The Reason of No Reason

July 9, 2013

Back on the Brandom beat briefly, with a long-promised post (if anyone besides the omniscient gods keeps track).

Brandom is a rationalist – but in what sense is he a rationalist? Well, Brandom believes that what distinguishes sapient creatures (like human beings) from “merely sentient” creatures (like, presumably, caterpillars) is that we (we sapients) participate in the space of reasons. What does it mean to participate in the space of reasons? Well, Brandom explains his views on that matter in enormous detail, but they more or less boils down to: participating in the social practice of asking for and giving reasons.

As any regular readers of my blog will know, I disagree with Brandom about the centrality of specifically linguistic practice to the account of sapience his work offers. I think that non-linguistic communicative practices are more than capable of being understood as social practices of asking for and giving reasons: enormously complicated communication is possible at a non- or pre-verbal level, and I see no reason to restrict sapience to those creatures whose communicative acts happen to make use, in part, of the particularly idionsyncratic skill of language. Nothing of central importance in this post hinges on that disagreement, but I want to keep it somewhere in mind.

So – we are sapient if we can ask for and give reasons for our beliefs and actions. So far so good. But what are reasons? Well – reasons are anything that can be offered in the game of asking for and giving reasons; less tautologously, they are anything that can be used as a premise in an inferential chain. Roughly speaking, in any sentence, proposition, thought or bodily intuition of the structure “If X then Y”, X is a reason. Reasons are, as it were, an entirely formal category.

The point I want to make, in this post, is that we must take great care not to confuse reasons with good reasons. Anything at all that can occupy this communicative role is a reason – whether or not we regard it as having any persuasive or normative force at all, is neither here nor there. It suffices that it could, conceivably, be taken as potentially having such force.

Put otherwise – bad reasons are reasons too. The rationalism that Brandom advocates is, therefore, an extremely slimline rationalism. It is not a rationalism that dictates that anyone, anywhere, actually be reasonable. (Though of course if Brandom’s arguments for all this are good ones, one can presume that at least some philosophers and readers of philosophy have their wits about them, at pain of performative contradiction.)

Furthermore, even the overt statement that there is no reason for something is itself the offering of a reason. If I ask “why is there something rather than nothing?” and you reply “that is just how things are”; or if I ask “why must we continue suffering?” and you reply “because I say so”, these may not be good reasons, but they are reasons. “Because I say so”, “just coz”, “no reason”, “if you disagree I’ll hurt you” – these are all reasons. If we refuse to treat them as adequate reasons, this is because we are ourselves participating in the challenge/response game of asking for and giving reasons – not because there is anything un-reason-like about the statements themselves, ‘as such’.

By the same token, if “I’ll hurt you if you do” is a reason (which it unambiguously is, on Brandom’s account), so – by my lights – is the actual act of violence that this linguistic act threatens. Violence is communicative; if I ask “why can’t I?” and you draw back your fist – this is the offering of a reason (it is the same propositional content expressed by “I’ll hurt you if you do”). By the same token, if I ask “why can’t I?” and you simply punch me to the ground – this is also communicative – it clarifies the consequences of the action I was proposing, and in so doing offers a reason against this action.

I don’t regard this as a weakness of Brandom’s theory. Brandom is not committing us to the absolute dominance of force, by advocating for this vision. We do not have to accept the legitimacy of these reasons – we do not have to take them as good reasons. Indeed they are bad reasons – the worst. But if our acts of violence communicate in this way, we are still inhabiting the space of reasons; there is nothing formally irrational or irrationalist here, no matter how substantively irrational we may take these reasons to be.

I believe all this is a consequence of Brandom’s theoretical framework – but Brandom himself does not agree. These remarks take me back to my very first, uncomprehending post on Brandom, from – my goodness – July 2010. There I was puzzled by the discussion, in Making It Explicit‘s first chapter, of “beating people with sticks”, as an examplification of the kind of ‘naturalistic’ explanation that Brandom opposes. I now, I’m sure, have a much more nuanced sense of what Brandom means by ‘naturalism’ and ‘anti-naturalism’ (see this post) – but I remain perturbed by these passages. Indeed, more than perturbed. I’m now convinced that Brandom gets this wrong – something has gone wrong in Brandom’s comprehension of his own theory, in these early passages of Making It Explicit. More ‘diagnostically’, I think – Brandom’s commitment to rationalism, in a substantive sense, has led him to confuse that substantive sense with the much more formal definition of rationalism that his work elsewhere articulates and defends.

To be both ‘diagnostic’ and a little simplistic: Brandom wants reason, not force, to be the driver of human affairs. Brandom wants to rescue reason from the clutches of force. He wants to liberate a form of rationalism from the naturalistic, materialist, pragmatist, social-theoretic tradition whose insights he nevertheless does not wish to abandon. He succeeds in doing this, I am sure. But in these pages of Making It Explicit, Brandom’s desire is visible, in that his claims overreach the degree of ‘autonomy’ he can in fact grant reason. Brandom shows us some of the ways in which ‘the force of the better reason’ can emerge from the ugly, violent, contingent, banal, unredeemed world of everyday social practice. But Brandom cannot, as he here wishes, fully differentiate the administering of beatings from that social structure of reason. What differentiation we find here must take place ‘downstream’, in our own enacted and contingent politics. The rejection of force as warrant cannot be ‘baked in’ to our philosophy. We have to draw and reproduce this difference in practice.

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