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.


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