Brandom on Enlightenment and disenchantment

Nature, in ceasing to be divine, ceases to be human. Here, indeed, is just our problem.

—John Dewey

In the previous post, I made an attempt to clarify the foundations of Brandom’s project by investigating his explanatory strategy and the substantive commitments he adopts. In the light of this, Brandom’s account of normativity was also re-examined with the suggestion that it might be bolstered by a more robust account of autonomy that placed stronger conditions upon the attribution of normative commitments to agents. In this final post on Brandom, I will inspect the historical underpinnings to many of these earlier positions. More specifically, Brandom’s approach to the Enlightenment tradition and its denaturalising of values will be scrutinised.

Although he is concerned to show how our activity can be answerable to the world, Brandom rejects any suggestion that norms are part of the ‘furniture’ of such a world. Rather, as we have seen, for him they are products of taking or treating certain acts as appropriate or inappropriate.[2] On this account, even when our activity of taking or treating an act as appropriate or inappropriate is itself determined to be inappropriate in virtue of how things stand in the world-when our normative attitudes are shown to be answerable to attitude-transcendent facts-this is the result of conceptual content itself conferred by the practice of taking or treating performances as appropriate or not. In line with his phenomenalism, norms are attitude-dependent through and through.

The motivation for this phenomenalist insistence on attitude-dependence is the so-called disenchantment of the world that took hold with the rise of modern science.[3] The conception of nature that scientific activity promoted was one of a law-governed mechanical system operating of necessity and thus with no regard to humanity and its interests. Not being able to find human concerns reflected in nature, and thus being unable to turn to it directly for guidance in our activities, was supposed to leave us with only our own activities to turn to as the source of values. As Brandom puts it, “Meaningless objects and meaning-generating subjects are two aspects of one picture.”[4] This picture is said to be fundamental to Enlightenment thought, inspiring a tradition in which valuing generates values unavailable from an indifferent natural world.

Brandom thinks that the first clear articulation of such a view is to be found in Pufendorf’s 1688 work De Jure Naturae et Gentium.[5] He takes Pufendorf to be offering a normative phenomenalism, where norms arise from our practice of acting upon conceptions of them. Here, norms are taken to be dependent upon our normative attitudes, with their efficacy restricted to the effect on the will of treating them as binding upon us. In contradistinction to Hobbes’ position, Brandom thinks Pufendorf is a forerunner to his own thesis that while there are no norms apart from our attitudes, this does not mean that norms can or should be reduced to attitudes specifiable in nonnormative terms. Whilst for Hobbes an analysis of norms shows that we can understand them in terms of desires or preferences without appeal to values in our description of those desires and preferences, Brandom takes himself to be following Pufendorf in rejecting such a position.

Having tied his phenomenalist claim about the attitude-dependence of norms to Pufendorf, Brandom goes on to tie his claims about the autonomous grounding of normative authority to Kant. Kant is supposed to stand at the head of a tradition that radicalises an insight into the attitude-dependence of norms by claiming that the source of their authority is our own endorsement of them. A fully autonomous grounding for normative authority of this sort thus distinguishes itself from varieties of attitude dependence that take some or all norms to be binding upon us because of the authority of a sovereign like a monarch or God. Furthermore, in one sense we are fated to be freely autonomous since we are not at liberty to refuse to endorse every norm. This is because all rationality is for Kant is to be bound by norms, and so failing to bind ourselves to any norms is to resign rationality itself (where presumably the claim is that this rationality is essential to making us who we are as agents).[6]

In aligning his project with an Enlightenment response to a mechanistic view of nature, which turns to practical reasoning or desires as the source of normativity, Brandom is following a familiar narrative.[7] However, it is not an unproblematic one for two reasons. Firstly, as a historical story, it is one-sided, failing to reflect the diversity of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment traditions. This is a difficult claim to establish here briefly, so I will pass over it.[8] Secondly then, even if we take Brandom’s narrative to be a faithful historical reconstruction, there are many reasons to challenge its claim to be a story of progressive development which solves more problems than it creates. Again, this is a large claim to assess here, but it may be possible to give an idea of one line of thought connected to it.

One way to articulate the following worry about Brandom’s tale of disenchantment is to say that too much gets disenchanted. It certainly is an advance for us to have banished certain types of ‘mythic’ structures from the world, such as a hermeneutic approach that takes a lunar eclipse as a sign of good things to come or sees divine providence in the fact that I am coming down with an illness. Insofar as we want to give these phenomena any credence, then surely they must be as some sort of projection of our own concerns and interests. However, must everything that the suspicion of anthropomorphism hangs over be banished from the world and taken to be our doing alone? We might think that items lacking a wide cosmological role-failing to be potential contributors to the explanation of things other than our attitudes or effects of our attitudes-have no place as robust members of our ontology. If so, norms, along with all realms obviously and ineliminably ‘fraught with ought’ like ethics and aesthetics, deserve only a subsidiary role in our picture of the world.

If we accept this line of thought, the only place that seems appropriate to look for the resources to rehabilitate normativity is ourselves and our own activity, whether our practical reasoning, our desires and preferences, or some combination of the two. What tends to get lost in such projects, and what Brandom’s account is often criticised for lacking, is a role for experience.[9] Experience provides a distinctive relation to objects-one that allows them to be manifest to thought in such a way as to guide it. But it seems that for Brandom, with his account of norms grounded upon taking or treating something as appropriate or not, then there are no objects that could properly be said to play this role. They have been swept away in the drive to disenchant nature, and with them an important mode of rational constraint upon cognition disappears.

Not enough has been said here in order to grasp the full significance of the role of experience, nor why its loss in normative matters is so problematic and cannot be replaced by other sorts of rational constraint.[10] Nevertheless, even if the full motivation for this move is not yet clear, I want to suggest that we should attempt to resist the overzealous disenchantment that leads to a sidelining of experience. Carrying out this task is something for the future though.


[1] “Between the Two Worlds” [ref?][2] “Our activity institutes norms, imposes normative significance on a natural world that is intrinsically without significance for the guidance or assessment or assessment of action. A normative significance is imposed on a nonnormative world, like a cloak thrown over its nakedness, by agents forming preferences, issuing orders, entering into agreements, praising and blaming, esteeming and assessing.” MIE, p.48.[3] “One of the defining characteristics of early science is its disenchantment (Entzauberung, in the word we owe to Weber) of the world. The meanings and value that had previously been discerned in things are stripped off along with the supernatural and understood as projections of human interests, concerns, and activities onto an essentially indifferent and insignificant matter.” ibid.[4] MIE, p.49.[5] Pufendorf, S. (1964) On the Law of Nature and of Nations, trans. C.H. Oldfather and W.A. Oldfather, London: Wiley & Sons.[6] MIE, p.50.[7] Perhaps the most comprehensive account of this kind, and which follows Brandom in plotting a triumphal march towards Kantian autonomy, is Schneewind, J.B. (1998) The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[8] In short, I think that Brandom’s story does justice neither to the traditions culminating in Hegel and Marx’s non-reductive historicised naturalisms nor the naturalistic strands in Kant’s thought that are often suppressed in virtue of their very uneasy fit with modern interpretations of his notion of autonomy which fail to give enough weight to the influence of the Stoics on Kant. For discussion of naturalism in Kant and Hegel see Allen Wood’s (1999) Kant’s Ethical Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.180f and (1990) Hegel’s Ethical Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.33-5.

[9] There is a place for perception in Brandom’s story but this does not have the same role as experience: it causally elicits normative commitments but does not itself support a direct normative relation between the perceiver and their environment.

[10] For more on the problems caused by Enlightenment disenchantment weighing against a role for experience with respect to normativity, see Bernstein, J.M. (2001) Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, and McDowell, J. (1994) Mind and World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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