Brandom’s Normative Pragmatics

January 22, 2011

I’ve now laid out in reasonable detail a set of theoretical problems that Brandom’s version of normative phenomenalism needs to resolve if it is to fulfil the explanatory tasks demanded of it. In the upcoming series of Brandom-related posts I will begin to try to explain exactly what Brandom’s solution to these problems is. Brandom’s solution is an unusually complicated one, even by the standards of analytic philosophy, so this will probably take a few passes, involving first a rough-and-ready account, then more details as we move further in to the complexities of Brandom’s system. I don’t expect this discussion to be complete for some time, and I’m going to need to take a break from Brandom posts soon to turn to off-line obligations – apologies if I leave all this hanging for a while.

To recap the last series of posts very quickly and schematically, Brandom’s naturalistic account of the basis of normativity needs to resolve two problems characteristic of ‘regularism’. The ‘Epistemological’ problem can be resolved (at least in a preliminary way) by giving a regularist account of the interpretive acts by which we pick out which regularities are generative of normative standards. This solution, however, throws us into the arms of the ‘Ethical/Political’ problem, in that it seems to give us no basis for criticising this interpretive regularity as wrong. This in turn seems to evacuate one of the most crucial features of normative demands – their possible divergence from actual practice – leading to the conclusion that such a ‘regularist’ position does not give an account of genuine normativity at all.

Here is Brandom explaining the dilemma and the outlines of his solution in the Conclusion to Making It Explicit (I haven’t yet discussed a number of the terms Brandom is using here, but the general thrust of his remarks should be clear) [I’ve also thrown in a few square-bracketted comments to explain what I take Brandom to be doing in several early remarks, but it’s the conclusion of the quoted passage that’s relevant to the argument of this post]:

Norms (in the sense of normative statuses) are not objects in the causal order. Natural science, eschewing categories of social practice…

[notice that Brandom is characterising the ‘naturalistic’ position he opposes as one that restricts its descriptive categories to those made available by the disciplinary space of the natural sciences – Brandom’s own naturalism is distinguished from this position by also including (naturalistically understood) categories of social practice – DL]

…will never run across commitments in its cataloging of the furniture of the world; they are not by themselves causally efficacious – any more than strikes or outs are in baseball. Nonetheless, according to the account presented here, there are norms, and their existence is neither supernatural nor mysterious. Normative statuses are domesticated by being understood in terms of normative attitudes…

[ – a naturalistically analysable category of social analysis – DL]

…which are in the causal order. What is causally efficacious is our practically taking or treating ourselves and each other as having commitments (acknowledging and attributing commitments) – just as what is causally efficacious is umpires and players dealing with each other in a way that can be described as taking the score to include so many strikes and outs.

It must then be asked how such an apparently reductive story about norms as instituted by social practices can be understood to be compatible with an insistence on the irreducibly normative character of the metalanguage in which norm-instituting social practices are specified.

[again, this is Brandom fighting his fight within the analytic discursive space over whether a non-normative meta-language is in principle possible (it isn’t). When Brandom says that our language of analysis is intrinsically normative, this should not be misunderstood as a claim that normativity itself is unaccountable for in naturalistic terms – except in a highly specific sense related to the possibility of such am non-normative meta-language.]

Here is the short answer: The work done by talk of deontic statuses cannot be done by talk of deontic attitudes actually adopted or relinquished, nor of regularities exhibited by such adopting and relinquishing, nor of dispositions to adopt and relinquish such attitudes. Talk of deontic statuses can in general be traded only for talk of proprieties governing the adoption and alteration of deontic attitudes – proprieties implicit in social scorekeeping practices. (MIE p. 626)

Rephrasing and simplifying this to put it in the explanatory order I’ve adopted in these posts, Brandom here first says that he aims to explain norms in terms of social practices. He then confronts the problem (which I characterised above as the ethical/political problem of regularism) that doing so seems to evacuate normativity in the very move with which we ‘explain’ it. [Actually of course this isn’t what Brandom says in the passage above – he talks about the possibility of a non-normative meta-language; but the regularism issue is a large part of what’s motivating that discussion. I’ll try to address this in a later post.] Brandom then resolves this problem by, apparently paradoxically, saying that what counts in explaining norms is not what social actions (“deontic attitudes”) we actually take, but rather what social actions we ought to take. As Brandom puts it on the next page, his account

incorporates a phenomenalist approach to norms, but it is a normative phenomenalism, explaining having a certain normative status in effect as being properly taken to have it. (627)

In other words, Brandom re-introduces normativity in the very theoretical move that is apparently intended to explain it in naturalistic terms: his solution to the regularism problem is to say that we should use proprieties of practice, rather than anything even close to regularities of practice, as our basic explanatory building block.

This is an extremely confusing (/frustrating) move – and Brandom is aware of the problem:

At this point it can easily look as though the account of normative statuses as instituted by social practices is marching around in an unproductive circle (at best, unilluminating; at worst viciously circular and incoherent). For clearly the prior question arises once more: What is the relation between normative specifications of practices and nonnormative specifications of behaviour? (627)

It is Brandom’s answer to this question that’s so hideously complicated. In a word, Brandom’s answer is the entirety of Making It Explicit‘s explanatory apparatus. Brandom begins his phenomenalist account with normative attitudes, meaning not just attitudes that generate norms, but also attitudes that we ourselves (normatively) take as conforming to proprieties of practice. Then by the time Brandom has laid out his entire explanatory apparatus, he has given us an account of how this attribution of proprieties of practice to normative attitudes (i.e. the social process by which those proprieties of practice are in the first place generated) should be understood.

Described this way, there’s no reason for us not to think that Brandom’s account is viciously circular. My claim (and Brandom’s) is that the circular nature of this account is in fact ‘virtuous’ rather than vicious. Crucial to the explanatory achievement of Brandom’s project is the claim that his apparatus ‘precipitates out’ an analysis of how objective (and, as a subset of objective, naturalistic) description can be generated by our ‘original’ normative practices. This description is then capable of naturalistically accounting for the practices that themselves generate our capacity for objective description: as Brandom says, the practices that in fact institute norms are still part of the (natural) causal order. However, our account cannot begin with non-normatively understood practices, if it is to generate our capacity to explain normative statuses naturalistically. And this is connected to the fact that any explanation must be accomplished by social creatures (in this case members of the species homo sapiens sapiens) who are already engaged in normative practices, to be capable of attempting such explanation at all.

I realise that the above few paragraphs are pretty much just words at the moment – I need to do a huge amount of unpacking if I’m to explain what I take Brandom’s account to actually achieve. However, I think it’s important to give at least a sketch of the general ballpark of the explanation I take Brandom to be attempting – since it at least gives a sense of the kind of account we’re aiming for here.

One reason for doing this can perhaps be illustrated by very quickly referring to the discussion of Making It Explicit laid out in Joesph Heath’s paper Brandom on the Sources of Normativity [pdf]. Heath complains that

One of the most unsatisfactory sections of Robert Brandom’s very complex and difficult book, Making It Explicit, is, unfortunately, the very first chapter…. one expects Brandom to show that the concept of ‘social norm’ that he rests his analysis of language on can, in turn, be cashed out in terms of some simpler set of action-theoretic or behavioural concepts. And since preference for a pragmatic order of explanation is what motivates Brandom’s whole project, it would not be unreasonable to expect an analysis of the action-theoretic primitives to appear front and centre at the beginning of the book. Furthermore, Brandom starts out in the first chapter sounding as if he is going to supply just such an analysis. Thus the absence of any conclusive argument or analysis on this score comes as something of a surprise. Many readers of Making it Explicit finish the first chapter not quite knowing whether Brandom chose to omit the argument, whether he made an argument, but a very weak one, or whether he chose to defer the burden of proof until chapter eight.

My suggestion is the one that Heath later refers to as Brandom’s ‘Hegelian’

tendency to think that philosophical claims cannot be evaluated punctually, so to speak, but must be accepted and rejected at the level of whole “systems”.

I believe that Brandom can plausibly claim to require the entire 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 block.

The task of my next series of posts (which as I say, will probably be a while in coming) will be to explain in more detail why that is so, and what Brandom’s account actually consists in.

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One Response to “Brandom’s Normative Pragmatics”


  1. […] order to cash out the content of some of the book’s early categories. As I said at the end of this earlier post, Heath is frustrated that an account of the nature of normative practices – an account of […]


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