Promissory note: Brandom on autonomy

August 2, 2010

I’m still using the blog to take reading notes on Brandom; this post is essentially a promissory note for a specific critique and repurposing, both of which I’ll want to unfold in more detail further down the road, once I’m much more familiar with Brandom’s work. I’ve already articulated some of the reasoning behind this line of thought in conversation at ktismatics – this post takes a slightly different approach to the same set of issues.

Brandom’s system (which is exceptional in its scope, power and insight – Making It Explicit is one of the most impressive works of systematic philosophy I’ve ever read) is built upon very minimal foundations; the resources Brandom needs to unfold his apparatus are extraordinarily slight, given the reach of his analysis. One of the aspects of the system that seems, to me, however, to be serving a ‘grounding’ role, is Brandom’s version of the Kantian thesis of autonomy. Pete has discussed this in relation to what he calls ‘the primary bind’. Pete’s idea is that certain minimal normative commitments are a precondition of rational subjecthood; that participating in any discourse at all means committing oneself to these principles. One of those principles, Pete writes, is “the insight into normativity that Brandom finds in Kant, namely, the thesis of autonomy. This is the claim that any authority is binding on us only insofar as we accept that authority.”

I think Pete is right to see this claim as something like a transcendental condition of rationality in Brandom’s work. I also, for what it’s worth, agree with Pete that Brandom’s apparatus is sufficiently powerful to escape the obvious conceptual difficulties such a transcendental principle seems to pose (principally the consequence that, in Pete’s words, “we need only accept correction when we want to accept it, and if we don’t want to accept it then it isn’t really correction.”) Nevertheless, I think that Brandom is wrong to give this principle the status that he does; I think that doing so significantly weakens the power and reach of his system, and is, further, inconsistent with his system’s own best practice.

I don’t plan on trying to cash out these claims for some time yet (though it helps my thinking to articulate them, which is why this post exists) – but as a gesture towards a more complete analysis, let me add the following: Much of the work of Brandom’s system pivots around the distinction between deontic attitudes and deontic status. The former (on my interpretation of Brandom’s argument) produces the latter; the latter can be analysed in terms of the former (subject to some potentially confusing nuances around the nature of the intentional stance, which I will address in a future post). The two most basic deontic attitudes are those of undertaking and attributing a commitment (a commitment being a deontic status); of these two, attributing a commitment is fundamental. As Brandom puts it on page 196 of Making It Explicit:

The fundamental concept of the metalanguage employed in specifying the model of assertional practice is that of the deontic attitude attributing a commitment. For the deontic attitude of undertaking a commitment is definable in terms of attribution: undertaking a commitment is doing something that licenses or entitles others to attribute it. … The attitude of acknowledging a commitment is in effect that of attributing it to oneself.

This last sentence articulates very clearly and succinctly Brandom’s order of explanation. Attributing a commitment is fundamental, and attributing a commitment to oneself is a subspecies of attributing a commitment in general: in Brandom’s theory of normative social practice, it is the reflexive ability to relate to oneself in the same way in which one relates to another (for the practice of attributing a commitment is the same, no matter to whom the commitment is attributed) that enables the complex socially mediated relation to self of which sapience principally consists.

This leveling of the social playing field of deontic-status-attribution means, however, that Brandom’s insistence that a commitment can’t really be a commitment unless it is (in some very broad sense) accepted as such by the self, cannot be justified at the most basic explanatory level of his system. At this very abstract (‘transcendental’) level of the system, the claim is an arbitrary imposition – an intruder from a more downstream and concrete level of normative practice. The attribution of deontic status to self has (at this level of meta-theoretical abstraction) no features that would substantively differentiate it from the attribution of deontic status to others, such that the principle of autonomy (and the privileging of self-relation on which it depends) could be grounded in this difference.

I’ll expand on this thought, suggest other reasons for reaching a similar conclusion, and further analyse Brandom’s use of the principle of autonomy in future posts. This post as stands is just a promissory note.

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8 Responses to “Promissory note: Brandom on autonomy”

  1. duncan Says:

    And, in what is fast becoming a tradition in my posts on Brandom, having written it and thought about it I’m now deeply unsure that the position I’m critiquing is really there in the text at all – i.e., I’m now thinking that my suggested ‘amendment’ may be exactly what Brandom was doing to begin with. (That is to say: I’m now not at all convinced that Brandom gives anything like the Kantian principle of autonomy anything like transcendental status.) I suppose these posts are useful if they make me think things through, but sheesh… [I want to think about this further and probably re-read some of the relevant material. Brandom’s work is, as I say above, extraordinarily rich, but the downside is that this is going to be a long slog…]

  2. deontologistics Says:

    The Woodbridge lectures (printed in Reason in Philosophy) are the best place to look for his considered opinion on the principle of autonomy. It’s there in MIE, but it’s not as pronounced as you might think.

  3. duncan Says:

    Ok, I’ll check them out, thanks.

  4. duncan Says:

    [NB: As Pete noted in another thread, the Woodbridge lectures are available online. For archiving purposes, here’s the link. That page also includes a bunch of other texts by Brandom that look highly relevant to some of the discussions we’ve been having – notably a piece on Habermas and Hegel, and a piece on Rorty and eliminativist materialism. All grist for the mill, although it’s going to take me quite some time to work my way through this stuff…]

  5. duncan Says:

    I’ve started reading those Woodbridge lectures (which are really good). Some of Brandom’s remarks on Kant (“In a strict sense, all a Kantian subject can do is apply concepts, either theoretically, in judging, or practically, in acting.”) made me think of a funny line Derrida is supposed to have said once. The funny line is: “I am applied Derrida”.

  6. duncan Says:

    On the other hand this (from the second lecture) is exactly the sort of ideological guff that I was gesturing towards in the comment at ktismatics linked above.

    Consider what happens when a young person achieves her legal majority. Suddenly she has the authority to bind herself legally, for instance by entering into contracts. That gives her a host of new abilities: to borrow money, take out a mortgage, start a business. The new authority to bind oneself normatively, to take on these new normative statuses, involves a huge increase in positive freedom. The difference between discursive creatures and non-discursive ones is likewise to be understood in terms of the sort of normative positive freedom exhibited by the concept users.

    As so often in the idealist Enlightenment rationalist imaginary, consciousness itself, normativity itself, sapience itself are understood by analogy with property ownership and investment. The distinction between those who can borrow money to invest in business and property, and those who do not have these social powers (slaves; the poor; those without bourgeois legal rights) – this is apparently the same distinction as that between the human and the animal, between sapience and sensation, between Enlightenment and unreason.

    Brandom’s theoretical apparatus – which is simply first rate – should give him more than enough resources to avoid falling into this kind of nonsense; but I guess there’s no reason why thinkers would apply their own work’s resources insightfully, once they move outside their field.

    (His discussion of the transcendental unity of apperception is amazing, though.)

  7. duncan Says:

    Okay – I finished the Woodbridge lectures. I’m not sure yet if or when I’ll put up a post discussing them (I may just plough on with Making It Explicit). But I wanted to quickly note that (to my mind) Brandom’s analysis of the Hegelian idea of the retrospective determinacy of concepts/norms in the third lecture is pretty much exactly the position I’ve been trying to push w/r/t determinacy. Brandom:

    So are the contents of empirical concepts determinate, in the Kant-Frege Verstand sense, as the retrospective epistemic perspective has it, or indeterminate in that sense, as the prospective semantic perspective has it? … What we should say is that concepts have contents that are both determinate and further determinable, in the sense provided by the dynamic, temporally perspectival framework of Vernunft. Do we make our concepts, or do we find them? Are we authoritative over them, or responsible to them? Hegel’s model entitles him to answer: “Both”.

    Pete – it seems to me that your argument about norms being fictional is based on the idea that norms must be understood (from our normative perspective internal to the space of reasons) in what Brandom is calling the Kant-Frege Verstand sense – as fully determinate in terms of their future applications (a full determinacy that can in fact only legitimately be applied w/r/t their past applications, from a specific social-temporal perspective.) It seems to me that Brandom doesn’t define norms in this way, and therefore has no obligation to regard them as fictional…


  8. […] I’ve already complained about some of the lectures’ ideological nonsense (in a comment here) so I’ll leave that aside. In this post I want mainly to revisit the question of […]


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