Ok.  Over the last three weeks I’ve written a fairly long series of posts outlining a broadly Brandomian neo-pragmatist social theory.  What I ought to do now is write a conclusion to the series, and then a summary post that brings it all together.  And I may well circle back round and do those things at a later date.  But I’m pretty tired of writing this series, and at this point I’ve gotten out (almost) all the substantive points I wanted to make, in some form or another.  I recognise that a lot of these posts are fairly poorly articulated, that some make mistakes even by my lights, that many are extremely telegraphic and would greatly benefit from a more careful expansion, and moreover that there are some important things I’d intended to cover but never got round to.  Nevertheless, from my point of view, ‘affectively’, I’m sort of done, at least for now.  What I’m going to do, then, is take a break from blogging on these themes.

I will, however, use this post as a sort of retrospective table of contents for this series.  Here are the posts in the series to date in chronological order, for what it’s worth.  If I do eventually write ‘summing up’ posts, as I hope to, I’ll add them to the list of links below.

Private rule-following and sociality

Normative delegation in Brandom, Hegel and Freud

Independence and dialectics

Brandom, Hegel, Derrida, the strong programme

Types of foundationalism and anti-foundationalism

Transcendental and empirical dialectics

‘Psychodialectics’: some throat clearing

Psychoanalytic categories

Three psychoanalytic arguments

The faculty of sympathy

Two anti-pragmatist arguments

Brandom as philosopher and social theorist

Norms produced by and within a complex social system

Rousseau, Mises, Hayek, dialectics

Conflictual spontaneous order

Buchanan, Hayek, and the evaluation of emergent norms

The algebra of normativity

The psychodynamics of recognition

Psychoanalytic and Brandomian categories

The divided self within a recognitive community

Influence – N. Pepperell

Norms grounded in non-intersubjective practices


Ok.  In this post I want to add the final big subcomponent of the social-theoretic apparatus I’ve been assembling here – with emphasis, as articulated in my last post, on the even-greater-than-usual degree of influence of N. Pepperell’s ideas here.  I’m again going to try to quickly cover quite a lot of ground here, so this will be very telegraphic, but so it goes.

Return again to the model of the ‘algebra of normativity’ that Brandom proposes in chapter 9 of ‘A Spirit of Trust’.  This is a model of recognition – different categories of recognition and relations of recognition.  These relations of recognition take place between individuals – but they may also take place between communities and subcommunities.  An individual may treat a community as a whole as possessing a certain kind of authority – and that authority may reside in a judgement that cannot be identified with the judgement of any particular community member, but rather with the ‘aggregate’ or emergent judgement of the community as a whole.  Likewise – in a more psychoanalytic idiom – individuals may cathect other individuals, but they also may cathect groups of individuals, or features of groups of individuals, with of course the usual potential difference between the individual’s perception of the object cathected and the object itself.  It is easy to think about nationalism in these terms, for example, or other kinds of ‘group loyalty’.

All of these categories of social relation are intersubjective – In Brandomian idiom, they can be fully analysed in terms of normative attitudes taken towards other attitudes.  Indeed, the basic Brandomian model of recognition that we’re working with here doesn’t really consider another category of social relation.

In this post, though, I want – following N. Pepperell – to highlight another kind of social relation – non-intersubjective sociality.  There are two new categories that need to be introduced to do this – and here I’m just going to quote directly from Pepperell’s ‘Disassembling Capital’.  In a discussion of the specific ways in which Marx’s Capital links subjectivity and objectivity, N. writes that Capital’s discussions of countless everyday social practices aim to highlight the way in which :

the reader is being invited to explore a specific performative stance that is more normally experienced – often in a quite fleeting and ephemeral way – when engaging in some specific, generally quite mundane, practical task… when you do this practice, you enact those forms of subjective experience, and you also have these sorts of impacts on other people and on nonhuman nature. Within this framework, subjectivity and objectivity are intrinsically related, not because they share an overarching “structure”, or because objective social position generates particular subjective states, but simply because people adopt specific performative stances as part of the process through which they also carry out actions that have determinate sorts of impacts on the wider world. (27)

The point here, I take it – or one point – is that many kinds of social practice intrinsically or typically involve specific kinds of subjectivity, and that the many kinds of social practices we engage in therefore foster specific ‘repertoires’ of subjectivity.  These repertoires can then be drawn on in contexts different from the original practice that inculcated the form of subjectivity.  In ‘Between Saying and Doing’ Brandom discusses something in this latter broad space using the term ‘pragmatic projection’.  In Brandom’s words (discussing Wittgenstein):

Many of his thought-experiments concern this sort of process of pragmatic projection of one practice into another. We are asked to imagine a community that uses proper names only for people, but then extends the practice to include rivers. There is no guarantee that interlocutors can master the extended practice, building on what they can already do. But if they can, then they will have changed the only essence proper-name usage could be taken to have had. In the old practice it always made sense to ask for the identity of the mother and father of the named item; in the new practice, that question is often senseless…  At every stage, what practical extensions of a given practice are possible for the practitioners can turn on features of their embodiment, lives, environment, and history that are contingent and wholly particular to them. And which of those developments actually took place, and in what order, can turn on any obscure fact.

Pepperell’s argument, I take it, is analogous to this point, but it is not limited to linguistic practice.  Pepperell is arguing that everyday non-linguistic practice can and does inculcate forms of subjectivity that can then be applied more broadly, and this provides a source of normative subjectivity that is not grounded in intersubjective normative attitudes, or any intersubjective ‘faculty of sympathy’.

So that’s the first point – normative attitudes can have their source not in other normative attitudes, but in the kinds of subjectivity associated with non-linguistic practice, and the ‘pragmatic projection’ of such practice.

The second point is that there are forms of large-scale sociality that cannot usefully be understood as ‘intersubjective’.  These are, basically, emergent phenomena – and of course political economy is very preoccupied with emergent phenomena.  But the paradigmatic emergent phenomenon that political economy or economics is concerned with is ‘market catallaxy’ – and market catallaxy is in turn typically understood as an information transmission mechanism.  It is therefore easy to think about market outcomes as analogous to a subjective decision process.  But understanding even market dynamics in this way can easily miss key features of the market process, and moreover there are important emergent phenomena that cannot be usefully understood in this way at all.  In short, there are large-scale social phenomena that are non-intersubjective, because they are emergent phenomena that emerge out of diverse social practices that may even themselves not be intersubjective in nature.

These non-intersubjective forms of sociality can however have subjective effects – because their outcomes are part of social experience.  Just as it is possible to ‘cathect’ large-scale communities, so it is possible to ‘cathect’ emergent phenomena, even those that are themselves non-intersubjective.

All of this means that there are two ways here in which social practice can generate forms of subjectivity without the mediation of intersubjective relations like those modelled in Brandom’s ‘algebra of normativity’.  First, there is the pragmatic projection of forms of subjectivity produced by social practices, where those forms of subjectivity are not themselves an intersubjective dimension of the practice.  Second, there is the impact on the internal psychic economy of large-scale emergent phenomena that are themselves non-intersubjective forms of sociality.

All of this is probably quite poorly-phrased and opaque – I highly recommend reading N.’s work for a much more developed and thought-through articulation of these points.  For now, though, I just wanted to register that our social-theoretic analysis of the production of normativity from complex systems cannot focus exclusively on the intersubjective dimensions of those complex systems, if it is to be adequate to the true complexity of the ways our norms are generated.

Influence – N. Pepperell

September 20, 2022

A quick intermission to talk about influence.  Obviously the chain of thought I’m following here has two big overt influences – on the one hand, Brandom (and Brandom-Hegel), and on the other hand psychoanalysis (particularly Freud).  But I want to register explicitly the third big influence here: the thought of Nicole Pepperell.  Unlike the other influences I cite on the blog, I talk with N. all the time in real life, and we co-author ‘official’ academic publications.  And there’s simply absolutely no way that the ideas I’m articulating here would be in my head in anything even close to their current form without the major influence of N.’s ideas.

N.’s most important text is ‘Disassembling Capital’ – available online here [PDF] (though see also journal publications like, for example, this piece on Norbert Elias).  I think something in the very broad space of the social theory I’m articulating here is part of the argument of ‘Disassembling Capital’.  Nevertheless, in writing up my own thoughts casually on the blog, I’m conscious of two issues.  One is that in at least some cases the ideas I’m articulating here are sufficiently centrally influenced by N. as to come uncomfortably close to just a flat re-presentation of N.’s thought – without an explicit tethering to a well-known text or corpus as in my discussions of Brandom or Freud.  Simultaneously, though, I’m conscious that N.’s ideas are very significantly more subtle than the thoughts I put up here, and the blog’s content should absolutely not be taken as a useful summary of or substitute for them.  I don’t have a great way of resolving that tension, but I wanted to note it.

I also wanted to note it at this point in the argument, because in my view this is all especially true of the ideas I’ll be articulating in the next post.  I’ve been wrestling with the ideas of both psychoanalysis and neopragmatism since my early twenties at least, but the themes I’m going to talk about in my next post, I believe, come very directly from N.  In any case, the purpose of this post is just to gratefully and a bit self-consciously mark this very profound influence.  Now on with the argument.

I’ve finally gotten to the point in this series of posts where most of the social-theoretic apparatus I’m trying to articulate is up and running.  There are, however, two key elements that I still want to introduce.  I’m going to try to be very quick and direct about this – no point beating around the bush.

The next thing I want to do, then, is reintroduce the idea of the divided self.  I’ve already talked at length earlier in this series of posts about the divided self.  But notice that the basic Brandomian ‘algebra of normativity’ that I introduced a few posts back does not include a divided self.  In that model, there is a set of social actors of size n, linked in a directed graph of relationships of attribution of authority.  Each node in this graph is its own individual, undivided social actor – in this sense the model is a methodologically individualist one.

This isn’t right though.  As I have already argued, it is critical to the ‘dialectical’ apparatus we’re working through here that every individual self be divided – every self not only can but must contain multiple incompatible commitments, because this is a condition of possibility of ‘experience’ in the Hegelian sense, and thus of normativity at all.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that our model has to include this feature – the point of models is to simplify.  But, I’m going to argue, it is crucial in at least some contexts that the self within this model be divided if we are to meet the ‘anti-pragmatist challenge’ I’ve discussed in earlier posts.

What happens, then, when we introduce the divided self to this basic recognitive model?

The first thing that happens is that social actors can be more selective about how they attribute authority.  We can regard every social actor as having different dimensions of self, and any given social actor can choose to attribute authority to only some of those dimensions.  Thus, for example, I might regard one of my friends as a highly reliable authority on topic A, but as having catastrophically bad judgement on topic B.  I am therefore willing to attribute authority to my friend on topic A but not on topic B – I take my friend to have authority on some issues or in some contexts but not in others.  We all do this – this is clearly a core feature of social life.

This is relatively trivial when we think about topics or domains that are clearly different – my friend provides good advice on professional matters but terrible advice on romantic matters, or vice versa, for example.  But we can do more fine-grained subdivisions of self.  We may take it, for example, that a person has inconsistent commitments on the same issue, for example.  We rely on what we see as their ‘best judgement’ but ignore their occasional terrible lapses of judgement.  Again – this is very familiar and we all do this.  Once we are in this territory, though, I think we are entering a space adjacent to Wittgensteinian rule-following paradoxes.  If I can pick and choose which of my friend’s judgements I take to be authoritative in a sufficiently fine-grained way, what is to prevent me from simply picking and choosing exactly the judgements that agree with mine?

One of the claims I want to make is that this kind of psychological dynamic is in fact extremely common.  We make ourselves vulnerable to the normative authority of others, but we also assess which judgements should be granted normative authority by assessing whether or not the judgements are correct – i.e. whether or not we agree with them.  Moreover, to some extent this dynamic is not only unavoidable but is rational.  If we think that something is clearly wrong, why should we defer to the authority of somebody who believes the clearly wrong thing?  And yet, at the same time, clearly we can’t apply this principle of only deferring to judgements that agree with our own 100% of the time, or we are not deferring to any authority at all – ‘what seems right to me is right’.

There is a rationalist problem here, concerning (for want of a better phrase) the credence dimension of opinion dynamics.  (I probably ought to unpack that last sentence, but as I say I’m trying to move quickly here!)  But there is also an (as it were) emotional problem.  I’m claiming that the emotional or affective element of this dynamic is a central preoccupation of psychoanalysis, and can be illuminated using psychoanalytic tools.  We esteem somebody because we take them to merit esteem, in terms of our own values.  That esteem can then ‘reflect back’ on our own values and transform them: if the person we esteem so highly does not hold us in esteem, maybe we need to transform ourselves to merit their esteem!  But at a certain ‘tipping point’ a strong enough divergence between normative attitudes may lead us not to aim to transform ourselves, but rather to ‘decathect’ the person we esteem.  And such de-cathection carries its own reactive psychological dynamics.  All of this is the proper domain of psychoanalytic analysis, and could be unpacked at much greater length using those resources.  In my view one of the claims, if we were to do so, would be that psychological dynamics of cathexis are, as it were, intrinsically ‘sticky’, and that the inertia of cathexis – the psychological cost of transferring cathexis – is one of the core mechanisms by which the ‘pick and choose’ problem of rule-following paradoxes is avoided as a matter of psychological fact.  (And one could also argue that this is why Hegel’s critique of Stoicism has both an epistemological-normative and a libidinal-economy-of-desire dimension.  But this is all very telegraphic.)

In any case, this is one way in which the divided self complicates our basic model.  But there are other ways.

The second critical way in which the divided self complicates our model is through misperception of others’ normative attitudes.  In an earlier post I stipulated that we all possess something that can be reasonably shorthanded as a ‘faculty of sympathy’ – that is to say, we sympathetically perceive others’ internality.  This ‘faculty’ is part of what allows us to assess our own normative actions against the normative judgements of others – I can assess what somebody else thinks or feels about my actions in part because I can perceive their own internality.

And yet this ‘sympathy’ is a category of perception more or less like any other, and for this reason can be in error just like ‘regular’ perception.  Just as my perception of the stick being bent can retroactively be reclassified as a misperception of the stick being straight, so my sympathetic perception of others’ normative attitudes can turn out to be mistaken.  Again, this problem is rich in psychodynamic possibilities.  Maybe I just misperceive others’ normative attitudes – but maybe my misperception of others’ normative attitudes is itself driven by my own attitudes and desires.  I ‘project’ onto others attitudes that I believe they are likely to have towards me due to my own internal psychic economy – and such projections can be a way the internal psychic economy manages its own tensions.  

At the same time, when I recognise that a misperceived normative attitude is not really the normative attitude in question, that normative attitude is reclassified (like the perception of the bent stick) within my own psychic economy.  It is now no longer a normative attitude that I take to exist ‘out there’, but a normative attitude that exists ‘within me’.  And this explicit ‘internalisation’ of normative attitudes can moreover be carried out for attitudes that we take not to be misperceptions, and indeed that we take not to be ‘mere’ attitudes, but also expressive of normative statuses themselves.

This, then, leads us to the third critical way in which the divided self complicates our model: via the introduction of the category of introjection, or internalisation.  It is, as I’ve said already, a very long time since I worked through the major psychoanalytic texts, so my sense of these categories is definitely going to be rusty.  But the basic idea here, I take it, is that elements of self are formed by incorporating into the self elements of another.  The ‘archetypal’ example of this is the formation of the superego.  I think Freud’s account here is a bit more complicated than the (so to speak) popular image of the category, but even so the basic idea is clearly that a dimension of self is formed that serves the role of ‘external critic’ within the internal psychic economy.  Paradigmatically, in Freudian psychoanalysis, the superego derives from the introjection of parental judgement – a parental ‘voice’ is internalised as the voice of morality, and then persists as an internal ‘ethical watchdog’ assessing other elements of the psyche even if the absence of the parent themselves.  But clearly there is nothing special about parents that should make them fulfil this function.  This dynamic can happen with any normative judgement at all.

Once an ‘external voice’ of judgement has been internalised or introjected in this way, moreover, the internal psychic economy can in principle provide its own ‘external assessment’.  True, a single unitary superego cannot obviously assess itself – though a divided superego may be able to, and there is no reason to assume that subcomponents of our psychic economy are themselves unitary or homogeneous.  But a superego constituted by and with reference to some external practice may be the ‘bearer’ of the judgements of that practice even without ongoing immediate reference to the practice.  This kind of internal division of self – in which the self assesses itself, as its own (at least local) ‘external standard’ – is, I’m claiming, not only possible but a precondition of the existence of a self at all.  The Freudian or psychoanalytic apparatus provides one credible effort to attempt to map in detail the internal structure of such a divided self. I think something in this space has to be a non-negotiable element of an adequate pragmatist account of normativity, of the type I’m attempting to outline here.

So, I’ve introduced three different ways in which the ‘divided self’ complicates our model of recognitive community relations.  These elements of divided self, I claim, are going to be load-bearing when we return to the ‘anti-pragmatist challenge’ articulated by (for example) Conant.  But first there is one final piece of the social-theoretic jigsaw that I want to put into place.  I’ll turn to that in my next post.

In the last several posts I have proposed a slightly interpretatively nested analysis.  In the last but one post I discussed Brandom’s formal analytic gloss of Hegel’s account of reciprocal recognition.  Then in the last post I proposed a psychoanalytic gloss of Brandom’s formal gloss of Hegel.  It may seem that Brandom’s gloss of Hegel is already an interpretive stretch, and that running this gloss in turn through a psychoanalytic prism risks leaving orbit altogether.  But I don’t think this is right – and there are several things to say to this objection, methodologically.  

First is simply that what we’re after here is illuminating and insightful social theory, and it doesn’t really matter where that comes from, or how rococo an interpretive path we have to take to get there.  Second is to point to Brandom’s own methodological notes on his interpretation of these elements of Hegel (see in particular pages 307-312 of ‘A Spirit of Trust’), and to simply extend those remarks to my interpretation of Brandom.  I think these two responses are more than adequate.  But a possible third response would be that in glossing Brandom’s formal apparatus in this way, we are in fact bringing it back close to the ‘psychodialectical’ phenomena and behaviours that Hegel was originally interested in.  After all, Hegel himself seems to be preoccupied, in this section of his argument, by ‘desire’ – and although Brandom discusses this element of the ‘Phenomenology’, it’s clear that Brandom’s core interests lie with philosophical semantics, and the psychological dynamics of desiring subjects are sort of a secondary concern for him. And one can further claim that Hegel’s focus on ‘desire’ (relative to Brandom’s focus on semantics) expresses an insight – that Hegel is onto something in these ‘psychological’ dimensions of his argument. So in bringing Brandom’s apparatus into contact with psychoanalysis, maybe we are using newer analytic tools to get at the same kinds of insights that Hegel was originally expressing.

I think, then, that Brandom’s formal apparatus and the psychoanalytic framework can be brought into mutually illuminating contact, in at least the following three ways:

First, Brandom’s apparatus brings a (to my mind) very welcome clarity to discussion of these kinds of social-psychological phenomena.  Of course, reality is overwhelmingly complex and cannot be reduced to the dry bones of any formal apparatus.  At the same time, though, I can’t be the only person who has run low on patience with the frequently opaque and extremely conceptually mobile – not to say, at times, frankly incoherent – categories of a lot of ‘profound’ ‘non-reductive’ continental-philosophy-inflected social theory.  Yes, simplistic formal categories are simplistic – but insight is not aided by hand-waving obscurity either, so let’s get down to brass tacks here.

Second, I think one of the big problems with most of the psychoanalytic tradition is its overwhelming focus on the family unit, and on very immediate and direct forms of cathexis like sexual attraction.  These are obviously both very important, but this focus means that huge swathes of social life can often fall outside the psychoanalytic field of vision.  The self is constituted not just by its relations to parental figures and romantic partners, but by its relation to the entire social world.  Brandom’s formal apparatus, I’m suggesting, may help us widen the psychoanalytic field of vision to broader other forms of social relation.

At the same time, psychoanalytic categories can I think ‘flesh out’ the Brandomian normative pragmatics apparatus in a way that gives it a lot more obvious contact with everyday experience.  I have some training and interest in analytic philosophy, and even I find Brandom’s focus on semantics pretty dry.  Yes, it’s true, when we make use of a concept, the content of that concept is implicitly determined by the judgements of appropriate use made by the network of social actors we recognise as entitled to make those judgements.  This is a profound and illuminating insight.  But the claim of the Brandomian apparatus is that this same core structural insight applies to all normative actions and judgements in general.  This same structural point can therefore also be expressed, not just in terms of judgements concerning semantic content, but in terms of more ‘emotionally resonant’ forms of judgement and action.  This exact same structural story applies to love and desire, prestige and pride, community belonging, moral horror and admiration, etc. etc.  Psychoanalysis – I’m claiming – is discussing this same structural story, but it is doing so in reference to the kind of categories that (for most of us) occupy the centre stage of our everyday mental and emotional lives.  I think that retelling the basic Brandomian story in terms of these more ‘everyday’ and emotionally resonant categories makes clearer its relevance to the things that move and motivate us.

So that’s what I hope to do with this analytic framework on the blog going forward.  Before I can do that, though, there are still some elements of this broad social-theoretic approach that I need to elaborate.  Specifically, in the next post in this series I want to focus again on the concept of the divided self, and on the relevance of this concept for our understanding of recognitive community structures.

As I have been repeating throughout this series of posts, Brandom-Hegel’s account of normativity requires that every normative action be assessable by something outside itself.  Absent such an external standard of assessment, in Wittgenstein’s words: 

I have no criterion of correctness. 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’. (PI 258)

This is the core insight that has led us into and through the (Brandomian reconstruction of the) Hegelian ‘dialectic’.  In a sense, Hegel’s master idea is to simply keep applying this insight to every philosophical category, thereby opening each category onto its “constitutive” external standard of assessment – an endlessly repeatable kind of transcendental argument.

But we can distinguish two key central cases of this move.  First, there is the case of perception.  Brandom-Hegel proposes a dynamic understanding of perceptual experience which sees any given perceptual content as in part constituted by its relation to other perceptual contents.  (I’m being amazingly telegraphic here because this isn’t the point of this post, but you get the idea.)  Part of this dynamic account is the idea that when two perceptual contents are in tension, we have an obligation to resolve this tension.  (This obligation, Brandom-Hegel argues, just is the Kantian ‘synthetic unity of apperception’ that constitutes the self as self.)  Thus, for example, when we remove the apparently-bent stick from water and conclude from our new perceptions that the stick is really straight, this reconfigures the relation between, and therefore the normative statuses of, different elements of our internal ‘perceptual economy’.  Our original perception of the stick-as-bent is still part of our internal perceptual economy, but we withdraw our endorsement of it, and this withdrawal of endorsement changes the original perceptual content’s location and role within our overall web of commitments.

The second key case is interpersonally social.  Brandom-Hegel argues that normativity is intrinsically social, and therefore understanding even the kind of normative content involved in perceptual experience ultimately requires backing up to the complex system of our society as a whole.  Just as we evaluate different perceptions against each other, so we evaluate different social actors’ normative judgements against each other.  We therefore need a model of the social relations we’re talking about – and in the last post I outlined Brandom’s basic model, his “algebra of normativity”.  The key claim here is that whenever we engage in normative action, we are implicitly attributing to some other social actors the right or authority to assess that normative action.  We can therefore in principle ‘map’ the relations of authority-attribution within any given community.

So here’s the model.  For any given normative action I am engaging in, I can decide who I take to have the authority to assess that action.  (Like so much else in this series of posts I’m going to complicate this later, but roll with it for now!)  But having decided which social actors have the authority to assess my action, I cannot then control what those social actors actually conclude – what assessment they come out with.  I am therefore frequently presented with a tension among the social judgements that I have chosen to treat as authoritative.  I engaged in an action thinking that it was good, but the social actor whose authority I have chosen to recognise on this matter believes that my action was, in fact, bad.  This creates a social-normative tension (precisely analogous to the tension between my perceptions of the stick-as-straight and stick-as-bent), and that normative tension requires resolution.

Now here’s the point: there are two ways to resolve this tension.  One option is that I accept the other social actor’s judgement, and conclude that my action was, in fact, bad.  The other option is that I conclude that I was wrong to grant them that authority in the first place – I can withdraw my judgement that their judgement is authoritative.  (In the analogy with perception, this is the option of withdrawing endorsement from one or the other piece of perceptual content.)

This is where I want to bring in psychoanalysis again.  My claim is that this fundamental dilemma – constitutive of normativity in general – is very insightfully thematised by psychoanalysis.  We are creatures who – intrinsic to our sociality – value approval or approbation.  We care about others, we sympathetically identify with others, and part of what we sympathetically identify with is those others’ perceptions of us.  We seek out others in part to see ourselves through their eyes, and our desire is that we see ourselves through their eyes positively.  Our own internality is in this way constituted by our sense of others’ sense of us.  This is a very deep sense in which the self is social.

And because of the way our sociality functions, the kind of tension I’m talking about here is painful.  We like it when others like us; we dislike it when they dislike us – and the more we have chosen to value their opinion – or affect – the more positive their positive affect towards us feels, and the more negative their negative affect feels.  We do not want to be isolated – but we also do not want to be thought of poorly by those whose own internality we have chosen to value.

So, if someone whose judgements we value judges us negatively, we have two options, both painful.  We can accept the judgement, and attempt to transform ourselves in a such a way as to no longer merit negative judgement.  Or we can remove their power to wound us in this way, by withdrawing our high opinion of their judgements.  But this latter option is also painful, because (the psychoanalytic claim is) withdrawing ‘investment’ from a person we have ‘cathected’ in this way is intrinsically painful – and this is in part because we have chosen to make this person’s affect, judgements, and actions part of our own internality – in severing that affective connection we are also wounding ourselves.

So, the claim is that by navigating our social worlds in this way, we are also navigating a difficult affective space: we are attempting to manage our own psychic economies, which are intrinsically in part ‘distributed’ across the psychic economies of those whose internalities and actions we have chosen to value. Whenever such tension arises in the ‘distributed self’ constituted by such social relations, it causes us pain.  The psychoanalytic claim, moreover, is that many psychological ‘symptoms’ are the result of mechanisms the psyche adopts to try to manage such pain – to try to address such tensions or contradictions within the socially-constituted normative self.

I’ll write more about these themes in my next post.

The algebra of normativity

September 18, 2022

Here is a diagram from ‘A Spirit of Trust’ – figure 9.6, from page 297.  This is an illustrative example of the basic model I’m going to be working with on the blog for the next however long.  My goal is to start very simply and then slowly get a bit more complex.  I’m going to completely ignore many load-bearing elements of Brandom’s text for now – for example, Brandom’s remarks on the transitivity of recognition don’t exist as far as this blog is concerned at this point in the argument.  I’m also going to try to mainly pitch this at a “messy retail business” social-theoretic level, rather than at a “foundations of normativity as such” metatheoretical level, in the first instance.

With that said, what are we looking at here?  I began this train of thought, recall, with Wittgenstein’s remarks about the purported impossibility of a private language.  I made some arguments against elements of Wittgenstein’s position, but with those caveats aside I used the ‘private language’ argument as the basis for a broader argument about the intrinsic sociality of normativity.  The idea, stated in broad terms, is that normative actions cannot be ‘self-validating’: for an action to be normative there needs to be the possibility of some ‘external’ judgement as to whether or not the action really does follow the norm.  That judgement, paradigmatically, comes from another individual within a community.  (I’m going to qualify and complicate this claim later on, but this is our analytic starting point – the base model.)  So the claim is: when we engage in normative action, in doing so we are always and necessarily granting some other social actor the ability to evaluate that normative action.

If we accept this idea, then understanding normativity means understanding the social network within which normative actors are embedded (and which of course their actions themselves constitute).  The claim is that social actors can choose to ‘recognise’ another social actor as being a legitimate judge of their normative actions – and which social actors are so recognised is a substantive choice.  So if I engage in some action, implicit in my action is that I regard a specific individual or community as having the right to assess that action.  If I speak a language, for example, I am treating other speakers of the language as having the right to legitimately assess my usage.  (Every time I make a claim like this I need to caveat it in ways that can only be fully expressed once the apparatus has been made more complicated!  But I’m just going to ignore that for now.)  When I start speaking a different language, I am treating a different community as having that right of assessment.  The two communities may overlap, but when I shift between languages I am also shifting between recognitive communities – that is, I am regarding different individuals as being part of the network of legitimate assessment of my actions.  And the claim is that this applies to everything – to every normative action.  

Now, Brandom (or Brandom-Hegel) thinks that the ideal kind of recognitive relation is reciprocal.  That is to say – I recognise you as having the right to evaluate my actions, and you recognise me as having the right to evaluate your actions.  When you’re talking about just two people, that’s a ‘reciprocal recognitive dyad’ – but of course this kind of reciprocal recognitive relation can be extended to a community of arbitrarily large size, in which every community member regards every other community member as having the right to evaluate them normatively, and vice versa.  In the diagram above, the set [T1, T2] is an example of a two-person reciprocal recognition relation.  The set [X1, X2, X3, X4] is an example of a four-person reciprocal recognitive community.  And, again, you can have a reciprocal recognitive community of arbitrarily large size.

But relations of recognition don’t have to be reciprocal.  There is also the scenario in which a social actor (A) recognises another social actor (B) but is not reciprocally recognised by that social actor in turn.  This scenario in turn generates three different categories of non-reciprocally recognised social actors connected to any given community.  In Brandom’s vocabulary (I’m here closely paraphrasing from page 296 of ‘A Spirit of Trust’), these are:

  • Linking members, who both recognise and are recognised by other social actors, but  where no individual other social actor both recognises and is recognised by them. In the diagram above, V1 is an example of this;
  • Invited members, who are recognised by at least one member of the community but do not recognise any member of the community.  In the diagram above, U3 is an example of this.
  • Petitioning members, who recognise at least one member of the community, but are not recognised by any member of the community.  In the diagram above, W3 is an example of this.

Once you have these basic categories, it is possible to construct arbitrarily large maps of communities of arbitrary complexity.  As Brandom puts it:

The list of simple relative recognitive membership statuses… gives rise recursively to an indefinite number of complex relative recognitive membership statuses and relations between recognitive communities and subcommunities: for instance, the relations among all the recognitive dyada and core communities and their satellite fringe members. (298)


Together these methods of constructing complexes out of simples… are what could be called an “algebra of normativity”. (298)

Now, I want to very quickly make a few parenthetical notes before discussing this point further.  

First, Brandom-Hegel thinks that non-reciprocal relations of recognition are “metaphysically defective” – this is a key load-bearing element of Hegel’s ultimate argument that we can overcome ‘alienation’ by transforming our social relations.  I’m going to programmatically completely bracket that element of Hegel-Brandom’s argument – I’ll come back to it one day, but perhaps not for quite a while.  I’m going to simply treat these kinds of relations ‘empirically’, not in the sense that I’m actually doing any empirical work (ha ha), but in the sense that I’m treating it as simply a matter of fact for any given set of social actors whether and which recognitive relations are reciprocal.  At this point in the argument, I make no judgement about whether and which relations should be reciprocal.

Second, as I’ve already heavily foreshadowed, I think things are, in fact, quite a lot more complicated than this (as, I’m sure, do Brandom and Hegel), and there are a range of ways in which I think this basic model needs to be supplemented before it can do a lot of the social-theoretic and philosophical work I want it to.

Nevertheless, this is the basic model.  This ‘algebra of normativity’ is the social-theoretic starting point for a lot of what is going to follow on the blog.  I think this basic model, simple as it is, is a very major contribution for thinking clearly about normativity, and moreover I think it connects to a number of other existing research programmes in ways that are potentially very fruitful.  I’m here going to mention two such connections.

First of all, as I will start to explore soon, I think this model can be used to ‘formalise’ a lot of the quite obscure, and frankly sometimes obscurantist, talk in the psychoanalytic tradition about ‘specularity’.  In future posts I’m going to try to connect this model to the psychoanalytic idiom in a way that will (I believe and hope) be illuminating of both.

Second, and perhaps more obviously, this model connects very directly to the large and rapidly growing tradition in formal social epistemology that makes use of opinion dynamics modelling to understand social dynamics.  The diagram with which this post began is, self-evidently, a directed graph (in the graph-theoretic sense of ‘graph’ meaning ‘network’).  There is a ton of relatively recent work that looks at the implications of different graph structures for social dynamics.  I’m proposing that this ‘algebra of normativity’ model, as a way of formalising Hegel’s discussions of reciprocal social recognition, very directly connects the Hegelian apparatus to cutting-edge work in mathematised social theory and philosophy.  Here, talking about ‘the algebra of normativity’ isn’t just a metaphor, because the behaviour of social actors within this kind of directed graph can literally be modelled using linear algebra.  Further elaborating these connections would, I believe, be a very productive research programme.

So this is where we’re at.  Having finally gotten to this point in my account of Brandom’s account of Hegel, I think I’m finally in a position to start doing slightly more ‘positive’ work.  Nevertheless, there’s still a lot of ground to cover before I feel I have the social-theoretic apparatus I’m trying to elaborate here properly up and running.  In future posts in this series I’ll cover some more of that ground.

In the last post in this series I discussed Buchanan’s critique of Hayek in his essay ‘Law and the Invisible Hand’.  In that essay Buchanan endorsed Hayek’s analytic distinction between cosmos and taxis – that is, spontaneously emergent order that is the product of “human action but not human design” versus order that is designed and intentionally instituted by human action.  Buchanan and Hayek both agree that the free market is a highly normatively desirable kind of ‘cosmos’.  But Buchanan and Hayek disagree about the normative basis for our endorsement of the legal framework that governs market society.  For Hayek, the common law tradition represents another kind of evolved spontaneous order, and should be deferred to on that basis.  Buchanan rejects this perspective, on the – in my view entirely correct – grounds that there is no reason to believe that a spontaneous order, just because it is a spontaneous order, is normatively desirable.  For Buchanan, we can know that market society is normatively desirable because we can analyse its structure and outcomes using the tools of political-economic science.  But Hayek does not offer a comparable framework for the normative assessment of our evolved legal institutions.  In the absence of such a framework, for Buchanan, Hayek’s deference to legal cosmos amounts to nothing more than a declaration of faith, and an abdication of social-scientific or social-theoretic responsibility.

If we grant (as I think we should) that Buchanan is correct in this critique, what should our next move be?  What can be our criterion for assessing any given emergent normative order?  Buchanan has a clear answer to this question, which is the foundation of his entire intellectual project: social contract theory.  For Buchanan, although we may each have different values, if we can come to a unanimous agreement about political-economic institutions, that principle of unanimity provides a definitive basis on which to ground the legitimacy of those institutions.  Buchanan does not, of course, think that it is practicable to achieve actual unanimity.  But he does think that this ideal of social-contractarian unanimity can provide a normative standpoint from which to assess a variety of political-economic orders, including emergent or spontaneous  orders.  In this respect, Buchanan is part of the very important and influential tradition of counterfactual formal social-contractarian political theory that also includes (most influentially) John Rawls.

I want to endorse a different account.  The account I want to advocate is compatible with Buchanan-Rawls-style social contractarianism at a theoretical (rather than metatheoretical) level but – I want to claim – is more analytically fundamental.  That’s because – I again want to claim – social-contractarianism is already presupposing a normative framework (a framework that leads us to value unanimity as a principle for assessing normative orders), and the philosophical problem we are wrestling with at a metatheoretical level is: where does any normative framework come from?  Given that we already inhabit the ‘right’ normative space, social-contractarian theory can help us decide between alternative institutional structures.  But social contractarianism does not operate at the right level of abstraction (I’m claiming) to explain normativity in general.

I am further claiming that the Brandomian-Hegelian account of the institution of normativity via reciprocal recognition does address this metatheoretical philosophical problem.  So – like Hayek, though at a higher level of abstraction – the Brandomian-Hegelian account sees normativity in general as an emergent feature of a complex social system.  But – I am still further claiming – any large-scale complex system is in practice going to produce multiple incompatible emergent norms.  We therefore cannot simply treat the norms’ emergence as a basis for adopting them.  We need an account of how social actors – including we ourselves – choose between different incompatible emergent normative frameworks that exist within and are produced by the same complex social system.  As I was saying, at the theoretical level, Buchanan’s social-contractarianism provides one such approach.  But at a metatheoretical level we need – I am claiming – to see Buchanan’s social-contractarianism as itself a product of norms that are themselves emergent properties of a complex social system.  We are, as it were, thrown back into the same problem space with which we began.

I’m going to propose a Brandomian-Hegelian answer to this problem, in multiple stages.  This positive proposal will have quite a lot of moving parts, and I’m not going to be able to tackle them all simultaneously.  Moreover, it will be vulnerable to two different categories of challenge, at two different levels of abstraction.  The first challenge will be: is this even substantively correct as social theory?  The second challenge will be: why doesn’t this simply commit us to relativism?  I have already addressed the problem of relativism on the blog multiple times before – most recently here.  I am, however, not entirely happy with every aspect of those earlier posts.  At some point, then, I’m going to want to come back round and take yet another bite at addressing this critique of my approach. My strategy for the upcoming set of posts, however, will be to bracket this fundamental philosophical objection in the first instance, and instead work on simply articulating the social theory.  Then I will swing back around once the social-theoretic dust has settled slightly, to deal with the metatheoretical fallout.  Let’s see how I do.

Conflictual spontaneous order

September 17, 2022

In the last post I ended up back where I was in early August – talking about the strengths and weaknesses of the first volume of Hayek’s ‘Law, Legislation and Liberty’ (‘Rules and order’).  I made the claim that the late Hayek’s metatheoretical position is strongly compatible with the ‘empirical dialectical’ approach that I’ve been advocating on the blog of late.  I also said that I had substantial disagreements with Hayek once we move down a level of abstraction to the social theory proper.  That’s what this post is about.

In my previous post on ‘Rules and order’ I listed four ways in which I disagree with Hayek’s theoretical position in that work.  In this short post I want to meander around in the vicinity of the first two.  These are: 1) conflict within emergent orders; 2) non-homogeneity of emergent orders.  These are obviously very closely related points, so here I really just want to associate around them a little.

Start with a remark of James Buchanan’s.  In his very good essay ‘Law and the Invisible Hand’ (in ‘Freedom in Constitutional Constraint’) Buchanan criticises Hayek’s late theory of law from a social-contractarian perspective.  Buchanan – like Hayek – distinguishes between orders that are made versus those that evolve: constructed versus spontaneous orders.  As is common, Buchanan uses Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of the market as an example of an efficient and normatively desirable spontaneous order.  But Buchanan also notes that the distinction between constructed versus spontaneous orders (taxis versus cosmos, in Hayek’s vocabulary) is itself normatively neutral.  In Buchanan’s words:

“invisible-hand explanation” may be as applicable to “orders” that are clearly recognized to be undesirable as to those that are recognized to be desirable. (28)

Or again:

The principle of spontaneous order, as such, is fully neutral in this respect.  It need not be exclusively or even primarily limited to explanations of unplanned and unintended outcomes that are socially efficient. (30)

Buchanan uses this (very correct) point as his basis for the critique of the late Hayek’s work on law as spontaneous order.  As Buchanan writes:

In his specific attribution of invisible-hand characteristics to the evolution of legal institutions, Hayek seems to have failed to separate properly the positive and the normative implications of the principle. (31)


The forces of social evolution alone contain within their workings no guarantee that socially efficient results will emerge over time. (31)

I think this is an absolutely correct and frankly dispositive argument against a large amount of the discussion of ‘spontaneous order’ within the Austrian tradition.  It is much too common within that tradition to suggest that because an order is spontaneous, it must be good.  Obviously Buchanan agrees with many of Hayek’s substantive political-economic claims – but from Buchanan’s perspective a straightforward deference to emergent spontaneous order is a wholly inadequate theoretical basis for grounding a normative stance.  I think he’s absolutely right about all this.

So this is the first point I want to make in this post – the order of a spontaneous order may be good or bad, and there is no reason to assume the quality of spontaneous emergence has any specific normative valence.

Next I want to make a slightly different point, as follows: Just because a social order is a spontaneously emergent property of many individual actions none of which had this order as their purpose, doesn’t mean that the actions themselves are good as actions.  This may seem like a trivial point, but it isn’t.  It is common, in my view, especially but by no means exclusively within the Austrian tradition, to treat spontaneous order as an emergent result of voluntary actions.  The core idea motivating this move is that people exercising their free rights to engage in whatever social action they please can produce a spontaneous order even if that order was no part of any individual’s intent.  And this core idea is correct!  But you cannot reverse the order of explanation here – you cannot say that because an order has emerged without being any individual’s intent, the actions that generate it must be free or good.  Of course, stated like that, this point is obvious.  But I believe this kind of slippage is actually quite common within a lot of ‘spontaneous order’ literature.  So it’s important to make this point explicitly.

So – these are two reasons to reject a too-rosy view of spontaneous order.  First: the order that is emergently produced as a spontaneous order may in fact be a bad order.  Second: the actions that produce a spontaneous order may also be bad actions – coercive, cruel, violent, etc.  We need to attend to the potentially highly negative aspects of spontaneous order at both this macro and this micro level.

The third point I want to make is about homogeneity of a specifically normative order.  When Hayek writes about the emergence of a spontaneous legal order – the norms that govern a society emerging out of social practice in a way that can subsequently be codified via common law institutions – there is a clear tacit premise that we are talking about one unitary emergent legal order.  In, for example, the UK common law system – which is Hayek’s paradigmatic case of desirable emergent law – Hayek is clearly thinking that, to a reasonable first approximation, a single shared set of norms are governing community practice, such that common law judges can aspire to codify the norms already tacitly informing practice in a relatively neutral way.

But what if this isn’t the case?  What if, in fact, there are multiple different emergent norms within the same broad community network?  It seems to me that this is, in fact, typically the case.  There is not one single emergent normative order in most large-scale communities.  Rather there are multiple emergent normative orders that themselves complexly interact as part of a still-larger complex normative system.  If this is the case, then participants in the large-scale normative system have to not only correctly identify the norms that have emerged out of that system – they also and in the first instance have to choose between different emergent normative orders that co-exist within the same complex community structure.  And this (if our social-theoretic, pragmatist understanding of normativity is correct) is itself a choice about how individual social actors will situate themselves within this complex system.

This is the core point I want to make in this post.  Over and above the fact that a) spontaneous orders may be bad, and b) the practices that produce spontaneous orders may also be bad, I want to emphasise that c) we can never assume that there is a single unitary normative order that has emerged from a given complex social system.  It is very possible that the same complex social system can and does support multiple incompatible emergent normative systems or frameworks.  I would claim that this almost always is indeed the case.  And I believe this possibility throws a spanner deep into the works of the theoretical (rather than metatheoretical) dimension of Hayek’s late writings on law and constitutionalism.

So.  The existence of multiple conflictual normative orders as emergent products of the same complex social system represents a fundamental challenge to the late Hayekian idea that law can be legitimately grounded in the (single, unitary) emergent normative order of our society.  But this idea also presents an alternative set of positive theoretical resources for thinking about socially-produced normativity.  I’ll expand on that thought in the next post in this series.

Continuing in the ‘dialectics as social theory’ rather than ‘dialectics as philosophy’ thread on the blog, I want to apply the framework I summarised in the last post to three figures that I happen to have been reading this year: Rousseau, Mises, and Hayek.  I’m not going to be saying anything very dramatic or original here, and quite a lot of the content of this post has already been covered in earlier posts, but as ever I’m using the blog for working things through, however ploddingly.

In previous posts I have differentiated dialectical and foundationalist philosophical approaches.  Dialectical approaches see every moment within a complex social system as granted its normative content by other moments within the system.  There is, therefore, an in-principle-infinite chain of authority that can in principle be followed to unpack the basis of the normative content of any moment in the system.  Foundationalist approaches, by contrast, see some moments of the complex normative system as generating their own authority – their normative content is ‘self-grounding’.  I am (obviously) advocating for a ‘dialectical’ or anti-foundationalist approach.

There’s a lot more that could be said about all this – and arguably I should unpack this distinction and its implications as I understand them further before I start applying it – but I’m just going to keep going.  In this post, then, I want to present Rousseau and Mises as examples of thinkers with foundationalist metatheories, and Hayek as an example of a thinker with an anti-foundationalist metatheory.  I hope it goes without saying that a thinker’s metatheoretical commitments are only weakly associated with most of their other commitments, and criticising or endorsing a thinker’s ideas at a metatheoretical level shouldn’t be taken as implying anything very strong about criticism or endorsement of other dimensions of their work – but I still think it can be clarifying to talk metatheory.

First Rousseau, then.  As I suggested in an earlier post, Rousseau’s concept of the general will seems like an excellent candidate for a ‘self-grounding’ understanding of social authority.  In ‘The Social Contract’ Rousseau writes that:

I hold then that Sovereignty, being nothing less than the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated, and that the Sovereign, who is no less than a collective being, cannot be represented except by himself


Sovereignty, for the same reason as makes it inalienable, is indivisible


It follows from what has gone before that the general will is always right

I understand that there is a vast literature on how to interpret these and related passages, and I can’t claim to be familiar with it, but at least for the purposes of this post I’m just going to assume that these passages mean what they sound like they mean: Rousseau has a weird sort of magical concept of an unalienable, indivisible and infallible general will, which is ‘self-grounding’ and ‘self-justifying’ in the sense I’ve been criticising.  In Rousseau’s words:

The Sovereign, merely by virtue of what it is, is always what it should be.

I think this is as clear a statement as one could wish for of the kind of ‘essentialism’ or ‘self-validation’ that I’ve been talking about – in Brandomian-Hegelian terms, ‘pure independence’.  Moreover, Rousseau is actively critical of social theorists who aim to analyse the constitution of the general will in a way that presents it as an emergent (or even just as a composite) phenomenon, rather than as an ‘indivisible’ unity.  Thus, for example, Rousseau mocks political theorists who “dismember the body politic” by analysing it as made up of subcomponents with different functions:

our political theorists, unable to divide Sovereignty in principle, divide it according to its object: into force and will; into legislative power and executive power; into rights of taxation, justice and war; into internal administration and power of foreign treaty. Sometimes they confuse all these sections, and sometimes they distinguish them; they turn the Sovereign into a fantastic being composed of several connected pieces: it is as if they were making man of several bodies, one with eyes, one with arms, another with feet, and each with nothing besides. We are told that the jugglers of Japan dismember a child before the eyes of the spectators; then they throw all the members into the air one after another, and the child falls down alive and whole. The conjuring tricks of our political theorists are very like that; they first dismember the body politic by an illusion worthy of a fair, and then join it together again we know not how.

This passage, of course, isn’t really an argument – it simply aims to mock the idea of analysing a collective institution as composed of subcomponents the nature and interrelation of which can be critically analysed.  In fact, though, of course, there’s nothing analytically wrong with the approach Rousseau is mocking.

Rousseau’s approach, in short, seems to me like an exemplary ‘anti-dialectical’ understanding of social authority, and therefore philosophically very bad.  It also, separately, seems politically very bad, for the reasons I was discussing in relation to the ‘Orwellian’ critique of pragmatism.  As I’ve been arguing, I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to say that pragmatism ends up having to collapse its sense of normativity into a homogeneous understanding of a unitary ‘social’… but it sort of seems like Rousseau does.  In any case, I regard this as a bad line of thinking, and an example of the kind of thing I’m trying to avoid.

Next up, Mises.  In the first chapter of ‘Human Action’, Mises presents his theoretical orientation as follows:

Since time immemorial men have been eager to know the prime mover, the cause of all being and of all change, the ultimate substance from which everything stems and which is the cause of itself. Science is more modest. It is aware of the limits of the human mind and of the human search for knowledge. It aims at tracing back every phenomenon to its cause. But it realizes that these endeavors must necessarily strike against insurmountable walls. There are phenomena which cannot be analyzed and traced back to other phenomena. They are the ultimate given. The progress of scientific research may succeed in demonstrating that something previously considered as an ultimate given can be reduced to components. But there will always be some irreducible and unanalyzable phenomena, some ultimate given.

Mises then claims that human action is one such “ultimate given”:

Concrete value judgments and definite human actions are not open to further analysis. We may fairly assume or believe that they are absolutely dependent upon and conditioned by their causes. But as long as we do not know how external facts–physical and physiological–produce in a human mind definite thoughts and volitions resulting in concrete acts, we have to face an insurmountable methodological dualism. … Human action is one of the agencies bringing about change. It is an element of cosmic activity and becoming. Therefore it is a legitimate object of scientific investigation. As–at least under present conditions–it cannot be traced back to its causes, it must be considered as an ultimate given and must be studied as such.

Mises is here making a cluster of claims.  Characteristically, he is presenting his treatment of human action as an ‘ultimate given’ as a result of scientific epistemic humility.  He is not making a metaphysically foundational claim, Mises argues – rather, he is provisionally treating human action as an ‘ultimate given’ on the grounds that we are not in a position to explain human action further, at this point in our scientific progress.  If we take this argument at face value, Mises’ treatment of human action as foundational is an example of the kind of ‘provisional foundationalism’ I discussed – and approved of – in the previous post in this series.

This is certainly a defensible way to read Mises.  For myself, though, I am not inclined to take this methodological claim all that seriously, because I am not inclined to grant the claim about the state of our scientific knowledge on which it is based.  Mises claims:

as long as we do not know how external facts–physical and physiological–produce in a human mind definite thoughts and volitions resulting in concrete acts, we have to face an insurmountable methodological dualism…. We may or may not believe that the natural sciences will succeed one day in explaining the production of definite ideas, judgments of value, and actions in the same way in which they explain the production of a chemical compound as the necessary and unavoidable outcome of a certain combination of elements. In the meantime we are bound to acquiesce in a methodological dualism.

This seems to me to be a basically entirely unwarranted move.  We know lots about how natural phenomena produce thoughts, volitions and acts.  We have sciences of psychology, sociology, etc. that look at how social and personal environment shapes behaviour, and while I can’t myself speak to physiological science, it seems obvious that we have considerable knowledge in that domain too.  To be sure, Mises was drafting ‘Human Action’ in the 1930s and 40s, so these sciences were considerably less developed at the time he was writing than they are now – but in my view this was still a very clearly unwarranted claim at the time Mises was writing.

What’s going on here, in my view, is a case of ‘god of the gaps’ reasoning – or, alternatively, the kind of ‘quest for certainty’ that (following Dewey) I’ve been criticising throughout this series of posts.  Mises is arguing that because we don’t have complete knowledge of the relationship between social and naturalistic categories and human action, we have in effect no knowledge at all, and this warrants a methodological dualism, treating the natural world and human internality and action as fundamentally different categories of phenomenon.  This is in my view a bad argument, and personally I find it hard not to read it as driven by a kind of motivated reasoning.  Just as Rousseau wants there to be a magical collective self which is ‘self-validating’ and which cannot be reduced to its component parts, so Mises wants there to be a magical individual self which has no analytic connection to the phenomena studied by the natural sciences.  Having drawn this (basically Cartesian) dichotomy, Mises then takes this dichotomy to provide warrant (again, in Cartesian style) for a purely a prioristic deductive science, grounded in an introspective understanding of human mind and action.

In my view none of this is right.  In reality, there is no reason not to treat human action as a product of many other phenomena we can study using the tools of the natural and social sciences.  And if you throw out this dichotomy then the warrant for treating ‘praxeology’ as an aprioristic science is also undermined.  In terms of the metatheoretical categories I’ve been adopting and advocating in this series of posts, this is a ‘foundationalist’ approach which is actively suppressing the extent to which its ‘foundational’ categories can be understood as constituted by other categories – it is, again, problematically non-dialectical.

So: we have in Rousseau an example of ‘collectivist’ foundationalism, and in Mises an example of ‘individualist’ foundationalism.  I’m arguing that both of these are one-sided theoretical approaches, because they both actively refuse to analyse the way in which their ‘foundational’ categories are constituted in practice by other dimensions of the complex social system within which these categories are embedded and from which they are constituted.  For all the vast theoretical differences between Rousseau and Mises, in other words, at this very abstract metatheoretical level, their work is driven by a shared philosophical mistake.

Now on to Hayek.  I’ve already discussed Hayek in several posts on the blog before, and therefore I will try to be even briefer in my summary of his philosophical perspective.  My view, in short, is that Hayek (and here I’m talking about the late Hayek of ‘Law, Legislation and Liberty’) is not guilty of this metatheoretical mistake.  Whatever my theoretical differences with Hayek, my claim is that at a metatheoretical level, Hayek’s apparatus is good stuff, and is basically wholly compatible with the ‘empirical dialectical’ approach I’ve been outlining on the blog.  And in a way this makes sense, because although the Austrian tradition sees Hegel as an avatar of totalitarian collectivism, I’ve been arguing that the elements of Hegel I’ve been discussing basically boil down to a kind of complex systems theory, focussed on the production of normativity by social practice.  The production of normativity by a complex social system is, of course, exactly the topic of Hayek’s late work on the nature of law and liberal constitutionalism.

In this late work, then, Hayek makes a double move.  On the one hand, he is critical of forms of individualism that analyse the individual wholly independently from the society that forms them.  In this respect, Hayek’s late work represents a major break with Mises (and this is one of the reasons why the schism within the Austrian tradition between Mises-oriented and Hayek-oriented figures is as significant as it is).  Individual behaviour, Hayek argues, is shaped by societal norms, and individual freedom ultimately needs to be grounded in those norms.  On the other hand, Hayek analyses those societal norms as themselves the emergent property of a dynamic complex system.  For Hayek, the norms that find expression in common law are products of “human action but not human design”.  Moreover, because the system in question is dynamic, the norms themselves, as well as our understanding of those norms, are evolving, in a way that means the ‘correct’ norms cannot even be attributed to any specific aggregate pattern – Hayek thereby avoids the trap that Brandom calls ‘regularism’.  In both of these respects, then, Hayek’s late metatheoretical apparatus is strongly compatible with the basic Brandomian-Hegelian account of the social constitution of norms.  This even extends to the centrality of common law to their accounts of normativity.

In summary: I’ve argued that both Rousseau and Mises are, so to speak, ‘problematically non-dialectical’, each reifying a particular moment of the complex social system they are studying as ‘foundational’ and ‘self-constituting’ or ‘self-validating’.  For Rousseau, this reified moment is the ‘general will’, leading Rousseau to a dogmatic and somewhat sinister collectivism.  For Mises, this reified moment is the acting individual, leading Mises to a dogmatic aprioristic Cartesian individualism.  Finally, I argued that Hayek’s late work – and basically I’m talking here about volume 1 of ‘Law, Legislation and Liberty’ – is, by contrast, strongly compatible with the metatheoretical approach I’m advocating.  

But so if Hayek’s late work gets my metatheoretical seal of approval (not, obviously, that this means anything to anyone other than me…) am I suggesting that Hayek’s general political-economic approach is the right one?  No – I’m not.  And that’s because I have a number of disagreements with Hayek’s framework at the theoretical (rather than metatheoretical) level.  I very briefly summarised some of those disagreements in my post on volume 1 of ‘Law, Legislation and Liberty’.  In my next post I want to return to these issues – but now armed with more of the intellectual resources of Brandomian-Hegelian ‘empirical dialectics’.