The Content of Commitments

May 23, 2011

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.

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