The Origins of Normativity

January 26, 2011

In my last post I discussed the first half of Joseph Heath’s paper Brandom on the Sources of Normativity [pdf]. I argued that Heath has significantly misunderstood the nature of Brandom’s argument in Making it Explicit. Heath’s misunderstanding is, I argued, attributable to two things. First, Brandom’s rather confusing discussion of “internal sanctions” in Chapter 1 of MIE. Second, Heath’s unwillingness to accept the idea that pretty much the whole of MIE‘s argument is required in 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 what makes such practices distinctively normative – is not forthcoming in the book’s first chapter. Without such an account, Heath argues, the apparatus of MIE is built on non-naturalistic axiomatic foundations in a way that removes much of its potential explanatory power. Were Heath right in his analysis of the structure of MIE‘s argument, this would indeed be a serious problem. My claim, however – which I aim to begin to justify in this post – is that MIE‘s argument as a whole functions as precisely the explanation of what makes normative practices normative, that Heath thinks is missing from the book’s first chapter.

Heath’s misunderstanding is particularly striking because in the second half of his paper he presents his own ‘alternative’ to Brandom’s account, quoting a section from the end of Chapter 1 of MIE, and arguing that the ideas expressed in this passage could be repurposed as part of a more adequate account of the origins of normativity. Heath – a little oddly – doesn’t see that this is precisely what this section of MIE – along with the much later sections it foreshadows – is already doing. Heath’s ‘alternative’ is thus a much simplified version of Brandom’s own argument. For this reason, Heath’s discussion provides a useful way in to Brandom’s more complex account – serving both as a first-pass articulation of the argument, and a point of comparison that allows us to see the motivating factors behind MIE‘s greater complexity.

I will quote an important section of Heath’s paper at some length. Heath has just been expressing a desire for “a simple behavioural account of what it is to follow a norm”:

One strategy for developing such an account is suggested by the parallel that Brandom often draws between interpreting behaviour as intentional and interpreting practices as norm-governed. In adopting the “intentional stance” toward an organism, one is in effect choosing to use a certain vocabulary in describing its actions. The core elements of this vocabulary are the concepts of belief and desire. Thus in adopting the intentional stance one is choosing to explain the organism’s actions as goal-directed, and as guided by some set of representations pertaining to the achievement of this goal.

A theory that purports to explain intentionality in terms of the ascription of these states remains incomplete, however, insofar as it gives no account of the system that does the ascribing. One is inclined to think that any system which can adopt an intentional stance toward another must itself also be an intentional system. Brandom therefore distinguishes between “simple” intentional systems and “interpreting” intentional systems. But where does this “interpreting” intentionality come from? If one posits some further intentional system, whose ascriptions constitute the intentionality of the interpreting system, then a regress has been initiated. What is needed, in order to resolve this regress in a satisfactory manner, is some kind of source for all this intentionality. What is needed is some type of original intentionality.

The most mechanical way of resolving this regress would be to abandon the “stance stance,” and posit an intentional system whose intentionality is not inherited from some further system. John Searle uses such an argument to defend his view that some system must possess intrinsic intentionality. Brandom, however, wants to maintain allegiance to the stance stance. He rejects Searle’s move, choosing instead to argue that original intentionality can found, roughly, in groups where agents each ascribe intentional states to one another. He states this claim as follows:

The key to this account is that an interpretation of this sort must interpret community members as taking or treating each other in practice as adopting intentionally contentful commitments and other normative statuses. If the practices attributed to the community by the theorist have the right structure, then according to that interpretation, the community members’ practical attitudes institute normative statuses and confer intentional content on them; according to the interpretation, the intentional contentfulness of their states and performances is the product of their own activity, not that of the theorist interpreting that activity. Insofar as their intentionality is derivative – because the normative significance of their states is instituted by the attitudes adopted toward them – their intentionality derives from each other, not from outside the community. On this line, only communities, not individuals, can be interpreted as having original intentionality (61).

I would like to argue that this solution to the problem of the “origins of intentionality” provides a blueprint for a solution to the problem of the “origins of normativity.”

That last sentence is of course right – because Brandom’s solution to the problem of the origins of intentionality is intended to provide a solution to the problem of the origins of normativity: that’s what it’s for. Still, putting this interpretive problem aside, Heath’s discussion provides a useful summary of the issues at stake. In subsequent posts I aim to much expand on this analysis – but for now I want to make a few scattered and very brief remarks.

1) Brandom is here appropriating – in I think an exceptionally clever way – Dennett’s idea of the ‘intentional stance’. Dennett himself – like Heath – doesn’t seem to follow Brandom’s argument (I will try to deal with Dennett’s own interpretation of and response to MIE in a later post) – but be that as it may: Dennett’s idea is that there is nothing to being an intentional system (‘being an intentional system’ can be treated for our purposes as the same thing as ‘engaging in normative practices’) beyond being legitimately taken to be an intentional system by an interpreting agent. The problem then becomes – what is the status of the interpreter? How does this interpreter acquire their own (normative, intentional) interpretive capacity?

2) This argument and problem is, of course, parallel to that which we encountered in our discussion of regularism. According to Brandom’s normative phenomenalism, a practice is normative (it can be done right or wrong) if it is properly taken as normative (by, again, an interpreting agent). The question then (again) becomes, what makes the interpreting practice of normative attribution normative?

3) Brandom’s solution to this problem is to permit or acknowledge the existence of a potentially infinite chain of ‘takings as’. If we stop our chain of ‘takings as’ somewhere, and insist that we can in principle go no further in our chain of justifications, then wherever we choose to stop this chain is the location where practice becomes identical with normative guideline, and the distinction between natural law and moral law disappears (and this prompts the Ethical/Political problem of regularism which we ran into repeatedly in our previous set of posts). Brandom, however, insists that any such ‘grounding’ of the chain of interpretations is always in principle open to contestation, and thus the grounding practice is open to critique as falsely grounding, because divergent from real normative guidelines (justified by some other inferential chain). Because any grounding is always in principle open to such contestation, the ethical/political problem of regularism cannot get any purchase on Brandom’s meta-theoretical apparatus (even if it can be used as part of a critique of any given normative framework advanced within the terms of that apparatus.)

4) Yet because Brandom’s apparatus still does permit (and indeed requires) the grounding of justificatory chains in material inferences – moments where we say ‘this is simply what we do’ – Brandom’s apparatus is not vulnerable to the charge of vicious regress associated with regulism either. We can ground justificatory chains in actual practice – but only in those practices which the inferential web of normative attitudes we inhabit implicitly takes to be legitimate as material inferences – and this judgement is itself always in principle open to contestation.

5) This means that the ability of any material inference to serve as grounding normative practice must itself be granted (and thus instituted) (even if only implicitly, by the absence of contestation) by the practices of a broader community of normatively-sanctioning agents. And each of these agents’ own normative practices are themselves instituted as normatively sanctioning by similar (implicit or explicit) acts of taking-as. No practice is therefore intrinsically normative… and yet the normativity of the practices that attribute – and thereby (according to Brandom’s phenomenalism) institute – normativity to other practices can itself be understood as instituted in this way. In other words, Brandom’s system allows us to see normativity as instituted by (naturalistically analysable) social practices (and nothing else), without falling into the trap of regularism. And the way it does this is having ‘original normativity’ an emergent attribute of communities of mutually-recognising practice (as these communities are themselves recognised as such in practice), rather than any particular set of individual practices. This structure of Brandom’s argument allows him to close the explanatory circle – allowing him legitimately to claim both that “it’s norms all the way down” (because one never reaches an explanatory point at which any given regularity of practice can be equated with a normative guideline without an active (even if implicit) normative judgement permitting this identification) and that his account is a fully naturalistic one, explaining normativity entirely in terms of naturalistically analysable social practices (which it does).

I find Brandom’s argument completely compelling – it seems to me to be just brilliant and, in a way, wonderfully simple (despite its relative complexity, compared with other common accounts of the origins of normativity). In future posts I’ll try to elaborate on different aspects of this argument, and go into more detail about the various moves I’ve only gestured at above.

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