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.

5 Responses to “Sanctions”

  1. j. Says:

    hey, duncan.

    i think you’ll like this:

  2. duncan Says:

    Thanks j – yes – I’ve been meaning to read that volume – and I should!

  3. duncan Says:

    Oh this is fabulous, from the review you linked to:

    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)

    That’s exactly right, but I honestly thought Brandom wouldn’t say it. 😛 He’s really good.

  4. j. Says:

    i’m not up to speed here, but how is that sociality genuine if past (time-slices) of selves are effectively absent? attributing commitments or acknowledging them seems sort of inert when it’s in no way possible for one party to respond (to uphold or fail to uphold a commitment, e.g.).

    if you’re into that kind of thing, you can easily torrent a PDF copy of the book.

  5. duncan Says:

    Well I could be being an idiot – it’s not like I’ve really got to grips with Brandom’s apparatus – but I think in this scenario one’s future self would be the one upholding or failing to uphold a commitment, more or less as per normal. The ‘sociality’ would be in the existence of multiple subject-positions on the same commitment (from the perspectives of different possible time-slices of self). So I can undertake a commitment, and then change my mind about what the commitment entails. My present ability to imagine myself inhabiting an alternative future subject-position can open the same formal ‘gap’ between commitment as understood by self and commitment understood as other (acknowledgement and attribution) as in genuinely social scenarios – one can and indeed must keep two sets of books – which gives Brandom all the resources he needs to establish a formal concept of objectivity, and precipitate reference out of inference. I assume something like this is what’s going on in the discussion? But as I say, I could easily be wrong.

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