More Brandom Preliminaries

February 15, 2011

In my last series of posts on Brandom I gave an extremely abstract and schematic account of the form of his account of the creation of norms and normativity in social practice. In the coming series of posts, I aim to begin to flesh out this argument, by starting to look – still at a very high level of abstraction – at the kinds of social practices Brandom sees as establishing normative demands. These are the social practices of deontic scorekeeping, attributing and acknowledging commitments, and asking for and giving reasons (as we will see, these categories need to be understood in quite broad terms). This coming series of posts therefore forms, as it were, the next ‘level’ of my account of Brandom’s argument – more detailed than the previous set of posts, we will here nonetheless mostly be ‘black-boxing’ the question of what specific social practices generate or compose the kinds of practice here analysed. There are two reasons for this black-boxing. In the first place, I think presenting the argument this way is sensible in expository terms – the main problem in Brandom’s reception, as far as I can tell from the reading I’ve done so far, is that people have failed to see the wood of his general practice-theoretic argument for the trees of his detailed analyses of specific social practices. I therefore think it is useful in making sense of Brandom’s system to begin with the architectonic before moving into progressively greater levels of detail. Secondly, however, and as I’ve already briefly discussed, I also happen to disagree with Brandom about the necessity of the specific (linguistic) practices he analyses to his argument as a whole. I don’t have a quarrel with Brandom’s philosophy of language. I do, however, feel that Brandom over-reaches in suggesting that only linguistic practice is capable of fulfilling the role demanded of the specific social practices analysed in the architectonic of his system. I don’t have any particular ambition to provide an alternative detailed analysis of non-linguistic practices, on the model of Making It Explicit – though that would be an interesting project to attempt – but since I ultimately wish to contest this aspect of Brandom’s system, I think it makes sense to present my exposition in a way that postpones that discussion until more of the many things on which I believe Brandom is correct have been worked through.

I don’t have the time to devote to a new series of Brandom posts now, and won’t for quite a while. I thought I’d put this throat-clearing post up anyway, to reorient to the next stage of the argument, and in case it proves possible to pursue that argument in piecemeal and intermittent fashion, through a series of similarly short posts.

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4 Responses to “More Brandom Preliminaries”

  1. deontologistics Says:

    Hi Duncan,

    Keep up the good work! I’m still not sure what you mean by giving a Brandomian account of practices outside of his linguistic framework. I assume it means something like showing how there can be an institution of something like objective norms of action in perspectival terms without thinking of these as scorekeeping perspectives? I’m pretty sceptical about that, as I’m not sure what ‘objectivity’ or ‘perspective’ would amount to without scorekeeping, but it’ll be interesting to see what you put together.

    The reason for my comment is that I wonder if you’ve read Between Saying and Doing. When I first read it I really didn’t click with the first half of the book, the stuff on meaning-use diagrams, artificial intelligence, and the general account of practical abilities, but I’m now starting to understand their importance. This is where Brandom gets close to doing something resembling Kantian transcendental psychology (although it’s really transcendental pragmatics), and although I know you don’t like the ‘transcendental’ bit, it certainly connects up with empirical concerns in a much more direct way than the account of MIEt.

    I’m working on a generalisation of some of those ideas in my spare time, and so far it’s given me some interesting additional insights into how to think about rule-following problems, private language, and Brandom’s appropriation of Heidegger. I’ll let you know when I’ve got something concrete.

  2. duncan Says:

    Hi Pete – thanks. I realise I’m being vague in my criticisms of the centrality Brandom gives to linguistic practice – and of course I may not be able to cash out this criticism. I keep mentioning it more as part of my attempt to keep all this stuff in my head than because I expect it to be compelling as stated. If it helps, though, I’m not aiming for anything very complex, at least as a first pass. I definitely don’t mean to abandon deontic scorekeeping, Brandom’s account of which I find totally compelling. My feeling is basically just that you can have non-linguistic forms of deontic scorekeeping – I think there’s compelling ethological evidence that plenty of non-human animal species that don’t engage in anything that we would normally call linguistic practice nonetheless engage in deontic scorekeeping – tracking and updating social status, including entitlements, in quite complex ways. I also think that the categories of asking for and giving reasons aren’t restricted – in Brandom’s account, let alone mine – to linguistically articulated reasons (a reason being anything that can serve as a premise in a chain of material inferences), and therefore there’s no intrinsic reason to think that the asking for and giving of reasons (as Brandom uses the phrase) need be a specifically linguistic activity. My feeling, therefore, is that one can find non-linguistic forms of deontic scorekeeping, attributing and acknowledging commitments, and asking for and giving reasons. Since I think that these are basically the categories Brandom needs to derive normative and conceptual objectivity, I don’t see any intrinsic reason why one couldn’t give an account of the emergence of normative and conceptual objectivity from normative social practice that doesn’t involve linguistic practice at all. It’s another matter to provide such an account, of course – one would have to give a detailed analysis of the non-linguistic social practices in question, comparable to Brandom’s detailed analysis of linguistic practice. But I don’t see any prima facie reason why such an analysis should be impossible. Brandom can probably claim, with (at least to my eyes) a fair degree more plausibility, that linguistic practice is required in order to assemble the conceptual content necessary to articulate his own philosophical system – that seems intuitively more reasonable to me, though I’ve no idea how you’d go about proving it – so Brandom may feel that linguistic practice is necessary to close the reflexive loop of his own system. But even here, I don’t regard Brandom as having done the work that would be required to prove that alternative forms of normative practice would be incapable of achieving such a thing. Given that Brandom frames his book by discussing the question of alien intelligence, it’s fair I think to consider the possibility of quite dramatically different forms of sociality that could nonetheless enable comparable forms of understanding. The alien intelligence question isn’t really where I’m coming from – it’s more that I think Brandom draws an empirically unjustifiably strong line between linguistic and non-linguistic practice in his discussion of animal behaviour. But I definitely feel Brandom overstates the strength of his conclusions re: linguistic practice. If he just said he were giving an account of how we humans use linguistic practice to possess and communicate conceptual content I’d have no complaint with the book at all.

    I’m afraid I haven’t read Between Saying and Doing – which sounds bad of me, I know, but my plan at the moment is to work through MIE‘s argument on the blog and then, as it were, ‘check’ whether my reading is accurate by seeing how it matches up with the works of Brandom’s I haven’t so far read. Plus I feel like I’ve got enough on my plate trying to keep MIE‘s argument in my head ;-P (and I’m short of time). But I definitely plan to read it sooner or later, and I’ll be interested to, given your remarks.

    I’d be very interested to read about the stuff you’re working on when you have the time etc. to write it up. Hope all is well…

  3. deontologistics Says:

    I have a feeling that you’re using the term ‘linguistic’ in perhaps an overly narrow way, at least at some points, and this is proving fundamental in your formulation of your disagreement. It’s important to remember that Brandom essentially defines practices sufficient to play the game of giving and asking for reasons (i.e., deontic scorekeeping) as linguistic practices. This should tell against the idea that he thinks there can be non-linguistic reasons. Sure, there can be non-linguistic reasons in the limited sense that non-linguistic states of affairs can causally elicit a linguistic response from a scorekeeper (i.e., perception), but that doesn’t amount to something playing the role of a scorekeeping *token* that is non-linguistic.

    Brandom’s methodology is basically transcendental. He’s interesting in defining ‘the trick’ of sapience, not ‘how the trick is done’ or how sapience is implemented by particular causal mechanisms. So yes, he does talk about the possibility of radically different kinds of scorekeepers, but for him these aren’t scorekeeping using non-linguistic tokens. Anything that functions as a scorekeeping token is by definition linguistic on his terms (be it an engraved symbol or a fluctuation in voltage). What he’s interested in is the necessary structure that such tokens must have in order to count as sentences (just thought of as things that can be used to make moves in the game), and the necessary abilities scorekeepers must have in order for them to manipulate them in ways that count as making moves in the game. Here he’s not adding in elicit assumptions about what we actually do, and if you think he lets some slip by anyway the onus is on you to say exactly *which* assumptions those are, rather than appealing to an implicitly understood notion of what the linguistic is.

    A good point of MIE to look at for backup here is the transcendental expressive deduction in chapter 6. I’m still not sure I accept the argument (Jon Cogburn pointed out some interesting problems with it), but Brandom definitely takes himself to show that tokens must have a very specific syntactic structure (predicate/singular term form), and that scorekeepers must have specific pragmatic abilities (tracking of substitution inferences) in order to genuinely count as scorekeepers (which for him involves the possibility of introducing logical vocabulary that makes explicit ones practices).

    You might be able to make something of the idea that animals can keep track of something like commitments and entitlements in ways that are less than full blown Brandomian deontic scorekeeping, but I think you’ve got to be more careful about where you draw the boundaries between linguistic and non-linguistic abilities.

    Anyway, best of luck with it all, and I’ll let you know when I put up more of the stuff I’m working on.

  4. duncan Says:

    Hey Pete. I’m basically trying to use ‘linguistic’ (in my comment above) in what I take to be its ordinary-language sense. So what I have in mind is comparing the forms of sociality exhibited by human beings talking to each other (on the one hand) and (on the other hand) (for example) gorillas or elephants, who exhibit extremely complex forms of sociality (engaging in social practices that I think can accurately be described as involving deontic scorekeeping), but who are normally classified as not possessing language. Now one could argue that this usage is an overly restrictive definition of ‘linguistic’, and that any animal species that engages in sufficiently elaborate social communicative practices should be classified as possessing language – I don’t have a dog in that fight – but my sense is that Brandom wouldn’t be comfortable extending his account of linguistic practices to elephants and so on.

    Sure, there can be non-linguistic reasons in the limited sense that non-linguistic states of affairs can causally elicit a linguistic response from a scorekeeper (i.e., perception)

    I think Brandom’s claim is stronger than this. Brandom thinks (and I think he’s right) that one of the characteristic features of our normative practices is the process of inferential mapping, whereby a natural causal occurrence can be taken as a reason – that is, as a premise in a chain of reasoning – and this kind of act of normative taking-as is the mechanism by which things become reasons. A lot of the time the natural causal occurrences thus taken as reasons will be linguistic events (a token, a sentence, etc.) but a lot of the time the occurrences will not be linguistic at all. So for example I take an umbrella out on my walk because it is raining. The fact that it is raining here functions as a reason in the full sense, even though this fact (the rain) is in no way a linguistic phenomenon. This ‘inferential mapping’ move is at odds with a number of common philosophical ways of drawing a distinction between reasons and causes – e.g. Brandom doesn’t think that the cause/reason distinction falls along the distinction between actual rain and propositions about rain: the rain itself gets to count as a reason on Brandom’s analysis. This is imo a large part of what Brandom means when he says that reality itself can be seen as conceptual – his ‘Hegelian Idealism’. I find the language of idealism an incredibly misleading way of articulating this point – but I take Brandom to be committed to the idea that non-linguistic (indeed non-human-produced) natural events can count as reasons. Of course such events (indeed all events) aren’t intrinsically reasons – they are made so by the social processes of deontic scorekeeping etc. And since Brandom believes that those social processes are necessarily linguistic, natural non-human events’ capacity to count as reasons is explanatorily dependent on the articulation of reasons in language (for Brandom). But that’s a different thing from reasons being necessarily linguistic. Even on Brandom’s linguistic-philosophy-oriented account, the latter is not the case.

    Anything that functions as a scorekeeping token is by definition linguistic on his terms (be it an engraved symbol or a fluctuation in voltage).

    Well ok, yes, but the kinds of scorekeeping actions Brandom analyses are also narrowly linguistic – the social practices involved in constructing sentences, etc. Whereas I think there are lots of practices that count as scorekeeping but that aren’t linguistic on this ‘ordinary-language’ definition. For instance, I can scorekeep internally, and as long as my demeanour allows others to judge aspects of that scorekeeping, we are involved in a fully social process of scorekeeping. So for example person A drops a precious item. Person B looks pissed off. Person C glances at person D (D is for Duncan) with an ‘uh oh, someone’s in trouble now’ look. I update my internal scorekeeping something like: B is less impressed with A than she was, and will have internally removed some of A’s entitlements to carry precious objects. C has observed B’s demeanour, and has updated her own sense of A’s entitlements and B’s dispositions, based on B’s affect. I have noticed C noticing this, and have updated my own sense of A, B and C’s own scorekeeping of each other accordingly. Etc. etc.

    This is a stupid-ass example (sorry about that) – but the point is that I think it’s a stretch to call the kinds of empathic sense of others’ senses of others’ entitlements involved in an incident like this ‘linguistic’. So that’s the ballpark sort of thing I have in mind when I say that Brandom’s emphasis on the linguistic is problematic, or (rather) needlessly restrictive – his apparatus is more capacious and in a way powerful even than Brandom’s own (linguistic-philosophy) use of it suggests.

    But as I say, I haven’t gotten around to addressing this set of issues in my posts on Brandom yet, so this is all hugely underdeveloped. I definitely aim to treat of these issues more systematically once I’ve worked my way round to them. But there’s so much material to cover!

    Apologies in advance if I leave comments hanging in the coming days, as I’m travelling around quite a bit, and have only intermittent internet access. It’s really good to talk about this stuff. Best…


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