Terrible Things

May 29, 2011

One thing that this general picture helps us account for – if we need to – is how people do such terrible things. There was a funny piece in The Onion on this theme not long ago (prompted, I think, by the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords):

As more details emerged of Friday’s horrible but relatively commonplace manifestation of human nature in Brandon, SD, citizens nationwide somehow managed to enter a state of shock, apparently struggling to comprehend an act that, throughout history, has happened thousands upon thousands of times.

In the wake of the tragedy, Americans have expressed a deep sense of bewilderment, though it is unclear why, given that events just like the one Friday have taken place frequently throughout their lifetimes.

I too am often puzzled by the “how could anyone do such a thing?” response that is frequently elicited by heinous – or, indeed, impolite – acts. I don’t, however, exactly endorse a concept of ‘human nature’ as the source of these various enormities – except in the (legitimate) sense that human nature is highly variable, with a range of capacities that can be activated or inculcated by circumstance, and clearly a wide range of the behaviours of which humans are capable are horrifying. (In this respect it’s certainly possible to say something like “human beings are sufficiently biologically primed towards violence that violence will always be a feature of human society” [which is surely true if anything is] without taking this to be a claim about human nature except in a probabilistic sense, which is all we need from the concept.)

It’s common, however, to think of one particular range of human behaviours as requiring more explanation than another, because some behaviours are innate, and some are the product of contingent socialisation: for example, people sometimes argue that we’re basically evil fuckers who can be socialised into behaving somewhat tolerably; or, contrariwise, other people argue that we’re basically fluffy bunnies who can be warped by circumstance into unpleasantness.

As I say, it’s presumably true that some dispositions are going to be statistically more common than others – probabilistically more likely – in some given circumstance, given the make-up of the human organism. But that fact in itself shouldn’t lead us to any conclusions about essential human nature versus contingency. We certainly shouldn’t think – as is common – that the dispositions and habits of thought we have been socialised into, and therefore regard as normative in the ‘should’ sense, are therefore normative in the probabilistic (or essentialist) sense. This parochialism is the enemy of any adequate social theory. What we regard as obviously right isn’t obviously right because it’s a core feature of the human self that has been sadly obscured by pathological socialisation. Our own norms are as contingent as anyone else’s, and require no more or less in the way of social-theoretic explanation w/r/t their source.

So – we think what we think because (very loosely) we participate in a positive-feedback loop of valuation and validation w/r/t our norms. It is, obviously, very very easy for positive-feedback loops to be created around basically any norm at all. The problem of “how could people do such a hideous thing?” simply isn’t a problem from this p.o.v. People do such hideous things because they think it’s a good idea, and they think it’s a good idea, most often, because people around them also think it’s a good idea, and the community as a whole participates in a positive feedback loop of mutual validation. This is far from the only way that norms can get constructed – as I’ve already said, it’s possible for the relevant feedback-loops to be largely internal to the organism (through, for example, the projection of a fantasised approving judge), or entirely non-conscious. But it’s obvious how this sort of thing works, and it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that the most monstrous deeds can be perpetrated by groups of people who can approve of each others’ actions (or individuals who are capable of imagining others who do). This is exactly the same process by which good deeds get done and good norms get created. The only difference (which is not a difference in any explanatory sense) is whether we in fact approve of the normative dynamic in question (or whether we should approve of it).

One further aspect of all this is that the “under-such-and-such-a-circumstance I could have been a Nazi!” thing, which evidently produces such a vertiginous sensation in many people, such that it must either be rejected by the positing of a core self invulnerable to such transformation, or is taken to ‘problematise’ even the mildest assertion of ethical propriety, rather loses its force. The self is intrinsically a social thing, as I’ve been saying. To say that you might have been a Nazi, then, is in fact to speak of another self, who shares certain common properties with you. This doesn’t mean that the claim is illegitimate – it might be made, for example, to highlight the similarity between the actually-existing self and the historically imagined (but, perhaps, condemned) alternative self. And, of course, there are plenty of people running around today with fascist politics, such that the claim that they would be Nazis given half the chance requires very little in the way of imaginative counterfactual projection. But if the claim is simply that, given vastly different socio-historical circumstances of socialisation, a vastly different self would emerge, this is pretty much tautologous, on my view, and shouldn’t be found either shocking or profound.

What all this does mean, of course (and again this should be news to no one), is that the conditions that make the self matter. Part of our politico-ethical responsibility is to make the circumstances that make good selves – and the selves thereby made can, perhaps, continue the reproduction of positive, rather than harmful (as we take them to be), circumstances of socialisation.


May 29, 2011

All right, so, I think it’s quite a task to give any kind of proper account of the structure of the argument around asking for and giving reasons. I don’t have that amount of time at the moment. I ought to get back to work. But as a preliminary, schematic, superficial and telegraphic gesture: we do what we do. Because we are sapient, and the things we do are normative practices, the things we do can be judged right or wrong by others. Those judgements are, themselves, practices, and can themselves be judged right or wrong by others. The principles by which such judgements are made are themselves normative practices, which can, again, be judged right or wrong. And the whole thing cycles round. I’ve already explained, albeit briefly, how Brandom precipitates normative and conceptual objectivity out of this structure. It should also be at least broadly clear how one acquires a stable set of commitments within the system mapped out by this framework. As a participant in this social structure, I believe that a certain set of things are right because this belief is validated by the other social-perspectival locations that I take to be legitimate sources of correct judgement. These judgements of mine, about those other social-perspectival locations, are themselves in turn validated by a similar process. Until, on Brandom’s schema, we get to a material inference – an inference that is just good… but any material inference can become non-material the moment it is subject to contestation, and needs itself to be justified by reference to some further principle, or judgement. So the whole process will always in practice stop somewhere, but need never in theory.

All one needs, then, is a basic positive-feedback loop for a stable set of validated convictions to emerge from this kind of social-perspectival system. And this is how normative conviction is established.

The most common philosophical response to this kind of picture is something along the lines of “but how do you know that you’re really right?” – i.e. how, if all you’ve got is a positive-feedback loop between different social-perspectival locations, do you know that the output of this feedback loop is a good one, a true one? I have, at present, absolutely no interest in this question as a general question – i.e. as a sceptical critique of the entire picture being presented here. That’s because I take myself already to have answered it, in my earlier discussions of Brandom’s concept of objectivity. I refer you to my earlier posts on Brandom if this is your reaction to the broad picture being discussed.

As a specific question, however – a question asked from within the social-perspectival system, about a specific stance adopted within that system – this needs to be addressed. Or, rather, metatheoretically, I need to address how this question is addressed – I need to discuss the social practice of asking for and giving reasons. [Of course, from my point of view the ‘general’ question imagined above has the same status as the ‘specific’ question – it is a specific question articulated within this sytem – because I’m right about the fact that we do in fact all inhabit a system of this kind, and that this is in fact the only way any of our beliefs are ever legitimated.] I’ll aim to discuss all this in future posts. For now I’ve just got too many other things that need to be attended to. I need to spend some time away from the blog. Hopefully I’ll be able to return to these questions in a while. (I may, in the interim, throw up somewhat random passages of text without a whole lot of discussion. Again, hopefully I’ll be able to integrate all of this stuff when time permits.)


May 28, 2011

{Post four of four}

So – building on the things I’ve just recently said below, I now want to talk, in a personal manner, about some experiences and dispositions of thought that have distressed me, and that sometimes continue to distress me, albeit not as intensely.  The apparatus I’ve been elaborating helps me to think about these experiences, and I think to address them.  I’m thinking of a sort of shifting between social-perspectival locations – imagined social-perspectival locations, many of them fantasised – without being able to settle on any given set or subset or one as providing an adequate perspective, and without being able to settle on a location that would provide even a criterion for choosing between these different locations.  A paralysing internal frenzy of possible judgements and sources of action.  With of course relatively stable dispositions beneath it – but uncertainty as to whether to endorse or deplore those dispositions – and then the attempt to shut down this inner frenzy by simply shutting down the movement of imagined identification, which can itself be highly debilitating, this shutting down, because it shuts down also so many essential faculties – the occupying of multiple social-perspectival locations in fantasy or through empathy being essential (as Brandom suggests) for the functioning of thought.

This dynamic is particularly debilitating for making solid judgements, decisions, taking determined action.  But I think the apparatus I’m outlining provides, not of course any specific resolution to this issue, but a metatheoretical account of what the situation is, and what kind of thing any given solution – any given consistent occupancy of a specific set of social-perspectival locations – would be.  And of course this is already to a large extent operative in practice – these remarks are part of a process of explicitation, even though that process of explicitation is also (self-)transformative.

How does anyone choose what practices, what judgements, what social-perspectival locations, they should participate in and endorse?  Again, the specific answer for any given individual or group will of course be different (and individually analysable).  But I think a quite general metatheoretical answer can be supplied, that I advise adopting.  Brandom’s account of material inference, and the social practice of asking for and giving reasons, explains what kind of thing we’re doing when we choose to occupy or endorse a specific set of social-perspectival locations.  I think this account can explain (and provide the metatheoretical resources required to legitimate) both the ‘blind’ following of a rule that allies us with a specific set of social-perspectival locations without us knowing why, or why this alliance is the right one, and the rational process of contestation that allows us in principle to justify any given social-perspectival location or alliance.  And – although Brandom himself doesn’t do a very good job of this – his apparatus also allows us to give an account of the irrational processes of persuasion and coercive force that are also centrally determining of what social-perspectival locations we occupy.  In fact – and I will elaborate on this in much more detail in future posts – Brandom’s meta-theoretical apparatus should be silent on the question of whether any given reason for judgement or action is a ‘real’ reason – a good reason – including the ‘reason’ of violent coercion.  Brandom himself doesn’t seem fully to recognise this implication (as I take it to be) of his work (and I will argue that this is connected, yet again, to his linguistic exceptionalism).  That is, Brandom doesn’t seem always or fully to recognise just how little can be settled by his metatheoretical apparatus – just how much his work returns us to implicitly or explicitly political processes of contestation, for the settling of issues that centrally preoccupy him.  The ‘rationalism’ that Brandom’s metatheoretical apparatus commits us to is an extremely weak rationalism.  It is a rationalism, though – and, importantly, it can be used to give an account of the specific practices out of which a stronger rationalism – of the sort that Brandom himself evidently wants to endorse – can be built.

But I am getting ahead of myself – all this is preparatory, and is by way of introducing my next long series of posts on Brandom, in which I will aim to explicate and interpret Brandom’s account of the social practice of asking for and giving reasons, and the role I believe this account should play within any Brandomian social theory that takes practice as foundational.

{Post three of four}

So, continuing backwards through the errors I listed earlier, consider the idea that the aspects of self that should be used to push with (against other aspects of self, or against circumstance) should be truly internal to the self – innate – core.

I don’t want to be unfair to my earlier self here [and, to be clear, the ‘earlier self’ I’m engaging with is one from prior to my online presence – I don’t take myself with be arguing with the author of ‘Praxis’.]  On the one hand I don’t find it at all implausible that there are important aspects of self that are ‘core’, in the sense of being biologically coded in such a way that they are not vulnerable to transformation via experience.  On the other hand, my earlier self’s position was not as naive as might appear but was (rather) uncertain, or self-consciously contradictory.  My earlier self was interested in tracing the origins and guiding principles of normative demands through the vicissitudes of the instincts that produced them, in order to locate simpler demands that underlay these – a discourse on desire in the psychoanalytic sense.  At the same time, my earlier self was aware of the facts that a) the transformations that instincts undergo as biologically simple impulses interact with a complex social field (itself made out of such impulses) and are impacted by that interaction, are real transformations – the fact that a normative demand can (perhaps) be analysed into the complex interaction of simple ‘instinctual’ components does not in itself debunk the normative demand.  (Nor did Freud think this, I should add.)  At the same time b) there is some sense (and what sense, exactly, my earlier self always had a hard time articulating) in which these instinctual demands, when taken as demands, are themselves socially constituted.  How to understand this ‘social constitution’ in a way that was not metaphysically idealist, and yet, also, not biologically essentialist, was a problem that my earlier self had some difficulty navigating.  (And, to put it mildly, the metaphysical inclinations of psychoanalytic theory – which was the principle intellectual resource I was making us of to try to understand these questions at that time – didn’t help.)

I believe I can now provide a much better and more detailed account of all of this.  In particular, there are two ways in which an apparently ‘simple’ impulse can be understood as socially constituted.  In the first place, the nature of the disposition itself can simply be influenced by social interaction — this is true for many dispositions that are classically (and falsely) thematised as ‘natural’.  [I’m not, for example, unsympathetic to the idea that there are strongly socially uninfluenced aspects to individuals’ sexualities – but even if this is the case, the socialisation of the human organism is sufficiently impactful that surely any given individual sexual behaviour beyond at least the very youngest infancy is going to be partly socially produced in some sense.]  This is obvious, though.  The more important point is that putting all this aside, and taking no stance at all on the origins of any given biological disposition, Brandom’s apparatus (which I of course endorse) makes clear to us that to the extent that any practice is taken as normative, this must be because it is taken as normative – in other words, the property of being-normative is not innate, but is only ever socially granted.  A discourse on desire in the psychoanalytic sense is intrinsically a discourse about normative practices.  Desires, drives, investments (cathexes), tell us what we should do (even if that ‘should’ is contradicted – and, potentially, suppressed – by other components of the psychic economy).  And this ‘should’ can only ever come from the drive in question being part of a larger social set of practices.  In principle (as I’ve said before) this larger set of practices could be restricted to the internal dynamics of a single organism – but in practice, if we are dealing with human desire and human dispositions, the larger set of practices will be social in the regular sense – that is, composed of the interacting practices of a number of different human organisms.  In this sense, even if in no other, desire is always already social.

Now if we connect this idea up to the understanding of the content of commitments that I’ve recently articulated, we can see that to the extent that a desire is a desire – to the extent that a disposition is normative (again, I take these to be different ways of talking about the same set of social-psychic phenomena), I take it that a desire also involves a normative commitment (because desire is inherently (even if implicitly) intentional, and intentionality is incomprehensible without the idea of commitment – even if that commitment is one that we simultaneously disavow or sublate).  And, as we have seen, the implicit normative content of a normative practice can only be understood from another social-perspectival location — and there is always the possibility of multiple competing social-perspectival locations providing rival accounts of the implicit content of any given normative disposition.

So to take a desire as possessing content means treating of not just the simple biological disposition, but also a much larger and more complex social system, from a location or locations within that system from which this attribution can be made.  And the ‘simplicity’ of the simple desire (the base impulse that – at least in some versions of psychoanalytic theory – grounds the psychic edifice) is really no such simplicity, but also involves the many implicitly normative practices that enable the attribution of this content (and the same is of course true of all of these practices in turn).

How we understand the ‘core’ of the self, then – and, indeed (since there is – on Brandom’s account – nothing to normative content beyond the attribution of normative content) what that ‘core’ of the self even is, cannot be understood except from within a larger social space.  In this quite strong sense, the self is socially constituted, even if (as is unlikely) the actual ‘core’ dispositions we’re dealing with are unaffected by lifelong social experience.

All we need now, however, is for the self’s dispositions to be affected by what the self understands the content of its dispositions to be [note that all of the above would still be the case even without this additional assumption – but the assumption is, I believe, correct], and this process of attribution of normative content can be formative of the self in an still stronger sense – in the original, obvious sense given above.  I am talking about, in the first place, empathy – the understanding and formation of the self by the self seeing its self through the minds of others – and I think that this is, indeed, a powerfully formative aspect of socialisation.  It should be noted, as well, however, that although I just wrote of ‘seeing’ through the ‘minds’ of others, this kind of formative process need not be conscious – and need not be empathic.  The consciously psychological processes I’m talking about here are only one kind of normative social practice – we know for a fact that there are other kinds and, as I will eventually argue, these can be formative of the self in structurally parallel ways.

Sticking with the more overtly psychological aspects of this account for now, this account gives us several distinct ways in which the content of the self is formed by what the self is taken to be.  This is a mirrored taking.  The self ‘sees’ itself through the normative attitudes of others.  And how it ‘sees’ itself is formative (in the two distinct senses given above) not just of what it takes itself to be, but of what it is.

My earlier self aimed to understand this dynamic through psychoanalytic theory (which theory has obviously significantly influenced how I’ve articulated the position above).  He understood this process as, fundamentally, about desire, and the social constitution of desire.  I no longer give desire this foundational role.  Desiring-dispositions are only one set of dispositions among others associated with the human organism, although they are important.  But my earlier self was not wrong to think about desire – and love – in these broad terms, I think. Two aspects of the standard thematisation of love – the desiring-disposition and the inhabiting of another heart and mind – are connected in this account, and shown as mutually implicating.  And, on the Brandomian account, of course, the inhabiting of others’ perspectives, in whatever sense, is a practice without which no other normative practice would be possible.

In addition to all this, this account explains, I think, why my earlier self was wrong to see circumstances as determining in quite the strong way he did.  For the self is formed by the social sphere.  But this social sphere is not just the social sphere the self finds itself in and happens to experience, but also, within that sphere, the social-perspectival locations that the self chooses to identify with, and how.  The self is made by whose attitudes it experiences itself through – or, more properly, what practices it interacts with itself via.  The self can – to some greater or lesser extent, depending, of course, on objective circumstances – choose what other social-perspectival locations it chooses predominantly to inhabit, and to endorse as sources of legitimate judgement – and this choice is formative in the ways I’ve just articulated. We choose what we love, and who.  We choose what communities we identify ourself with, and how.  We choose whose practices become part of our own.  This is, as I now see it, the rational core of my earlier self’s wrestling with the psychoanalytic concept of libidinal investment.  And in this way the self is made, my love – belonging not just to itself, but to you.

{Post two of four}

If not these errors, then what?

Well, each of these errors contains its own legitimacy – something that pursuing them made clearer and tangible, and that I can now use to build something stronger and truer.

Moving backwards, from the idea that the core dispositions that guide one’s actions should be unwitting – this finds its truth in the Brandomian insight that norms are implicit before they are explicit, that the practice of explicitation is itself dependent on the deployment of countless implicitly normative practices, and that no matter how committed we are to the Enlightenment project of explicitation, it is, in fact, impossible – for practical, rather than intrinsic, reasons (but on the pragmatist approach I’m advocating all reasons are practical rather than intrinsic) – to make all the norms that guide our actions explicit: there is not enough time in the day; in our lives; in the world.

So I was wrong, I think, to believe that the process of explicitation would destroy the implict norms that guided my actions (this can be true, of course, if the bringing-to-light of that which was formerly implicit reveals an incompatibility – or horror – of normative practice, such that the self is driven to reject some norm, now that the incompatibiliy is visible. This can happen – often happens – is one of the reasons why the process of explicitation is, in many circumstances, desirable – but this is not in itself a reason to reject the process of explicitation. Believing that it was – and this, I think, was the implicit norm guiding my earlier self’s ethico-intellectual practice – is itself a norm I now advise rejecting.) Perhaps I will say more on this at a later date.

I was wrong, I now think, to believe that the process of explicitation would destroy the implicit norms that guided my actions. But I was not wrong to think that relying on wholly implicit norms — on impulses that come, unbidden and untraceably, from with the self, or from the communities or divinities we posit as guardians and guides — can be followed, justly, without knowing why the truths we find in them are true. It is part of the structure of Brandom’s account of normativity that we can be justified in thinking something, justified in doing something, without knowing why we are justified. It is not necessary to be able to give exhaustive reasons – or, in principle, any reasons at all, beyond the bare fact of our experience of this normative demand [though c.f. my as-yet-unwritten remarks on the reason of no reason] – for the simple reason that to do so for all of the normative demands one follows would be literally impossible.

One relies, instead, on a framework of implicit norms that one can rely upon… implicitly. This may be (often is) a community of tacit validation and shared doxa. But it is important to see that in Brandom’s account one need not rely on such a tacit doxic acceptance of implicit normative standards in order to gain that legitimacy-without-knowledge-of-the-reasons-for-legitimacy. Quite the contrary – it is central to Brandom’s project that he be able to give an account of how a whole community can be wrong – that ethical legitimacy not be tied to dominant practice in the way that has historically compromised pragmatist philosophies, and made them, potentially at least, agents of power.

Thus all we need to do is posit the possibility of a stance – a judger – who rightly judges our actions right, for reasons they know but that we do not – to open the possibility of the legitimacy of whatever actions we undertake – however contrarian, however psychotic. This does not make the actions that we believe to be thereby justified actually justified – they may be evil – but Brandom’s system does not tether ethical legitimacy to the dominant practice of any given community, nor does it require that we be able to give the reasons why our actions are right. More strongly – Brandom’s system does not in principle require that we be able to give the reasons why our actions are right, for us be able rightly to know that they are right. (Pete Wolfendale has given some of the formal reasons for this position in his discussion of the – rather less ethically fraught – KK principle, here.) (See also chapter 3 of Articulating Reasons, which also gives some of the required conditions for and limitations of this situation.)

All this is to say that for all the strong rationalism of Brandom’s system, it is capable of supporting the legitimacy of a position that some would regard as strongly irrationalist — the idea that we can and do act on normative demands that we cannot adequately articulate, cannot coherently justify, cannot fully understand – and that we can be and are right in doing so. In my opinion some position of this sort is essential for any credible account of human normative behaviour – because this kind of action is a feature of all our lives.

Self; Errors

May 28, 2011

{Post one of four}

Training. One is socialised into a space – and then one is stuck in that space, not, or not only, because of objective pressures to remain there, but also because one cannot think beyond it. There are different versions of this – a single homogeneous absorbing Social, or a specific Social for a specific socialisation. The second is what used to distress me – the idea that the source of real legitimacy, the environment that would produce appropriate deeds, was elsewhere, and that I would never be able to find my way to it because the starting set-up was not one that would allow me to think in such a way, to act in such a way, to accomplish such deeds.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or irrational about this idea. One can, indeed, be socialised in such a way that certain dispositions of self are unlikely or impossible. We are most of us just stuck with some deplorable disposition or other, most likely. But there are also many different aspects of self, each aspect with many different possible implications, depending on whose judgements we take as legitimate regarding them. And one can deploy aspects of self against each other – socialisation is not homogeneous, one can leverage some practice or disposition against some other practice or disposition, and transform the self as one goes.

When I was a younger man, I had little faith in the ability of the self to transform itself. I felt that dispositions were formed by circumstance, which came from outside, and that transformations of the self would therefore only come from transformations of circumstance. It seems to me now, though, that the leveraging of aspects of self against aspects of self can be, at times, a (to me) surprisingly internal affair. The human organism’s capacity for self-monitoring, self-training, and thereby, self-transformation, is, potentially, considerable. Conditional on circumstance, it goes without saying. I’m not making a very strong claim here – objective circumstances count more than anything. But I think my earlier self was wrong to see circumstances as quite as internally determining and encompassing as he did – or, rather, (put right), he was right to see circumstances as entirely determining and encompassing – for there is nothing to the self beyond the body’s biological (and contingently evolved) existence in a particular socio-historical context – but he was wrong to see this determining context as determining in a single, given, way, because the context and the self are both multiple and can be pushed in different directions, with different consequences.

One of the other things my earlier self thought, at times, though – and this is wrong too – was that the aspects of self that should be used to push with (push against other aspects of self, I mean, or against circumstance) should be truly internal to the self – innate – core. (I was interested in seeing if psychoanalytic theory could get me to something like this for quite some time.) One of the things that Brandom’s apparatus, if correct, makes clear, I think, is the specific way in which the self is thoroughly social – a fairly banal (and non-hypostatised) way, albeit also a complex one. In leveraging aspects of self against aspects of self, one is necessarily deploying a judgement of propriety (where ‘propriety’ is understood in very broad terms – this doesn’t rule out self-conscious evil, for example) that can only emerge from a more broadly social system of judgement. That is also to say that I think Brandom is as good as his word in extracting and elaborating the rational core of Wittgenstein’s remarks on rule-following and sociality – which were another preoccupation of mine, as a younger man.

Finally, another confusion, as I now see it, that performed a powerfully leveraging function in my earlier thoughts and days, was the idea that because core socialisation produced unwitting or unconscious dispositions, the core dispositions that guide one’s actions should be unwitting, or opaque to the self’s reflective gaze, and that thought directed at the origins and justification of one’s motive impulses could at best only miss the point, and at worst destroy a genuine source of justified action by exposing it to the crippling bright white light of consciousness. This confusion in particular – a romantic one – was stymieing for me for quite a time, I think.

This post will continue the blog’s habit of taking N Pepperell’s ideas and rephrasing them in a Brandomian idiom. I really can’t stress enough the debt to N Pepperell here; I’m not sure how best to emphasise this other than by repeating it; I’m dead serious: reader take note.

I discussed in my last post the variegation of the social field. What does this understanding of the social give us, in our work of analysis? Here I want very briefly to discuss two things that this approach enables.

First – and here, again, N Pepperell has written about this more incisively and knowledgeably than I can, so I’ll be brief – it gets us out of a set of problems associated with many other forms of social theory, where the social is (tacitly or overtly) understood as homogeneous. I’m basically going to defer entirely to N Pepperell’s work on this issue, and move on – I may return to this at some later date.

Second, this approach allows us to short-circuit a set of oppositions around the appropriate level of analysis for social analysis. On my former blog, Praxis, I posed the problem in the following rambling terms (in a post called Between Totality and Individualism):

There’s a big problem with the sort of Lukacsian stuff oriented toward a general (hypostatised) social entity, which has, apparently, powers of agency…. How the fuck is the identity and nature of this social being determined – is it just a Durkheimian social apriori big blob of jelly, floating around, influencing individual actions? Obviously some kind of ‘social’ needs to be posited if you’re not going to end up with wacked up monadic individualism – but a lot of the political-economic stuff I’m looking at seems to alternate between either wacked-up monads or frankly mystical Hegelian-Durkheimian hypostatisation of ‘Society’.

The way out of this opposition, I now suggest, is to take not individuals but practices as the basic unit of analysis. The framework I was discussing in my last post begins ‘below’ the level of the individual – it takes the individual not as a simple unit, but as a complex entity made up of practices that are potentially contradictory in their implications. These practices can, further, only be understood (as normative practices – their normativity being the (emergent) feature that makes them practices, associated with some or other agent, rather than ‘simply’ natural events) in their relation to a broader (and similarly variegated) social field (itself of course composed of practices). This approach doesn’t deny the existence of individuals, obviously (it’s individuals doing the practices). But it doesn’t take individual intentionality as simple or pre-given; the approach is, instead, capable of tracking the emergence of such intentionality from a larger set of complexly interacting (scientifically analysable) actions. This approach allows us to, in principle, give enormously detailed microfoundations to our social (and economic) analyses, without those microfoundations privileging individualism as a theoretical approach (even methodologically). The approach gives us ‘microfoundations’ that are capable of talking about the formation of the individual by a larger social field, without that larger social field being understood in any even slightly mystical (or hypostatised) way.

So I’ve been talking about the centrality to Brandom’s framework of alternative interpretations of the content of a given commitment. I say ‘interpretations’, but of course these acts of taking-as can themselves be tacit, rather than consciously self-articulated. Maybe it’s worth expanding on that slightly. What makes an act of taking-as into an act of taking-as, on Brandom’s account, is that this act is normative – which is to say that it can be done right or wrong. I’ve already outlined how Brandom (rightly) thinks he can derive such normative statuses as emergent effects of complexly interacting reliable differential responsive dispositions (an act is an act of taking-as if it is rightly taken as an act of taking-as), and I’m not going to go through that argument again. But taking an act as an act of taking-as means judging it to be an act that can be done right or wrong. This judgement is itself, of course, a normative one, and it differentiates the social from the ‘purely’ natural as we understand it within a contemporary natural- and social-scientific context. So, if we believe in the base lack of agency of a natural world, then we judge that an earthquake that causes suffering and deaths is horrific in its consequences, but is not a bad deed. The institutional actions that failed to propose or enforce an adequate safety regime in a given organisation, by contrast, can of course be judged blameworthy. Further, such actions can themselves be unintended, to a greater or lesser extent (they could be sins of ommission, for example). (There are stronger forms of unintended consequence than these, but we need a larger scale of analysis to talk about them.) An action can be an act of taking-as without being taken as such by that actor, just as the content of other commitments or judgements can be understood better by others than by those undertaking the commitments. Institutional or community networks of reward and punishment, endorsement and disapproval, can operate without any individual intending to endorse or condemn any given action. And such endorsement can, also, be the endorsement of an act as an act of taking-as, without anyone having an overt self-conscious opinion as to whether this is the case or not. This network of normative endorsement of actions as normative will involve conscious propositional articulation of perceived normative content, at times, but this need not (indeed, on Brandom’s account, cannot) be a feature of all or even most such acts of taking-as within a given community – overt propositional content is dependent on a complex set of tacit norms exhibited only in practice.

So anyway we have rival takings-as in relation to any given action – rival senses of what an action commits us to. And despite the centrality of the implicit nature of many norms to Brandom’s system, it is this rivalry of (explicit or implicit) interpretations that does the hard theoretical work in establishing the possibility of normative and conceptual objectivity. For Brandom, the possibility of objective reference is conditional on the possibility of disagreement about any given normative content.

This means that if Brandom’s apparatus is to work, the social field must be doubly variegated. Any given action must be capable of being interpreted in multiple different ways, from different social-perspectival locations. So my statement p can be interpreted as having, as a corollary, x, y, or z by different social-perspectival actors, where x, y and z are incompatible – or at least are judged so by myself, and by the other social actors doing the judging (an additional actor might of course come along and explain how x, y and z are actually compatible, and then this would be an additional rival sense of the conceptual content involved in p.) Additionally, however, the self must be variegated enough to be capable of both a) inhabiting multiple alternative social-perspectival locations, in order to assess them, and, further, b) bringing to bear rival normative commitments within the self itself, in order to reject a given commitment or set of commitments from the stance of another. The self must be capable of self-contradiction if it is to be capable of being a self, on Brandom’s account. (Brandom takes his account to be a broadly Hegelian one in this area, albeit filtered through a pragmatist and non-metaphysical set of commitments. This seems plausible – there are obvious parallels, I think – but I won’t be ready to address Brandom’s relation to Hegel for some time.) The self must be capable of thinking mutually incompatible things – or at least things that it takes to be mutually incompatible – if it is to be able to do the work of self-assessment and self-transformation that is involved in making commitments to conceptual content in the first place. (Making a commitment to a conceptual or normative content simply means undertaking certain actions, including actions of self-transformation – e.g. revision of beliefs – if the right conditional circumstances are taken to be met.)

The variegation of the social field and the variegation of the self are thus two sides of the same coin. The former is a pre-requisite of the latter. (This is true, trivially, even in the limit case where the ‘social field’ is nothing other than the self.) I’ll talk about this is slightly more detail soon – for now I’ll refer again to N Pepperell’s work on Marx as a major influence on my thinking here, especially (of course) its emphasis on the internal differentiation of the social.

One of the ideas that does a lot of work in Brandom’s system is that of commitments – and, specifically, the idea that one can commit oneself to something without realising that one has so committed oneself. Thus, I can say “that man over there is wearing a green shirt”. Since that man over there is Bill, I am thereby committing myself to the idea that Bill is wearing a green shirt – but I don’t know this, because I don’t know that that man over there is Bill. Similarly, Oedipus can commit himself to the idea that the murderer of Laius should be killed or exiled, without knowing that he is the murderer of Laius, and that he is thereby committing himself to his own self-exile. (A fair amount of tragedy has this structure, of the unknowing and apparently reasonable undertaking of commitments that have dire consequences. [Specifically, the unsustainability of the coherence of self given the discrepancy between incompatible undertaken commitments.] This is also what a lot of ‘post-structuralist’ discussion of the non-identity of the self and the non-possession of full authorial intent of the acting subject, is getting at. One undertakes a commitment using one’s intentionality and agency, but the content of that commitment is not fully determined by the self, and may be unknown (or even unknowable) by the self (to a greater or lesser extent). There’s nothing paradoxical, or intrinsically anti-rationalist, about this idea (as Brandom’s work demonstrates), and it’s really rather unfair that the concept that we can’t fully determine or control the content of our own intention or meanings, but that such determination is, rather, the product of complex and shifting social context, is so often condemned as irrationalist.)

Brandom wants to do a lot of work with this idea of commitment, however. Specifically, he takes this idea to be central to the possibility of leveraging a difference between actual beliefs and true beliefs. That’s right, but it’s right in a specific sense: the reason this idea can be used as part of a derivation of normative and conceptual objectivity, by Brandom, is that it opens the way to his formal concept of objectivity – the ever-present possibility of a difference between what one does think and what one ought to, given a certain (implicitly privileged – just how we’ll see in a bit) subset of one’s commitments.

However, the identification of an unrecognised content of a commitment is dependent on the taking of that commitment as having that content by some other social agent (whether explicitly or implicitly). Brandom’s formal concept of objectivity is opened by the possibility of this identification – but for that possibility to be cashed out in an actual assessment (and, potentially, transformation) of belief or practice, someone needs to be doing the taking-as. I may think that the man standing over there is Jim, but you know that really he is Bill, heir to the royal line of Corinth, and you can correct me about my misapprehension, leading me to realise that my earlier commitment that “that man over there is wearing a green shirt”, unbeknown to me committed me to the claim that Bill is wearing a green shirt.

That’s all well and good. The point I want to make for now is that there is nothing intrinsic about an implicit and unknown commitment that makes it more correct than an overt and consciously believed commitment. It’s tempting, if we’re working with this model of witting and unwitting commitments, to believe that the unwitting commitments are the real ones, and the witting commitments are errors. But the assessment of witting and unwitting commitments must always come from a specific social-perspectival location (on Brandom’s account), and that social-perspectival location may simply be wrong on this or any given matter. Thus you may be wrong that that man over there is Bill. Actually he is Polynices, unwept, unburied, a toothsome morsel for the birds of heaven, and my own sense of my commitments may for that reason be better than your sense of my tacit commitments.

The point I’m trying to make is this. I endorse Brandom’s account of tacit commitments, and the possibility of the content of those tacit commitments in fact differing from what I personally take my commitments to be. But this idea doesn’t in itself do any work w/r/t the issues I’m aiming to talk about in this post. What is doing the hard work in this account is, rather, the contestation between the attitudes of rival social-perspectival locations – and the difference between tacit and conscious commitments is a location in which this contestation is playing itself out. It’s important for Brandom’s account that the same action be multiply interpretable – interpretable as, potentially, involving the actor in multiple quite different and incompatible commitments – but the tacit / overt distinction here (the difference between implicit and explicit commitments) is not carrying the real weight of this contestation, it is merely channeling it.

Training, continued

May 22, 2011

Apologies for the long gap between theoretical posts – l’ll pick things up where I left off.

In my last theoretically-oriented post, I discussed the concept of training, in relation to the foundational role of Test-Operate-Test-Exit systems in Brandom’s work. I enumerated three core categories that are important for the Brandomian pragmatist analysis of social practice I’m aiming to elaborate here – I called them pragmatic projection, pragmatic spandrels, and pragmatic mediation (only the lousy ‘spandrels’ term is not Brandom’s own). I discussed very telegraphically how these categories allow us to talk about pragmatically mediated relationships between different conceptual and normative contents (and, also, between practical capacities), as opposed to ideal relationships, such as direct conceptual or normative implication or association.

In this post I want to do two things: first, pick up on a loose thread I left in the middle of that previous post, concerning the possible ways in which dispositional shifts can be generated in a sapient Test-Operate-Test-Exit-cycle-governed organism. Second, begin to elaborate the ways in which these categories allow us to talk about some of the phenomena I ultimately want to be talking about here: those of economic practice.

First, then: in the earlier post I was talking specifically about deliberate training – practices that are intentionally oriented to generating a particular behavioural or dispositional shift (whether successfully or not). As sapient organisms we are strongly receptive to such training – there is a high degree of cultural variation between social sub-groups within the human species, and there is a strong requirement for socialisation into many practices that are quite fundamental for the survival of the human organism (as opposed to many – though obviously not all – non-human animal species, where many of the specific reactive dispositions required for the organism’s survival are, it would appear, rather more ‘hard-wired’ – though more research could stand to be done on this issue, and I could stand to have read more of the research that’s been done.) The set of dispositions that make us receptive to training, however, also make us disposed to react to many stimuli with behavioural shifts even where those behavioural shifts are not intended by either the organism doing the reacting, or by those (if there be any such) responsible for exposing the organism to the relevant enivornmental stimuli.

So, for example, a fair amount of training works to some extent by dint of simple exposure to a situation, or repetition of an action. But exposure to a situation, or repetition of an action, of course happens every day in situations that aren’t in any way oriented towards ‘training’. The Humean (or behaviourist) principle that repetition and experience produce habit, which in turn is formative of the implicit principles organising thought and experience, applies to many actions and experiences, not just those directly (or indirectly) oriented to generating dispositional changes.

Thus the environment we inhabit, and the kind of practices we participate in as we navigate that environment, can have dramatic effects – via the mechanisms I’m calling pragmatic projection, pragmatic spandrels, and pragmatic mediation – on a host of dispositions (practical, normative and conceptual) that are not in any direct way ‘trained’ by the environment (as they are in training situations).

What does this mean? This takes us to my second point: these categories, and the (Brandomian) explanatory apparatus that can be built up out of them, allow us to articulate an account of how everyday experience – the social practices that make up day-to-day human endeavour – can in principle have significant (and, potentially, difficult to trace) impacts on conceptual and normative content, as well as on practical dispositions, that are not in any obvious way related to that everyday experience. So if my day-to-day life involves a specific set of practices, the development and repetition of those practices will, potentially, via the mechanisms enumerated, have far-reaching consequences in other aspects of my life.

This in turn means that the pragmatist account I’m aiming to elaborate here, of the relation between on the one hand conceptual and normative content, and on the other hand social practice, can allow us to connect specific conceptual and normative content to specific social practices that may at first glance appear not be directly related to that content. The relationship can be one of pragmatic mediation, pragmatic spandrels, or pragmatic projection – or some combination of the three.

And – here’s my point – this allows us to give a quite complex and micrological account of many different ways in which (to quote Marx)

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

As usual, here I want to acknowledge my profound debt to N Pepperell, who is elaborating in great detail, among other things, the way in which Marx’s tacit metatheory deploys an analysis of the relation between thought and social practice that’s somewhere in this general space – though I would advise those interested in this general set of issues to read N Pepperell’s work for a better sense of the argument.

Brandom, of course, is interested in linguistic practice – indeed, he spends very little time, across his corpus as a whole, on any other kind of social practice. But I am not interested in linguistic practice – I’m interested, in the first place (like Marx), in economic and political practice. I don’t want to move into discussing that just yet (or probably for quite some time). But I want to highlight now that these same resources I’m unpacking at the base level of Brandom’s system (where they are deployed for purposes of linguistic philosophy) can likewise be applied (indeed should be applied) to the impact of economic practice on forms of thought, habits of perception, and normative frameworks. The things we do in ‘economic’ practice (buying and selling our labour power; buying and selling commodities; saving and investing; estimating monetary value; interacting with colleagues, bosses and subordinates in the workplace; etc. etc.) can be pragmatically projected, can produce pragmatic spandrels, and thus can and do have a pragmatically mediated relation to a wide variety of non-economic attitudes, practices, modes of perception and normative stances.

Again, I don’t plan to pursue this line of thought or inquiry for quite some time. Again, those interested in this set of issues should really read N Pepperell’s work on Marx. But I want to highlight that this is one of the areas that the Brandomian apparatus I’m currently unpacking should allow me to get to, in the end.