Brandom’s Linguistic Exceptionalism

December 19, 2010

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.

4 Responses to “Brandom’s Linguistic Exceptionalism”

  1. […] an interesting post from Duncan Law on Robert Brandom’s inferentialism and naturalism here. I don’t know Brandom’s work well enough, yet, to respond substantively but it raises […]

  2. David Roden Says:

    A very interesting post. I don’t know Brandom’s work particularly well, but I’ve been raising similar issues in relation to Davidson and Dennett on my own blog. Thanks.


  3. duncan Says:

    Thanks David, that’s kind of you – I’ll check out your writings around this set of issues soon as I have time. Thanks…

  4. […] theoretical apparatus of his system (subject to the important proviso I introduced in my post on Brandom’s Linguistic Exceptionalism) in order to give an adequate account of the nature of this basic theoretical building […]

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