Robert Brandom’s Making It Explicit

September 1, 2010

I’ve now finished Robert Brandom’s Making It Explicit, and I’ve got Articulating Reasons and Tales of the Mighty Dead here ready to go. Ideally I’d read these and other works by Brandom before beginning to try to reconstruct / interpret the core elements of Brandom’s system – but I’ve got more free time at the moment than I’m likely to once I’ve read Brandom’s other stuff, so I’m going to begin posting on Making It Explicit now, and I can always modify the interpretation as we go. This post is basically just a preamble to a more detailed series of posts on different aspects of Brandom’s argument.

So. I’ll start off saying that I think Making It Explicit is an incredibly impressive work: as I was saying in conversation with Pete (to whom I owe the advice to read Brandom in the first place!), it’s one of the most accomplished works of systematic philosophy I’ve ever read. MIE is not just a work of philosophy, however. Brandom situates himself in the U.S. pragmatist tradition: in a very useful interview available on YouTube, Brandom associates the late 19th century U.S. pragmatists with a ‘second Enlightenment’ – one informed, like the ‘first Enlightenment’, by the scientific developments of its day. Where the paradigmatic scientific advance of Enlightenment One was mathematized Newtonian physics, Brandom says, the 19th century U.S. pragmatists were drawing on new scientific developments: Darwinist explanations of biological phenomena; but also the new statistical and social sciences. The pragmatist project was to deploy these new intellectual resources to provide a naturalistic explanation not just of the physical phenomena studied by the natural sciences, but also the conceptual and normative phenomena of human subjectivity. The 19th century pragmatists were in a sense as much proto-social-scientists as they were philosophers – George Herbert Mead, for example, remains a canonical figure within the social-scientific tradition [note to self – read more Mead].

One of the things I’ll argue in these posts is that although Brandom locates himself, in the first place, within the intellectual tradition of analytic philosophy, Making It Explicit is as much a foundational work of social theory as it is of philosophy. That’s because one of the consequences of the pragmatist insistence on the rejection of metaphysics, in favour of an analysis of the social relations that produce the conceptual and normative phenomena under examination, is that the analysis of these relations need not be treated as distinctively philosophical, but is, also, sociological. In this respect, Brandom’s deployment of Wittgensteinian arguments throughout Making It Explicit could be seen as a more sophisticated version of the project David Bloor attempts in his Wittgenstein: A Social Theory of Knowledge. I’d like to discuss further, once I’ve elaborated the fundamentals of Brandom’s system, the parallels between Brandom’s intellectual project and the project of the ‘strong programme’ in Science Studies – one notable difference is that Brandom’s system elaborates its epistemologically and sociologically ‘symmetrical’ approach in a way that avoids some of the problematic aspects of the strong programme’s formulation. From there I’d ideally like to go on to discuss the relation between Brandom’s account of the granting of social authority to objects, and the ANT emphasis on the social agency of objects as non-human actors. But all this is work for another day.

The point is that pragmatism – including both classical 19th century pragmatism, and the later 20th century neo-pragmatism best represented by Richard Rorty, Brandom’s PhD supervisor – is one of the core intellectual traditions (strongly naturalistic, but not natural-scientific) within which Brandom locates his own work. Brandom, however, thinks that the 19th century pragmatists failed to carry out this intellectual program successfully: the pragmatist attempt to account for conceptual and normative phenomena in naturalistic terms foundered on the rocks of instrumentalism, and the paradoxes and inconsistencies associated with that doctrine. Brandom’s own work aims to approach the original pragmatist project from a different angle, abandoning the unproductive commitment to instrumentalism, and deploying instead resources made available by the more recent intellectual tradition of analytic philosophy. Brandom believes that his synthesis of the social-theoretic pragmatist tradition, and the logistical analytic tradition, can provide insights into the subject matters of both that would be available, in isolation, to neither.

In these posts I want to focus on interpreting Brandom’s work – I’m not for now much interested in editorialising about what’s most valuable and what’s (to my mind) a bit regrettable in Brandom’s position. Nevertheless, since my own views are, after all, informing the analysis, I’ll say quickly here that I think Brandom overestimates the strength of the connection between the two halves of his project. That connection is clearly a real one, but the normative pragmatics Brandom develops out of the pragmatist philosophical tradition, and the logistic inferentialist approach to linguistic analysis that Brandom develops out of the analytic tradition, are not, I think, bound together in Brandom’s own work as closely as he seems to take them to be. To elaborate on that very briefly: the argument of Making It Explicit forms something close to a circle – beginning with social practices, and ending with the linguistic resources required to achieve objective reference to the world (a world part of which consists in the social practices with which the argument began). But the structure of the book, and some of the passages that discuss the book’s architectonic, seem to imply that pretty much the whole of MIE’s argument needs to be unfolded if we are to successfully ‘derive’ the latter from the former (objective reference from normative pragmatics). To my mind – and I’ll try to cash this out in more adequate detail at a later date – the details of Brandom’s embedding of the analytic tradition’s referentialist analyses of linguistic phenomena within an inferentialist semantic apparatus (itself embedded within a normative pragmatics) are certainly brilliant, but are to some extent incidental with regard to the core theoretical derivation of, first, conceptual and normative content, and, second, a robust concept of objectivity, from a practice-theoretic starting point. Brandom’s own view seems to be that recent developments in analytic philosophy – notably the development and elaboration of modal logic – have provided the theoretical resources that enable his fresh approach to the original pragmatist problematic. By contrast, I’m inclined to think that Brandom’s deontic scorekeeping account of social norms is pretty much sufficient in itself to get him his concept of objectivity, and that the details of the linguistic philosophy Brandom spends much of Making It Explicit elaborating are further downstream, in terms of the development of his argument. Part of the point of these posts, then, is to begin to distinguish what I take to be the central insights of Brandom’s highly sophisticated pragmatism from the research program in the analytic philosophy of language with which they are, in Brandom’s own work, interwoven. This isn’t – I should emphasise – because I’m denigrating the analytic research program, which strikes me as both interesting and likely to be very productive. But since much of the reception of Brandom’s work so far has – unsurprisingly – been from within the analytic philosophical community, and (perhaps therefore inevitably) often focussed on quite technical aspects of Brandom’s inferentialism, it might be worth approaching Making It Explicit from a different direction – one that emphasises the social-theoretic pragmatism of Brandom’s work, as opposed to the inferentialist philosophy of language. The title of this series of posts could be: Brandom for social scientists. I think Making It Explicit contains many very valuable resources for those interested in a sophisticated, philosophically powerful, and empirically adequate theory of social practice: my goal here is to draw out and explicate this aspect of Brandom’s work.

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