The psychodynamics of recognition

September 19, 2022

As I have been repeating throughout this series of posts, Brandom-Hegel’s account of normativity requires that every normative action be assessable by something outside itself.  Absent such an external standard of assessment, in Wittgenstein’s words: 

I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’. (PI 258)

This is the core insight that has led us into and through the (Brandomian reconstruction of the) Hegelian ‘dialectic’.  In a sense, Hegel’s master idea is to simply keep applying this insight to every philosophical category, thereby opening each category onto its “constitutive” external standard of assessment – an endlessly repeatable kind of transcendental argument.

But we can distinguish two key central cases of this move.  First, there is the case of perception.  Brandom-Hegel proposes a dynamic understanding of perceptual experience which sees any given perceptual content as in part constituted by its relation to other perceptual contents.  (I’m being amazingly telegraphic here because this isn’t the point of this post, but you get the idea.)  Part of this dynamic account is the idea that when two perceptual contents are in tension, we have an obligation to resolve this tension.  (This obligation, Brandom-Hegel argues, just is the Kantian ‘synthetic unity of apperception’ that constitutes the self as self.)  Thus, for example, when we remove the apparently-bent stick from water and conclude from our new perceptions that the stick is really straight, this reconfigures the relation between, and therefore the normative statuses of, different elements of our internal ‘perceptual economy’.  Our original perception of the stick-as-bent is still part of our internal perceptual economy, but we withdraw our endorsement of it, and this withdrawal of endorsement changes the original perceptual content’s location and role within our overall web of commitments.

The second key case is interpersonally social.  Brandom-Hegel argues that normativity is intrinsically social, and therefore understanding even the kind of normative content involved in perceptual experience ultimately requires backing up to the complex system of our society as a whole.  Just as we evaluate different perceptions against each other, so we evaluate different social actors’ normative judgements against each other.  We therefore need a model of the social relations we’re talking about – and in the last post I outlined Brandom’s basic model, his “algebra of normativity”.  The key claim here is that whenever we engage in normative action, we are implicitly attributing to some other social actors the right or authority to assess that normative action.  We can therefore in principle ‘map’ the relations of authority-attribution within any given community.

So here’s the model.  For any given normative action I am engaging in, I can decide who I take to have the authority to assess that action.  (Like so much else in this series of posts I’m going to complicate this later, but roll with it for now!)  But having decided which social actors have the authority to assess my action, I cannot then control what those social actors actually conclude – what assessment they come out with.  I am therefore frequently presented with a tension among the social judgements that I have chosen to treat as authoritative.  I engaged in an action thinking that it was good, but the social actor whose authority I have chosen to recognise on this matter believes that my action was, in fact, bad.  This creates a social-normative tension (precisely analogous to the tension between my perceptions of the stick-as-straight and stick-as-bent), and that normative tension requires resolution.

Now here’s the point: there are two ways to resolve this tension.  One option is that I accept the other social actor’s judgement, and conclude that my action was, in fact, bad.  The other option is that I conclude that I was wrong to grant them that authority in the first place – I can withdraw my judgement that their judgement is authoritative.  (In the analogy with perception, this is the option of withdrawing endorsement from one or the other piece of perceptual content.)

This is where I want to bring in psychoanalysis again.  My claim is that this fundamental dilemma – constitutive of normativity in general – is very insightfully thematised by psychoanalysis.  We are creatures who – intrinsic to our sociality – value approval or approbation.  We care about others, we sympathetically identify with others, and part of what we sympathetically identify with is those others’ perceptions of us.  We seek out others in part to see ourselves through their eyes, and our desire is that we see ourselves through their eyes positively.  Our own internality is in this way constituted by our sense of others’ sense of us.  This is a very deep sense in which the self is social.

And because of the way our sociality functions, the kind of tension I’m talking about here is painful.  We like it when others like us; we dislike it when they dislike us – and the more we have chosen to value their opinion – or affect – the more positive their positive affect towards us feels, and the more negative their negative affect feels.  We do not want to be isolated – but we also do not want to be thought of poorly by those whose own internality we have chosen to value.

So, if someone whose judgements we value judges us negatively, we have two options, both painful.  We can accept the judgement, and attempt to transform ourselves in a such a way as to no longer merit negative judgement.  Or we can remove their power to wound us in this way, by withdrawing our high opinion of their judgements.  But this latter option is also painful, because (the psychoanalytic claim is) withdrawing ‘investment’ from a person we have ‘cathected’ in this way is intrinsically painful – and this is in part because we have chosen to make this person’s affect, judgements, and actions part of our own internality – in severing that affective connection we are also wounding ourselves.

So, the claim is that by navigating our social worlds in this way, we are also navigating a difficult affective space: we are attempting to manage our own psychic economies, which are intrinsically in part ‘distributed’ across the psychic economies of those whose internalities and actions we have chosen to value. Whenever such tension arises in the ‘distributed self’ constituted by such social relations, it causes us pain.  The psychoanalytic claim, moreover, is that many psychological ‘symptoms’ are the result of mechanisms the psyche adopts to try to manage such pain – to try to address such tensions or contradictions within the socially-constituted normative self.

I’ll write more about these themes in my next post.


3 Responses to “The psychodynamics of recognition”

  1. Hi, Duncan,

    You say “The key claim here is that whenever we engage in normative action, we are implicitly attributing to some other social actors the right or authority to assess that normative action.”

    This is not how I read Brandom. As I understand it, we don’t “attribute to some other social actors the right or authority to assess our actions”; I think that’s too strong. We know as a matter of fact that others will probably assess our actions, but the only right we attribute to them is to demand from us answers, consistent with our other commitments and entitlements, to their questions about those actions.

    Here I rely on a passage from “Articulating Reasons”, published 7 years after MIE: “The expressive task of making material inferential commitments explicit plays an essential role in the reflectively rational Socratic practice of harmonising our commitments. For a commitment to become explicit is for it to be thrown into the game of giving and asking for reasons as something whose justification, in terms of other commitments and entitlements, is liable to question.” (p.76).

    I think the reference to Socratic dialectic is important here: “Liable to question” does not mean “liable to authoritative assessment.”

    You say, “For any given normative action I am engaging in, I can decide who I take to have the authority to assess that action.” This also is not how I understand Brandom.

    What Brandom seems to me to be saying is that, if I treat anyone, even my slave, as a competent speaker, e.g., by expecting him to understand my utterances, I thereby implicitly recognise him as one who has the right to demand answers to his questions (e.g., about how I justify holding him as my slave). I may “decide” not to attribute that right to him, but can’t harmonise that decision with the commitments implicit in my treating him as a competent speaker.

    I am aware that your grasp of Brandom’s thought is far more developed than mine and that there are tracts of his stuff that I have come to understand only with your help, so it’s with a certain trepidation that I await your response to these observations.


  2. duncan Says:

    Hi Chris – no, I think you’re right, I’m being very loose here, and if you took the formulations of mine that you’ve quoted here too literally you’d end up back in the kind of position that Brandom is trying to distance himself from, what I think he calls somewhere in ASoT ‘sociologism’. Formulations like this risk smushing together normative attributes and normative statuses in a way that Brandom’s whole apparatus is meant to explain that we don’t need to (and, indeed, mustn’t!) do.

    Bear with me here, because I’ve got two different points I want to make, and I think the second is more germane to your comment than the first! But in the first instance, perhaps a better way to formulate it would be to say something like: Brandom believes that our normative attitudes have reference to normative statuses which we rightly believe we can take to be independent not only of our own normative attitudes but of any other specific individual’s normative attitudes. So in stages:

    1) The Wittgensteinian point is that no normative attitude can (so to speak) contain the principle by which it is to be assessed, or what appears to me to be right would be right (and it’s just a criterion of adequacy of the whole theoretical enterprise that this not be the case).

    2) So one response to this (the ‘sociologism’ response) would be to take some specific community’s attitudes, outside of us, as the criterion for assessing my judgements. (Or the same for some specific individual – e.g. the parent in the Freudian narrative.)

    3) But obviously this can’t be right either, because the same problem applies – that community or individual’s judgement can’t be ‘fully authoritative’ by virtue of the same Wittgensteinian argument.

    4) So I take it that Brandom’s actual position is something closer to: the opening of the self up to the judgement of another makes available the formal possibility of *any* judgement being critiqued in a similar way, which opens the idea of a standpoint of assessment that cannot be identified with any actually-instantiated social location or attitude – this is his formal concept of objectivity.

    If I were trying to be truly careful about all this, I’d keep this formal concept of objectivity front and centre, or at least flag it when talking about things like treating others as authoritative. But I guess my goal in this series of posts is to attempt to mine some of the ‘sociological’ implications of Brandom’s work – which means at times perhaps flirting with the language of ‘sociologism’, on the assumption that this can all be cashed out in a more rigorous way if need be.

    So that’s one set of points. However, I don’t think this exactly gets to what you’re saying – because if I understand you correctly (which of course maybe I don’t!) your comment is aiming to highlight the distinction between, on the one hand, treating others as having the kind of status associated with treating their judgements as authoritative, and, on the other hand, treating others as having the kind of status associated with treating their questions as legitimate, as requiring rational response, etc.? That may not be ideally put, but I take it something in this space is what you’re getting at when you draw the distinction between “liable to authoritative assessment” and “liable to question”?

    This feels like a good point to me, and I’ll definitely think about it more. As a first pass response, I would be inclined to say that this distinction may not cause fundamental problems for what I’m saying here, for the following reason. If we think about Brandom’s “default, challenge, response” model, the idea (I take it) is that we have default premises of reasoning, but we take others to have to right to challenge those premises, and our premises then (at least temporarily) stop being premises, and require support from additional inferential chains with their own premises. The “Neurath’s boat” idea informing the Brandomian model of rationality, I take it, is that it is impossible to challenge everything simultaneously – we must always have default premises that are not being challenged at any given moment – but all our premises are *in principle* open to challenge.

    So if you challenge one of my default claims, I am then (if I am engaging properly in the game of asking for and giving reasons, and if I take you to have the right to present such a challenge, etc.) obliged to offer a set of reasons for the legitimacy of that premise – and those reasons must ultimately be grounded in their own (perhaps temporary) default premises.

    I guess one of the points I’m trying to make in this series of posts, about ‘normative delegation’, etc., is that in picking out these new default premises, I am in practice treating something or someone as authoritative – not just authoritative in the sense of “having the authority to ask for reasons” but authoritative in the sense of “sufficiently reliable that the relevant judgement (or conceptual content) can form the default premise in an inferential chain, at least for now”. One would need to caveat this in all the ways I outlined earlier in this comment! But I take it that this is a reasonable approximation of the basic model. I have a default premise. You challenge the premise. I respond by explaining why this judgement (formerly a default premise) is reasonable, using an inferential chain grounded in a (some) new default premise(s). In picking out those new default premises, I am taking some judgement (or whatever) to have sufficient practical authority as to legitimately be treated as a premise. And that act of treating-as-premise, I’m claiming, is also an act of treating-as-authority or treating-as-authoritative.

    So as I see it, the act of asking for reasons and the act of giving reasons (two sides of the same practice) basically correspond to the distinction you drew in your comment – that is, the ‘Socratic’ opening of premises to question, and the ‘treating as authoritative’ associated with settling on new premises?

    I don’t know whether and to what extent that gets at the points you were talking about in your comment? For what it’s worth, I think you’re right to draw and highlight this distinction, and I’ll certainly keep thinking about it. One of the elements of the Brandomian apparatus that I’ve barely even touched on in this more recent series of posts is – as you note – “the game of giving and asking for reasons”, which of course is so pivotal to the entire inferentialist project. My belief is that it’s all ultimately compatible, and these unclarities are just a result of trying to keep so many balls in the air at once while writing quickly – but who knows…

    In any case, thanks for your thoughtful comments as ever!


    [Editing this comment to add that there’s definitely more that I should have said here, the above is incomplete in I think quite important and unsatisfactory ways! But I think with apologies I’ll have to engage in my usual practice of promising to come back around at some deferred future point…]

  3. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Your being willing to go on thinking about my point is enough for me.

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