Regulism and Regularism

January 5, 2011

Happy New Year everyone – I hope 2011 is a good one.

I concluded my last post by gesturing towards the way in which Brandom complicates his phenomenalism regarding norms. In this post I want to begin to expand on that set of issues, by discussing rather schematically some of the theoretical problems that Brandom believes his account of normativity needs to resolve.

I. Regulism.

The first philosophical position with which Brandom contrasts his own is ‘regulism’. By this Brandom means

a particular model of correctness and incorrectness, roughly Kant’s, in which what makes a performance correct or not is its relation to some explicit rule… On this account, acts are liable to normative assessments insofar as they are governed by propositionally explicit prescriptions, prohibitions, and permissions. (MIE 18-19)

Brandom rejects this account of normativity for broadly Wittgensteinian reasons. As Brandom puts it:

If correctnesses of performance are determined by rules only against the background of correctnesses of application of the rule, how are these latter correctnesses to be understood? If the regulist understanding of all norms as rules is right, then applications of a rule should themselves be understood as correct insofar as they accord with some further rule. 20

This generates an infinite regress, similar to that discussed in Lewis Carroll’s What Achilles Said to the Tortoise (22). If correctly applying a rule requires a further rule for how to correctly apply the first rule, and if this second rule also requires a third rule for how to correctly apply it, and so on, then a ‘regulist’ position, in which norms are explicit rules, can never provide an adequate account of how we actually manage to apply rules. This is often referred to as Wittgenstein’s ‘rule-following paradox’: if I am teaching someone the ‘+2’ rule, by writing out the number series 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16… this sequence might seem intrinsically to communicate the content of the ‘+2’ rule (we can ‘see’, looking at this sequence, what rule generates it), but in fact any number at all can at any time be taken to be the ‘next’ in sequence, provided we are willing to adopt a sufficiently baroque interpretation of the rule operative in the sequence’s generation. (e.g. we might take ‘+2’ to signify what most other people would signify as ‘+2 until you get to 16, after which +4 until you get to 32, after which +3’, etc.) In turn, any guideline we might present in order to correct such misinterpretations can itself be interpreted in multiple ways.

Brandom writes –

A rule for applying a rule Wittgenstein calls an ‘interpretation’ (Deutung). (20)

– and Brandom concludes, with Wittgenstein, that

there is a way of grasping a rule [eine Auffassung einer Regel] which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘obeying the rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases. (Philosophical Investigations #201; MIE 21)

As Wittgenstein puts it elsewhere: we follow a rule blindly.

This argument opens the door to Brandom’s pragmatism – his philosophical task, as he takes it, is to give an account of how we obey a rule in practice, rather than purely via interpretation.

I’ll remark parenthetically here that even though I agree with Brandom and Wittgenstein’s position, I don’t think Brandom altogether hits his target w/r/t Kant’s account of rule-following: unless my memory of the first Critique is faulty, I believe Kant can plausibly claim to have anticipated and responded to this line of attack. I may return to this at a later date (to explain why I think we should reject the Kantian position anyway); but for now this is a digression; I just want to give an account of how Brandom aligns himself.

II. Phenomenalism

The Wittgensteinian regress-of-interpretations argument gives Brandom his pragmatism: Brandom takes it that his philosophical account of normativity needs to be a theory of practice, giving an account of how norms are instituted in practice. (I will remark here parenthetically also that there are an important set of issues around Brandom’s commitment to explanation and explicitation versus Wittgenstein’s anti-explanatory therapeutic quietism; but I won’t address these issues here.) As I’ve already discussed, Brandom’s position is a form of phenomenalism – Brandom takes norms and conceptual content to be entirely explicable in terms of the practices that institute them. But Brandom also thinks that there are a number of common difficulties with phenomenalist accounts of norms. He labels a set of these difficulties ‘regularism’.

III. Regularism

If we reject regulism, and insist instead on norms being instituted in actual practice, there seems to be an obvious alternative: that norms are to be explained in terms of regularities of practice. Indeed, it seems that this is the only real theoretical option available to us if we have chosen, with Brandom, to give an account of the institution of norms in social practice.

[ NB: I believe that Brandom’s remarks around regularism give rise to some of the most significant confusions in the interpretation of his system. In this post and a few subsequent ones I want to try to work through my own take on what Brandom’s doing in his critique of, and alternative to, regularism. My own view is that Brandom’s final position is one that could, with only a small (but significant) terminological shift, itself be called regularist. I don’t have a problem with that – but some (presumably including Brandom) might well. If it helps to contextualise, I think this was essentially the issue at stake in the discussions I had with Pete Wolfendale, of Deontologistics, that got me reading Brandom in the first place. In those initial conversations I was advocating a naturalistic account of normativity that fully explained norms in terms of the biology and social practices of the human animal and its environment. Pete, by contrast, was using Brandom’s critique of regularism as a critique of this sort of naturalism. I believe that Brandom’s position is compatible with the one I was articulating in those conversations – indeed, I would say that Brandom’s position is a massively more well-developed and cleverly thought-through articulation of the basic theoretical orientation I was advocating then. So part of what I believe an articulation of Brandom’s alternative to what he calls ‘regularism’ can give us is a cashed-out version of the philosophical task I said was incumbent on those articulating and defending the position that Pete, in those conversations, I believe regarded as regularist. If that makes sense. ]

So: the Wittgensteinian regress of rules argument leads Brandom to reject regulism (the idea that norms are to be identified with explicit rules) in favour of understanding norms as implicit in practice. The question for Brandom then becomes: what does it mean for a rule to be implicit in practice? Regularism is the most simple answer to this. In Brandom’s words:

The simple regularity approach is committed to identifying the distinction between correct and incorrect performance with that between regular and irregular performance. A norm implicit in practice is just a pattern exhibited by behaviour. To violate that norm to make a mistake or act incorrectly according to that norm, is to break the pattern, to act irregularly. (28-9)

What are the problems with this position?

Brandom articulates, I believe, two basic objections.

a) The Epistemological Objection

The first problem with the regularist position is an epistemological one, which parallels the rule-following problem that lead Brandom to reject regulism. In Brandom’s words:

The problem is that any particular set of performances exhibits many regularities. These will agree on the performances that have been produced and differ in their treatment of some possible performances that have not (yet) been produced. A performance can be denominated ‘irregular’ only with respect to a specified regularity, not tout court. Any further performance will count as regular with respect to some of the patterns exhibited by the original set and as irregular with respect to others. For anything one might go on to do, there is some regularity with respect to which it counts as “going on in the same way,” continuing the previous pattern… There simple is no such thing as the pattern or regularity exhibited by a stretch of past behaviour, which can be appealed to in judging some candidate bit of future behaviour as regular or irregular, and hence, on this line, as correct or incorrect. For the simple regularist’s identification of impropriety with irregularity to get a grip, it must be supplemented with some way of picking out, as somehow privileged, some out of all the regularities exhibited. (28)

b) The Political-Ethical Objection

The second problem with the regularist position arguably cuts even deeper – this is the objection that the regularist position fails to distinguish between what is done and what ought to be done. For a regularity of practice is just that – a regularity of practice. To account for normative demands in terms of regularity of practice seems to abolish the very thing most characteristic of normative demands: that they can differ from actual practice.

I will explore these issues and Brandom’s responses to them further in future posts.