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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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.

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Brandom on Freedom and Objectivity

I’ve been trying to write on Brandom, relating his project to the problem of the threatened antinomy between autonomy and external obligations that I’ve been trying to develop. The somewhat lengthy results can be found below the fold. I’m not sure that I’ve nailed all the details yet, especially with respect to some of the more technical aspects of Brandom’s system, but I think the gist is clear.

Also, on the topic of Brandom, N Pepperell and L Magee’s excellent conference paper on him and Habermas can be found here.

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Rethinking Autonomy and Nature: Notes on Strategy

In a previous post I outlined a potential antinomy between freedom and objectivity. It was generated by two claims: that as free beings we have authority over ourselves to determine how we should think and act; and that as rational beings situated in a wider world, we are also legitimately subject to authority exercised by others as well as that exerted by how things stand in the world at large. The question then is: how are we to understand the claims over us that are externally sourced in a way that is consistent with an account of our own claims over ourselves as self-determining subjects? Without attempting to answer that question here, I want to relate it some wider issues.

How are we as subjects related to each other and to the world we inhabit? This simply articulated question raises a dizzyingly complex set of issues, and is obviously not one that we can approach head on. One way of breaking it down is to ask, insofar as we engage with others and the world, what in that engagement can be attributed to us and what attributed to them. This is one way of understanding what Kant means by spontaneity and receptivity.

Our initial question can then be recast in these terms. If we are free, then this can seem to entail some sort of spontaneity on our parts; some contribution we make in shaping our engagement with others and the world. On the other hand, if we are accountible to authorities beyond ourselves, then this can seem to entail some sort of receptivity on our parts; some contribution something other than ourselves has to shaping our activities. In this case, we seem to be dealing with fundamentally normative renderings of spontaneity and subjectivity. This is because our question is not primarily a demand for a substantive explanation of the processes through which, say, we think about the world or are affected by the actions of others. Rather, we want to know about the responsibilities we are under, the authority we can legitimately exercise over ourselves and others, the commitments we have undertaken and those that we are rationally entitled to, and so on. Thus, our initial question is looking for a way to hold together our accountability to things beyond us with the thought that we have a special role in determining how and what we are answerable to. Giving an adequate account along these lines will show how our spontaneous contribution to determining the propriety of our activities is compatible with the receptivity that is necessary for us to be attendant to the factors outside of us that contribute to the propriety of these activities.

Having set them out thusly, it seems possible to transpose these issues to another level. Here we should introduce a distinction between the space of reasons and the space of nature (leaving these notions relatively intutitive at first). The space of reasons is rationally ordered, being governed by principles or norms such that explaining activity that is assesable with reference to the reasons for it, such as asserting that P or performing a deliberate action, makes essential reference to norms and principles. The space of nature (as traditionally conceived), on the other hand, has a law-like structure such that explaining an event in purely natural terms will be a matter of adducing what caused it and what it in turn goes on to cause. To highlight the difference, following a Kantian formulation we can say that nature can be explained by laws but, insofar they engage in properly rational activity, agents’ interventions into the space of reasons should be explained by their conception of law. In other words, agents as reason-mongering creatures are not (or not merely) explicable in terms of the causal necessity of what they do but in terms of its rational necessity: the way it follows from what they take as laws or maxims.

Although woefully underexplained here, the distinction between the logical spaces of reason and nature can, on one line of thought, be seen to roughly correspond with spontaneity and receptivity respectively. If rational agency is essentially a matter of following concepts of laws (i.e. of acting on the basis of norms), and this is something that requires us to actively take up some orientation towards others and the world rather than being passively determined by laws, then rational agency seems to require a moment of spontaneity. Conversely, merely natural happenings seem to be characterised by a lack of such an active component to them; they simply are, rather than having being brought into being. So too, as we encounter them, it can seem that they come to constitute a horizon of giveness for us. That is, we face them as brute matters of fact, receptively imposed.

Jumping forward a little, we now have on the side of spontaneity freedom, reason and agency whereas on the side of receptivity we have external constraint, nature and causality. I think an adequate resolution of a potential antinomy between freedom, as self-direction, and objectivity, as external direction, must be pursued at the level of spontaneity and receptivity encompassing these further notions connected to the logical spaces of reason and nature as well. Insofar as nature and reason remain diremptive, as I think standard Kantian, Humean and scientific naturalist approaches leave them, trying to account for our autonomy alongside our responsibility to ‘get the world right’ and to acknowledge the claims of others over us, will leave us disappointed. At least, so I suspect.

Part of the reason for my worries centre around something both Adorno and McDowell emphasise. This is the conception of nature that arises with modernity, as something disenchanted and mechanical, bereft of the meaning that was once found in it. The rise of science put pressure on a hermeneutic approach to the natural world, which could find significance in the order of the seasons and the setup of the food-chain, seeing them as signs of divine providence or the natural order of things. But swept away along with this rightful demystification of nature was also the resources for finding certain sorts of normative significance in nature. ‘Rationalised reason’ thus brought with it a sharp division between the subject and the rest of the world, reconstructing ‘oughts’ only from resources to be found within individuals, such as desires or categorically imposed ends or rules necessary to act or think. Freedom then becomes a matter of following or achieving ends that are constituted by the individual — the material world (and often other agents) being mere instruments or blocks to such a process.

The modernist demand for autonomy is thus fundamentally coloured by the modern conception of nature, since its notion of freedom has been conditioned by what it thought the only resources to understand normativity were. Putting this conception of nature under pressure will, I hope, allow us to step away from the one-sided individualism that many conceptions of normativity (and therefore freedom) are pushed towards. While we cannot go back to the Greeks, so to speak — individualism as a value cannot and should not be ignored or wished away — hopefully we will be able to situate it more frutifully when the artificial pressures of a misleading diremption between agent and world are overcome.

This post has been rather messy, impressionistic, clunky and light on argument. Also, it is probably riddled with errors and equivocations. However, it is only meant to outline a very rough trajectory of thought rather than any settled conclusions. Hopefully, in the the future I can polish up the rough edges and provide further connecting tissue for the issues raised.

Rorty, Wittgenstein and norms

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.

Freedom and Objective Accountability

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.