“Oh no, I’ve become a human being.”

Infinite Thought on an all-too-familiar experience as a philosophy teacher:

I think that what we think is teaching is not teaching at all but an intricate form of pointless crowd-control for crowds who don’t even need controlling, and that the resentment that students have is the general kind of resentment you get when you think that someone should know better than you but it turns out that they don’t and that they’re just as crap as you are, if not more crap, which is probably likely in the case of philosophy lecturers especially.

The rest of the post is here.

Piper – Rationality and the Structure of the Self

Adrian Piper’s new two-volume work is available for free on her website (she has self-published due to editorial problems with OUP and CUP). It’s called Rationality and the Structure of the Self: A Two-Volume Study in Kantian Metaethics. I’ve only had a chance to skim through some of the material in the second volume, which looks of a high standard. Take a look if Kantian metaethics in the Rawlsian vein (à la Korsgaard and Darwall) is your cup of tea.

Rationality and the Structure of the Self,
Volume I: The Humean Conception

The Humean conception of the self consists in the belief-desire model of motivation and the utility-maximizing model of rationality. This conception has dominated Western thought in philosophy and the social sciences ever since Hobbes’ initial formulation in Leviathan and Hume’s elaboration in the Treatise of Human Nature. Bentham, Freud, Ramsey, Skinner, Allais, von Neumann and Morgenstern and others have added further refinements that have brought it to a high degree of formal sophistication. Late twentieth century moral philosophers such as Rawls, Brandt, Frankfurt, Nagel and Williams have taken it for granted, and have made use of it to supply metaethical foundations for a wide variety of normative moral theories. But the Humean conception of the self also leads to seemingly insoluble problems about moral motivation, rational final ends, and moral justification. Can it be made to work?

Rationality and the Structure of the Self,
Volume II: A Kantian Conception

Adrian Piper argues that the Humean conception can be made to work only if it is placed in the context of a wider and genuinely universal conception of the self, whose origins are to be found in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. This conception comprises the basic canons of classical logic, which provide both a model of motivation and a model of rationality. They also supply necessary conditions both for the coherence and integrity of the self and also for unified agency. The Kantian conception solves certain intractable problems in decision theory by integrating it into classical predicate logic, and provides answers to longstanding controversies in metaethics concerning moral motivation, the nature of rational final ends, and moral justification that the Humean conception engenders. In addition, it sheds light on certain kinds of moral behavior – for example, the whistleblower – that the Humean conception is at a loss to explain.

Articulation and Experience: McDowell’s Revised Position

Recently, McDowell has revised his views about the conceptual content of experience. At least initially, this caused some head-scratching (see Daniel and Tim Thornton‘s posts, for example). In this post, I want to have a closer look at these revisions and the possible motivations for them. In general, I think that the substantive changes in McDowell’s position are not huge, but neither are they merely cosmetic. In particular, some of his familiar claims about Davidson-style accounts are not only clarified but buttressed. Quite how necessary such revisions were, beyond the ‘strategic’ advantage they gain McDowell in the dialectic, as well as what might be lost by making them, I won’t go into here. Instead, I’ll just stick with what I take to be the background and motivation for them.

McDowell’s initial ascriptions of propositional content to experience arose out of his determination to avoid the Myth of the Given. He takes it that a conception of experience which could rationally constrain thought yet avoid the Myth would require rational capacities to be operative in its presentation of the world to us. The rational capacities in question are the ability to deploy concepts. So, he thinks that to have a bearing on how we ought to use concepts in the formation of beliefs or judgements then experience must already possess conceptual content. McDowell sets out this requirement like so:

To avoid making it unintelligible how the deliverances of sensibility can stand in grounding relations to paradigmatic exercises of the understanding such as judgements and beliefs, we must conceive this co-operation in a quite particular way: we must insist that the understanding is already inextricably implicated in the deliverances of sensibility themselves. Experiences are impressions made by the world on our senses, products of receptivity; but those impressions themselves already have conceptual content.

This means that conceptual capacities are operative in experience but not in the same way in which they are operative in judgment or action. McDowell marks this contrast by saying that while judgements exercise conceptual capacities, experiences simply actualise them.

The crucial assumption that McDowell will later reject is that the actualisation of conceptual capacities in experience, which is required for that experience to stand within the space of reasons, means that experience must have propositionally articulated conceptual content. Thought of in this way, experience has a that-structure, such that one can hear that there is a river ahead or see that there is a mug on the desk. What is distinctive about propositional content is not just this that-structure though, but that the content which it captures is the same as the content figuring in judgements or beliefs that things are thus and so. It is this idea that McDowell will question rather than the intuitively plausible notion that we can experience that something is the case.

McDowell’s denial that experience possesses propositional content is best approached via another issue he changes his mind about, namely, whether what an experience non-inferentially entitles us to believe must feature in that experience’s conceptual content. On this view, without the concepts that feature in what we are entitled to conclude also featuring in the experience then no such non-inferential entitlement is possible. For example, for my experience to non-inferentially enable me to know it is a blueberry I am seeing then the experience would have to ‘contain’ a proposition expressible as ‘This is a blueberry.’ The thought seems to be that the concept blueberry would be at least passively drawn on in structuring the experience if seeing the object before me can count as knowing that it is a blueberry. Without such concepts (the thought would go) we would only be presented with sensibles-shapes, sounds and colours, etc.-rather than something in a form that could count as knowing an object.

Against this approach, McDowell now thinks that we can make sense of noninferential knowledge in which concepts do not have to feature in experience in this way. The difference between someone who does and does not non-inferentially know that there is a blueberry before them, despite both of them having a clear view of the object, need not lie in the content of their experience. That is, there need be no difference in what is sensuously presented. Instead, what may differ is whatever enables me to recognise that I am dealing with a blueberry, on the basis of what is given in the content of experience. McDowell thinks that we are under no compulsion to suppose that our ability to recognise blueberries (subsuming objects under the concept blueberry) requires the concept to feature in the content of experience. Thus, my non-inferential knowledge that there is a blueberry before me can owe some of its content to my experience and some to my recognitional capacities.

All this does not mean that experience can feature no concepts though. On the contrary, McDowell insists that experience does not fashion us with a sheer unconceptualised given since without conceptual capacities being operative in experience then we fall into Giveness. However, he thinks that conceptual capacities associated with proper and common sensibles might suffice. So, on this view, concepts are required to structure experience, but these need only be relatively thin and akin to Kantian categorial requirements. To be in a form in which it can exercise rational constraint, experience will have to possess the minimal structure that results from it actualising the concepts for proper sensibles like sound, such as pitch and volume, and those for common sensibles like distance and quantity.

Even if the conceptual content of experience need only be restricted to proper and common sensibles, then it still might be the case that experience is propositional in form. In this case, we would experience that things are thus and so with respect to the features of objects corresponding to the concepts of proper and common sensibles, where this experience has the same form as judgements and beliefs that things were this way. For example, we would not experience that there is blueberry here but we would still experience that there was an object some distance in front us, say. However, McDowell thinks that the best way to understand this sort of actualisation of concepts in experience is as resulting not in a propositional unity but an intuitional one.

What would be the difference between experience possessing intuitional and propositional unity? In a nutshell, intuitional content is unarticulated but articulable whereas propositional content is articulated. Thus, each implies a different relation to discursive activity. In discursive activity, we assemble content in a way analogous to forming a meaningful statement. That is, we are not merely given the content which results but must explicitly form it by drawing on other content. These rather abstract formulations demand an attempt to fill them out somewhat though.

What McDowell seems to be aiming for is this. On the one hand, experience must draw on some rational capacities to provide a sensible framework in which it can reveal the empirical world to us; thus, intuitional content is not Given independently of the rational capacities required to get a cognitive grip on it. However, in another sense, intuitional content is given, because we do not have to actively synthesise shapes, colours and sounds, etc., into experiences of the world. But this sort of glimpse of the world can be further exploited. Firstly, it can be the basis of immediate recognition that furnishes us with non-inferential knowledge. Secondly, its content can be articulated into judgements, which require actively employing concepts in coming to think about what we have experienced. For example, in favourable conditions (adequate light, good training, etc.), I will be able to look at an object and immediately know that it is a blueberry. In other cases, I might have to consult a botanical guide, or reflect on my concept of a blueberry, which will require me to explicitly articulate features of my experience of an object (e.g. its colour or shape) which can be used to form a judgement about the object.

One of the advantages of this revised position on experience is that it allows McDowell to reformulate his disagreement with Davidson. McDowell had claimed that Davidson failed to allow for the rational constraint which experience can exert over thought. If, as Davidson has claimed, “nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief,” then the only role for experience in rational constraint will be via beliefs about, or caused by, experience; and McDowell claimed that this fell short of his conditions for a minimal empiricism. By McDowell’s lights, Davidson had succeeded in seeing that conceptual capacities had to operative for something to become a reason-giving event and state, but he had failed to see how these conceptual capacities could be operative in experience itself. Defenders of Davidson disputed McDowell’s claims, insisting that nothing is missing in the Davidsonian picture. If, as McDowell previously thought, experience has a propositional structure, then the only candidate for what it could be was already present: beliefs causally triggered by the environment through which rational constraint was exercised. McDowell struggled to say what the Davidsonian picture lacked since he insisted on a distinction between experiences with propositional content and beliefs about these experiences, which he had difficulty in cashing out.

On the revised view, McDowell rejects the claim that experiences have a propositional content. This allows a reformulation of the distinction McDowell means to capture. Now, this distinction is between experiences, with intuitional content, and beliefs about these experiences, with propositional content. Since experiences no longer have the same sort of content as beliefs then it should be clearer what the distinction is meant to be. This difference in the variety of content possessed can be stated like so: Intuitional content consists in a view upon the world and can exert a rational constraint upon thought but it is not (yet) a case of taking things to be as it presents them. Beliefs about experience, which require the discursive activity of articulating this intuitional content, will be such a case of taking things to be a certain way.

An advantage of this revised view is that it gives us a richer palette in approaching experience. Firstly, it avoids a worry about Davidson’s conception of how we take up attitudes towards the world:

even when we detach belief-acquisition from explicitly judging things to be so, as we should, we exaggerate the extent of the doxastic activity experience prompts in us if we suppose we acquire all the beliefs we would be entitled to by what we have in view [in experience].

McDowell’s view seems well-placed to handle this phenomenon. This is because, on the revised model, intuitional content can rationally constrain my uptake of beliefs and judgements, but it is to be contrasted with actually coming to form beliefs and judgements or causal compulsions to do so. A Davidson-style account, on the other hand, can appear to misdescribe experience by too-readily translating experiential awareness into already-articulated beliefs about experience (at least insofar as features of this awareness can be rationally relevant to the formation of beliefs).

McDowell’s position is attractive insofar as it makes room for the idea that we can interpret experience, through engaging in such activities as attempting to discursively articulate it. This way of understanding our relation to experience seems to better capture the way in which what we experience is both receptively given-we cannot simply choose what we experience-but also open to have its significance for us transformed by the way in which we can frame it, focus on salient aspects, respond emotionally to it, and so on. For example, consider cases of seeing-as, like the duck-rabbit picture, or the difference between hearing a piece of music before and after one has learned to play it. Even if we want to say that there is no qualitative difference in the content of experiences which are so interpreted, how they bear upon the formation of propositional attitudes, and even rationally constrain them, would appear to be different: the world is revealed to us in a different light in virtue of them. The Davidsonian can appeal to the process of revising beliefs to capture this interpretative element in experience, but this would be taking place at the level of propositionally articulated items alone. Arguably, this fails to capture the phenomenology of coming to see the world in a different way. So too, failing to mark the difference between articulated and unarticulated content in this respect fails to capture what we might call the depth of experience. That is, experience presents us with a rich vista to explore, only some of which we will, or even can, come to engage with.

Another important consequence of McDowell’s revised position is its clarification of a core but neglected aspect of his thought, namely, the role it gives to freedom. Recall that for Davidson, experience causes beliefs which exert rational constraint but exerts no independent rational constraint of its own. Whereas, on McDowell’s revised view, experience can exert rational constraint-entitling and prohibiting thoughts-without being in the articulated form of beliefs with propositional content. Thus, for him, experience can be an invitation to form a belief. This means that we can be in a position to decide whether or not to form beliefs on the basis of our experience, which it is up to us whether to take as a reliable guide to reality. What beliefs I do form on the basis of my experience are at least to some extent up to me, even if some beliefs (or even the vast majority) are acquired involuntarily. This, we may think, does a better job of explaining our epistemic responsibility for our doxastic states than supposing a merely causal role for experience. The Davidsonian is still able to appeal to the process of rational reflection upon and revision of beliefs caused through experience, but arguably this is too far downstream in the process to do justice to the responsibility which ought to be in place in the process of forming them originally.

Kapital und Schwärmerei

1. David Harvey is giving a course that undertakes a close reading of the first volume of Capital, which you can watch over at davidharvey.org (via NP).

2. Here is a collection of talks given at a workshop with Brandom in 2005. Immersed in Fred Beiser’s The Fate of Reason, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism and Schiller as Philosopher as I have been over the last few weeks, I found the anaemic post-analytic approach of them somewhat grating. Nevertheless, there’s still some good stuff to be found in there.

Hegel and the Law of Non-Contradiction
Paul Redding
abstract :: sound recording (including discussion)

What are the Categories in Being and Time? Brandom’s Account of Zuhandenheit and Vorhandenheit
Bruin Christensen
abstract :: sound recording (including discussion)

Pragmatism, Expressivism and the Global Challenge
Huw Price & David Macarthur
abstract :: sound recording (including discussion) :: slides

The Significance of Embodiment – the Dangers of Leaving Nature Behind
Nick Smith
abstract :: sound recording (including discussion)

Kantian Lessons about Mind, Meaning, and Rationality
Bob Brandom
abstract :: sound recording (including comments by David Macarthur, and discussion)

A Hegelian holiday

Off to the Warwick Hegel Conference in a few minutes (also due to be in attendance: fellow bloggers N. Pepperell and Tom Bunyard!). Some of the likely highlights:

Robert Pippin – ‘Literary Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology’
Robert Stern – ‘Doubt, Fallibilism and Presuppositionlessness: Can Hegel be Read as a Pragmatist?’
Stephen Houlgate – ‘Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: The Case of Perception’
Paul Franks – ‘An Old Man at the Revels: Hegel, Truth, and History’

It should be good.

‘The Dirt Behind The Daydream’

As a leftist, it is a little disheartening in the UK at the moment. The decline of the nominally centre-left Labour party (in reality, witless cheerleaders of neo-liberalism who have presided over widening inequalities in wealth) has not been met with anything approaching a proportional rise in electoral support for parties truly on the left. Far from it, London has elected a racist Tory mayor and a BNP member on the GLA, and after splits within the Respect coalition, their successors have done badly in the local elections. David ‘Hollow Like An Easter Egg’ Cameron has a decent chance of leading the Tories to victory in the next general elections, only intensifying the idiotic attempts to crowbar market mechanisms into the public sector and pandering to the braying privet-hedge Nazis of suburbia. For some real analysis, see Lenin’s Tomb and Praxis. Once you’ve done that, come listen to this here [currently unavailable] online mixtape wot I’ve made, with a lovingly selected collection of anti-capitalist, feminist, anti-imperialist and Marxist songs in a broadly post-punk vein, as yet another reminder to keep on fighting the good fight nonetheless.

Huggy Bear – Herjazz
R.E.M. – Welcome To The Occupation
Manic Street Preachers – Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart
Help She Can’t Swim! – Are You Feeling Fashionable?
You Say Party! We Say Die! – The Gap (Between the Rich and the Poor)
Le Tigre – What’s Your Take on Cassavetes?
Bright Eyes – When the President Talks to God
PJ Harvey – Sheela-Na-Gig
Desaparecidos – Greater Omaha
Gang Of Four – Natural’s Not In It
PIL – This is not a love song
Mogwai – Punk Rock

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.

“There’s more to life than books, you know (but not much more…)”

Nicole has tagged me for this reading meme, which you’ll all have seen before:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people. (Shan’t! Can’t make me!)

Here is the quote:

For him [Fichte] the first principle of our thought in general must be itself grounded in a higher principle of spontaneity—most familiar in its derivative form as the moral law—if the unification of theoretical and practical philosophy is to be possible without the obliteration of freedom.

Reinhold insists that, in order to end the series of conditions known to philosophy, the Grundsatz cannot merely fail to have any condition or ground outside itself, for then it and philosophy as a whole would be merely arbitrary or groundless; rather the Grundsatz must be self-grounding. Although he is not always careful to distinguish them, Reinhold seems to have three different sorts of self-grounding in mind [self-explanation, self-evidence and self-determination].

Paul Franks ‘The Origins of Post-Kantianism’ in Transcendental Arguments: Problems and Prospects (ed.) R. Stern

All in all, that’s a very suitable suitable quote to represent this blog; I think I would be hard pressed to find a better passage were I to try to cherry pick one. The book is not even mine though! It is from my housemate’s collection on transcendental arguments that was lying at my feet on the floor of our living room.

A Pound of Precept: Works-in-Progress

This is just a pointer to future posts in the pipeline.

1. I’m still working on Brandom and am confronting the necessity of reading Making It Explicit from cover to cover rather than perpetually skipping around. Consequently, expect a post on some of the methodological presuppositions and explanatory structure of Brandom’s project, and a second on the reading of the Enlightenment and the disenchantment of the world outlined in the first chapter. Hopefully both of those will be up in the next week.

2. Other than Brandom, I’m still reading Bernstein’s book on Adorno, which is sustaining my initial enthusiasm on the strength of the engaging strategy it pursues in diagnosing and attempting to overcome problems in modern ethical life, but I am finding many of the details less than convincing. I might leave this one to percolate before writing on it though.

3. I’ve been thinking about the notion of form in relation to German idealism, being drawn back to the question of the Kant-Hegel relation once more. So after finishing up on Brandom, I want to write something about the role of form in Hegel’s critique of Kant, focusing on the claim that Kant is a subjective idealist rather than the claim that he ends up with an empty formalism. In doing so, I’ll comment on some of the neo-Kantian attempts to rescue Kant from this charge, saying something about why I don’t think they work. That post will be a prolegomena to another that tries to say something about the relation of the Phenomenology to the Logic, commenting in a very general way about some of Hegel’s philosophical ambitions. Hopefully, that might be of some interest to those following the posts on the Logic over at Roughtheory and Perverse Egalitarianism.

Now the tricky bit, doing it all.