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.)

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4 Responses to “Brandom / Derrida”

  1. David Roden Says:

    Another good post, Duncan. Thanks!

    Derrida’s iterability argument may have an advantage over Brandom’s in due to its extreme abstraction. As I’ve argued elsewhere, whatever their transcendental inspiration, the logic of the iterability argument is absolutely general (see http://enemyindustry.net/RadicalQuote_wb.pdf). As Derrida puts it with uncharacteristic pith in Speech and Phenomena (50):

    ‘A sign is never an event, if by event we mean an irreplaceable and irreversible empirical particular. A sign which would take place but “once” would not be a sign; a purely idiomatic sign would not be a sign.’

    Metaphysically all this presupposes is the ideal repeatability of meaningful states (and not just linguistic items).

    The argument applies with strict generality to any kind of ‘text’ (e.g. mental representations). Moreover, whereas Brandom, on my limited understanding of him, requires the semantic content of a term to have prescriptive implications for how it should be used within a given community, Derrida’s argument is equally compatible with normativist and dispositionalist theories of rule following. If the meaning of a three place open sentence like ‘…+…=…’ is conferred by the disposition to apply it to the triples {1, 1, 2}, {1,2, 3}…, etc. it still remains that each addition operation presuppose the existence of an ideally repeatable sign.

  2. duncan Says:

    Thanks David. I’m embarrassed to say that I still haven’t made time to read your work – and it may be a little while before I can, given various other obligations. But obviously I intend to, because – as you say – we seem to have a lot of overlap in our areas of research-interest.

    Responding blind, as it were – and without actually looking at any of the stuff you’re pointing at 😛 – my inclination is to say that one reason I prefer Brandom’s approach over Derrida’s, all else being equal, is its comparative lack of extreme abstraction. I realise it’s all relative, but I tend to feel Derrida’s argument comes unmoored at important moments precisely because its level of abstraction makes Derrida unable to account for the genesis of his categories.

    But I need to look at your actual paper, and then I’ll be able to respond more meaningfully – apologies for the in-passing nature of this comment…

  3. deontologistics Says:

    Hi guys,

    Great stuff! If we want to contrast the generality of their arguments, the thing to do is really to contrast Derrida’s account of the iterability of the sign with Brandom’s account of anaphora. What’s interesting here is that the latter is explicitly designed to account for unrepeatable tokenings, such as indexicals and demonstratives. In essence, Brandom introduces something like a fourfold distinction between *lexical types*, *lexical tokens*, *token recurrence structures* and *objects*, in contrast to Derrida’s twofold distinction between *signs* and *signifieds*.

    The important thing is that Brandom allows for both symmetric token recurrence structures that correspond to the ordinary understanding of *signs*, insofar as they are equivalence classes of tokens that share the same *lexical type*, and for asymmetric token recurrence structures, which are chains of anaphoric dependence in which the lexical type of the tokens may (and sometimes must) differ (e.g., chains beginning with ‘this’, ‘now’, ‘a man’, etc.). Derrida’s analysis doesn’t seem to make a distinction between these two levels. If we restrict it to the first level (i.e., *sign* = *symmetric recurrence structure* = *lexical type*), then it’s false, because the second level shows that there simply are unrepeatable tokens. However, if we expand it to include the second level (i.e., *sign* = *token recurrence structure*) it seems to be too abstract to account for the differences between the two levels, insofar as it doesn’t have anything resembling the semantic framework within which to make sense of it (i.e., the first two parts of Brandom’s I-S-A model: inference, substitution, anaphora). In short, it seems that Derrida’s model is too impoverished to deploy anything other than differences of lexical type in his argument.

    Hope that makes sense.

  4. duncan Says:

    Thanks Pete – sorry to leave this hanging. Apologies also that, as I was saying to David, I’m too busy to follow this up at all adequately right now. But superficially: yes, I definitely agree that anaphora is the place to dig in w/r/t the relation between Brandom & Derrida. My initial impulse is 1) to agree that Brandom’s analysis is more complex and supple than Derrida’s in this area; but also 2) to defend Derrida at least to the extent that I think he has more categories to draw on than just a twofold distinction between signs and signifieds.

    That said, it’s depressing – five years I could have spieled out chapter and verse on Derrida, but it all just falls away from memory; so I can’t follow through on any of this until/unless I return to the texts. (Speech and Phenomena is I think the most important Derrida work in this area – the starting point, at any rate…) And I don’t see that happening for some time. Another raincheck, then, sorry about that.

    By the way, I thought your critique of Harman’s assimilation of “philosophies of access” to idealism, in one of your recent posts, was really spot on.

    Hope all’s well…


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