Thursday, January 12, 2006

Brandom, Making It Explicit, Chapter 2, Sections V and VI, and Chapter 3 Sections I and II

Last night the workshop met to discuss the last two sections of chapter two and the first two sections of chapter three of Brandom's Making It Explicit.

Thanks to Russell for helping me pick up the pizza and beer and Perrier.


Jason B. introduced the readings for this session. He first outlined some "reminders" of what's going on in MIE:

1. Brandom's project is to give a reductive account of semantic, representational, conceptual content. His variety of reductionism is peculiar, however, because his basic explanatory materials are normative.

2. Brandom's overarching commitment is to "strong inferentialism". Strong inferentialism is the view that content is to be explained in terms of inference and inferential articulation. An obvious assumption of strong inferentialism is that inference can be understood without relying on the notion of content.

3. Semantics is the philosophical study of content. Inferential semantics is semantics that presupposes strong inferentialism.

4. Pragmatics is the philosophical study of the relation between contentful items (speech acts, propositional attitudes, etc.) and the larger practice in which they are embedded.

5. Brandom's normative pragmatics involves taking normative (rather than merely descriptive) characterizations of practices as primitive. This is a basic difference between Brandom's project and naturalistic attempts to explain content.

6. Brandom's pragmatism involves a commitment to the claim that semantic concepts can be reductively explained in terms of pragmatic concepts (MIE, p. 143). In keeping with his commitment to normative pragmatics, Brandom wants to build up semantic content out of basic normative practices.

7. The key normative notions for pragmatics are commitment and entitlement. But these notions are not primitive. They are explained in terms of attributions: that S has a commitment to do A is, "in the first instance", a matter of having that commitment attributed to her.

We didn't contest any of the reminders Jason assembled. But we did contest how the basic normative pragmatic concepts (attributions of commitments and entitlements) were supposed to be understood.

Part II

Brandom says that attributing a commitment to A to subject S is, "in the first instance", to be disposed to sanction S if S fails to A. How should sanctioning be understood here? Brandom says that "sanctioning responses (for instance admitting versus ejecting) and the performances they discriminate (enterings of the theater) can be characterized apart from and antecedent to specification of the practice of conferring and recognizing entitlement defined by their means" (162). This is to define sanctioning "externally".

Jason then asked the following questions about the basic normative pragmatic concepts Brandom employs:

Is Brandom saying that being a sanction can be understood in non-normative terms? If so, how is a sanction supposed to be distinguished from mere bad consequences of an action? It seems that to distinguish sanctions from mere bad consequences requires norms: it seems a sanction is applied in response to a violation or deviation from some rule or standard. So we need some antecedent notion of rule or standard in order to understand any behavior is a sanction. Why does Brandom talk about "external" sanctions here at all? Doing so seems to conflict with normative pragmatics, his commitment to taking normative characterizations of practices as primitive.

The floor was then open for discussion.

Part III

Joe S. got things rolling by standing up for Brandom. He said that he didn't think that Brandom was engaged in reducing his basic pragmatic concepts to non-normative, "external" sanctioning.

Jason responded to Joe by developing the second horn of what became a dilemma for Brandom. If Brandom is not reducing attributions of entitlement and commitment to applications of external, non-normative sanctions, then how does he avoid introducing content at this early stage in his (supposedly reductive) explanatory project? Jason said that it was hard to see how you could attribute commitments or entitlements to someone without the use of a content-involving that-clause. And if attributions of commitment or entitlement can't be made without assuming a notion of content, then Brandom's reductive project, which aims to explain content in more basic terms, has stumbled as it takes its first step.

Jason asked again for an explanation of just what purpose the talk of "external" sanctions plays at this part in the book. If Brandom is really committed to normative pragmatics, why try to reduce basic normative concepts to non-normative concepts?

These questions struck me as raising issues that we had already discussed when we read chapter 1. In maybe the most well-known discussion in the whole book, Brandom explains how "applying a negative sanction might be understood in terms of corporal punishment; a prelinguistic community could express its practical grasp of a norm of conduct by beating with sticks any of its members who are perceived as transgressing that norm" (34). He uses Haugeland's complex behaviorist account in "Heidegger on Being a Person" as an illustration of a view of a "purely descriptive" (i.e., non-normative) account of sanctioning and social relations. Brandom dismisses the Haugeland proposal on the grounds that it is susceptible to the "gerrymandering" criticism levelled against regularism in Brandom's discussion of the rule-following argument. Briefly, Brandom claims that even Haugeland's complex version of regularism does not succeed in capturing correctness and incorrectness, and so "ought not to count as genuinely normative" (36).

But if Brandom objects to Haugeland's behaviorist account because it does not yield genuine norms, then why does Brandom introduce a similar account of "external" sanctions in chapter 3?

David F. said, somewhat half-heartedly, in response to my comment about chapter 1, that maybe Brandom starts with a Haugelandy view and it slowly becomes un-Haugelandy as he goes along.

Will S. agreed with Joe's original comment that it was wrong to say that Brandom was interested in a reduction of attribution to non-normative sanctioning. He pointed to Brandom's remark that "discursive practice is implicitly normative; it essentially includes assessments of moves as correct or incorrect, appropriate or inappropriate" (159). Will said that this, and other remarks suggested that Brandom doesn't conceive of his project as Haugelandy at all.

I don't think anyone would disagree with the claim that Brandom often represents his project this way, as normative all the way down.

But Jason responded to Will by saying that Brandom thinks that norms have to be instituted by something, and it appears that what he ultimately thinks they are instituted by are "external" sanctions.

David asked if it would help Brandom if he could help himself to a brute fact about whether someone should do A or not. If he was able to help himself to that idea, then obviously no reduction of attributions to non-normative sanctions would be required.

But if Brandom could help himself to a brute fact about correctness or incorrectness, it looks like he would be impaled on the second horn Jason developed: he would have to be assuming what he aims to explain--content.

Joe then asked what Jason meant by content.

Jason said that anything that was specified in a that-clause counts as content, as well as "seeing-as" or "taking-as".

David outlined the position that Brandom wants to occupy, but which we didn't yet seem to have a clear picture of: he needs a normative, but not contentful, attitude. He can't provide a merely dispositional account of his basic attitudes, and he also can't give a "fully normative" account of them, either. Jason challenged the very possibility of such a position by claiming that any attitude (and, a fortiori, any attribution of attitude) will involve content. If that's so, then Brandom's project cannot get off the ground.

During the last part of the workshop, Aidan G. tried to work out whether a complex dispositional account like Haugeland's could yield lower-level (not "fully objective") norms that would suffice to get Brandom's project off the ground, to which "fully objective" norms could later be added. It was hard to see how that kind of proposal avoided either the non-normative horn or the assuming content horn of the dilemma, but it at least held out the hope of success for Brandom's project.

With that (slightly flickering) hope in mind, we will meet again in two weeks to continue discussion of Making It Explicit.

Browse previous summaries of Making It Explicit here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

A question I didn't have time to raise: I'd like to know what other workshoppers, many of whom know more about Davidson than me, thought about Brandom's discussion of Davidson's views for today's reading (pp. 150-153).

Brandom characterizes Davidson as providing a 2-part argument for treating *linguistic* practice as central to intentionality. Davidson's argument is roughly: (1) you can't have a belief unless you know what beliefs are (and this involves contrasting between truth and error, an objective representational dimension, etc.); and (2) knowing what beliefs are (the stuff in the previous parentheses) necessarily emerges in the context of interpretation.

Brandom then notes that "what [Davidson] has really given us is not so much an argument as the form of one. Turning it into an actual argument requires filling in various notions of content, of objective representational correctness of content, of practical acknowledgement of the significance of assessments of correctness of content, and so on. That is the task of the rest of this work" (pp. 152-3).

My questions are as follows:

1. Is it true, of Davidson and/or Davidsonians, that the 2-part 'argument' is merely the *form* of an argument, that requires filling in in some way, Brandomian or otherwise?

2. What is the relationship between Davidson's project and (methodological?) commitments and Brandom's stated aims and commitments as outlined by Jason at the start of this evening's meeting? Are they compatible?

3. (Obviously related to 2.) The treatment of Davidson in this section by Brandom is one of Brandom's most sympathetic accounts of the the views of any (particularly any contemporary) philosopher. Why the trials and tribulations of Chs. 1 & 2 if the upshot is an attempt to carry out the Davidsonian project?

These questions aren't meant to constitute any type of criticism of Brandom, but to try to clarify the relationship between his views and Davidson's. Any help is greatly appreciated.

Will S.

Jason Bridges said...


1. Unlike Brandom, Davidson regards Davidson's 'argument' as an argument, not as a sketch of one whose details must be filled in if we are to have so much as an argument at all. (Davidson would, of course, allow that what he says is sketchy in various places.) I agree with Brandom to the extent that I think Davidson's stated argument is totally unconvincing. I disagree with Brandom in that I think no amount of 'filling in' will yield something better. (For what it's worth, I have an article about Davidson's argument coming out, which is on my website.)

2. Davidson rejects attempts to explain what semantic phenomena consist in. In this central respect, his philosophical orientation and methodology are radically at odds with Brandom's.

3. I think I may be missing the point of this question, but: Brandom thinks that several of Davidson's central convictions are correct, but that Davidson did not say enough to defend or explain them, and in particular that they will find their rightful place in an inferentialist account of content, something that Davidson does not offer (not even in sketch).

Jason Bridges said...

I'd like to add that this is an impressively detailed and clearly written summary. Do you people appreciate what you have in Nat? Have you thanked Nat today? Have you even just asked him how he was doing? I suspect not. I suspect you walked by him without giving him a glance. Shame.

Toby said...

Thanks Nat. How are you doing?

"Jason said that it was hard to see how you could attribute commitments or entitlements to someone without the use of a content-involving that-clause."

Wouldn't Brandom grant that, but go on to say that any such linguistic (that-clause-involving) attribution would merely make explicit the normative doodads that are already implicitly in the act anyways?

That would fit the title of the book, at least.

Suppose we change the story of the doorman (161f), and eliminated the bit that says the community is prelinguistic(*), and just suppose that the community, though linguistic in all sorts of ways, has yet to say, write down, or otherwise linguistically (i.e., explicitly) formulate the rules governing the acquisition and use of tickets. The people in the community are engaging in a normative practice involving tickets, and are (implicitly) attributing entitlements and whatnot, but they don't go about attributing these (explicitly) via that-clauses. Thus attribution without presupposition of propositional content?

(* This modification of Brandom's story is probably missing some aspect of the original, but I have no idea what that might be.)

Nat Hansen said...

Thanks for asking, Toby.

Tell you the truth, I could use a cup of coffee.