So – my goal here is to situate Brandom in relation to the social scientific tradition more broadly. Specifically, in relation to the explanatory principle of social science that is perhaps most prominently articulated in Marx’s phrase:

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

This idea – not in the way elaborated by Marx, to be sure, but as a general principle – has been behind a lot of social science and social theory. It’s there in Durkheim; it’s there, to a greater extent than is typically recognised, in Weber; it’s there in more recent figures like Foucault and Bourdieu.

It’s also an idea that gets a lot of opposition. People often find the idea threatening. Oftentimes people are happy to see other people’s consciousness as determined by social being, but our own consciousness is surely special, and escapes, at least in certain core respects, determination by social context. [Or it is determined by social context, but our own social context is magical and special in a way that others’ cultures aren’t.] Oftentimes people will criticise the idea that social being determines consciousness in one of several ways: the idea is relativistic (if consciousness is determined by social being, who is to say what’s right and wrong?); the idea is nihilistic (if we don’t have a culture-transcendent source of normative or conceptual content, surely we have no connection to any real values at all); the idea leaves us vulnerable to power (because whoever has the power to change social conditions has power over values themselves); etc.

Brandom’s work, in my judgement, pretty definitively rebuts these various stances. Brandom’s work explains the emergence of normative and conceptual content – including our capacity for objective truth – from nothing more than social practice. It escapes the problems that Brandom refers to under the name ‘regularism’; it escapes the problems of relativism. I think Brandom’s work represents a genuine conceptual advance in the broader social-theoretic project of explaining normative and conceptual phenomena in terms of social practice.

I’ve explained at some length how Brandom’s argument broadly speaking works – I don’t plan to revisit that terrain (unless and until I write it up in a more formal way). I take Brandom’s contribution here for granted.

However, Brandom is only interested in a specific kind of practice: linguistic practice. But linguistic practice is not the only social practice going. We engage in hosts of other social practices: sexual, religious, cultural, political, economic. I’m interested, here, not in the determination of consciousness by linguistic practice, but in the determination of consciousness by social practice more broadly. Why do we think what we think? Why do we do what we do? The reasons for our thoughts and actions – the causes of them – are biological and social. Brandom’s apparatus helps us to understand how reasons can be understood in terms of causes – how we do not need to posit anything beyond natural- and social-scientifically analysable biological and social practice in order to account for truth, reason, reference, norms, and all the rest. In order to explain people’s beliefs and actions, though – and in order to justify them (or find them unjustifiable) – we need to look at what’s generating those beliefs and actions. We need to look at the social (and biological) determinants of thought and action.

This is one of the things I plan to focus on, when I return to blogging in a more consistent way. Now back on hiatus.

Future Research

September 2, 2011

This is not a full return to blogging – just putting some thoughts up here to clear my mind. Picking up where I left off.

Brandom’s apparatus allows us to understand how conceptual and normative content can be produced by nothing more than a complex interactive system of reliable differential responsive dispositions. That is to say: Brandom’s apparatus makes a major contribution to the naturalistic project of explaining how norms and concepts can emerge from natural- and social-scientifically analysable behaviour.

Of course, there is a huge amount that is ‘black-boxed’ in Brandom’s work. And it is likely that Brandom’s wrong about lots of stuff. This is science, after all: we only ever have ‘best hypothesis’. Brandom’s work is a contribution to the ongoing natural- and social-scientific naturalistic project. There is, always, more more more work to be done.

One direction in which more work could be done: the natural-scientific direction of examining how the organisms that participate in the systems of social practices analysed by Brandom actually function. Lots of people are doing this work right now, obviously.

Another direction in which more work could be done: the elaboration and testing of the claims about linguistic practice which Brandom makes. The community of analytic philosophy seems to be picking up on this, in part.

A third direction in which more work could be done: the attempt to apply Brandom’s ideas to artificial intelligence, by using a Brandomian framework to imagine or create algorithmic systems of reliable differential responsive dispositions capable of engaging in the kind of behaviours Brandom discusses. (This is not my bag at all, but again I think people are working on it.)

A fourth direction in which more work could be done: we could attempt to construct an alternative apparatus, parallel to Brandom’s but distinct from it in many details, that could account for the emergence of normative and conceptual content out of non-linguistic practice. My own view, as I’ve discussed before at some length, is that such a thing could be achieved, and I’d be really interested to see it. Of course, I could be wrong about this, and it isn’t a research direction I myself plan to pursue.

A fifth direction in which more work could be done: the addition of non-linguistic practice to a broadly Brandomian analysis of the determinants of normative and conceptual content. Or, put another way, the integration of a Brandomian analysis of the emergence of normative and conceptual content with other accounts of the emergence of normative and conceptual content that do not emphasise the linguistic.

All these are of course related to ongoing research projects that will chunter away quite happily without any input from Brandom or Brandomians – I’m just pointing out some of the connections that can be drawn between Brandom’s work and other research.

The last direction – the fifth – is the one I want to begin to contribute to.

I’ll discuss that in my next post.