from giving a full-blown theory of normativity, and arguably nor does this seem to be required to complete Brandom’s project in semantics. He is happy to admit the limited scope of his ambitions, at least in Making It Explicit: “The methodology of MIE requires appealing to the very weakest, most primitive sort of social normativity possible.”This appeal, he continues, is not meant to serve as a basis for understanding all aspects of normativity. This suggests the possibility that an account of norms for rational constraint can be understood in a different way to the norms undergirding semantic content. So, if the account of normative pragmatics that underlies Brandom’s semantic inferentialism does not have to include an account of norms for rational constraint then the charge of circularity can be avoided because semantic concepts will no longer be required to be employed in the normative pragmatics that is supposed to explain them.

The problem with a response of this kind is that there is good reason for thinking that the intelligibility of Brandom’s inferential semantics is in fact dependent on an account of norms for rational constraint. This is because it is the connections outside of the practice of giving and asking for reasons, whereby how things are in the world can exert an authority on how things ought to stand within the practice, which prevents the practice from becoming a self-contained game. It is in light of this sort of normative (rather than exclusively causal) significance which worldly happenings can have that it makes sense to suppose that the performances which make up a linguistic practice have a bearing upon those worldly happenings. One way to put this point would be to say that what it is to have the world in view (to borrow a McDowellian phrase) is to be connected to something that essentially, and not merely accidentally, reveals to us what it would be correct to say about it. Absent this presumption that what we do with words is appropriately responsive to what we take to be the case, it is hard to see what the why this linguistic activity should also count as semantic activity-as  something that qualifies as being about the world rather than simply generated in interaction with the world.

The charge against Brandom is not that he denies the connection between semantic content and rational constraint in general. The objection is rather that the order of explanation that his pursues, subsuming semantics under a normative pragmatics, cannot accommodate it at the right point. Specifically, on his account we should be able to explain why the activity of keeping track of the changes in normative commitments brought about by the performances of our fellows allows us to ascribe intentional content to some of those performances; and we should be able to do this without already invoking semantic concepts. However, it seems to be a condition of those performances being able to have a semantic content at all that they be subject to norms of rational constraint. But to explain what is involved in rational constraint then we must already invoke semantic content, which is the very thing that we wanted to explain. Thus, Brandom’s account will contain a pernicious circularity in virtue of the role that rational constraint must play within it.

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.

Brandom as a reader of Kant: A revised account of key Brandomian themes

If anyone can stomach yet another tract on Brandom, I’ve been trying to come at the themes of autonomy and objectivity from a different angle. The results are somewhat lengthy, again, so I’ve put them below the fold.

Continue reading