Brandomian anti-naturalism

July 23, 2010

So I promise I’m not going to do this for the whole book, because that would be extraordinarily tedious, but having just finished the first chapter of Brandom’s Making It Explicit I wanted to put up some very quick remarks on the issue of anti-naturalism. The main piece of text I’m going to address here is part 5 of section IV of chapter 1 – pages 42- 46 of the Harvard University Press paperback. But first a background-establishing passage from earlier in the chapter.

On pages 35-36, Brandom is explaining and endorsing an approach to the understanding of normativity that relies on the idea of sanctions:

The fundamental strategy pursued by such a theory is a promising one. As here elaborated, it involves three distinguishable commitments. First, Kant’s distinction between acting according to a rule and acting according to a conception of a rule is taken to express an important insight about the special way in which we are normative creatures. [Brandom is drawing the distinction between norms and laws of nature here.] Second, the pragmatist regress-of-rules argument is taken to show that in order to make use of this insight, it is necessary that the sort of normative attitude that Kant takes to play an essential mediating role in our government by norms be understood as involving implicit acknowledgement of norms in practice. Specifically, it is necessary to make sense of the idea of practically taking or treating performances as correct or incorrect. Third, taking or treating performances as correct or incorrect, approving or disapproving of them in practice, is explained in terms of positive and negative sanctions, rewards and punishments. This tripartite structure is endorsed and pursued in the rest of this work. There are reasons not to be happy with the regularist way of working it out that has just been sketched, however.

Without going into what the regularist way of working this schema out is, let’s flip forward to Brandom’s section 5, Normative Sanctions. Here Brandom writes:

Defining normative attitudes in terms of dispositions to apply sanctions does not by itself reduce the normative to the non-normative – it just trades off one sort of norm for another…. Benefit and harm, desirable and undesirable, are concepts that also have normative senses. Indeed, these senses would seem to be primary, so that some sort of reductive hypothesis would be needed to naturalize them. To turn the retributive story about normative attitudes into a naturalistic one, an account might for instance understand what is good (and so rewarding) in terms of what is desirable, what is desirable in terms of what is desired, and what is desired in terms of what is pursued.

Commitment to such a reduction is optional.

Let me note in passing to note how simplistic this example of naturalistic explanation is. (It’s just an example, obviously; this isn’t doing much work for Brandom – the anti-naturalist arguments (if such they are) come later; but I want to note that this isn’t the sort of thing that a lot of people would mean by ‘naturalistic explanation’. Naturalism has the resources of all the natural and social sciences at its disposal – naturalistic accounts of normativity can be vastly more complicated than this.)

Brandom then discusses a fictional case study (in typical analytic philosophy style, he uses imaginary primitive tribes as the standard illustrative example: some seriously problematic cultural politics are behind this disciplinary habit, but it’s hardly specific to Brandom), in which “to enter a particular hut one is obliged to display a leaf from a certain sort of tree” (43). How are sanctions implemented, here? One way is that “one who violates the norm is beaten with sticks”. Beating someone with sticks is “describable in nonnormative terms”. Alternatively, “one who violates the norms is not permitted to attend the weekly festival. In such a case, the normative significance of transgression is itself specified in normative terms (of what is appropriate, of [what] the transgressor is entitled to do).”

Brandom goes on to write that:

In the cases so far imagined, these webs of norms linked by internal sanctions are anchored, as each chain of definitional dependence terminates in some normative status that is definable independently, by external sanctions specified in nonnormative terms [e.g. beating someone with sticks]. Even this restriction can be relaxed. The consequences of an assessment of a performance as correct or incorrect with respect to one norm may extend no further than other assessments of correctness, with respect to other norms… Such an interpretation would not support any reduction of normative status to nonnormatively specifiable dispositions, whether to perform or to assess, whether individual or communal. (44)

Now this is where I want to protest, in a somewhat conditional way. I possibly agree with the letter of this passage, depending on how one interprets the content of the last sentence – but if this argument is meant to be an anti-naturalistic one (and this is sort of my operating assumption – one of the reasons I’m reading Making It Explicit is that I want to understand properly what Pete means when he refers to ‘Brandomian anti-naturalism’) it simply doesn’t work, and seems (again if this is its intention) to be motivated by a strange confusion. (Strange I mean given how sophisticated and impressive the rest of Brandom’s text is.)

I don’t doubt that this argument is a legitimate critique of some philosophical positions. If, for example, a theorist is claiming that ‘normative’ sanctions must ultimately be referred to ‘non-normative’ sanctions (like beating people with sticks) in order to explain every aspect of normative sanctions’ content – if a theorist is claiming this, it is obviously an adequate rebuttal to demonstrate the possibility of there being at least some self-enclosed webs of normative sanctions, where further normative activity is itself the content (or partial content) of the sanctions, ad infinitum. It’s useful to note that this can be the case. But this is not a rebuttal of naturalism. The naturalistic claim – or at least the naturalistic claim I’m familiar with and want to promote – is that normative practices are themselves natural phenomena (as are the norms implicit in them), irrespective of whether the consequences of transgressing norms are ‘physical’ or ‘cultural’ (because culture, too, is a natural thing, according to a naturalistic position). The naturalistic position is therefore untouched by arguments of this kind.

Reaching for a parallel here, one could perhaps compare the claim that consciousness is a natural phenomenon, emerging out of specific biological (mostly brain) structures in interaction with a broader environment. This claim doesn’t of course stand or fall on whether any given activity of consciousness can be related to the activity of nerve-endings of the eye, skin, etc., which we already know are natural things [with the apparent implication that maybe brain-states aren’t?]. Similarly, Brandom’s argument seems oddly to presuppose that normative sanctions are not, as normative sanctions, natural, or susceptible to naturalistic explanation – but that if they can be connected to activities we all already know to be natural (like beating people with sticks), this will serve to demonstrate the naturalness of normativity. But this is not how naturalistic arguments work.

I’m open to the possibility that I’m simply misreading Brandom here. As I say, this seems like a strange confusion for Brandom to be participating in, given how sophisticated and impressive Making It Explicit is in other respects. And I think the strategic intention of passages like the ones I’m quoting is probably to avoid having to bother with debates about naturalism at all – this isn’t Brandom’s area of interest. Still, this is the only candidate I’ve come across for an anti-naturalistic argument in Making It Explicit so far – I wanted to post on it, and explain why it doesn’t successfully perform this function (if indeed it’s even meant to), before moving into the depths of inferential semantics.

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21 Responses to “Brandomian anti-naturalism”

  1. deontologistics Says:

    Hi Duncan,

    I apologise I haven’t responded to your earlier post sooner. I will be doing do today hopefully, but it might take a while as there’s a bunch of misinterpretations I think need clearing up. However, I thought I might defend Brandom here, as this can be done fairly quickly. Take this quote:-

    “The naturalistic claim – or at least the naturalistic claim I’m familiar with and want to promote – is that normative practices are themselves natural phenomena (as are the norms implicit in them), irrespective of whether the consequences of transgressing norms are ‘physical’ or ‘cultural’ (because culture, too, is a natural thing, according to a naturalistic position). The naturalistic position is therefore untouched by arguments of this kind.”

    Both myself and Brandom would accept that our practices of instituting, acting in accordance with, and sanctioning in accordance with norms are themselves naturally describable. Culture is indeed a natural thing and can be described as such. This doesn’t mean that the normative statuses that are instituted and deployed within a culture can be reduced to this naturalistic description.

    The problem with the above quote is the bit in brackets earlier on: “(as are the norms implicit in them)”. We’d just about accept the bit outside of the brackets, but not the bit within them. What distinguishes between practices and norms is that norms have *content*. The bit of your naturalism we reject is that one can read this content off the natural descriptions of the corresponding practices. I’ll deal with the problems with this claim elsewhere, but it’s important to circumscribe what Brandom’s distinction between internal and external sanctions means here.

    A practical commitment (or which norms are a species) has a propositional content, and undertaking such a commitment is undertaking to make this content true. Brandoms distinction between normative and non-normative sanctions emerges in the context of norm governed practices that specify the appropriate sanctions for failing to meet them, as opposed to those that don’t. For instance, football (or soccer) contains rules for what to do about players who break the rules, whereas a game like snap (or any other simple card game) doesn’t. The distinction between normative and non-normative sanctions is a distinction between how one specifies the content of what one must make true in order to have carried out the sanction. In the case of ‘X was beaten with sticks’, no further normative terminology needs to be applied, whereas in the case of ‘X was barred from doing Y for a month’, ‘barred’ is itself a normative concept. The difference is a matter of how one understands what one should do in implementing the sanction.

    Now, of course, the activity of barring someone, say from a pub, can itself be described in naturalistic terms. One can describe the individual acts of putting up the person’s picture behind the bar, of informing the various staff and what not, and one could even provide a rough general description of the practice of barring people from bars, including the kinds of activity it tends to involve and the results it tends to produce. Neither of these amounts to describing how one *should* treat someone who has been barred. They give you some good clues from which you might be able to extrapolate a response, but they don’t determine the content of the normative status.

  2. duncan Says:

    Thanks for responding to this Pete – I’m right in the middle of something so I can’t reply now or indeed even carefully process your comment just yet. But I’d come online because I’ve changed my mind about the interpretation of the key Brandom passage I’m discussing in this post (I was about to update the post) – it seems to me on reflection that I was reading a more strongly anti-naturalistic position into Brandom’s text than his words support; he now seems to me to be being agnostic here about whether or not normative practices can be analysed naturalistically – he’s basically saying that it doesn’t matter for his system, I now realise (or think I do). Anyway, I’ll respond properly soon, but I wanted to register that I no longer really think Brandom’s engaging in bad argument here. Sorry, it must be annoying to have me change may views like this – the perils of working through a text in public and in conversation.

    But I’ll think through and reply to your comment properly soon. (And I look forward to your response to my earlier post – though don’t feel any need to rush, since clearly I’m doing my homework here as we go.)

    Cheers…

  3. duncan Says:

    Okay, sorry about that – getting to your comment now. Obviously we can discuss this further when you expand on the problems with reading normative content off of natural descriptions. But a few quick things before we get there.

    First up – in case it isn’t clear, the kinds of naturalistic explanations I’m suggesting are available for normative phenomena (including normative content) aren’t simple ones at all. I’m summoning the resources of all the natural and social sciences, which will obey my every command and whim. Further, I’m summoning their potential future resources. When I say that normative content can be explained naturalistically, the kind of explanation I’m envisaging would be hideously complicated if cashed out in any even semi-thorough way. So, obviously the examples Brandom uses are ridiculously simplistic – but the idea of real naturalistic explanation is that “being banned from the pub” is the description of a social status which can be described fairly simply in shorthand (“not allowed in the pub”), but that would involve an incredible and of course in practice impossible labour of description in order to give an account of what neurological, physiological, social-relational, architectural etc. objects and events actually combine to make this emergent, social, normative content. And of course different neurological, physiological, social-relational, etc. objects and events can produce the same emergent content, the same normative content, because that’s how these things work – like you said re: Chomsky on the thread at ktismatics, the same content can be differently instantiated (or, rephrasing in a to my mind more helpful way, different objects, relations, events, etc. can produce the same (weakly) emergent content.)

    Now my first question is this: if you deny this possibility – if you deny the possibility of normative content being a property of a complex combination of natural phenomena, which could in potentially, we believe, be described fully naturalistically (though in practice we may lack the resources, manpower, time, analytic ability, etc. to do so) – what’s the alternative? How, in this scenario, are you not claiming that normative content is supernatural? If you agree that the practices and physiological etc. phenomena that ‘instantiate’ normative content can be described naturalistically, and yet deny this of normative content itself, in what sense are you not suggesting that normative content is a supernatural phenomenon that inheres in the natural world without having any impact upon it? I don’t see a way for you not to be committed to this position, to be honest, given what you say above – but I was wrong about Brandom, above, and I may be wrong here too…

    Second thing: I’m not at all convinced that Brandom’s system actually supports what seems to be the direction of your argument. Now obviously, I’ve only read the first chapter of Making It Explicit (plus the Modality, Normativity and Intentionality article), and I’m far from nailing down a solid interpretation of even what I’ve read so far – so everything I say here should be taken with a more than usually large pinch of salt. Apologies for the scantiness of knowledge, here. But in that first chapter Brandom seems pretty clear that what he’s interested in developing is a pragmatics. I’m reasonably confident now that I misread him when I wrote the post above – I think what Brandom’s saying in the passage I initially interpreted as anti-naturalistic, is basically that normative practices are analytically fundamental, as far as his system goes. Brandom’s system couldn’t care less how we understand those practices once we move beyond the system’s scope. Brandom’s just interested in grounding normativity – and rational discourse – in a normative pragmatics. That’s to say: it’s practices that are the basis here, for Brandom – the propositional content is derivative of the practices, not a separate thing instantiated in them. The whole Wittgensteinian thrust of the first chapter is that we’re not dealing with propositional content, here, in the first instance. We can make explicit the norms that are there in and as our practices – we can make these norms explicit as propositional content. But Brandom precisely isn’t saying that the propositional content is already there in the norms, or in the practices – he’s saying that practice itself is fundamental.

    I’m obviously more than happy to revise this assessment as I read further into Making It Explicit – and I may be missing the thrust of your remarks above. But based on the first chapter it seems to me that you’re reversing Brandom’s order of explanation – you’re moving him back towards the Kantian space, as Brandom portrays it (of norms being in the first place understood in terms of propositional content and explicit rules) – a space he’s overtly trying to move away from. Brandom’s fundamentally a pragmatist, it seems to me. I’d be interested to know if (and if so why) you disagree?

    Ok – that’s my lot for now. I’m really sorry that this is so scattershot and flabby. It’s one of those “I did not have the time to write it shorter” comments.

    (And naturally you may find that these points are best addressed in the reply you’ve got planned for my other post. Which I’m looking forward to!)

    Cheers…

  4. deontologistics Says:

    I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here. I’m as much of a pragmatist as Brandom. The whole point of my appeals to propositional contents is that they aren’t real. They’re not some special supernatural entities or properties of entities, but rather they’re not real entities or properties at all. They’re necessary fictions. Read the third response to Levi again if you wan’t to see my thoughts on this again.

    I can’t stress strongly enough how propositions don’t play any role in explaining any natural phenomenon, and don’t exist in any sense beyond the fact that we must talk about them in order to make sense of the theoretical and practical commitments ourselves and others undertake within a rational context. It is because norms have propositional contents (in virtue of being a kind of commitment) and not a kind of natural phenomena like a behavioural propensity, that they are not real.

    I’m completely perplexed that you’re both siding with pragmatism against propositional contents and at the same time claiming that propositional contents can be accounted for by some idealised future science. Am I right in thinking that you do think that there are such things as propositional contents, but you just think that they’re completely supervenient on certain natural phenomena?

    My position is that this idealised future science could objectively show that the brain states, social relations and everything mentioned above does not determine whether the individuals involved in a given community would interpret the norm one way or an other in certain circumstances. It could objectively show that there is no clear behavioural propensity to go one way or another, and thus demonstrate that the norm implicit in practice is objectively underdetermined by that practice.

    Here’s an example: imagine that you and I invent a game. It’s an elaborate game with many rules, and we sit down and work out many of these rules before it’s ever even been played. As such, we’re instituting norms governing what one is supposed to do in the context of this game. Now, suppose we then play the game with a group of friends, and we reach a situation in which it is ambiguous as to how the rules we’ve initially stipulated should be applied (e.g., it is ambiguous as to which of two rules should be applied first). How exactly would having a hyper-detailed picture of our brainstates and social relations determine how we are to go forward? What if we (the instituters of the norm) are inclined to disagree about which comes first?

    The point is that the content of norms is supposed to be fixed by the intentions of those that institute it, but it these intentions are themselves never fully determinate. This is especially obvious in the case of groups who institute norms, wherein we can easily grasp that they may be inclined to apply the norm or explicate it in different ways, but it holds even of individuals. People will have dispositions to clarify their intentions in certain ways, but these dispositions will not extend to all cases, and might produce varying results depending upon other external factors.

    We institute and apply norms *as if* they have completely determinate contents that specify how they should be applied in all circumstances, and we talk about them as such, but in reality they are continually determined in practice. That our dispositions underdetermine the way in which the norm should be applied just means that they do not completely determine how this progressive determination of the norm’s content will proceed.

  5. duncan Says:

    Ok, but this seems to take us back to my point about norms and practices being undifferentiable in this regard – future practices are also underdetermined by present practices, in this scenario.

    I’m going to think about your response though, and as you suggest re-read some of your exchange with Levi. Sorry if I sound overly combative, or as if I’m missing the point. I’m confused as to what your anti-naturalism consists in, whereby norms are both unreal, and yet in some sense (seem to) add something above and beyond natural phenomena (maybe I’m wrong to see this in your position). I’ll try to think some more about what you’re saying, though, especially with regard to norms’ fictional status, and get back to you soon.

  6. duncan Says:

    (I was only really using the appeal to future science as a way of emphasising the complexity of naturalistic explanation, btw – I’m not trying to do any particular argumentative work with an idealisation, there.)

  7. duncan Says:

    Again, it may be better for me to wait until you’ve responded to my previous post, but here’s the same issue I keep hitting, in your third response to Levi:

    It is not an objective matter of fact whether a poker chip has a normative status, or whether that status has a certain content, in the same way that it is an objective matter of fact that the chip is a certain size and colour.

    In what sense is this social fact not objective? It’s social, for sure – but the social is also real, is also empirically observable, can also be the object of scientific investigation. I don’t think there’s a particularly good prima facie case for accepting that social properties (being a goal-keeper; being a husband) are any less empirically real (though certainly they’re different kinds of properties, and they’re often more easily lost and gained, etc., as social roles are moved into and out of) than are properties like colour, etc.

    You reply to this objection. You write:

    The objection is that it’s perfectly possible to study the behaviour of any social group in entirely objective terms, and that it is thereby possible to give a purely objective account of any social roles that are instituted by the group. For instance, such accounts would explain the status of the chips in the poker game by describing the way those chips tend to be treated. The crucial point is that there is an important difference between describing the way things tend to be treated and describing the ways they ought to be treated. There are at least two good reasons for this. On the one hand, there are plenty of cases in which behavioural tendencies run completely counter to the instituted norms. To give a fairly trivial example, the vast majority of games of Monopoly I have played have ended up abandoned part way through, with victory assigned to one player on the basis of arbitrary criteria, even if there is a good sense in which we should have kept playing until one player won in the proper fashion (on the basis of this sample, the tendency and the norm would diverge). [Of course this is one of the unreasonably simple versions of naturalistic explanation that I was stressing above bears very little relation to genuine naturalistic explanation – this example does not demonstrate the inadequacy of naturalistic explanation, so much as the inadequacy of this specific naturalistic explanation. Which is fine, but it may be worth saying…] On the other hand, normative statuses are supposed to determine the appropriate way to treat something in situations which have not yet occurred. The only option here is to identify what should be done with what some individual or group are disposed to do. The major problem is that these dispositions underdetermine what is correct. There will be cases in which there simply is no coherent disposition either way. What all this means is that behavioural tendencies fail to achieve normative closure – they do not completely determine correct and incorrect behaviour in advance.

    I agree with this – behavioural tendencies don’t determine correct and incorrect behaviour in advance. But, on the same assumptions, they don’t determine practices (regular, ‘objectively’ describable behaviour) in advance, either. In your system practices can be naturalistically explained. And yet future practices are in exactly the same situation here as future correct or incorrect behaviour (future norms – or the future nature of our present norms): they’re unknown. Your argument doesn’t move from the unpredictability of future practices to the fact that those future practices can’t be naturalistically analysed. So why do you assert that the unpredictability of future normative judgements tells us something important about norms, and about their non-reality, differentiating them from practices? Isn’t the parallel here pretty much exact?

    Also, I’m not sure if the following is pertinent – it may be completely beside the point, or it may be an important difference between us – but I’m inclined to the view that we don’t necessarily treat norms as predetermined in advance – I think we often treat them as exactly what they are, determined in practice. When this is so, there’s of course no need for a fiction of predetermination.

    But these are sort of passing thoughts – I’m going to sleep on this and have another read and think about it all tomorrow. Thanks for taking the time to respond…

  8. deontologistics Says:

    I’m just finishing up the comment on your original post, but I figured I’d add a few more points here first. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s not that I think the social is something other than the natural, it’s that I think it can be viewed in two different ways: in naturalistic terms and in normative terms, and that these two perspectives shouldn’t be conflated.

    With regard to the substantive point though, I think you’re getting confused about precisely what role the future is playing here.

    Practices are collective behavioural tendencies. We both accept that these do not completely determine how the group will behave under new circumstances that have not so far been encountered, or that extra variables have the potential to produce divergent behaviours on the basis of the same basic tendencies. In short, practices do not determine how we *will* behave in a variety of situations. Present behaviour underdetermines future behaviour.

    The confusion lies in the parallel you try to draw in the case of norms. You say that present norms do not determine future norms. Norms don’t determine anything about what *will* be the case. They simply specify what *should* be the case. The determinate propositional content of norms is supposed to determine what one should do in all cases, no matter when these cases occur. There does not need to be a ‘future norm’ that governs what I do in the future, the present norm does just fine (or at least, it’s supposed to).

    With regard to your final point, the way we treat norms as being determined in advance does not need to be very grand. True, it’s possible to treat some norms as handed down from the gods, or as having some other metaphysical status that guarantees their determinacy, but one can be fully self-aware that their determinacy arises only from our treating them as determinate and still do so. All one needs to do to treat them as determinate is to engage in arguments about what their content is. For example, arguing about what a given norm commits one to do (e.g., ‘Should I serve the cheese first?’, ‘No, that’s at the end of the meal!’). It is in arguing about what norms entail (or any other kind of theoretical or practical commitment) that we treat them as having determinate propositional contents.

  9. ktismatics Says:

    Good discussion. I’m curious about this assertion from Pete:

    “My position is that this idealised future science could objectively show that the brain states, social relations and everything mentioned above does not determine whether the individuals involved in a given community would interpret the norm one way or an other in certain circumstances. It could objectively show that there is no clear behavioural propensity to go one way or another, and thus demonstrate that the norm implicit in practice is objectively underdetermined by that practice.”

    Surely science wouldn’t concede this position a priori. The content of norms would be subjected to the same systematic, deterministic investigations as any other behaviors. Differences in practices and norms between individuals and communities are themselves subject to explanatory factors which, according to the norms guiding scientific practice, are assumed to be 100% determinable.

    Pete goes on: “the content of norms is supposed to be fixed by the intentions of those that institute it, but it these intentions are themselves never fully determinate.”

    Why should the determinative apparatus be limited to intentionality? Norms are inferred from practice, and practice isn’t always driven by intention. People like Dennett contend that intentionality itself operates something like a norm: unreal as an explanatory mechanism, intentionality is inferred after the fact to explain behaviors that took shape unintentionally and determinatively through a particular configuration of dispositional states and environmental circumstances. What I think is right is that we agree to regard our adherence to norms “as if” it were a matter of intentionality, such that failure to adhere to the norm can be deemed an intentional offense justifiably worthy of sanction. I believe that Dennett would agree with this “as if” interpretation of norms, intentionality, and sanctions. He would even agree to go along with it as a convenient fiction for achieving societal patterns and ends which we deem desirable.

  10. duncan Says:

    Hi ktismatics – sorry to leave your comment here hanging. I’ve made a sort of unilateral discursive decision to put the philosophy of science stuff aside for now, because there are already more than enough issues in the air in my attempt to get to grips with Pete’s work, and I think my remarks on science really muddied the waters, derailing the discussion of other issues that I want to get to the bottom of more urgently. But I am interested in these issues, so I apologise for dropping them!

    As a quick aside, then: I totally agree with this –

    Surely science wouldn’t concede this position a priori

    – but I think I probably disagree with this –

    explanatory factors which, according to the norms guiding scientific practice, are assumed to be 100% determinable.

    My feeling is that at the very abstract meta-theoretical level at which Pete’s work is operating, science as a practice (and also the norms of inquiry implicit in its practice, however we understand the relation between that practice and those norms) is agnostic on the question of whether its objects of analysis are determinable or determinate. It can be really useful to assume that they are, and I think a lot of scientists, and a lot of scientific work, does so – but I don’t think that this assumption is, so to speak, coded into either the practice or the norms of science in the way that a lot of philosophers of science think it is.

    As I say, though, I now think I approached Pete’s work from the wrong direction, and that I’d be better off leaving philosophy of science to one side as I try to get to grips with his apparatus. So that’s why this response is tardy and brief. Maybe once I feel secure in my analysis of Pete’s stuff on norms I’ll return to this issue…

  11. ktismatics Says:

    I was of course following the lead of your post and of Pete’s responses, while also playing Pete’s game by referring to the norms of scientific practice, where incremental movements in the direction of, say, rationality or determinability imply something like an ideal standard. I made my case at Ktismatics that most of the tools for evaluating data are arrayed on a scale of complete randomness to complete determination, with the strength of empirical results being judged on the degree of determination observed. I think generally it’s misleading to regard science as driven by norms and rules, as if a scientist’s hypothesis or empirical findings would be either accepted or rejected based on the extent to which the scientist followed the generally accepted standards. At issue is whether the hypotheses and findings make true statements about the world.

    But by all means proceed in the right direction; don’t worry about me over here on the side track 😉

  12. duncan Says:

    Oh no no, sorry, I know you were on target – I think your remarks were and are extremely pertinent, as usual. I was just trying to explain why I’ve rudely not responded in an adequate and timely fashion. (The explanation being that I’ve changed my mind about how I personally want to work my way in to these issues, and therefore my head’s not in the philosophy of science space right this second.) Didn’t mean to come across as saying more than that, sorry.

  13. duncan Says:

    (And obviously I’m the one who opened the philosophy of science stuff up for discussion anyway. :-P)

    On this –

    I think generally it’s misleading to regard science as driven by norms and rules, as if a scientist’s hypothesis or empirical findings would be either accepted or rejected based on the extent to which the scientist followed the generally accepted standards. At issue is whether the hypotheses and findings make true statements about the world.

    Part of what I’d want to say re: philosophy of science is that the two alternatives presented in your two sentences aren’t really different things – our assessment of what counts as a true statement about the world is whether or not the process by which that statement is created and assented to, adheres to the generally accepted scientific standards for establishing truth – judgements of truth and falsehood also being normatively guided. Now it’s obviously the case that our general consensus as to what is true can, in fact, be wrong, as can any given method of inquiry. But that’s where the institutionalisation of the scientific method comes in, with its constant reassessment of scientific results and of the criteria used to assess those results – the Neurath’s boat element of scientific investigation. It’s this latter that I regard as the key normative practice of science, and its I think more strongly agnostic about the kind of content science produces than is often suggested.

    But these remarks are very quick and inadequate – sorry.

  14. ktismatics Says:

    More than adequate, Duncan — I feel validated again, though of course this is a liberal humanistic sentiment on my part. Now I can resume my semi-retirement from blogging with my head held high, pursuing my latest fictional escapades with elan rather than ressentiment.

  15. duncan Says:

    Oh well that’ll kill the muse – nothing drives fiction writing like a bit of ressentiment… 😉 Hope it goes well, though.

  16. duncan Says:

    Hum – reading that back it sounds much more mean-spirited than I meant it to. Best of luck with the writing process, is what I’m trying to say… 🙂

  17. ktismatics Says:

    No worries Duncan — I’ve got enough ressentiment in reserve to last awhile. Plus I like “it sounds much more mean-spirited than I meant it to” — the making-explicit of intentionality is a fairly intricate and treacherous affair, I think you’d agree.

  18. Sanctions « Says:

    […] of posts on Brandom started. Back in July (good christ has it been that long?!), in a post called Brandomian anti-naturalism, I expressed my bafflement and frustration at passages like these, and at this section of Making It […]


  19. […] these objections, since this is basically where I came in in my discussion of Brandom – I too initially baulked at the discussion of internal sanctions in Chapter One of MIE. I still think this section of MIE is […]

  20. duncan Says:

    Belated update: On the issue of Brandom’s ‘anti-naturalism’, discussed in this thread and the next one, I think this quote from Articulating Reasons pretty much confirms the interpretation I eventually settle on in this series of posts:

    Besides rejecting empiricism, the rationalist pragmatism and expressivism presented here is opposed to naturalism, at least as that term is usually understood. For it emphasizes what distinguishes discursive creatures, as subject to distinctively conceptual norms, from their non-concept-using ancestors and cousins. Conceptual norms are brought into play by social linguistic practices of giving and asking for reasons, of assessing the propriety of claims and inferences. Products of social interactions (in a strict sense that distinguishes them merely from features of populations) are not studied by the natural sciences – though they are not for that reason to be treated as spooky and supernatural. In conferring conceptual content on performances, states and expressions suitably caught up in them, those practices institute a realm of culture that rests on, but goes beyond, the background of reliable differential responsive dispositions and their exercise characteristic of merely natural creatures. Once concept use is on the scene, a distinction opens up between things that have natures and things that have histories. Physical things such as electrons and aromatic compounds would be paradigmatic of the first class, while cultural formations such as English Romantic poetry and uses of the terms ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ would be paradigmatic of the second. [p. 26]


  21. […] 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 […]


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