Perspectivalism

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.

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