Brandom Write-Up Promissory Note

September 23, 2010

Well, I’m wanting to move on to some non-Brandom-related material – but before I do here’s a promissory note for the Brandom write-up, in the form of a paper abstract. (This’ll probably end up as a blog post rather than an actual paper, obviously.)

Robert Brandom as Social Theorist

Since the publication in 1994 of his major work, Making It Explicit, Robert Brandom has been regarded, within the analytic philosophical community, as one of the most important and wide-ranging of contemporary philosophers. This paper makes the case that his work could profitably be engaged not just by philosophers, but also by social theorists. I discuss several different aspects of Brandom’s ‘normative pragmatics’ – including his account of ‘deontic scorekeeping’; his ‘I-thou’ model of sociality; and his important arguments for a social-perspectival understanding of normative objectivity – contrasting Brandom’s arguments and commitments with canonical positions within the social-theoretic canon. I suggest that Brandom’s system should be regarded as a significant contribution to the theorisation of social practices.


5 Responses to “Brandom Write-Up Promissory Note”

  1. Nick Srnicek Says:

    This sounds great – I’m going to hold you to your commitment to write it!

  2. duncan Says:

    Thanks Nick. Recently I seem to have been in the mood for sketching out projects, rather than actually doing them :-P. But it would be nice to do them too – so it’s helpful to me that you’ve updated my deontic status in the way you have. 😉 It’ll probably be a while before I write anything proper on Brandom though – I want to reread at least a fair chunk of MIE first.


  3. Caio Says:

    The way I see it, we can understand Brandom (whether or not he planned it this way) as having articulated a set of conceptual tools that can function as lowest common denominators of different and [what could possibly be] interesting social theories. (Just to be clear, I do not mean they are “neutral” conceptual tools, but just broad enough.) A lot of work must be done fully to cash out that claim, but, for example, his detailed analysis of normative statutes and attitudes may serve to substantiate the claims that legal analysis has to do with institutional detail – the detailed way in which we structure alternative configurations of authority and responsibility in the organization of society, including democracy and the market (see Brandom’s interview entitled “Freedom Is a Matter of Authority and Responsibility”, available on the web, for a hint of this idea). So, to me, this is a very promising line of research and, if successful, very useful to social theory and legal theory.
    Now, I do see a problem with Brandom’s specific account of legal analysis (or of the common law), which he often takes as a good illustration of the historic-rational interpretive-reconstruction model he extracts from Hegel. (One caveat is that I side with Duncan in being unsure about attributing to Brandom himself positions Brandom reconstructs from Hegel.) In one word, it seems to me his model is exactly the model of integrity, as described and defended by Dworkin: the idea that we should guide our legal interpretations by the effort to construct the best interpretation of our past practices, the one that displays their integrity. This, of course, implies a duty to rationalize such practices, which, in law, is a controversial move, to say the least. Obviously, it is a very unimportant problem, but one nonetheless. I prefer it when he just says, in Tales of the Mighty Dead, that the assimetry between norm-creation and norm-application, in favor of the latter, is off-set by the fact that their will be another norm-application in the future to confirm or not the authority of the the previous one. Cheers.

  4. duncan Says:

    Thanks Caio. Yes – I think this is it exactly: a set of conceptual tools that can function as lowest common denominators of different and [what could possibly be] interesting social theories. Brandom’s work operates at a very high level of generality and abstraction relative to most actual social theory – it’s metatheoretical, essentially, and a lot of work would need to be done to develop an actual theory of x compatible with it – and of course any number of alternative and potentially rival theories could be so developed. But there are also certain kinds of theory that Brandom’s work renders explanatorily unnecessary. So for instance I take the general lesson that an idea of normative objectivity can be derived from a straightforwardly practice-theoretic starting point to be an extremely worthwhile thing to have persuasively established – since one relatively frequently runs into positions that implicitly or sometimes explicitly assume that for norms to be compelling they must be based on some source of authority external to social practice. Similarly, Brandom’s ‘I-thou’ account of how group norms are built up out of the multiple sets of ‘books’ we all keep is to my mind an extremely useful way of understanding the non-homogeneity and internal complexity of normative communities, which concepts sometimes causes difficulties in social theory.

    Thanks for the interview tip – I’ll check it out. I’m afraid I haven’t read Dworkin, so I don’t have a view on similarities or otherwise. (I really know no legal theory at all. 😦 ) Is there a specific work by Dworkin that would be a good way in to his ideas? In terms of Brandom’s use of common law as an example – my assumption is that while Brandom is committed to the idea that present judgements should be oriented towards the best interpretation of past practice, Brandom ought to hold an extremely ‘thin’ notion of what that orientation to ‘best interpretation’ involves. I think quite dramatic reinterpretations of the tradition, and rejections of large segments of it, would be compatible with such a minimal commitment – and, as you say, it’s within the power of the later tradition to expurgate or minimize present intepretations that articulate themselves as rationalisation, if they are subsequently considered misguided or undesirable. Now whether Brandom himself is totally consistent in his discussion of legal theory I wouldn’t like to say – this could be one of the areas in his work where there’s a degree of slippage between the different levels of his analysis: using a specific social practice as a paradigm (in certain respects) for social practice in general is always capable of causing problems in that respect. I don’t know though – I’d need to do more work on this. In any case, I definitely agree with what you say at the end of your comment about the importance of future judgements in offsetting the authority of present judges.

    I may be missing important distinctions in all this, though, because I don’t have any background in legal theory. Cheers…

  5. […] Before I started writing on Brandom at length, I had the (in retrospect rather overoptimistic) idea that I could articulate my interpretation of Brandom in the format of an academic paper. Since […]

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