Brandom’s Woodbridge Lectures. More on Autonomy

August 6, 2010

Following up from my last post, I just read (on Pete’s advice) Brandom’s Woodbridge lectures (available here). This is all really a digression, and I want to get back to Making It Explicit – but I was worried that if I didn’t post something on the lectures they’d drop entirely from memory. So very quickly:

The core of the lectures is a reconstructed narrative of the shift from Kant to Hegel in German Idealism – Brandom sees both as (idealist) pragmatists interested in the active creation of concepts and norms in the synthesising activity of subjects. The shift from Kant to Hegel is, basically, a shift from understanding this practical activity as rooted in the individual subject, versus understanding it as rooted in community or society. Brandom endorses a (reconstructed) Hegelian position – and I agree with most of his conclusions, even though I don’t agree with the idealist way they’re framed. Brandom has a very nifty interpretation of the Kantian synthetic unity of apperception, and a nicely pragmatist/deflationary read of Hegel’s ‘march of reason through history’. (The march of reason can only be seen as such retrospectively, because it only is such retrospectively – that is, from the social-temporal perspective of a specific community’s norms and commitments and understanding of ‘reason’). I don’t have enough Hegel to know how forced Brandom’s read of him is – but (from what I remember of the First Critique, which I admittedly read a very long time ago) I thought Brandom’s discussion of Kant seemed really astute and sound – Brandom seemed overly apologetic for his departure from standard interpretations.

Anyway, hopefully I’ll be able to revist some of this content in relation to Brandom’s other works. 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 ‘autonomy’, which I discussed in my last post.

Now unfortunately Brandom’s voicing throughout these lectures is rather unclear – he’s giving his reconstructed versions of Kantian and Hegelian positions – these reconstructions clearly owe something to Brandom’s sense of what these figures should have said, given their commitments, rather than simply what they did say – but that doesn’t mean that Brandom himself necessarily endorses his reconstructions. I’m therefore unclear just how much of the lectures’ content expresses Brandom’s own positions (except towards the end of the last lecture, where Brandom is clearly articulating positions that he himself endorses).

I’m going to do this at a pretty high level of abstraction, therefore, and with somewhat tinker-toy versions of the claims. Obviously I’m not at all abreast of the broader debates on these issues, and would be more than happy to be informed of further material I should engage with, or arguments that I should take account of.

So – The claim we started off with was the ‘thesis of autonomy’. In Pete’s words: “This is the claim that any authority is binding on us only insofar as we accept that authority. This includes the authority that norms have over us.”

Now at one level this is trivially true, if what it concerns is our experience or conviction that norms are binding on us. If what we mean when we say that norms are binding on us, is that we are experiencing them or understanding them as binding on us – then, obviously, our experience/understanding of norms as binding involves some level of accepting them as binding – otherwise they wouldn’t seem binding. I don’t know if this is tautologous, but it’s certainly pretty close.

If this is the claim then I have no problem with it. But I think the claim is meant to be stronger than this – norms can be binding on us that we don’t experience as binding, but have nonetheless accepted as binding, without being aware of it. This is also, of course, true. This is one of the areas where Brandom’s emphasis on inference pays dividends – in committing oneself to proposition A one has also committed oneself to propositions B, C, D, E, F, G, etc. – because commitment to these propositions follows from commitment to proposition A, according to the norms of concept use deployed in the specific linguistic game of asking for and giving reasons in which one is presently engaged. (Commitment to these further propositions is just what commitment to proposition A means, on Brandom’s inferentialist account of propositional content – but one need not be aware of every aspect of A’s meaning, in using A.) These norms are not determinable solely by the individual subject, but rather by the series of ongoing (open-ended and of course potentially contradictory) social interactions that constitute the community/communities to which one belongs by virtue of one’s participation in such linguistic interaction.

All this is fine and dandy. Brandom expresses it in terms of the difference between one’s commitment to a norm (which one can control) and the content of the norm to which one commits oneself (which one cannot control – because it is socially, rather than individually, determined). But it seems to me that this set-up leaves the putative principle of autonomy vulnerable to the argument I articulated in my last post. Once our theory has acknowledged that one’s deontic status – the norms one is obliged to follow – is determined not just by one’s own actions, but also by the actions (deontic attitudes) of others, there seems no meta-theoretically non-arbitrary way to limit the determination of deontic status by others to the content of the norms one is obliged to follow, as opposed to the matter of which norms one is obliged to follow in the first place. In fact, there seems to be no way to coherently distinguish between these two situations, at the level of abstraction at which Brandom’s basic theoretical apparatus is pitched (for one of the many features of Brandom’s Hegelian modification of the basic Kantian normative pragmatics is to collapse the conceptual distinction between appearance and thing-in-itself, at the most general discursive level available to analysis.)

[That last sentence is pretty compressed and the thinking behind it therefore probably unclear – this is sort of the core of Brandom’s third lecture, and is perhaps a somewhat complicated argument. I’d like to post on this a great deal more, but ideally I’ll finish Making It Explicit before I do so, since my assumption is that Making It Explicit is where Brandom gives the most developed articulation of this argument. In a word, this is essentially another version of Brandom’s embedding of the concept of objectivity within his inferentialist semantics, as opposed to the grounding of the latter in the former. But that requires a post or posts of its own. In any case, I don’t think that this point is necessary for the argument of this post to work – though it probably strengthens it.]

The point is that I don’t see on what grounds a Brandomian apparatus could coherently and non-arbitrarily distinguish, at the most general theoretical level, between (legitimate) obligations one has taken on oneself, and (illegitimate) obligations that one repudiates oneself, but that are imposed upon one by others. The move from a Kantian to a Hegelian understanding of the constitution of normative commitments seems to preclude such a distinction (at, let me again repeat, the ‘transcendental’ level at which Brandom’s argument is pitched).

This has various consequences. It means, for one thing, that there’s nothing intrinsically meta-theoretically wrong about attributing obligations to someone, even if that someone utterly repudiates those obligations. Thus, there is no intrinsic meta-theoretical problem with my saying of a person “You are obliged to do exactly as I say”, even if they completely reject the legitimacy or reality of that obligation: this obligation can still exist, in the terms of a specific social-temporal normative perspective (to which I presumably belong). (Though in this instance that social-temporal perspective probably wouldn’t do me much good, w/r/t getting someone to do anything; a bit of hard power would be necessary too.) Similarly, there is nothing intrinsically meta-theoretically wrong with me saying “torture is abhorrent – your action in torturing that person was abhorrent”, even if the torturer in question is in every respect willing to endorse the moral legitimacy of torture. I can still be right about the ethical monstrousness of torture – again, in terms of the normative perspective constituted by a specific community of discursive and ethical practice, to which I but (presumably) not the torturer belong.

And the principle of autonomy would, on this approach, be a normative principle that must be constructed and considered as binding on people at this downstream level of Brandom’s normative pragmatics – rather than at the ‘transcendental’ level at which Brandom is laying out the conditions of possibility of any rational discourse.

There’s as usual much more that could be said to develop this line of thinking… but I guess I’ll stop there for now. Provisional conclusion: the principle of autonomy cannot be derived as a transcendental condition of rational discourse (one is not bound by the principle of autonomy simply in virtue of being a subject). And, although I’m willing to be convinced, I’m not totally sure (mainly due to the difficulty of tracking voicing in these lectures) that Brandom thinks it can be. Whether he does or not, I certainly don’t think his theoretical apparatus gives him the right to compellingly and consistently make this claim.

Now back to Making It Explicit!

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2 Responses to “Brandom’s Woodbridge Lectures. More on Autonomy”

  1. Tom Says:

    Hi Duncan —

    Good post. It’s good to see someone else interested in Brandom’s theory of autonomy. I agree with you about the difficulty Brandom has with the social division of labour between what we acknowledge as our commitments and those that others attribute to us. If scorekeepers are more-or-less sovereign over the content of commitments then that makes the authority to autonomously commit oneself of little consequence.

    I make what I take to be the same point as you in my series of posts on Brandom over at Grundlegung — http://grundlegung.wordpress.com/category/brandom/ — and again in a bit more detail in chapter 4 of my thesis.

    If you want to read around this topic I’d recommend Pinkard’s ‘German Philosophy’ and Pippin’s ‘Hegel’s Practical Philosophy,’ which develop distinct but very similar ideas to Brandom’s on self-legislation from a putatively Hegelian perspective. I think they’re all wrong exegetically and philosophically, but the claims are fascinating.

  2. duncan Says:

    Hi Tom – thanks. I had a peek at your posts on Brandom while I was googling him the other day – they looked really interesting (they may have influenced this post in fact! sorry – I wasn’t really thinking about that or I would have linked) – but I will sit down and read them properly and thoroughly soon. Likewise, the truth is I haven’t read much Hegel – I suppose reading his actual books should come before reading the interpreters, but it’s as always a question of time and priorities. I remember last time I had a go at Hegel – which must be nearly ten years ago now! – I read Pinkard’s ‘The Sociality of Reason’ alongside (bits of) the Phenomenology. Back then I thought Pinkard’s interpretation was just ridiculous – but I’m a lot more sympathetic and attuned to social-theoretic stuff in general now than I was then, so I might have a completely different impression. I really liked what Brandom did with Hegel in those lectures – I thought his stuff about the retrospective creation of progress was really cute and correct – but I’m unclear if it has any connection to Hegel himself. Anyway – thank you for these reading suggestions. 🙂

    Interestingly, I think Marx appropriates/modifies Hegel along similar lines to Brandom. For all that Marx is so often read as having a teleological conception of history, I think his writings are, in fact, strongly anti-teleological. But he wants to explain where the sense of teleology comes from – how we project aspects of our present back into the past, and then regard history as a disinterring of the present. And of course, for movement-building purposes, he’s interested in summoning the possibility of a future community, from whose perspective our own actions (our own contingent making of history) will seem like inevitable progress towards an intrinsically rational goal. This latter move is often mistaken for a naive belief in progress, when it’s really the opposite – an intense attunement to the contingency, reversals, and perspectival fractures of historical struggles.

    But now I’m rambling. Thanks for your comment, anyhow, sorry not to be more on point…


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