Embodied Norms

March 26, 2011

I’ve said (repeatedly) before that Brandom’s pragmatist apparatus has greater scope than Brandom’s own emphasis on linguistic philosophy might imply. One consequence of Brandom’s emphasis on the linguistic is that it tends to obscure the extent to which Brandom’s work theorises the embodied nature of the normative. As I’ve said before, one of the core categories of Brandom’s philosophy is reliable differential responsive dispositions (RDRDs) – that is, dispositions for an entity to respond to different given stimuli or (more broadly) circumstances in reliably different ways. This is, at least potentially, a naturalistic category. The task Brandom sets himself, in Making It Explicit, is to explain how one can start with RDRDs and end up with normative and conceptual content – how to ‘bake a normative cake’ out of (potentially) natural ingredients.

When I first discussed RDRDs on the blog, I wasn’t in a position to give an adequate account of how Brandom aims to achieve this. It is not uncommon, in the secondary literature on Brandom, for interpreters to believe that Brandom has essentially fiated himself normativity. MIE builds its account of normative and conceptual content out of the base unit of “normative practices” – that is, practices that can be done right or wrong – and it therefore seems that Brandom is bringing in normativity at the ground floor, evading any serious explanatory task.

What this common interpretation fails to understand is that MIE‘s argument as a whole allows Brandom to explain the basis on which normative practices become normative. For Brandom the social property of being normative can be entirely explained in terms of the (naturalistically describable) social practice of taking as normative. Now, a practice is only normative if it is properly taken as normative – the taking-as practice that institutes normativity is itself a normative practice that can be done right and wrong. It may therefore seem that we have a vicious explanatory regress. But as I explained in my posts on Joseph Heath’s interpretation of Brandom, the potential regresses involved here are not the same as either a) an actual regress of justification, for any given justificatory project – because any given community will have axiomatic (doxic) shared presuppositions in which the chain of justification can be grounded (even if those and any presuppositions can be challenged from the perspective of another social-perspectival location); or b) a metatheoretical regress of explanation, since the entire set of practices that generate the possible challenges to any given norm can themselves all (in principle) be understood naturalistically [which, as I said in my post on Brandom’s definition of ‘naturalism’, is not the same as permitting a scientistic metalanguage to so describe them]. ‘Original intentionality’ (or original normativity) therefore resides, for Brandom, not intrinsically with any given practice, but with a community of practice – normativity can only exist as an emergent property of many complexly related social practices, some of which will then rightly be regarded as normative from within a set of perspectives made possible (as normative) by a more extensive set.

These remarks are meant to be recapitulatory – I’m not aiming to make the argument here, but rather to summarise the conclusion of my early long series of Brandom posts, to which I refer baffled readers. The point I’m making, for purposes of this post, is that although Brandom is widely regarded as an anti-naturalistic philosopher, who regards normative practices as ontologically fundamental for the purposes of his system, it is in fact legitimate to see Brandom as treating reliable differential responsive dispositions as fundamental, and explaining the social process of rightly taking RDRDs as normative in terms of RDRDs themselves. [And this is not an ‘eliminativist’ position because normativity remains fundamental (and real!) for us.]

So Brandom’s account of normativity is based on RDRDs – reliable differential responsive dispositions. The principal dispositions in question are of course dispositions of the human organism. (I’ve argued against Brandom’s human exceptionalism, and I’m also sympathetic to ‘extended mind’ accounts of cognition – but for purposes of this discussion at least, I’m assuming we’re basically talking about humans.) This means, of course, that Brandom’s theory of normativity is also in some sense a theory of embodied cognition. It’s this aspect of Bradom’s thought that I want briefly to explore.

That’s the first thing. The second thing is that Brandom has a theory of implicit norms. Normative practices can be normative even if we are not capable of articulating the norms that they implicitly contain – in fact, this is the default condition for normative practices. Again, I’ve discussed this (though in somewhat less detail) in earlier posts on the blog. I need to go into this issue in some greater depth at a later date – but for now the important point is that we don’t need to be aware, at any given moment or indeed at all, of what norm is contained in a normative practice for that practice to indeed be normative (the relevant taking-as doesn’t have to be a conscious assessment of the norm as norm). (We need to be capable of in principle articulating the norm, but that’s a separate issue.) Most norms that guide actions are implicit nearly all of the time. We do what we do through biological predisposition and social habituation. What we do is still normative – but it need not be consciously thematised to be so normative. Indeed, normativity itself would be impossible if our conscious thematisations of norms were not built on the solid bedrock of habitual and practically-invariant biological dispositions (although of course we can change the bedrock through conscious deliberation on habit or indeed at times biological dispositions, but again that’s a separate issue.)

Brandom’s theoretical and ethical inclination is towards explicitation: Brandom is a fully signed-up member of the Enlightenment project of bringing unconsidered habit into the gaze of wakeful theoretical consciousness, in order to assess the legitimacy of that habit, and modify our behaviour accordingly. It is this theoretical and ethical inclination that motivates Making It Explicit – the book’s theorisation and explanation of the process of explicitation is driven by the desire to make explicit how we make norms explicit, as an important element of this ethico-theoretical task. It’s important to note, however, that this theoretical-ethical orientation is not itself demanded by the apparatus Brandom ends up with. Making It Explicit simply tells us how (in Brandom’s opinion) the generation of normativity and (as part of that) the capacity to make implicit norms explicit to ourselves functions – MIE is silent on the question of what we should do with this theoretical knowledge (even if the work’s own practice serves as a model for a particular theoretico-ethical orientation.)

Indeed, it is a core aspect of Making It Explicit‘s theoretical account that we can’t make everything explicit – at least not all at once. The activities of theoretical consciousness are built out of practical capacities, for Brandom, and any intellectual endeavour, even the most Enlightenment-oriented, must rely on a vast array of habitual activities and premises held constant to enable its articulation. This doesn’t mean that those same premises and habitual activities can’t, at some other time, be thematised and contested (or justified) in their own right. But the very capacity for wakeful self-examination is grounded in a presently-unexamined set of wholly implicit norms.

This isn’t a paradoxical result, about the blindness of reason to itself – as I say, Brandom draws no such conclusion, nor should he, and he remains a fully signed up member of the classically-articulated Enlightenment project of testing our beliefs and actions in the light of reason. But it means that, for someone with this basic ethico-theoretical orientiation, Brandom is unusually sensitive to, and willing to theorise, the non-conscious, implicit aspects of human cognition and behaviour.

Which brings me to my point: that norms are, in the first place, for Brandom, implicit and embodied. The extent to which this is so can be overlooked because Brandom himself is so fixated on a specific class of normative practice – linguistic behaviour. But if we loosen the hold of linguistic philosophy over Brandom’s pragmatist apparatus for a minute, we can see that a lot of what Brandom is saying about normativity would not be incompatible with, for example, Pierre Bourdieu’s discussions of habitus. It is this aspect of Brandom’s work that I want to focus on for a short while.

Brandom and Ethics

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.

A Pragmatist Insight

March 26, 2011

Still reading the opening sections of Brandom’s Between Saying and Doing, I wanted to draw attention to some remarks Brandom makes somewhat in passing, that I think express a core insight the pragmatist theoretical approach makes available. On pages 6 and 7, Brandom is discussing Wittgenstein’s approach to language. Brandom writes:

I think Wittgenstein thinks that an absolutely fundamental discursive phenomenon is the way in which the abilities required to deploy one vocabulary can be practically extended, elaborated, or developed so as to constitute the ability to deploy some further vocabulary, or to deploy the old vocabulary in quite different ways. Many of his thought-experiments concern this sort of process of pragmatic projection of one practice into another. We are asked to imagine a community that uses proper names only for people, but then extends the practice to include rivers. There is no guarantee that interlocutors can master the extended practice, building on what they can already do. But if they can, then they will have changed the only sessences proper-name usage could be taken to have had. In the old practice it always made sense to ask for the identity of the mother and father of the named item; in the new practice, that question is often senseless…

At every stage, what practical extensions of a given practice are possible for the practitioners can turn on features of their embodiment, lives, environment, and history that are contingent and wholly particular to them. And which of those developments actually took place, and in what order, can turn on any obscure fact.

As ever, Brandom is interested in linguistic philosophy when he makes these remarks. I have urged, however, that Brandom’s metatheoretical apparatus should be understood as having a scope potentially much greater than the questions of discursive practice on which Brandom himself focuses. (In good pragmatist style, theoretical practices developed in one context can be picked up and extended by using them elsewhere, in a way that can transform, though not beyond recognition, the practices themselves). In particular, these remarks make a metatheoretical point very close to one made by N Pepperell, in her extended and ongoing interpretation of Marx’s Capital. I’m not yet ready, on this blog, to discuss how a Brandomian-influenced pragmatism, if separated from its orientation towards linguistic philosophy, can illuminate other kinds of practice – for example economic practice. However it’s worth mentioning, if only in passing, the connections here between Brandom’s ‘analytic pragmatism’ and Marx’s project of analysing how, in Marx’s famous phrase –

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

Brandom’s work gives a to my knowledge uniquely well-worked-out and micrologically complex account of how conceptual content (possession of or access to which is typically regarded as a core distinguishing feature of consciousness) can be understood in terms of social being (the complex interconnected set of social practices that make up a community). In this sense, Brandom’s theoretical apparatus is a major contribution to the secular, naturalist, pragmatist (historical materialist) understanding of the determining role of social practice of which Marx is another avatar.

But Brandom’s metatheoretical apparatus also connects up to Marx’s in less obvious ways. As readers of the Rough Theory blog will know, N Pepperell has been arguing, over the last few years, that what Brandom calls the “process of pragmatic projection” is central to Marx’s immanent reflexive critique of capitalist society. Marx is committed to showing how the reproduction of capitalist society also necessarily reproduces the conditions for the possibility of the overthrow of capitalism and the institution of a more egalitarian and emancipatory system of social organisation. This critique operates, in part, by demonstrating that social practices that presently contribute to the reproduction of capitalist society also contain the potential for development in alternative more emancipatory directions. Such-and-such a social practice currently participates in the reproduction of capitalism; but it could, potentially, serve a very different set of social functions, if its relation to the system as a whole were transformed. Capitalism thus generates a large number of social practices that (like Wittgenstein’s naming practice) are also resources available for use in other ways.

Such resources include (among many many others): the complex technology and mechanisation required for the freeing up of leisure time without a society-wide loss of productive capacity; oppositional political movements; but also a host of more small-scale and micrological practices – habits of embodiment and experiences of self – and the normative ideals to which Marx’s anti-capitalist politics appeals. To take an example that N Pepperell has emphasised: the reproduction of capitalist society systematically generates an experience of human equality in a specific, very limited aspect of social reality (broadly, that associated with the operation of the ‘law of value’ in the labour market). This experience may fall beneath the level of conscious awareness – it is certainly contradicted by most other aspects of social experience. But our experience of treating each other as equal in one dimension of social practice can be picked up and pragmatically extended – first by appealing to it as a normative standard against which other aspects of social practice can be judged; and then, potentially, by the creation of alternative political and economic institutions that can implement the normative standard appealed to in a more deliberate and thorough-going way.

Another way in which Brandom’s work resonates with Marx’s, then, is his metatheoretical insistence that origin is not destiny, for practices or for the conceptual or normative resources generated by them: that there is nothing intrinsically problematic about deploying resources – including (but of course not limited to) normative resources – that have been generated quite accidentally, and (potentially) as tiny aspects of a social system that in other respects contradicts or opposes them. It doesn’t matter where our norms come from. What matters is whether we can justify them in the game of asking for and giving reasons – and whether we can act on them effectively. This last question is, of course, one that must be answered in ethical and political practice.

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.

What is Normativity?

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.

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.

Still not blogging seriously, but I thought I’d put up a quick post to note a great short text I hadn’t come across before – Clifford Geertz’s 1984 article on “Anti Anti-Relativism”. A couple of quotes without commentary. From early in the piece:

What the relativists, so called, want us to worry about is provincialism – the danger that our perceptions will be dulled, our intellects constricted, and our sympathies narrowed by the overlearned and overvalued acceptances of our own society. What the anti-relativists, self-declared, want us to worry about, and worry and worry about, as though our very souls depended upon it, is a kind of spiritual entropy, a heat death of the mind, in which everything is as significant, thus as insignificant, as everything else…

As I have already suggested, I myself find provincialism altogether the more real concern so far as what actually goes on in the world…. The image of vast numbers of anthropology readers running around in so cosmopolitan a frame of mind as to have no views as to what is and isn’t true, or good, or beautiful, seems to me largely a fantasy.

And from the concluding remarks:

The objection to anti-relativism is not that it rejects an it’s-all-how-you-look-at-it approach to knowledge or a when-in-Rome approach to morality, but that it imagines that they can only be defeated by placing morality beyond culture and knowledge beyond both.