“This is simply what I do”

January 21, 2011

Here is the Wittgenstein passage that I’ve been circling around in the last set of posts.

217. “How am I able to obey a rule?” – if this is not a question about causes, then it is about the justification for my following the rule in the way I do.

If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.”

In my last post, I suggested that the ‘Epistemological’ regularist problem could be resolved within a broadly regularist framework by accounting for the interpretive acts of ‘seeing-as’ that are required in order to pick out a given regularity, and then to decide what counts as conformity with that regularity, in regularist terms. (I.e. our own act of interpretation is itself a regularity of practice.) I said that this move has the problem that it reproduces, within our solution to the regularist epistemological problem, a moment of the ‘paradoxical’ dynamic that led us to reject regulism. That is, it apparently gives the interpreting agent complete sovereign power over what counts as a binding norm – and this appears to evacuate an important aspect of the meaning of normativity.

However, I have already criticised (in my post from the other day, Two Wittgensteinian Arguments) Wittgenstein’s own application of this ‘sceptical paradox’ in his private language argument: just as Wittgenstein’s private language argument doesn’t in itself justify Wittgenstein’s conclusion, so the problem of sovereign interpretive power doesn’t in itself evacuate normativity from our account. I have argued that Wittgenstein’s private language paradox could in principle be responded to not with a “here we cannot talk about following a rule”, but rather with a “this is simply what I do”. And the same is true of the sovereign power of the interpreting agent in our solution to the epistemological regularist problem. Why can we not say “this is simply what I do” and grant that, although one could in principle redetermine binding norms moment by moment through a sovereign interpretive act, in fact one doesn’t? Genuinely normative interpretation, on this account, would be “simply what I do”.

There is in fact, I believe, nothing wrong with making this move. However, this is where the difference between Wittgenstein’s therapeutic quietism and Brandom’s emphasis on explanation rears its head. For the quietist Wittgensteinian, saying “this is simply what I do” puts an end to the discussion. For the Brandomian, however, saying “this is simply what I do” may put an end to the discussion – for it may draw attention to a material inference that is, so to speak, ‘axiomatic’ within our given set of social interactions – but it may also provide the occasion for an examination of just what it is I do, and why. The process of explicitation means that no “this is simply what I do” is intrinsically the end of the conversation. And because “what I do” is for this reason never tacitly transcendent to theoretical consciousness (as Wittgenstein’s own normative generative principles of interpretive acts in fact are), we may always potentially be faced with the need to explain exactly what it is that we do, and why. It is in this scenario that pointing to a simple (non-transcendent to theoretical consciousness) regularity of practice seems like insufficient justification for an interpretive act – and this is where the ethical/political problem of regularism (which insists that any given regularity of practice cannot automatically be taken as generative of normative principles, on pain of both category error and ethical monstrosity) seems to bite.

A lot of these issues cannot be fully addressed until I have unfolded additional aspects of Brandom’s system – specifically, his discussions of deontic scorekeeping and (especially) of the social practice of asking for and giving reasons. These analytic tools are necessary before we can give an account of how real practices can become part of (or be excluded from) inferential chains of justification, in a way that can make a practice itself a justification, without seeing that justification as intrinsic to the practice. And this discussion needs also to give an account of the circumstances in which, for Brandom, saying “this is simply what I do” can itself function as a reason – I will try to address this perhaps slightly fraught issue under the heading ‘the reason of no reason’ at a later date.

All this needs to wait, however. The main thing I want to do in this post is just draw attention to the way in which Brandom’s commitment to explicitation and explanatory argument prevents him from making the Wittgensteinian “this is simply what I do” move in response to the problem of individual sovereignty over the act of interpretive seeing-as that serves as our (preliminary) solution to the epistemological problem of regularism. Brandom needs a more robust response to this problem than “this is simply what I do”. The following series of posts aims to begin to explain what that response is.

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