Normative Phenomenalism

December 20, 2010

In my last post I made passing reference to Brandom’s ‘normative phenomenalism’. I want to very briefly expand on what that phrase signifies.

Here’s Brandom in Making It Explicit 5.II.3:

The sort of explanatory strategies here called ‘phenomenalist’ in a broad sense treat the subject matter about which one adopts a phenomenalist view as supervening on something else, in a way whose paradigm is provided by classical sensationalist phenomenalism about physical objects. The slogan of this narrower class of paradigmatically phenomenalist views is, “To be is to be perceived.” The characteristic shift of explanatory attention enforced by these approaches is from what is represented to representings of it. The representeds are explained in terms of the representings, instead of the other way around. Talk ostensibly about objects and their objective properties is understood as a code for talk about representings that are interrelated in complicated but regular ways. What the naive conservatism implicit in unreflective practice understands as objects and properties independent of our perceptual takings of them now becomes radically and explicitly construed as structures of or constructions out of those takings. Attributed existence, independence, and exhibition of properties are all to be seen as features of attributings of them. 292

Brandom is not a phenomenalist about physical objects – he does not believe that the reality of physical objects entirely supervenes on the perception of them. Brandom is, however, in a complex sense, a phenomenalist about norms: he thinks that norms can be fully explicated in terms of normative attitudes – that is, the fact of whether something is correct or incorrect, justified or unjustified, can be fully explained in terms of our taking it as correct or incorrect, justified or unjustified (in social practice).

This sounds like a recipe for subjectivism or relativism, as I discussed in an earlier post. So it’s important to see how Brandom complicates this basic explanatory strategy. Unfortunately I don’t think I’m in a position adequately to discuss that as yet. So this post is really a place-marker or promissory note: I need to give a fuller account of how Brandom’s normative phenomenalism functions – in particular I need to discuss the role of interpretation, and of what Brandom calls ‘the stance stance’, in distinguishing Brandom’s own normative phenomenalism from what he calls a simple ‘regularism’, the position according to which norms could be fully translated into naturalistic description of social regularities.

The Soul Is Not A Smithy

December 20, 2010

Now, if I can get self-indulgent for a while, I want to write briefly about David Foster Wallace, whose work (novels, essays and short stories) I was very keen on in my early twenties and continue to admire, though more ambivalently. One of Wallace’s big preoccupations was the contamination of ethical seriousness or authenticity by satisfaction taken in the perception of others’ perception of one’s self as ethical. E.g., from his essay on Joseph Frank’s literary biography of Dostoevsky:

Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to ‘’’seem’’ like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?

Or from the start of the story Good Old Neon, in which the dead narrator explains the reasons for his suicide:

My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired. It’s a little more complicated than that, maybe. But when to come right down to it it’s to be liked, loved. Admired, approved of, applauded, whatever.

Or indeed from the extremely problematic essay on John McCain that appeared in Rolling Stone during the 2000 presidential primaries [I don’t have a copy to hand], in which McCain’s straight-talking maverick honesty is contrasted with politicians who say only what’s in their political interest.

I don’t want to write at any length about David Foster Wallace, here, but I think he serves as a useful example, at least, of a reasonably common attitude: one that contrasts genuinely ethical actions with those that are prompted, instead, by the ‘social conditioning’ of others’ approval. I believe Brandom’s work gives an extremely detailed and carefully worked-through explanation of exactly why that attitude is wrong. It makes no sense to contrast actions that are undertaken for genuinely ethical reasons with actions that are undertaken simply because the actor seeks the approval of a specific social circle or perspective. There is nothing to normativity beyond the possibility of such social-perspectival approval and disapproval (and the practices via which such approval and disapproval operates – I’ll obviously discuss this further in future posts). Brandom’s account of ‘normative phenomenalism’ demonstrates that normativity can – and I believe should – be understood in practice-theoretic, social-perspectival terms, without positing anything else as an additional explanatory factor.

This suggests, to me at least, that Wallace’s work’s visceral anguish at the difficulty of locating a source of ethical action that can be understood as something other than, in some more-or-less complicated and mediated sense, oriented towards admiration, approval or love, is to be explained by the fact that no such source could possibly ever be located – and Wallace’s work’s anguish’s basis is thus to be located in the conviction or expectation that such a source is possible, together with a recognition that no actual empirical ethical action examined can be found to meet this criteria. This attitude produces, in Wallace’s work, two poles: on the one hand a horrified pain at the apparent lack of ethical authenticity in our actions; on the other hand a leap to a transcendent religious standpoint that can validate our ethical actions without their normative source being found in social approval. I believe that both of these poles (which complement each other) are wrong, and can be rejected.

Non-Linguistic Practice

December 19, 2010

Following up on my last post: if not linguistic practice, then what? I could be wrong about this, but my feeling is that the main property of normative creatures that Brandom needs for his social-perspectival account of normative and conceptual content is just the ability to inhabit multiple subject-positions. This can be done through the distinction between de dicto and de re ascriptions of commitments in linguistic practice. But it can also be done through, say, empathy. Essentially what’s needed is the ability to think counterfactually – plus the ability to perceive normative sanctions as sanctions; to engage in deontic scorekeeping, etc. – I don’t see why any of these things need be tied to specifically linguistic practice. I need to think this through more carefully, though, it goes without saying.

As I’ve indicated in passing before, Brandom’s analysis of the distinction between humans and other animal species, and more broadly his understanding of the distinction between sentience and sapience, is one of the key points on which I plan to depart from Brandom’s system. Since this is the question that Brandom uses to frame Making It Explicit, I think we can reasonably assume that it is one of the core motivators of Brandom’s theoretical project, and his answer to it one of that project’s more central theoretical commitments. This departure is therefore a significant one – and I don’t think I’ve properly thought through its repercussions.

Nevertheless, the broad outlines of Brandom’s view are clear: what distinguishes humans from other animals – and, more generally, sapient from ‘merely’ sentient creatures – is linguistic practice. The social behaviours associated with language use are what enable normative and conceptual content, and without normative and conceptual content the very idea of a normative or conceptual interiority the content of which can be communicated in linguistic practice is incoherent. Brandom thus shares with a broad ‘externalist’ or quasi-behaviourist tradition in analytic philosophy an orientation to philosophical explanation that works, as it were, ‘from the outside in’.

Now partly this is a presentational trick, on Brandom’s part. As I’ll discuss further in future posts, Brandom is committed to giving an account of normative and conceptual content that does not rely on any of the phenomenological building blocks of a (broadly Cartesian) philosophical approach that begins with subjective experience, and works ‘outward’ to objective reality. As Brandom has remarked in a number of places, the word ‘experience’ does not appear anywhere in Making It Explicit. (This is a very funny stunt for a philosopher to pull, especially without remarking it in the work itself.) Nevertheless, Brandom does have a concept of experience – he is not denying subjective interiority. (He is not an eliminativist, for example.) But all the work that a concept of experience might do in an empiricist philosophical system is covered, for Brandom, by the broader category of reliable differential responsive dispositions. Reliable differential responsive dispositions (RDRDs, as Brandom abbreviates the phrase) are exactly what it says on the tin: reliable dispositions to respond to different stimuli in different ways. Brandom uses the example of iron rusting in response to moisture as his baseline case – the question he poses fairly early in Making It Explicit, and then spends the rest of the book answering, is: how can one start with RDRDs of this purely causal, naturalistically describable kind, and end up with normativity? Brandom’s answer is incredibly complicated, but the brutally simplified three word version is: linguistic social practice.

Now it’s important to recognise that, although for methodological and subterranean polemical reasons Brandom refuses to make use of the category of ‘experience’ in his philosophical system, Brandom is in fact describing experience in a lot of his discussion of RDRDs, provided we accept a naturalistic account of consciousness. I accept, I believe Brandom accepts, and I believe Making It Explicit leaves room for (though it does not presuppose or require), an understanding of consciousness whereby consciousness is ‘nothing but’ an emergent property of biological states and activities of the organism in interaction with its environment. If we accept this, then description of the human biological system’s RDRDs is also, often, description of the biological processes in interaction with their environment that ‘just are’ consciousness – although of course this doesn’t mean that our analytic categories for RDRDs map in any very direct way onto analytic categories for subjective experience: just that we’re ultimately referring to the same thing.

An interesting example of this habit of thought and expression is to be found in this YouTube interview with Brandom (Brandom’s answer to the question I have in mind starts at around 5:40). The interviewer asks Brandom whether his position could be described as a form of ‘weak empiricism’. Brandom replies:

Well if one’s empiricism is weak enough then I think everyone’s an empiricist. That is, we can’t know anything about the world around us without sensory experience of it.

However, on the way to making his larger point about the way in which inferential chains can be made to track reliable causal chains [I haven’t yet gotten round to discussing this central issue in my posts on Brandom], Brandom moves back to talking in his preferred vocabulary of RDRDs:

The question that you ask for me becomes – ‘How do reliable causal connections in the world come to be transferred into an inferentially usable form?’ And I think the answer is that we can as sentient beings reliably differentially respond to the world around us and those reliable responsive dispositions can be tracked inferentially. So I take you to be a reliable observer of red things because I’m prepared to infer from your claiming that something is red, that it’s red. That’s a reliability inference. I’m taking the causal connection between you and red things and putting it into an inferential form where your saying something, your undertaking a commitment, gives me a reason to undertake a commitment – and in that way we come inferentially to track reliable connections in the world.

One of things I like about this response is how socially inappropriate it is. Brandom’s great theme (like Hegel’s) is mutual recognition: what it means and what it takes to recognise another as ‘one of us’. In his response to this interviewer, however, Brandom is I think tacitly transgressing a particular (mild) social taboo related to the normative stance his work is concerned to explicate. Brandom is treating his interlocutor here not in the first place as an autonomous subject, but simply as a causal chain. By redirecting the question in the way he does (it is not that the interviewer is a trustworthy reporter of his own accurate conscious perception of the world, but that he is a predictable physical system: red input in; report of red out) Brandom is tacitly removing the interviewer, at this specific moment of their interaction, from the circle of mutual recognition that Brandom’s work is concerned to describe and ground. Now this is of course just one moment of Brandom’s reply – his purpose is to give an alternative basis to that mutual recognition, one that does not presuppose a concept of experience that comes with problematic metaphysical baggage. Still, I think it is an interesting discursive moment, and I think it helps us to understand that a lot of the time, when Brandom is discussing RDRDs, he ‘just is’ discussing experience, in his own tacitly physicalist vocabulary. At times, as here, this can make Brandom sound mildly sociopathic; but the philosophical reward for such social presentation is I think substantial.

Brandom begins with reliable differential responsive dispositions, then, in lieu of the category of experience, and Brandom’s system is going to be built out of an account of the interaction of a particular class of RDRDs: normative attitudes and normative sanctions. By short-circuiting the philosophical discourse of phenomenological perception and empiricist subjectivity, and starting instead with the predictable biological actions of the human organism, Brandom is grounding his system in a potentially naturalistic way. It’s true that, as far as Making It Explicit is concerned, the nature of the relevant RDRDs is ‘black-boxed’, such that Making It Explicit would be entirely compatible with a thoroughly non-naturalistic understanding of normative practice. But one philosophical reward for starting where Brandom does is, I think, the possibility of a philosophically sophisticated naturalism.

In other words, Brandom begins from practice: from entities’ actions, not from thought or perception. The ‘practices’ Brandom analyses can be the physical activity of brain-state changes (‘practice’ understood very broadly indeed); or (more in line with conventional and Brandom’s own usage) they can be the social interactions of the human animal: its words, its touches, its punches to the face and gestures of loving forgiveness. There is nothing at the most fundamental theoretical level to differentiate the different RDRDs of the human or other animal organism, in Brandom’s theory. In a previous post, I briefly discussed the baseline practice that Brandom requires for a normative theory of practice: normative sanctions. I need to return to this issue in later posts, but for now I want to skip over it, and instead discuss very briefly the aspect of Brandom’s apparatus that I regard as most problematic: his privileging of linguistic over other kinds of practice.


I’ve described how Brandom re-routes the tendency to begin ’empiricist’ philosophy from the category of experience, by replacing that category with the broader one of reliable differential responsive dispositions. I’ve described, very briefly, how Brandom bases his apparatus on the concept of normative sanctions: the reliable disposition to respond with normative approval or disapproval, and to adjust the social reputation and entitlements of the organism (or entity) responded to, depending on whether that organism (or entity) is taken to have followed or transgressed a socially constructed normative standard. I haven’t yet and won’t here discuss in any detail how the construction of objective normative standards actually works, on Brandom’s account – though obviously this is a big and important topic. Nevertheless, I want to highlight two aspects of that account: first Brandom’s privileging of linguistic practice; second, the social-perspectival account of normative objectivity that emerges out of Making It Explicit‘s account of normative social practice.

The architectonic of Making It Explicit‘s argument as a whole is oriented towards the derivation of objective reference from an inferentialist semantics grounded in a normative pragmatics. Brandom’s argument is only complete when, in the very last sections of Chapter 8, he is able to use the pragmatist and inferentialist resources he has thus far marshalled to give an account of objective reference – a concept which was the axiomatic and unanalysable starting point for many of the canonical analytic philosophers. (Brandom’s system aims in this way to ’embed’ those philosophers’ systems within a more capacious pragmatist framework.) Brandom’s argument thus ‘hits its target’ when he is able finally to write, on page 597 of Making It Explicit:

On this account, objectivity is a structural aspect of the social-perspectival form of conceptual contents. The permanent possibility of a distinction between how things are and how they are taken to be by some interlocutor is built into the social-inferential articulation of concepts.

This is easy to say; it is quite another thing to cash out exactly what this means in detailed practice-theoretic terms. The reason Making It Explicit is such a long book, and a large part of why it is such an impressive one, is the detailed analysis of specific social practices that has preceded this conclusion, and Brandom’s illustration of exactly how objectivity can emerge as a structural aspect of those practices. As Brandom says in the book’s Preface,

the body of the work aims to set the criteria of adequacy for a theory of discursive practice, motivate the approach adopted, work out the model in detail, and apply it. (p. xii, my emphasis)

Now obviously I’m a big fan of Brandom. Nevertheless, I reject the idea that discursive practice is the only form of practice capable of achieving the closed loop of Making It Explicit‘s argument. Brandom seems to me to make a compelling case that the linguistic practices he analyses are capable of producing the social structures of objective reference with which his argument concludes. But I see no reason to believe that other social practices might not also be capable of achieving similar ends; indeed, my strong inclination is to argue that this is empirically the case. I don’t feel that Making It Explicit presents a compelling case for seeing specifically linguistic practice as uniquely associated with the social construction of normative and conceptual content, or objective reference.

To my mind, therefore, large sections of Making It Explicit (those associated with the technical details of Brandom’s practice-theoretic philosophy of language) are compelling, but are not necessary for Brandom’s most general argument to be made. The bulk of Part Two of MIE, in particular, seems to me to illustrate the power of Brandom’s practice-theoretic framework, but it is not required for the articulation of the nature of explicitation or objective reference as such.

This isn’t, of course, to say that these sections of Making It Explicit should be discarded. The fact that (in my opinion) they are not as integral to the overarching argument as Brandom appears to believe, does not mean they’re wrong. And, further, if we are to discard the (necessary) derivation of normative and conceptual content from linguistic practice, we need to be able to offer an alternative set of social practices than can play an analogous structural role to Brandom’s linguistic practices, in an argument structurally parallel, if partly different in content, to that of Making It Explicit. I’m not sure that I’m capable of doing such a thing. Nevertheless, this is where my inclinations lie, and this is one of the motivating factors behind the approach to Making It Explicit I will be taking in future posts.

Brandom / Derrida

December 17, 2010

Brandom’s analysis of normative objectivity is in part intended as a response to the difficulty articulated in Wittgenstein’s private language argument – that if we understand following a rule (i.e. conforming our actions to a norm) in terms of belief that we are following a rule (i.e. conforming our actions to a norm) then it seems that belief we are following a rule would be the same thing as following a rule, and there would be not space for the objectivity of the rule – i.e. for the rule as something that can actually be followed. This is a problem that has, in one form or another, plagued many of the philosophical positions that aim to articulate a naturalistic or practice-theoretic account of normativity: the collapse of such accounts into some or other kind of subjectivism. The subject whose belief that they are following a rule is identical with following a rule can differ from system to system; but the basic problem that such a subjectivity (whether individual or collective) seems to evacuate the very idea of rule-following, or of normative objectivity, is a serious one.

Brandom’s response to this problem is to articulate a purely formal concept of objectivity, as the difference between what one subject takes themselves to be committed to in undertaking a normative action, and what another subject takes the first subject to be committed to in undertaking the same action. In Brandom’s account, subjects can ‘keep two sets of books’ about commitments – they keep track of what a subject takes a commitment to entail, and what the same commitment entails from an alternative subject-position. When following a rule, or adhering to a norm, we take it that our sense of what the rule is, is identical with what the rule really is – where “what the rule really is” is understood in terms of alternative subject-positions on the same act of commitment. This inhabiting of multiple-subject positions opens the possibility of non-identity of the objective rule with our subjective sense of the rule. But the ‘objective’ sense of the rule, which is contrasted with our subjective sense of the rule, can only be understood in terms of alternative subjective senses, which are themselves open to similar potential self-division. There is, in other words, no resting place in which our sense of the rule will be guaranteed to be identical with the rule’s final ‘objective’ reality – and this lack of final objectivity establishes the formal possibility of objectivity.

I’m still trying to work through these ideas, obviously [important to note, for instance, that the ‘subjective’ senses I’m talking about are understood by Brandom as practices, not beliefs] – and I’m moving here into a more personal and much less exegetical mode. But the parallels between Brandom’s apparatus here and the Derridean repurposing of Husserl is striking to me. (This may be because Frege and Husserl are very close, and Brandom is doing similar things with Frege as Derrida is with Husserl. Alas I haven’t read these figures.) Consider the Derridean concept of iterability – which Derrida sees as something like the transcendental condition of objective reference, in the Husserlian phenomenological apparatus. Iterability is a condition of objective reference because there can be no concept of an object transcendent to subjectivity without the possibility of encountering that object as the same from multiple subject-positions (I mean multiple subject-positions within the non-self-identical self.) In Husserl and Derrida, this analysis is conducted through the phenomenological experience of the intrinsically time-bound subject, where temporality is the principle of non-self-identity that enables multiple subject positions within the same subjectivity, and thus the possibility of objectivity and objective reference. In Brandom, this analysis is conducted via sociality, and multiple discrete organisms engaging in conversation. But in comments to my last post, j. linked me to a Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews piece on Reading Brandom: On Making It Explicit (Weiss & Wanderer, eds.) (I should read this book), which contains the following very interesting fragment:

Here again Brandom clarifies the precise status of his claim concerning the sociality of normativity and content, doing so in a way that will perhaps strike some Wittgensteinian readers as surprising: “if creatures can take up the different perspective to time-slices of themselves,” he grants, “then the relation among those time-slices is social in the sense that it must admit of the distinction of perspectives between the attitude of attributing a commitment (or other normative status) and the attitude of acknowledging it” (p. 299)

This places Brandom very close to certain aspects of the post-phenomenological tradition. And I believe that Brandom and Derrida are in many ways playing the same game – right up to the pivotal role played by anaphora in their systems. (Brandom doesn’t agree, I should add, as his occasional references to Derrida make clear.)

Nevertheless, I consider Brandom’s philosophical apparatus a more promising starting point for further work than Derrida’s – because I believe Brandom does not succumb to the metaphysical fantasies that remain operative in Derrida’s work. When I was working through Derrida on my previous blog, I concluded that Derrida’s concept of iterability remains bound to a transcendental concept of constitution, and that Derrida’s inability to deconstruct this concept of constitution, and find its own empirical conditions of possibility, was the key to the failure of Derrida’s project as a whole. (For my earlier self’s thoughts on Derrida see here and especially here.) While (as Pete has argued), Brandom remains committed to a sort of weak transcendentalism, whereby the structure of the practices that constitute subjectivity can be analysed without an understanding of how those practices empirically operate [this needn’t be a spooky thing: compare our ability to analyse the structure of the inheritance of biological traits before the discovery of DNA, for example], Brandom’s claims are vulnerable to empirically-based contestation in a way that the concepts of differance or messianicity aren’t. In this sense, I believe, Brandom’s work could be seen as providing a practice-theoretic explanation for the validity of the general deconstructive critique of presence, without requiring any metaphysical or quasi-theological originary difference, as Derrida’s own understanding of his theoretical practice ultimately does. One of the many things I like about Brandom’s work, then, is that I believe it allows me to justify and reappropriate in more secular and thoroughgoingly anti-metaphysical terms the kinds of deconstructive critiques of ideological systems that I spent a fair bit of time on my former blog attempting.

(NB: It’s likely that some of the similarities between Derrida and Brandom’s projects are part of a shared debt to Heidegger. Certainly Brandom presents his theory of practice as developed, in part, in dialogue with Being and Time‘s analysis of presence-to-hand versus readiness-to-hand. However, I haven’t read enough Heidegger to judge.)


December 15, 2010

This is something I’m going to have to return to once I’ve unpacked a bit more of the apparatus I’m relying on – but I wanted to make a first pass at addressing the issue of the category of ‘sanctions’ in Brandom’s philosophical system (&, by extension, in real life). This post aims to make a first pass at explaining the nature of the category in Making It Explicit. I’ll deal with the many subtleties and complications Brandom attaches to the category, and with other important related aspects of his argument, at a later date.

So – in section 1.IV.3 of Making It Explicit (the section called ‘Sanctions’) Brandom explains how a sanction-based pragmatist account of normativity works.

According to such a retributive approach to assessment, one treats a performance as correct or appropriate by rewarding it, and as incorrect or inappropriate by punishing it. 34

On the next page Brandom explains one of the reasons why he likes this approach:

A cardinal advantage of these theories is that while to this extent countenancing Kant’s distinction between genuinely norm-governed and merely regular activity, they make intelligible how conduct that deserves to be called distinctively norm-governed could arise in the natural world. 35

That is to say: one of the benefits of a sanctions-based account of normativity is its compatibility with scientific naturalism.

In the next paragraph Brandom goes on to outline the three core commitments of the type of sanctions-based pragmatist account of normativity he’s discussing.

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. 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 them in practice, is explained in terms of positive and negative sanctions, rewards and punishments. This tripartite strategy is endorsed and pursued in the rest of this work. 35-36

It’s important to take this aspect of Brandom’s argument seriously. Brandom will complicate the account of sanctions he’s sketched in these few pages, but his theory remains fundamentally grounded in retribution and reward – practices of retribution and reward which can themselves be understood naturalistically.

Brandom then goes on to say that he is dissatisfied with the way in which sanctions-based normative theories are typically developed. He is going to go on to add a number of subtleties to his account, that (he believes, and I agree) allow it to escape many of the objections most commonly raised against sanctions-based accounts of normativity.

At the moment I want to look at two particular concerns that Brandom feels the need to address in order to render plausible his attempt to ground his philosophical system in sanctions.

First, there is what Brandom calls the ‘regularist’ problem. This is the objection that sanctions-based pragmatist accounts of normativity are unable adequately to distinguish what ought to be done from what is done. In Brandom’s words,

simple regularity theories are subject to the objection that they conflate the categories of what is in fact done and what ought to be done, and hence that they fail to offer construals of genuinely normative significances of performances at all. 36

A great deal of the rest of Brandom’s system will be devoted to addressing this issue, and I don’t plan on discussing here the many resources Brandom draws on to do so.

A few pages later, however, Brandom addresses a related – or perhaps subsidiary – issue, the question of whether we should understand sanctions in what he here calls “naturalistic” and “nonnormative terms” (42). In Section 1.IV.5 (‘Normative Sanctions’) Brandom makes the case for understanding the sanctions that ground his system normatively and non-naturalistically (these remarks are apparently in tension with his own earlier discussion of the emergence of normativity from natural processes). He writes:

If what qualifies some response to a performance as a sanction – and therefore, according to the retributive line being considered, as an assessment – is specifiable only in normative terms, that is in terms of the correctness or incorrectness, (the normative status) of further performances according to other norms, that kind of sanction can be though of as being internal to the system of norms being discerned. If, by contrast, what qualifies a response as a sanction is specifiable in wholly nonnormative terms of what various community members do or are disposed to do, without reference to the specifically normative status of their performances, that kind of sanction can be thought of as being external to the system of norms being discerned. 44

To illustrate this point, Brandom uses the example of being “beaten with sticks” (43) as a sanction external to a system of norms: being beaten with sticks is bad irrespective of one’s normative standpoint (the reasoning of this passage goes). On the other hand, a sanction might be ‘purely’ normative – one might meet with the ethical disapproval of a community, such that one’s reputation and obligations are altered, without that alteration of reputation or obligations necessarily having any impact on one’s own or the community’s behaviour other than in similar acts of ethical approval or disapproval. Brandom regards the latter kind of sanction as irreducibly normative, and contrasts it with the non-normative, naturalistically describable type of sanction exemplified by beating people with sticks.

This is where my series 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 Explicit in general. While emphasising that I might be mistaken about the direction in which Brandom’s argument is meant to point, I argued that Brandom’s distinction between sanctions ‘internal’ and ‘external’ to the system of norms being discerned didn’t seem to speak to the issue of naturalism at all. I used the analogy of scientific claims about the relation between consciousness and the brain. This is me from July:

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.

As I said in the comment thread to that post, and in subsequent posts as well, I now think that I was indeed misunderstanding Brandom’s argument when I made these comments. I now have a clearer sense of what Brandom believes he’s arguing against in these passages – passages that look, at first glance, genuinely “anti-naturalistic”. Again, I can’t spell out all of this until I’ve unfolded more of my understanding of the Brandomian apparatus, but these numbered points should give a general sense of what in my opinion is going on here.

First – Brandom is arguing against what might be called ‘ultra-crude naturalistic reductionism’. I haven’t actually read B.F.Skinner, and for all I know his work is as nuanced and profound as a Shakespearean tragedy; but there’s a widely disseminated image of Skinnerian behavourism, wherein all human behaviour and consciousness can be reduced, on analysis, to Pavlovian responses to environmental stilumi of the ‘beating people with sticks’ variety – and Brandom is concerned to differentiate his own position from this crude behaviourist one.

Second – Brandom has a fairly consistent – and to my mind communicatively unhelpful – tendency to differentiate ‘naturalism’ from ‘social-theoretic naturalism’. I.e. in Brandom’s lexicon, the term naturalism often refers to positions that analyse human normativity etc. in natural-scientific terms but that do not take into adequate account the role of social practices in the constitution of normativity, etc. But this doesn’t mean that Brandom thinks the normative social practices that ground his own system cannot be analysed naturalistically. In other words, Brandom seems to use the word ‘naturalism’ to pick out a much narrower category of positions than I take it to conventionally denote. (I’m not saying that Brandom’s usage is wrong – this is probably an issue of different discursive communities & environments.) See this interview for an example of this framing of the issue.

Third – Brandom has an (I think) admirable inclination to differentiate the different sectors of commitment of which his philosophical views are composed. I mean that Brandom is very attentive to which parts of his own web of philosophical belief could be discarded without doing damage to others. As part of his general project of persuasion, he is disinclined to rhetorically bind commitments together, if the conceptual apparatus does not itself demand this binding. This is by way of saying that Brandom is happy to make the most minimal case he can, if making a stronger set of claims clutters the argument with further premises without (in his eyes) adding to its internal consistency or persuasiveness. In Making It Explicit Brandom is grounding his philosophical apparatus in ‘normative sanctions’. The fact that he does so doesn’t mean that the social practices of normative sanctioning aren’t themselves further analysable (e.g. natural-scientifically) – it’s just that Brandom is black-boxing the nature of those practices, while he builds his system out of them.

Fourth – Brandom is fighting an important but somewhat rococo battle here, about the kind of language-functioning out of which can be built the semantic apparatus he unfolds in the second half of his book. I don’t know the analytic terrain sufficiently to talk about this with any authority – but I think it’s clear that one of Brandom’s enemies in these pages (as throughout Making It Explicit) is the idea of a purely descriptive language, separable from normative judgements. Brandom’s argument is that normative judgement comes first, and that description (representation) has to be explained in terms of normative practice, rather than normative practice added on to truth and reference as a secondary feature of sapient creatures’ conceptual, practical, and linguistic capacities. To that end Brandom is keen to emphasise the primacy of normativity – and he’s right to do so, in terms of the battle he’s fighting here. Nevertheless, the opposition between on the one hand a purely descriptive (‘naturalistic’) philosophical metalanguage, and on the other hand an understanding of linguistic practice and thus (for Brandom) sapience as intrinsically normative… this opposition is in fact different from the opposition between on the one hand a naturalistic and on the other hand a super-naturalistic (and / or purely transcendental) understanding of the nature of the social practices out of which Brandom’s apparatus is to be built. Brandom’s phrasing in these sections of Making It Explicit can suggest he has the latter issue in mind, when I think really he’s interested in the former.

That fourth point in particular could do with some unpacking – which I can’t do adequately until I come to address Brandom’s very clever appropriation and transformation of the idea of ‘the intentional stance’. The above should give some sense, however, of what I take to be going on in these apparently ‘anti-naturalistic’ sections of Making It Explicit.

This having been at least provisionally articulated, I’ll return to the main issue: sanctions. Brandom’s fundamental point here is really very simple. His philosophical apparatus is going to be built up out of social practices. The social practices he’s interested in are sanctions – practices of reward and retribution. Brandom distinguishes between two very broad kinds of sanctions – ‘internal’ and ‘external’, or ‘normative’ and ‘nonnormative’ sanctions. Non-normative sanctions are things like beating people with sticks: causing an impact on a person that is bad or good irrespective of that person’s own normative judgements. Normative sanctions are sanctions that only make sense as sanctions to the extent that we are normative creatures. For example – ethical disapproval only successfully functions as a sanction to the extent that we are normative creatures and thus capable of experiencing ethical disapproval as painful or as a punishment.

This is the first foundation-stone of Brandom’s system, and I plan to take it over, with gratitude, and make it mine too, by use and transformation.

Alfie Meadows, a philosophy student at Middlesex University, was struck as he tried to leave the area outside Westminster Abbey during last night’s tuition fee protests, his mother said.

After falling unconscious on the way to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, he underwent a three-hour operation for bleeding on the brain.

Susan Meadows, 55, an English literature lecturer at Roehampton University, said: “He was hit on the head by a police truncheon. He said it was the hugest blow he ever felt in his life. The surface wound wasn’t very big but three hours after the blow, he suffered bleeding to the brain. He survived the operation and he’s in the recovery room.”

But nothing can stop the liberal press, all aflutter at paint thrown at the Rolls Royce carrying the heir to the throne, from compliantly propagandising for the police and the ruling coalition. The “violence” in question here is not the hospitalisation with internal bleeding requiring a three hour operation of a 20-year-old, but paint thrown at a car. From the same page in the Guardian as that which covers the brutal and unprovoked attack by armed agents of the state on a 20-year-old student exercising his right to protest, we have this:

It would be silly as well as cynical to imagine that David Cameron is privately pleased to see public indignation so easily deflected from his government’s controversial policy. Or that Nick Clegg is positively thrilled to have a day off from his new constitutional role as air raid shelter for the Tories.

Why? Because they’re not wicked or stupid. Trouble on the streets means political trouble and ill-affordable expense for the coalition. Two thousand coppers on overtime cost money.

Oh who will think of the Metropolitan Police’s payroll department?