March 26, 2011
A few posts back I emphasised that we shouldn’t understand ‘normativity’ as specifically related to ethics – ethical norms are just one species of norm. Which norms we judge to be ethical ones and which ones we don’t is itself a normative question – one that different communities of practice will answer in different ways. (And, of course, the category of ‘ethics’ as we understand it is not a historically constant one). All that said, I want to talk a bit about questions that at least partly fall under the scope of ‘ethical theory’. Again, I’ve never studied the philosophy of ethics (the bits and pieces I’ve looked at in the field always struck me as sort of wacky, though that doesn’t mean much), so this is all relatively amateur. It also probably falls in the ‘personal blogging’ rather than the ‘actual proper theory’ category, so you may have to bear with me.
So: what can we get out of Brandom’s work in relation to ethical theory? (As I say, this stuff is not carefully thought- or worked-through.) One obvious answer to that is a secular account of the sources of normativity. It’s not uncommon for people to assert that the source of norms must be, basically, magical in some way. Brandom’s work shows how it’s possible to give an account of normativity – an account that is not relativist, or nihilist, and that does not fall victim to the might-makes-right issues attendant on the set of theoretical positions that Brandom calls ‘regularism’ – that explains norms entirely in terms of social practices (broadly defined), which can themselves in principle be understood naturalistically. Brandom’s theory doesn’t require us to understand normativity this way: if we believe our norms find their origin in the divine, there’s nothing Brandom’s work can do to refute the idea. But Brandom’s work does show that we don’t need a supernatural or non-naturalistic understanding of norms in order to be entitled to an idea of normative objectivity – life will not lose all meaning if there turns out to be no God. In this respect Brandom’s work falls squarely in the “I have no need of that hypothesis” tradition of secular theory.
More than this, though, Brandom’s work gives us a very detailed, micrological account of the actual practices by which norms are instituted. I want to explore, in a somewhat scattered way, some of the things this account can tell us about ethical (or, I guess, meta-ethical) matters. I guess I’ll start a new post to begin.
March 25, 2011
This is really just a reading-notes-for-self post: the very interesting discussion in the last comment thread prompted me to pick up some more Brandom – I’ve just started the first part of Between Saying and Doing. I’ve argued before on the blog that Brandom has an idiosyncratic definition of ‘naturalism’, related to the possibility of a non-normative, descriptive, scientistic meta-language. Between Saying and Doing helpfully starts by (among other things) defining this sense of ‘naturalism’.
I think of analytic philosophy as having at its center a concern with semantic relations between what I will call ‘vocabularies’. Its characteristic form of question is whether, and in what way, one can make sense of the meanings expressed by one kind of locution in terms of the meanings expressed by another kind of locution…. As base vocabularies, different species of naturalism appealed to the vocabulary of fundamental physics, or to the vocabulary of the natural sciences (including the special sciences) more generally, or just to objective descriptive vocabulary, even when not regimented by incorporation into explicit scientific theories. Typical targets include normative, semantic, and intentional vocabularies.
For Brandom, in other words, ‘naturalism’ is the philosophical doctrine that the content expressed in any given vocabulary can be translated into the idiom of some scientific vocabulary. ‘Naturalism’ here names a doctrine about the relations between different discursive idioms.
This is not the same thing as the philosophical position that I intuitively think of when I hear ‘naturalism’. That is – to reject what Brandom calls ‘naturalism’ is not necessarily to reject the idea that we can reasonably believe that non-supernatural (and potentially natural-scientifically analysable) processes, entities and events are all that are required in order to explain the generation of normative- and meaning-phenomena (a more common definition of ‘naturalism’ as I understand it). To explain normative phenomena in scientific terms does not commit one to claiming that scientific vocabularies can fully express the contents of non-scientific vocabularies. These are different claims, the first of which does not imply the second.
In later sections of the opening chapter of Between Saying and Doing, Brandom will go on to elaborate on this point, by distinguishing (using hideous jargon-acronyms that I’m going to ignore) between:
1) Vocabularies in which one can fully describe a given set of meaning-generating practices.
2) A given set of meaning-generating practices that are sufficient to produce a given set of meanings.
Brandom points out that the practice-describing vocabulary need not be the same as the vocabulary generated by those practices. It might be possible, for example, for a natural-scientific vocabulary to be capable of accurately describing all the practices that are required for the generation of any and all meaning-phenomena. This would not in itself imply, however, that the natural-scientific vocabulary could itself express the content of all the meaning-phenomena thereby generated.
Interestingly (to me) Brandom attributes something pretty close to the position just sketched to Huw Price:
One example of a claim of this shape in the case of pragmatically mediated semantic relations – though of course it is not expressed in terms of the machinery I have been introducing – is Huw Price’s pragmatic normative naturalism. He argues, in effect, that although normative vocabulary is not reducible to naturalistic vocabulary, it might still be possible to say in wholly naturalistic vocabulary what one must do in order to be using normative vocabulary. If such a claim about the existence of an expressively bootstrapping naturalistic pragmatic metavocabulary for normative vocabulary could be made out, it would evidently be an important chapter in the development of the naturalist core program of the classical project of philosophical analysis. It would be a paradigm of the sort of payoff we could expect from extending that analytic project by including pragmatically mediated semantic relations.
This is something I need to pay atttention to for several reasons: First – I obviously need to read Price (he’s on the list). Second – the position Brandom here attributes to Price is pretty damn close to the position I’ve been advocating as a Brandomian one. (Potential differences, depending on how Price elaborates his position, could involve: i) the degree of faith in the likely practical reach of scientific explanation; ii) [perhaps more importantly] the question of whether a scientific ‘metalanguage’ could in principle function without relying on a non-scientific idiom within which it would be embedded (obviously it couldn’t, but Price may think it could – I can’t tell from Brandom’s summary – this is one reason I need to read more in this area)). And therefore: Third – it would be nice to find out what Brandom’s actual attitude is to the Price-style project he sketches here. I’m relatively confident that I’ve seen a video somewhere in which Brandom distances himself from Price’s attempt to construct a naturalistic pragmatic metavocabulary. I may be misremembering this, however. In any case, it would be good to track down Brandom’s comments (if any) on the issue. In Between Saying and Doing, as far as I can tell, he is characteristically agnostic, since this question falls outside the research-area of the book.
March 21, 2011
Another very quick and far too telegraphic post: the topic is – what do we mean when we talk about ‘normativity’? I take it that questions of normativity relate to what ought to be. Normative judgements are judgements of right and wrong. If we take there to be a right action and a wrong action, a right state of affairs and a wrong state of affairs, we are dealing with norms.
Normative judgements are classically contrasted with positive or descriptive judgements – where positive judgements pertain to matters of objective fact, as opposed to normative matters (matters of values). One of the things Brandom believes he has achieved in Making It Explicit (and I agree with him) is the demonstration that positive judgements are derivative of normative judgements – in explanatory terms, normative judgements (and normative practices) are more basic. This ought, I think, to be relatively intuitive and commonsensical: a statement of fact only makes sense as a statement of fact if we can be right or wrong about it – that is, if there is a good and a bad way of making a claim of this kind. Truth is also a norm. Nevertheless, Brandom’s order of explanation – and his collapsing of positive judgements into normative judgements (as part of his collapsing of representationalism into inferentialism) is controversial.
The main point I want to make in this short post, however, is that ‘normativity’ is a very broad category. Normative practices and normative judgements include any practice or judgement that can be right or wrong, good or bad. The senses of ‘right or wrong’ and ‘good or bad’ that are in operation here are not limited to the ethical. Thus there are a set of right ways and wrong ways to tie one’s shoelaces, or to swallow food. (That is to say: there are right ways according to the demands of such-and-such a group of socially(-biologically)-enacted norms – as we will see, normativity is always, for Brandom, to be understood in social-perspectival terms, and there can always be both contestation and contextual shifts around any given normative requirement). Similarly, there are a set of right ways and wrong ways to handle a weapon if you want to torture somebody. When we are talking about norms, we are not talking about intrinsically admirable things, or intrinsically important things – we are talking about a basic resource of human judgement and practice, regardless of whether those practices are good or evil, ethically freighted or banal: to participate in a normative practice simply involves having the ability to regard one way of doing things as right, and another way of doing things as wrong, irrespective of the substantive content of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (and of whether we ourselves agree that the ‘right’ way is in fact the right way, in any of the relevant senses of that term.)
It’s perhaps also worth saying that there is no fundamental distinction to be found in Brandom’s system between ethical and instrumental reason: at the meta-theoretical level at which Brandom’s work is pitched, there is no classificatory principle that would enable us to distinguish between intrinsic means and ends (I’ll try to expand on this in future posts). Valuing liberty, and selecting a five dollar bill to pay for your cola, are both equally normative in the relevant sense (and I think Brandom is right about this, too).
This last claim can sometimes worry people: it is sometimes suggested that if the ethical distinctions we value most highly cannot be located at the very well-spring of normativity, our values have been robbed of all legitimacy, and ethics (or reason) must be given up as lost. This concern is, in my judgement, an unwarranted one. As I (again) plan to discuss further in future posts, the Brandomian metatheoretical flattening of the (at times) desired hierarchy of norms does not result in our inability to assert those norms (or indeed assert the hierarchy) – it simply locates such an assertion within the same normative field we are analysing, and at the same metatheoretical plane as those normative judgements we wish to contest. In this way we lose the aura of metaphysical privilege we may have coveted – but we do not lose the norms.
Apologies for the scrappy and underdeveloped nature of this post – I’ll try to address all of these themes in more detail when I have more time.
March 13, 2011
I’ve not done my due diligence in the philosophical literature here – there are a heap of texts discussing the nature and validity of transcendental arguments – but I wanted to make a couple of quick observations. The immediate relevance of the topic is the question: in what sense, or to what extent, can Brandom’s arguments in Making It Explicit be regarded as transcendental?
I take it that transcendental arguments are arguments about conditions of possibility. Given an accepted feature of the world or of our experience (x), a transcendental argument operates by claiming that another thing (y) is a necessary condition of the possibility of that thing x. Classically – in Kant – the argument works by finding conditions of possibility of experience in the synthesising activity of the transcendental subject; but the form of the argument is broader.
I want to make a couple of observations about the status of these sorts of arguments.
1) In the classic Kantian form, and in many other versions of ‘transcendental’ arguments that I’ve seen, there’s an implicit or explicit suggestion that the things described as ‘conditions of possibility’ inhabit in some sense a different plane from those with which the argument begins. In (at least a common interpretation of) the Kantian argument, for example, we begin with experience of an empirical world, with its causal connections between objects, etc., and conclude with the synthesising activity of the transcendental subject. The transcendental subject is taken to constitute the empirical world – without such synthesising activity, the empirical world would not manifest to us.
From here philosophers often move to suggesting that the features of the empirical world so synthesised cannot impact on the transcendental subject doing the synthesising. For instance, it is sometimes claimed that the transcendental subject is not impacted by causal laws, because causal laws are in some sense made by the transcendental subject as it synthesises experience. (Alternatively, we have no way of knowing whether causal laws hold in reality as it is in itself, because the empirical world constituted by the transcendental subject is, by virtue of its transcendental constitution, transcendentally ideal.) These moves make the transcendental subject seem like a very spooky non-empirical thing. It’s as if there are two planes of existence – actual empirical existence, and then the conditions of possibility of that existence, which are somehow untouched by the empirical.
The first point I want to make is that this latter claim doesn’t follow from anything that’s gone before. It’s perfectly possible for the subject whose synthesising activity is a condition of possibility of empirical experience also to be an empirical thing. Indeed, there’s no intrinsic reason, given the structure of the argument, to believe it isn’t. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask what the actual empirical features of the world are that generate or are this synthesising activity – there’s no reason why research into this question shouldn’t be an empirical endeavour just like research into any other feature of experience or the world. In that sense, there’s no intrinsic opposition between ‘transcendental’ arguments and ‘naturalised’ epistemology. (And this goes not just for transcendental arguments that derive some kind of synthesising subject, but for any kind of transcendental argument at all.)
In other words, there’s a slippage in a lot of transcendental arguments. Philosophers move from talking about conditions of possibility (what is necessary for x to be true) that are ‘transcendental’ in the technical sense of being necessary for the existence or experience of x – to talking as if the ‘transcendental’ things thereby discovered are somehow also transcendent – or at least different in kind from empirical things that ordinary empirical research might discover. And there’s no justification for this slippage.
Brandom does not participate in this slippage. Thus Making It Explicit does make a set of transcendental arguments about the conditions of possibility of normativity. Brandom believes he can make the case that certain kinds and relations of social practices are necessary in order for normative and conceptual content to be possible at all. This is a transcendental argument in the first sense defined above.
However, Brandom does not then make the move to acting as if these transcendental conditions of possibility are also different in kind from empirical phenomena discoverable by regular empirical research. Brandom ‘black-boxes’ the specific empirical phenomena that generate his classes of normative practice – he isn’t interested or competent to engage in the detailed study of what kinds of biological structures an organism might require in order to participate in the social practices his work discusses, for example. Nevertheless, Brandom does not mean to suggest that the practices his work analyses – and from which his analysis of normativity is derived – are non-empirical. As I’ve already argued, Brandom’s work is naturalistic in this respect.
So this is the first point I want to make: Brandom’s work makes transcendental arguments, but the kinds of transcendental arguments Brandom makes should not be taken as incompatible with – or addressing different kinds of phenomena to – empirical or scientific research programs.
I’m obviously happy with Brandom’s naturalism. However, for myself – and here I’m moving away from exegesis of Brandom into criticism of Brandom – I think that the kind of transcendental argument Brandom deploys still makes claims that are too strong to be justified.
2) Moving back to discussion of transcendental arguments in general, then, the second point I want to make is that transcendental arguments (even of the limited kind deployed by Brandom) rely on unjustifiably strong claims about counterfactual possibilities.
A transcendental argument is of the form: x is the case. y is a condition of possibility of x. Therefore y is the case. I want to suggest that in almost all cases in which arguments of this form are used, we are not justified in claiming that y is a condition of possibility of x (that y is a necessary requirement for the existence or manifestation of x) – simply that y is a mechanism by which x can be produced. I don’t think we generally have the capacity to know that no other set of circumstances could also be capable of producing x. I don’t see on what epistemological basis such a strong claim could be made.
In the case of Brandom, I think Making It Explicit presents a very strong case that the social practices Brandom describes are capable of generating the phenomena of normative and conceptual content with which his argument concludes. I don’t see, however, on what basis Brandom can legitimately claim that only these practices are capable of generating such phenomena. That may be the case – Brandom may be right – (as it happens I don’t think he is) but I don’t see on what epistemological basis such counterfactual claims could possibly be made – the fact that we can’t think of an alternative set of conditions generative of such-and-such a phenomenon does not mean that an alternative set of such conditions is impossible – we may simply be victims of a lack of imagination, reasoning capacity, or information. And I don’t see how this latter set of possibilities could ever be definitively excluded from our reckoning. I therefore don’t see how even ‘weakly’ transcendental arguments, of the kind I take Brandom to be making, can be legitimate. Our claims should be more modest. Not “y is a condition of possibility of x” but rather “y is a way of producing x, and it’s a way we’re familiar with”.
To summarise, then, the kind of ‘transcendental’ argument Brandom is making in Making It Explicit does not conflict with, and indeed is strongly compatible with, naturalistic research and description. Just because y is a transcendental condition of x doesn’t mean that y isn’t also an empirical or causal condition of x. For an argument of the type Brandom’s making, these can in fact be the same kind of claim.
However, I also think Brandom overstates the strength of his argument, and that his argument should not in fact be taken as a transcendental one in any sense (though Brandom certainly thinks it is). All Brandom can show in Making It Explicit is that the practices he describes are one way of generating conceptual and normative content. He cannot – as he seems to wish to – show that these are the only ways of generating conceptual and normative content. Such claims are, in fact, outside our ability to make: as limited creatures without God-like capacities for evaluating empirical counterfactuals, we cannot conclusively know what all else might be possible.