Asking For and Giving Reasons

February 8, 2012

The next important building block of Brandom’s inferentialism is his analysis of deontic status in terms of deontic attitudes – but I’ve sort of already covered that in broad brush strokes, last year on the blog.

Also worth mentioning the priority of judgements in Brandom’s account of meaning: Brandom does not understand judgements in terms of their composition out of smaller meaning-units, but understands smaller meaning-units in terms of the roles they play in judgements. (And of course a judgement, for Brandom, can only be a judgement as part of a larger social system of judgements.)

So those are two further explanatory approaches that Brandom’s project is committed to. I’m not going to spend much time on them here.

In addition, though, for Brandom [and here we start to move into territory I’ve not covered already on the blog; if you see something you regard as a mistaken interpretation, please feel free to flag it as such] we become concept-mongers by entering the space of reasons; by participating in the social practice of asking for and giving reasons.

This is Brandom mobilising Sellars. I’ve read Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind – I’m not totally clear what other Sellars I should look at to get an adequate sense of the resources Brandom’s making use of / transforming. Recommendations would be welcome.

What is the explanatory order here?

Brandom thinks that concepts need to be understood in inferential terms. That is, roughly – the meaning of a concept is the things we can infer from it. To be very slightly more precise: concepts can for Brandom only be understood in relation to judgements. A judgement is something that can be expressed in a proposition. So the concept of a dog, for example, needs to be understood in terms of the role the concept of a dog plays in propositions about dogs. Sticking at the propositional level, then – a proposition needs to be understood in terms of the inferences we can make from it. Or, to be very slightly more precise still: “Two claims have the same conceptual content if and only if they have the same inferential role.” (MIE 96)

What is an inferential role? Brandom understands inferential role in terms of deontic statuses – which, as we’ve already seen, he in turn understands in terms of deontic attitudes. There are, I think, two fundamental deontic statuses in Brandom’s account: commitment and entitlement. I’ll need to spend a lot longer with these in future posts. But Brandom’s basic idea is that an assertion of a proposition binds one to certain actions (including the endorsement of other propositions), normatively. Those other actions – including those other propositional contents – follow from the assertion – they can be inferred from it – and this binding or inference is itself the content of the original proposition. The meaning of a judgement is that other judgements or actions are implied by it. Content is explained in terms of implications, rather than implications in terms of content.

Where does this binding or this implication come from? What is it?

Brandom’s claim here, if I understand him aright, is that the brute fact that we are animals who ask for and give reasons is the source of the bindingness of commitments etc. – and thus of normativity. That means we are creatures who ask each other for demonstrations of entitlement. This is a brute fact about us. And the content of an entitlement – indeed, the very nature of entitlement itself – needs to be understood in terms of this social practice of challenge and response.

We are creatures who, discursively, ask each other for reasons – that is, challenge social entitlement – and who feel the force of such challenges. That we feel this force is a brute social fact, on Brandom’s account. That we engage in a practice in which challenges of entitlement are responded to by giving reasons for entitlement – this is a brute fact. Brandom says nothing about what counts as a good reason – this is to be hashed out entirely in the social practice of asking for and giving reasons itself. But the basic challenge-response structure of entitlement to assertions is a brute (biologically evolved) fact about the nature of the human organism – and this fact, more than any other, is generative of our capacity to wield conceptual content.

Note that ‘entitlement’ is a deontic status, and is thus to be explained in terms of deontic attitudes – attributions of entitlement. So we’re not positing a mysterious thing called ‘entitlement’ here. We’re saying that as evolved organisms we attribute social statuses to each other, challenge those attributions, and that, when challenged, we characteristically offer reasons (are capable of doing so – this capacity is determining of sapience; the claim is not that we always do offer reasons; still less that those reasons are always good reasons). Entitlement can be explained in terms of behaviour. But the behaviour itself is distinctive – the ‘attribute; challenge; response’ structure of that behaviour is distinctive.

This is very confused as formulated here. But I want to start to work through this aspect of Brandom’s apparatus. I’ll aim to continue with that in my next set of posts.


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