Brandom’s definition of ‘naturalism’

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.

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One Response to “Brandom’s definition of ‘naturalism’”


  1. […] sense of what Brandom means by ‘naturalism’ and ‘anti-naturalism’ (see this post) – but I remain perturbed by these passages. Indeed, more than perturbed. I’m now […]


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