Regularism Revisited

January 21, 2011

I’ve now unpacked a fair few of the Wittgensteinian issues that are important to the early stages of Making It Explicit‘s argument – so I want to return to the issue of regularism, to expand on the problems that Brandom’s practice-theoretic account of the origins of normativity needs to resolve.

In the earlier post Regulism and Regularism I distinguished two problems that Brandom identifies with regularism as a philosophical position – the Epistemological and the Ethical/Political. The Epistemological problem is also a ‘seeing-as’ problem: granted (for the sake of argument) that normative standards can simply be identified with a given regularity of practice, such that conformity to the regularity is obeying the norm, and deviation from the regularity is going against the norm, it is possible to find multiple regularities in the same set of practices, such that those practices cannot themselves dictate which regularity we take as identical with a normative standard. This is related to, but not quite the same as, the Wittgensteinian rule-following problem of being able to interpret any regularity (given a chosen regularity) as compatible with any future practice, provided our interpretation of the generative principles underlying the empirical regularity is rococo enough. Really, then, there are two epistemological problems for regularism: the problem of selecting which regularity counts as the norm-determining regularity; and the problem of deciding which future practices would count as compatible with that regularity, once selected. Each of these questions involve an act of interpretation, or at least of taking-as (taking-as-the-important-regularity; taking-as-compatible-with-that-regularity) – and the practices under analysis cannot themselves determine what interpretive act, or act of taking-as, we use as our prism for selecting a regularity and determining what counts as conformity to it.

This set of issues is central to what Brandom means when he says that his position is not a naturalistic one. I already discussed this point briefly in my post on Sanctions, but I think we are now in a position to cash out in more detail the sense in which Brandom’s philosophy is ‘non-naturalistic’. When Brandom criticises ‘naturalism’, he generally has in mind a position that believes that simple description of a set of practices is capable of communicating the same conceptual content as the articulation of a normative demand. Such ‘simple description’ (on the ‘naturalistic’ account that Brandom opposes) would be non-normative – it would not be influenced by the describing subject’s own social location or commitments, but rather would be part of a (probably physicalist) metalanguage that can a-normatively record the objective states of affairs obtaining in the material world.

Brandom opposes such a picture on two counts. In the first place (for reasons connected to but not fully covered by the issue under discussion here) Brandom does not believe that there could ever be such a thing as a non-normatively descriptive language (short reason why: truth is also a norm). I’ll expand on this point in more detail in future posts. In the second place, for the reasons discussed above, Brandom does not believe that any descriptive language (even if such a perfect a-normative descriptive language could in principle exist) would be able to determine which regularities out of those observable would be determining of normative standards; nor would it be able to determine what future compatibility or incompatibility with such standards would involve. For this reason, the idea of a ‘naturalistic’ account of what norms are established by regularities of practice is, Brandom believes, in principle impossible.

It’s important to keep distinct these two (related) critiques of the possibility of a ‘naturalistic’ account of norms – I’ll try to separate them out further, and give a fuller account of each, in future posts. For now I just want to emphasise that Brandom’s target, in his critique of ‘naturalistic’ accounts of normativity, is narrower than I think it is often taken to be. Brandom’s critique is essentially directed at a quite specific set of positions – one that involves a fantasy about the possibility of a non-normative metalanguage. I am going to argue that Brandom’s own position is in fact a naturalistic one as that term is commonly used, and that one of the things Making It Explicit does is demonstrate how a naturalistic account of the origins of normativity is possible that does not fall into the theoretical traps Brandom here identifies. Brandom’s argument will aim to demonstrate that a set of interpretive and intrinsically normative acts of ‘seeing-as’ are required in order to establish reference to any given set of objective regularities in the first place; but that these interpretive, normative acts of ‘seeing-as’ can themselves then be understood in the naturalistic terms made available by such objective reference. The argument’s more complicated than that, but I want to at least gesture at the general ball-park of the position being defended.

Backing up a little – we’ve covered the first set of problems with the ‘regularist’ position. An act of interpretation is required in order to choose which regularity counts as a normative guideline. Which act of interpretation – and thus which regularity – we select is not itself determined by the regularity under examination – therefore the regularity itself cannot be determining of normative standards. This argument, in a way, parallels the ‘regulist’ one, in that it hinges on our ability to concoct multiple rules compatible with the same empirical phenomenon.

There is a solution to this problem within a broadly regularist framework. We can say that the act of interpretation is itself guided by a regularity of practice (which, indeed, it will be) – we can then acknowledge the ‘seeing-as’ difficulty while incorporating the normative act of seeing-as within an account that understands normativity in terms of regularity of practice. Of course, we then are faced with the parallel difficulty of how we choose which regular practice of interpretation counts as the one that ‘correctly’ picks out the regularity of practice determining of normative standards. And if we pick a second set of regular interpretive acts that make that decision for us, the problem again presents itself one stage of interpretation further down. Nevertheless, we can imagine (at least for the sake of argument) that these difficulties are resolvable – for instance, by fiating an regularity of interpretive practice that also, in its interpretive practice, validates that regularity as the correct one to pick out. Would this be an acceptible conclusion from a Brandomian point of view?

I need to take some care here, because the position just sketched is in fact very close to that which Brandom ultimately adopts – I am going to end up arguing that with sufficiently complex amendments, this position can indeed be seen as a Brandomian one. However, it is important to understand why such amendments are necessary, and why many versions of this position are unacceptable. This issue hinges on the Ethical/Political objection to regularism.

Let’s say, as an example, that we decide that the regularity of practice generative of binding normative standards is the most common set of sanctions at work in a society. Or, let us say (if we wanted to complicate the picture marginally) that we decide it is the most respected set of sanctions, where degree of respect can itself be analysed by looking at regularities of practice associated with approval and disapproval within the social space under examination. Any number of different versions of this basic approach can be imagined, but they all have in common the fact that (putting the epistemological objection to one side) we are identifying binding or legitimate norms with some regularity of practice within the social sphere.

The problem here is quite a simple one: It feels like an absolutely essential component of normative or ethical demands that they be capable of differentiation from actual practice. If we identify binding ethical demands with some regularity of practice, it seems as if we are identifying, in however complex a way, what ought to be with what is. We are not just transgressing the Humean injunction that one can’t get ought from is. More importantly, we seem to be opening ourselves to the apparent ethical monstrosity that what ought to be can be determined by the manipulation of actual practice. This move seems to open whatever ethical theory or ethical attitudes we assemble from such a starting point to an intense vulnerability to power. If, for example, we identify normative or ethical attitudes with the most common (or, for example, the most esteemed) regularity of practice in a given society (even global society), we are permitting that society to determine not just what people do, but what they ought to do. The limit case here is often taken to be a (rather heavily fantastised) idea of a totalitarian state, in which an entire society adopts a monstrous ethical-political set of beliefs and practices. In such a scenario, we want to believe, it does not matter that truly ethical beliefs and practice are opposed by the entire society in question – what’s truly right is still truly right, and what’s truly wrong is still truly wrong. (Orwell’s 1984 is often the go-to text for the articulation of this theoretical dilemma, with the final submission of the protagonist’s resistance even in his innermost subjectivity to the injunctions of the totalitarian state taken as exemplary of the ethical-political reason for requiring a stronger foundation for our norms than social-perspectival practice. A reading of 1984 is used to challenge a pragmatist understanding of the origins of normativity (in this case Richard Rorty’s) by James Conant in the Brandom-edited volume Rorty and his Critics. Rorty gives, to my mind, a rather good response; and I see Brandom’s work as, among other things, concerned with the greater elaboration of the position Rorty articulates there.)

It seems of great importance, then, not to understand normative demands in terms of regularities of practice. We can locate two extremes of this difficulty: on the one hand the identification (just discussed) of binding norms with the regularities of practice of society at large (however understood). On the other hand, we could choose to grant the interpretive act of seeing-as (that must form a component of any solution to the epistemological problem of regularism) the ability to determine which regularities of practice – however unusual or atypical – we take as generative of binding norms. The difficulty then becomes that we have apparently granted the agent who makes this interpretive action of ‘seeing-as’ the ability to choose whichever possible regularity of practice they like as normatively binding – and this ability seems to be identical with the ability to choose whatever norms they wish as binding upon them. We then find ourselves in a situation that precisely parallels the ‘sovereign self-determination’ moment of the rule-following paradox associated with regulism. That is to say, we have made the move from explicit rules to rules implicit in practice, but only by reinstating an act of interpretation at the moment of identification of those rules. Even if we then make this act of interpretation an implicit practice, by saying “this is simply what we do” in response to the regulist dilemma associated with interpretive acts, we have still granted the (perhaps ‘blindly’) interpreting agent absolute sovereignty over which regularities count as generative of binding norms. (We have, as it were, pushed the ‘sovereign power’ moment of the regulist paradox back into implicit practice.) Which is to say, we have apparently granted this agent absolute sovereignty over the normative demands that impinge upon them. We could call this latter scenario the ‘Nietzschean’ possibility – the supposed ability of social actors to create their own normative frameworks through sheer act of will in their interpretation of society and history. This contrasts with the ‘totalitarian’ possibility in which those with power over a society physically and psychologically enforce a set of practices that then automatically determine what is (supposedly) ethically admirable. On the one hand these two possibilities seem at opposite poles – but they are, in fact, different manifestations of the same ‘regularist’ dilemma. (This conceptual closeness may be symptomatic of a real social closeness between the political-ethical ideal of the self-willed norm-generating individual, and fascist/totalitarian politics – though obviously I’m not aiming to discuss that now.)

We are faced, then, with a dilemma. How to articulate an account of the emergence of binding norms from social practice that does not resolve itself into one of the ethically unpalatable (not to say epistemologically implausible) positions associated with ‘regularism’? How to avoid collapsing what should be into what is, while still giving a naturalistic account of normativity? I will begin to try to elaborate Brandom’s answer to this question in my next set of posts.


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