The Heart Has Reasons Reason Does Not Know

May 28, 2011

{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.


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