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.


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