There’s an excellent post up at Roughtheory by the mysterious wizard L Magee. In it he does a great job of setting out the disagreements between Habermas and Brandom as found in their exchange a few years back in the European Journal of Philosophy. The post lays the foundations for a more detailed engagement with Brandom and Habermas that asks how compatible their social-pragmatic approaches really are. Great stuff and highly recommended!
Here is a very sketchy set of thoughts about Rorty and Wittgenstein on normativity that I wrote a few years back. There’s bits of it I no longer agree with, but I think there is at least some value in the central distinction I make between social practices being a condition for normative standards to be in play and social practices being arbiters of what is to count as meeting normative standards. Part of my work at the moment is in trying to motivate the thought that while some norms are socially administered, we can make sense of others that are not, even if being somehow connected to or embeddeded in social practices is a condition of them taking hold at all. Anyway, I hope it is of at least some interest, although it would certainly have benefitted from me reading more McDowell before having written it.
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Rorty’s discussions of normativity, which centre on the role of epistemology and the evaluation of norms, take up a similar position to Kripke’s Wittgenstein in locating normative relations within the horizon of communities for which we feel solidarity rather than seeing them as objective and extra-social, such that we can see ourselves, “standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality.” (1984: 21) This is a position that Rorty labels ‘ethnocentric’ because it does not accept that we can appeal to standards outside of a social group to justify the normative standards of that group. The issue we will be concerned with here though is not the meta-normative one of how we are to evaluate our own normative standards but rather of how we should think about how people manage to conform to a norm at all.
The criterion that Rorty gives for someone’s statement conforming to norms of warranted assertability is a sociological one. It is, “to be ascertained by observing the reception of S’s statement by his peers.” (1993: 50) What this amounts to is fleshed out in response to Putnam’s query as to whether he accepts this principle:
Whether a statement is warranted or not is independent of whether the majority of one’s cultural peers would say it is warranted or unwarranted. (Putnam 1990: 21 quoted in Rorty 1993: 49)
Rorty says that perhaps a majority can be wrong (although he does not explain how we are to decide this sociologically) but that if everyone in a community except for a handful of ‘dubious characters’ say that the statement is warranted then it will be. The only alternative to this view, he claims, is an untenable realist position that supposes that, “there is some way of determining warrant sub specie aeternitatis.” (1993: 50)
From the standpoint of a careful examination of Wittgenstein’s discussions of rule-following, we can identify Rorty’s position as a misdirected response to a set of plausible intuitions concerning the need to involve reference to human activity in approaching normative claims. The confusion displayed by his stance is in supposing that the criteria for the satisfaction of certain norms, such as those for warrant, have a privileged relationship to the beliefs of an overwhelming majority of a linguistic community (as well as other sufficiently sociologically privileged groups within such a community). This way of handling the issue is an attempt to anchor normativity in something that avoids the suspicion that hangs over both a potentially alien and unfathomable natural order of normative authority and the unappealing relativism of a subjectivist approach. However, while rightly rejecting strong forms of realism and relativism, it incorrectly locates the genuine role of communal agreement by taking it to be an external arbiter of the satisfaction of norms rather than a general prerequisite for the institution of norms.
For Wittgenstein, a relatively stable background consensus concerning whether rules have been obeyed or not constitutes a precondition for the possibility of linguistic activities such as giving descriptions. It is, he says, “part of the framework on which the working of our language is based.” (§240) Wittgenstein then cautions against the temptation (a form of which we have already met in Rorty) to suppose that this means that it is a concurrence of opinion that determines whether or not a rule has been obeyed. The agreement that he is concerned with is in the language used, about which he says that this is agreement in “form of life.” (§241) So, Wittgenstein is saying that it is a grammatical condition upon giving descriptions in which we say someone is or is not following a rule that it takes place against a backdrop of patterns of behaviour to which there belongs a stable and mostly uncontroversial practice of distinguishing between correct and incorrect rule-following. That is, a general distinction between correctness and incorrectness in rule-following must be in place for it to make sense to say in an individual case that someone is correctly following a rule.
Returning to Rorty’s case of warrant, he claims that, once we turn away from a strong realist position, then if an overwhelming majority of someone’s linguistic community believe that p is warranted then it cannot fail to be. This necessitates a collapse of the distinction between it seeming to an overwhelming majority of a community to be correct to believe p is warranted and it being true that p is warranted. But it is surely intelligible that a large mass of people have made a systematic error in applying our criteria of warrant, or even that everyone in a community is mistaken in this respect. Without this possibility then we face the problem raised by the private language argument but simply writ large. The private language argument presents us with a situation where we are left without a genuine criterion for identifying a phenomenon because there is no standard of correctness for applying the criterion. Wittgenstein says: “One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’.” (§258) Here we find the problem transposed to the level of the community. Where whatever seems correct to the overwhelming majority of a community is taken as the ultimate arbiter of what is correct then we have abandoned the distinction between appearance and objective reality.
We are now not dealing with a criterion for warrant in which our inclinations come to play a supporting role; instead, we are dealing with a Rortian redefinition of ‘warrant’ which ties it to a separate concept. This can be shown by considering the differences between the notion of what a sociologically privileged group within a community is inclined to describe as ‘warranted’ and what goes on in our actual practices of justification. As with other norms, the criteria of warrant are satisfied through an internal relation between the criteria and what is warranted, in the same way that a desire or belief is internally related to what is desired or believed. This is reflected in our application of criteria of warrant such that in assessing a belief we inquire into such things as whether there is any empirical evidence to back it up, whether it is logically entailed or excluded by our well-grounded beliefs, and so on. As part of these considerations we might appeal to the beliefs of our linguistic community, but these will have no pivotal role and will not act as a tertium quid mediating the significance of all other factors. Ultimately it will be whether there are good to reasons to believe p that will determine whether it is warranted and not that an overwhelming majority believe there are good reasons.
This does not mean that we must invoke atemporal standards of rationality to decide what counts as a good or bad reason to believe p. Our normative criteria for what are good or bad reasons in support of a belief will arise from, and be thoroughly intertwined with, the common activity of critical assessment. The important point is that, contra Rorty, it is a mistake to conflate the conditions in which there arises a distinction between acting in accord with a normative standard or not and the conditions for the satisfaction of individual normative standards. Were we to lack a good deal of consensus in the application of criteria for warrant, wildly or unsystematically diverging in our judgments as to whether beliefs were warranted, then the practice of criticism would lose its identifiable character. Wittgenstein makes an analogous point:
It is one thing to describe methods of measurement, and another to obtain and state results of measurement. But what we call “measuring” is partly determined by a certain constancy in results of measurement. (§242)
This is related to the Davidsonian idea that the majority of our beliefs could not be false because we must suppose a general background of true beliefs for it to be intelligible to ascribe beliefs at all. So, for example, whilst it is possible for Aristotle to have been wrong about the number of teeth that women have, we cannot suppose he was wrong in every belief he had about teeth because in such a case we have no grounds for connecting his behaviour with ascriptions of teeth-related beliefs. The same goes for norms like warrant, where there is no direct connection between the correctness of application of the criteria of individual candidates for warrant and the activities of a larger linguistic community, and it is quite possible for everyone to misapply commonly recognised criteria for warrant. However, this presupposes a general coherence in our activities of criticism because it is through a regular pattern of mostly consensual applications of the set of criteria that partly determines that what people are doing is assessing warrant.
We can go some way to meeting the concerns that motivate Rorty by locating the origins of normative standards of warrant within the common activity of critically assessing beliefs, and furthermore note that we cannot completely lose touch with what meets these standards since regularity in their application is partly constitutive of them being standards of warrant. However, once these norms are instituted there will be no need for them to be mediated by the response of a linguistic community. Placing the beliefs of an overwhelming majority of a linguistic community as an infallible authority as to the satisfaction of normative criteria for warrant is a needless step. What’s more, it surreptitiously redefines what is to count as warrant, substituting the application of criteria to an objective world that determines whether they are satisfied with the limp concept of warrant as always and only those beliefs which seem acceptable to many members of a linguistic community.
Today’s Kantian gloominess comes in two translations. First, here is the quote that adorns a certain famous liberal blog:
Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.
While Kant’s reputation as a bad writer is overplayed, it should ring warning bells when it seems that he has formulated something quite so pithy. So, here is a rather more accurate translation I have adapted from Isiah Berlin:
Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be framed.
Kant, Religion Within The Bounds Of Reason Alone, Ak: 8:23.
This is just a quick pointer to N.Pepperell’s fantastic series of posts on the first chapter of Capital. In them, she explores Marx’s use of a broadly Hegelian methodology that insists on an immanent exploration of bourgeois economics. This is an approach to Marx that I wholeheartedly commend, and to see why one has only to begin to work through the exciting and rewarding reading that emerges in these posts.
Here are the links, in order of appearance so far:
Yet more gloom:
Even if a civil society were to be dissolved with the consent of all its members (e.g. if a people inhabiting an island decided to separate and disperse throughout the world) the last murderer remaining in prison would first have to be executed, so that each has done to him what his deeds deserve and blood guilt does not cling to the people for not having insisted upon this punishment; for otherwise the people can be regarded as collaborators in his public violation of justice.
Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, Ak 6: 333
No idea is so generally recognized as indefinite, ambiguous, and open to the greatest misconceptions (to which therefore it actually falls a victim) as the idea of freedom: none in common currency with so little appreciation of its meaning.
Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, §482A
Wise words, as ever. I am aware that my own employment of the notion of freedom is potentially oversimplified and risks failing to do justice to lack of settled agreement on its content and import. In recognition of this, I want to give a general outline of some aspects of the concept as I see it that expands upon my rough characterisation of freedom as self-determination. So too, I want to at least minimally situate this outline with reference to the modern philosophical history of the concept (although this will be far from adequate). My intention here will not be to justify the conception of freedom I have adopted, rather simply to explain its elements.
My provisional definition of freedom identifies five aspects or conditions of freedom. As such, I take it that to be fully free is to: (i) select an end for ourselves (ii) in the right way (iii) ensuring that it gives rise to an appropriate action (iv) in circumstances where we have the skills and resources to achieve our end (v) without external hindrance in so doing. Each such aspect I take to be as follows: (i) minimal autonomy (ii) ideal autonomy (iii) autocracy (iv) positive freedom (v) negative freedom. I will say something about each in what follows.
On what is arguably the most basic conception of it, freedom is taken to consist in the absence of constraints upon doing what one desires or otherwise has as one’s project. As Hobbes puts it, on the basis that we are free, “no liberty can be inferred to the will, desire, or inclination, but the liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop, in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to doe.” This conception of freedom is one that is shared by Hume, who articulates it more tersely, saying that such liberty is, “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will.” Hume goes on to explain that this freedom is possessed by everybody who is not chained and imprisoned. This remark confirms that this sort of freedom is a species of negative liberty, the conception of freedom central to political liberalism. For on this understanding it is clear that to be actively prevented from carrying out our projects just is what it is to be deprived of freedom.
If taken to provide a full characterisation of freedom, some critics have supposed that the conception of freedom outlined so far must be supplemented by a more positive account. That is, to put it crudely, to be genuinely free is not just to be free from some constraint upon our existing powers that prevents us realising our desires or other projects, but also to be free to realise these things. Thus, these critics advocate an expansion of our notion of freedom to include the provision of such things as the material resources and social goods necessary to carry out our projects. For example, on this understanding we can fail to be free not only by being locked up or stuck in a ravine but also by being in poverty or without access to education. In effect, they reject Hobbes’ claim: “A free-man is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to.”
Both of these conceptions take us to be free to the extent that it is possible for us to fulfil our existing desires and projects. They differ as to what sort of possibility they specify in this respect, whether that is being unhindered in our use of the abilities and resources we have or being in possession of the requisite abilities and resources themselves. But what they do not interrogate as yet are those desires and projects which we regard as our ends. As such, they fail to address autonomy: the notion of being a legislator for oneself and thereby setting one’s own ends. This idea might be understood in a number of ways though and so initially we ought to make a distinction between what I shall call ‘minimal autonomy’ and ‘ideal autonomy’.
At root, minimal autonomy is the idea that in order to act then I must to some extent take my action as an end. In other words, minimal autonomy is the authority of the agent to legitimately initiate their actions through setting a goal for themselves. All that this legitimacy consists in is the fact that were something other than a certain person to be responsible for bringing about an occurrence then that occurrence could not qualify as their action. Thus, minimal autonomy is the requirement, as a condition of agency, that agents are self-authorising to whatever extent is required for them to be responsible for their action. To draw out the connection with freedom we might say that, for the defender of minimal autonomy, part of what it is for us to be agents at all is to choose our own goals—that the ends of our action cannot simply be given. This is to say, one cannot just act because one is always faced with the question of how one should act which requires us to actively make up our minds as to what to do and what not to do. So, on such a view, there is some respect in which an agent cannot fail to be free just by virtue of being an agent at all, even if they simply acquiesce to their existing desires or even if they fail to go on to act all.
What is at issue between those who want to affirm minimal autonomy, such as Kant, and those who want to deny controversial versions of it, such as Hobbes and Hume, will be questions centring on the role of desire, reasons and motivation in agency. So, someone may want to deny minimal autonomy is required for agency as a result of thinking that to explain the fact that Kate eats the apple we need only know that Kate desired to eat the apple and not that, furthermore, she took eating the apple as an end based on this desire. Alternatively, we might say that those against and those defending a role for minimal autonomy will differ as to whether they take reference to the deliberative standpoint to be essential to explain human action. So, proponents of minimal autonomy will take it that genuine actions are those that the agent performs on the basis of reasons that are available to them from within their perspective on the world, whereas opponents of minimal autonomy will suppose that there is no such constraint on what counts as an action. As such, we could describe the defender of minimal autonomy as an internalist about agency and their opponent as an externalist about agency. (At root, I think it is the materialist impulses of Hobbes and Hume that make this approach unattractive to them. Suffice to say, I can see their worries but am ultimately unconvinced by them.)
If minimal autonomy—as the necessity of actively choosing or taking up an end for ourselves—is a condition of agency, then insofar as we are agents then we cannot fail to exhibit this sort of freedom. Ideal autonomy, however, is another conception of freedom as setting an end for ourselves that we can fail to exhibit while remaining agents. This is because ideal autonomy concerns the grounds or procedure by which that end is chosen or taken up by us. So, we might think that to be fully autonomous it is not enough to have adopted a certain end for oneself but that we must have done so in the right way, rather than, say, on the basis of an arbitrary whim or bad reasons. For example, Kant thinks that we are genuinely autonomous only when we adopt ends that could be followed universally as if they were laws of nature. Thus, for him it is not enough that we are responsible for our actions through deliberating about or otherwise endorsing them, but we must do so in conformity with the further principle of the categorical imperative.
Finally, a fifth conception of freedom is as self-mastery or autocracy. Here the focus is upon the connection between having an end (whether autonomously adopted or not) and actually acting to fulfil it. For we might think that we could fail to be free, even if we had the abilities and resources to fulfil our desires and projects and where no-one was preventing us fully utilising these abilities and resources, because we could not bring ourselves to act appropriately. Phenomena like akrasia (weakness of will) are relevant here, where we genuinely intend or desire to do something—say, to hold one’s tongue in an argument—but are, as it were, overwhelmed by the circumstances and do not do so. Being able to avoid such situations, say by virtue of practice and the self-conscious cultivation of patience in oneself over time, is, then, the final general aspect of freedom that I want to include.
So, I hope it is clear the sort of broad approach to freedom I want to take, which is rather Kantian in outline if not in some of its details. Now, actually tracing this conception out historically and coming to defend it is another matter.
I’m currently struggling in an attempt to articulate a problem, or rather clash of intuitions, concerning freedom and its limits. This problem is intended to play a structuring role in my research that will allow me to approach its deeper topic, not explicitly advertised initially, which will be a richer understanding of normativity that (albeit darkly expressed here) positions reason — or better: λογος — just as much in the world at large as in individual deliberation or social communities.
Returning to the surface topic though, that of freedom, one abstract way of expressing some of the tensions that this notion can seem caught up in would be as follows. Although a deeply contested concept or cluster of concepts, we can roughly characterise freedom as self-determination rather than external determination. If this as yet undefended conception of freedom is plausible — which ultimately I think it can be made to be — then it meets with friction when set against the notion of objective accountability. For while freedom is self-determination rather than external determination, answerability to what is objective can seem to demand external determination rather than self-determination. How then can freedom and objectivity co-exist, or at least how are we to understand their demands once it seems that these demands may be in competition?
At a less abstract level we can reintroduce the potential tension by considering individual agents. For, on the one hand, in judgement and action we take ourselves to be free: it is up to us how we are to make up our minds and comport ourselves towards the world. Yet, we also experience the world as imposing its own horizons on our activity. We take our judgements to be answerable to what is actually the case and so too our practical actions to be assessable according to standards more robust than doing what seems to us to be right or good. In other words, we must marry freedom with objectivity such that our authority over ourselves is consistent with the authority over us exercised by how things stand beyond our immediate selves.
This way of framing the matter introduces the distinction between normativity and causality. (These are two ‘moments’ of the concepts of freedom and objectivity but do not necessarily lead to a dualism within the concepts–that is, they might be describable in a uniform metavocabulary in which they are not understood as involving two irreconcilable modes of explanation of freedom and objectivity.)
For when we speak of our ‘authority’ over ourselves and the ‘authority’ of how things stand in the world inclusive of that beyond ourselves, we can take this authority in at least two senses. Taken causally, this authority will consist in the de facto power to bring about some act. So, an adequate account of freedom and objective accountability in this vein would show how the causal nexus responsible for bringing about an act includes both contributions from the agent (e.g. deliberation about what to do, resolution to φ, etc.) and from the world at large (e.g. relevant features of the context of the act, etc.). Taken normatively, this authority will consist in the de jure power over some act. An adequate account of this type would show how the act is licensed or authorised on the basis of contributions from the agent (perhaps as conforming to rational self-legislation or as based on a reflectively endorsed set of desires, etc.) and from contributions from the world at large (maybe it accords with a set of social norms or the way things stand determine it to be correct, etc.).
Ultimately, normativity and causality, as two moments of freedom and objectivity, should, I think, be reconciled. If we consider freedom, without a normative component — that is, lacking direction according to principles of what we deem right or good — the power to direct ourselves is little more than caprice, whereas bare proclamations of what we ought to do without the power to enact them are impotent. So too, being causally receptive to our environment is of little use if we continue to err in our approach towards it nonetheless, whereas acting rightly not on the basis of some receptivity to the context of our acts seems to be mere chance liable to give way at any moment.
Recapitulating then, we can be free by being able to bring about ends and by being able to authorise ends (at least in part); and we can also be objectively accountable by having the world at large being able to bring about ends and by being able to authorise ends (at least in part). Thus, to frame things in Kantian terms, we are creatures of both spontaneity and receptivity. The issue is how we are to understand their necessary co-operation. More specifically, can we hold on to satisfyingly robust versions of the following four conditions:
(i) We cause our own actions.
(ii) The world at large causes our actions.
(iii) We determine the propriety of our actions.
(iv) The world at large determines the propriety of our actions.
Right now, I am not so concerned with the fine details of a solution to, or dissolution of, this problem. Rather, having formulated it thusly, I want to know whether it seems coherent or engaging at all. If anyone has made it this far down, I would be greatful to hear whether you can see any problems, highly controversial assumptions, trivial solutions, underaddressed points, and so on, as to how I’ve set up this initial question. As I say, I’m unsure as to how coherent the problematic I am trying to setup will appear, and as such any comments would be greatly appreciated.