The Variegated Social Field

May 23, 2011

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.

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