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.

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