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.
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.
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 11, 2010
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?