Friday, July 11, 2014

On the Asymmetry between Practical and Doxastic Discursive Commitments

1. MIE, Ch. 4.4.3 — Getting the hang of it — Meaning and use; 2. Inference, not reference — Pragmatics over semantics — Circumstances and consequences; 3. The social scorekeeping game of giving and asking for reasons — Responsibility and authority — Testimony and deference; 4. Thought and action, doxastic and practical commitments — An asymmetry between thought and action; 5. Desire makes the good relative as truth is not — Commands and permissions aren’t basic; 6. Inheritance of entitlement — The Enlightenment tradition of practical reason — The default and challenge structure of entitlement; 7. Rorty’s suspicion of Brandom — Brandom’s tweeking of Rorty — Morality and prudence; 8. Taking over being — Obviousness as conformity with the past; 9. The Enlightenment’s ill-fated theoretical project — Wilde and vocabulary-choice; 10. Vocabulary-choice as corresponding to desire — Deferring to common sense or to visionary incomprehensibility; 11. Decisionism — There is no willy-nilly — Explicitation forces us to take responsibility, including responsibility for the vocabulary we were socialized into

1.      If you’re reading this, you have either a masochistic curiosity for jargon, or recognize the title as an allusion to Chapter 4, Section 4, Subsection 3 of Robert Brandom’s Making It Explicit. Either way, you need help. (Enjoy the pun.)

I intend for this to be a note on a hinge in Brandom’s systematic philosophy of language. There are many hinges, to be sure, as a quick look at the index will indicate: Brandom has a separate entry for “distinctions,” retailing 53 of them, from “acknowledging/attributing” to “weak/strong/hyper-inferentialism.” Brandom’s skill at systematization is somewhat breathtaking, requiring many stops along the way. But Brandom is also a genius of public relations. Brandom’s work, like Foucault’s, requires stubborn persistence. One reads either only by “getting the hang of it” through sustained practice, both in the reading and through writing—by trying to apply appropriately the concepts at work in the reading. Their vocabularies are strange enough to require a certain know-how through practice, but dense enough for a payoff. The only difference between the two is that Brandom was intentionally writing a system, whereas Foucault was simply a strange writer. Foucault’s vocabulary wasn’t created to fit entirely together, and many a critic has profitably broken off pieces for use. (Many more have experimented and failed, and far, far too many have emulated Foucault and ended up just writing thin ice.)

Brandom, however, has mastered the technique of imperceptible repetition—only if you’re paying very careful attention will you realize that he repeats himself quite a lot. I think one reason you don’t tend to notice this is that, given a sufficiently intricate and foreign vocabulary, you’re always welcoming to reminders of what, e.g., the importance of the difference between deontic statuses and attitudes are, or how commitment and entitlement combine to produce a third deontic status of incompatibility. (Plus the book is 700+ pages long, so who’s going to remember?) What is particularly masterful about Brandom’s strategy is that it mimics the content of the theory. For Brandom, semantics is beholden to pragmatics, meaning to use. That means that “meaning” is a cream you skim off the top of the usage of a word, a pattern that forms after seeing a large quantity of uses of a series of marks or noises. Understanding someone’s meaning is, for Brandom, a matter of being able to deploy their vocables in just the way the other person would. Understanding a person is getting the hang of them. Reading systematic philosophy is, in other words, a lot like Weirdo Comedies—if you just hang in there with Zach Galafianakis, the movie promises, you’ll find him quite likable and a real nourishment to your soul.

2.      What I’m going to do in the next three sections is introduce and arrange a few of Brandom’s main ideas in order to reach the alluded to moment in which Brandom shows an asymmetry between practical commitments to action and theoretical commitments to belief. While an analogy between the two allows for an elaboration of a number of key elements of how reason and agency hang together, Brandom hangs on this asymmetry a distinction between how we think about Truth (of our beliefs) and the Good (of what we do). In the final sections, I will speculate about motivations, philosophical and otherwise, and take issue with the asymmetry, suggesting that in the background is a dispute with his dissertation advisor, Richard Rorty, but whose consequences have to do with the soul of pragmatism. [1]

Brandom calls his philosophy of language inferentialism, and its primary benefactor is Wilfrid Sellars. The key thought here is that inference is the concept that needs priority in figuring out how language works, not reference. Reference has gotten a lot of play because of the relative triumph of empiricism over rationalism—since Kant essentially conceded that empiricism is the unguarded philosophy of science and regular life [2]—and the seemingly intuitive appeal of thinking that whatever is true corresponds (i.e. refers correctly) to the way the world is. Our understanding of how words refer, or as Brandom puts it, the representational dimension of language, has been unduly influenced by British empiricism. Sellars’ famous attack on the Myth of the Given is what results when one wants to displace reference in order to get a better picture of how reference works in concert with other important dimensions and concepts as inference, meaning, language-use, truth, perception, and action. [3] The trick is to see that our distinctive form of negotiation with the world (as opposed to a beaver’s or a rock’s) is discursively constituted—necessarily mediated by our language-use. The world isn’t just given to us through the senses; one way we respond to the world is with the linguistic mechanisms programmed into us by socialization into a community.

Brandom’s pragmatism comes out in the form of his Wittgensteinian defense of the priority of pragmatics over semantics. Language-use is what gives rise to meaning, rather than meaning determining use. Our handle on a word, however, is normative—there are correct and incorrect uses of words and concepts. If there weren’t a pattern of conformity somewhere in the usage of a word, how would we communicate successfully? Since we obviously do successfully communicate from time to time, Brandom takes a central project of philosophy of language to be the explanation of how the trick is done (or rather, as he smartly reframes it, what would count as doing the trick—since, again, we obviously know how).

One important angle from which this pragmatism comes out, for our present purposes, is in Brandom’s adaptation of Michael Dummett’s two-aspect model of meaning. A word means what it does given “the inference from the circumstances of appropriate employment to the appropriate consequences of such employment” (MIE 117). [4] If you know how to use the word correctly and know what correctly follows from having used it, then you can be said to know what the word means. That means only saying “red” when in the presence of red (and not blue), and knowing that if you are in the presence of red, you are ipso facto in the presence of a color. In other words, understanding meaning is in the first place understanding a word’s inferential role—what inferences it licenses, what it commits you to, and what is incompatible with it.

3.      I’ve now deployed Brandom’s three major “deontic statuses”: entitlement (what you are entitled or licensed to infer from correct usage), commitment (what you are committed to inferring from previous, correct usage), and incompatibility (what you are barred from entitlement to given certain other commitments). [5] (Don’t ask what a “deontic status” is, for now—it doesn’t matter.) These statuses are like markers in the social scorekeeping game of giving and asking for reasons. We attribute to others commitments based on their behavior (in particular, saying sentences) and keep track of their entitlement to those behaviors. This is the same for our scorecard of ourselves: a “self-attribution” is simply the avowal or acknowledgment of a commitment of your own. The philosophical concept of belief—as in, the one that appears in the JTB formula for knowledge—is replaced in Brandom’s conception by commitment. This makes it clearer that, by and large, you are responsible for being justified or entitled to your commitments. [6] A belief or commitment is something you take to be true—that’s just what it is. Beliefs, your commitments, simply by being that status, are in what Wilfrid Sellars called “the space of reasons.” They must be some point.

This is the really important bit that distinguishes Brandom’s inferentialism from many rationalisms that are, like his, genealogically tied to the Enlightenment. Brandom thinks that the key moral concept of responsibility is interlocked with another concept that often has trouble fitting into post-Enlightenment ethical frames: authority. Authority has seemed to Enlightenment traditions a social concept that can only become part of our moral thought if it ties to a foundation made up of nonsocial concepts. God’s law, natural law, and Kantian principles are all ways of constituting this nonsocial space, a space unmediated by social activity. The social contract tradition that Hobbes initiated is an attempt to move, as J. B. Schneewind puts it, “toward a world on its own” by trying to create the nonsocial out of the social—rather than found the latter on the former, thus requiring one to find the former prior to the latter—but it got sidetracked by utilitarianism’s insistence that some hedonistic end is the only end possible, on the one hand, and Kantianism’s insistence that the only contract that can rise above the social is one universally applicable, on the other. [7] Brandom has tried to fill out our conceptual notions of responsibility and authority with an entirely social base: the space of reasons is the social game of giving and asking for reasons.

This filling out of what rationality is has meant a repolishing of the concept of authority. The best way to see this is in the role of testimony. Say Don claims that there’s a dog dish in the kitchen. Chris challenges the claim, asking, “how do you know?” Given the way we currently play the game of giving and asking for reasons, it is perfectly acceptable for Don to entitle his commitment by replying, “Because Dan just came from the kitchen and said that Fido was in there eating out of his bowl. What are you, deaf?” Don is justifying his claim, which he takes to be true, with Dan’s testimony: “Dude, your dog is totally chowing down in the kitchen...the food is everywhere around his bowl!” [8] In other words, Don is deferring to Dan’s authority as a reliable reporter of how things are via his perceptions.

Deference then goes together with inference. When justifying a claim, it is in general permitted to either display your inferential warrant or defer that warrant to another. This is also how citation works in intellectual matters. We permit people to cite the work of others in order to justify an inference. There are many (many) things to say about the particular reason-giving and consuming games we play—how sometimes it isn’t permitted to simply rest on the authority of another—but these are species of the larger genus in which deference is an intelligible possibility. This shows that people who like to deploy the saying “I have to see things for myself” are perhaps unduly restricting themselves and what they can claim to know.

4.      The last item to deploy before turning to Chapter 4.4.3 is the relationship between perception and action to inference, to the game of giving and asking for reasons. This is another area in which Brandom’s pragmatism comes out, given pragmatism’s concern with action and consequences. Brandom’s interest in Chapter 4 is to give an account of rational agency. In Section 2, above, I briefly alluded to the linguistic turn that Sellars and Brandom make with regard to thought—our negotiation with the world is inherently discursive, and hence linguistic. When Sellars demolished the Myth of the Given, however, he wasn’t suggesting that we don’t have nonlinguistic experiences—as if rocks couldn’t exist without “rock.” [9] Sellars was trying to get us to see that perception’s authority can only be constituted within the social game of giving and asking for reasons, and as such can only be articulated inferentially and linguistically, even if the perception itself isn’t linguistic.

To that end, Brandom follows Sellars in talking of “language-entries” and “language-exits” to talk about how perception can begin an inferential chain and how action can end one. In the passage I will shortly focus on, Brandom also talks about the parallel between practical and doxastic discursive commitments. A practical commitment is a commitment to act in a certain way; a doxastic commitment is a commitment to (ahem) believe in a certain way. [10] I find it helpful to think of these two as belief-action relations and belief-belief relations. The former is modeled in the practical syllogism: given two premises related to each other, a certain action ought to follow.
A1.   It’s raining outside.
A2.   If it’s raining, then you shouldn’t go outside.
A3.   You shouldn’t go outside.
Doxastic commitments, or belief-belief relations, then, are modeled on a regular syllogism whose outcome is a commitment to take a certain thing to be true: a taking-true, as Brandom sometimes puts it.
B1.   It’s raining inside.
B2.   If it’s raining inside, then you are crazy.
B3.   You are crazy.
Why did I say “you are crazy” and not “you should think you are crazy”? After all, that would make the two syllogistic models parallel. This asymmetry, I think, matches the asymmetry Brandom highlights in the passage I will finally get to. Notice that all the premises and conclusions are takings-true as they are, and that all the lines in only the second premises (A2 and B2) would be takings-true if the “ought” were added, but that if the “ought” is removed from the first syllogism, it doesn’t make any sense. “If it’s raining, then you do not go outside.” “You do not go outside.” You can’t just take the conclusion to be true; you have to verify whether or not it is true. And that’s because they are empirical claims, at best.

5.      Now, I think, we are in a position to understand Chapter 4.4.3, “Asymmetries between Practical and Doxastic Discursive Commitments.” This is the first asymmetry that Brandom explicates:
The first way in which the structure governing the attribution of entitlements to practical discursive commitments differs from that governing the attribution of entitlements to doxastic ones is that there is nothing corresponding to the authority of testimony in the practical case. The issue of entitlement can arise for practical commitments, as for all discursive commitments. But the (conditional) responsibility to vindicate such commitments is, in the practical case, exclusively a justificatory responsibility. Default entitlements aside, it is only by exhibiting a piece of reasoning having as its conclusion the practical commitment in question that entitlement to such commitments can in general be demonstrated or secured. (MIE 239)
To discharge your responsibility for entitling yourself to an action, you have to infer, e.g. by producing explicitly a syllogism like the above, not defer. The reason Brandom says this is so is because you have to have a desire for an action to make sense. [11] That is missing from my examples above. It would read: A2ʹ “If it’s raining, and if you don’t want to get wet, then you shouldn’t go outside.” If you press for symmetry, what’s the corresponding desire missing in premise B2 of “If it’s raining inside, then you are crazy”? It is this inability to produce a corresponding desire that leads Brandom to claim that “committing oneself to a claim is putting it forward as true, and this means as something that everyone in some sense ought to believe” (239), whereas putting something forward as good, because it is relative to desire, is not necessarily something for everyone. As he puts it later, “That there is no implicit normative commitment that plays the same role with respect to desire (and therefore intention and action in general) that truth plays with respect to belief consists simply in the absence (in the structure according to which entitlements to practical commitments are inherited) of anything corresponding to the interpersonal dimension of testimony and vindication by deferral” (240).

This is where things get clearer and inkier by the same measure, as it is this supposed inability to produce a corresponding desire in the B syllogism that will prove to be at issue. What began my whole rumination on this paragraph was re-reading it with a marginal comment I had left the last time I read the book (two years ago). Next to “exclusively a justificatory responsibility,” which is the bit about inference, I had written, in quotation marks, “she said I could.” Cryptic—how would that be a riposte? It seems like justification, but it doesn’t seem like “exhibiting a piece of reasoning.” Reading the passage again is when I realized what I was pointing to: doesn’t “she said I could” play the role of testimony?

This set me abuzz, and I immediately sat down to start writing this. Literally—for as I puzzled over Brandom’s terminology, making sure that I’m reasoning through it properly, I eventually read further on: “It is of course possible to add an interpersonal dimension of practical authority as a superstructure to the basic game of giving and asking for reasons for actions” (240). These are commands and permissions. Well, that set me adrift (though at least I was using Brandom’s terminology correctly), but it leaves the question: okay, so if we can do it (and obviously do), then why isn’t it part of the basic makeup, and instead merely an epiphenomenon?

6.      I’m inclined to think that there are asymmetries in the area, one of which, Brandom points out, is the fact that claims, assertions, takings-true, seem in general to be inheritable by anyone, though commands or permissions are not. You have to be a citizen of the United States to have permission to vote, but there aren’t similar restrictions on who can claim “There’s a dog dish in the kitchen because Dan said so.” Likewise, if Don makes the latter claim, there’s nothing that can stop Chris—who didn’t hear Dan, if you remember—from extending the chain further, inheriting Dan’s testimony: “There’s a dog dish in the kitchen because Don said Dan said so.” However, a deputized civilian cannot themselves deputize more civilians. If I’m the teacher, and I allow one kid to go to the bathroom, the kid then doesn’t have authorization to allow some second kid to go just because he was allowed. As Brandom says, “assertion ... is an egalitarian practice in a sense in which commanding and giving permission is not” (241-42).

This last comment, I think, reveals a little above the ankle of why Brandom doesn’t think commands and permissions are part of the basic makeup of the social game of giving and asking for reasons. Brandom perceives himself as an inheritor of a distinctively Enlightenment tradition of practical reason. By this I mean that, though he leaves behind the faculty psychologies that hypostatized “R”eason and the foundationalisms that reified “P”rinciples, he traces his Sellarsian inferentialism and Wittgensteinian pragmatism through not only key passages of the Kritiks, but most prominently (and repeatedly) through Kant’s “What Is Enlightenment?”—a short tract written for a periodical that summarizes in a brilliant piece of rhetoric pretty much what people have in mind when they talk about the Enlightenment. Its message is “think for yourself and build an egalitarian world-community.”

Does this mean Brandom’s Enlightenment hopes cause him to bias his account in favor of egalitarian practices? Has he cooked the books in this regard? Or, in another direction, does he use the egalitarian nature of assertion to entitle himself to assertions about how we are all beholden to this implicit egalitarianism at the political level, ala Habermas?

I don’t think he does either. Brandom’s account is too sane and intuitive at all the right places. For example, part of the extreme end of Enlightenment rationalism was the demand for justification—you always have to be able to justify your assertions. But if one actually pursues this injunction, it will produce an infinite regress, as each justification is an assertion, and so equally in need of justification. In order to soften this demand, Brandom introduces the notion of the “default-and-challenge structure of entitlement.” This structure embodies the notion that commitments are entitled by default unless challenged. And since challenges themselves are something like assertions, this means that challenges to produce entitlement need to be themselves entitled. You don’t always need to answer your child’s question, or Descartes’. I believe this is actually a quite radical innovation in theoretical philosophy, for not only does it seem to better describe the way we actually behave, it’s produced by the pressure of a theoretical consideration—the problem of the infinite regress. And with Habermasian appeals to the nature of “communicative reason” as dictating to social institutions, the very fact that he shows how commands and permissions can be constituted shows how Brandom’s pragmatist priority of taking (a thing to be a certain way) over being (a certain way) goes very deep. [12] The world can be taken to be a pretty shitty place, and that’s on us—as Rorty loved to paraphrase Nelson Goodman, there is no Way the World Is to push back on us in this regard.

7.      For his part, Rorty did think his former student at Princeton sounded a little too sane. It sounds a little too close to Habermas. Rorty’s whipping post was Brandom’s reconstitution of the concept of fact as being a “true claimable.” Rorty thought this attempt was of a piece with his attempt to recuperate the word “representation” despite the fact that Brandom was the guy who coined the word “antirepresentationalism” in order to better whip the metaphysical realist that Rorty spent his whole career tirelessly running to the ground. When Brandom says that part of his project is to show how pragmatism can incorporate the “representational dimension” of thought and talk, Rorty thinks he’s conceding too much to the realist, for all Brandom is showing is how we (have to) use the word “about.” In a lot of ways, Rorty concedes, this is just a verbal matter of terminology—but, he insists, “rhetoric matters.” [13]

I too think rhetoric matters, and I think significant Brandom’s occasional, ironic use of a highfalutin Platonic vocabulary. These moments—as when he calls us at the beginning of the book “speakers and seekers of truth”—I think are tweeks of Rorty’s nose, winks in his direction. Rorty was infamous for enjoying his ironic tweeking. Whereas Rorty used to love shocking the metaphysically-inclined with little aphoristic hyperboles, I think these were meant to shock him, the shocker. But how do you do that, how do you shock the impious? You act out by appearing reactionary, saintly. And at just the moment Brandom is making his case for asymmetry, there appears nose-tweaking.
Talk about belief as involving an implicit commitment to the Truth as One, the same for all believers, is a colorful way of talking about the role of testimony and challenge in the authority structure of doxastic commitment—about the way in which entitlements can be inherited by others and undercut by the incompatible commitments they become entitled to. The Good is not in the same way One, at least not if the focus is widened from specifically moral reasons for action to reasons for action generally, so as to include prudential and institutional goods. (MIE 240)
It is this that I think cues us to Brandom marking his territory as against Rorty. For Brandom tweaks at the same time as he makes a distinction that Rorty wanted to deny in order to work out the consequences of pragmatism on moral philosophy: Rorty denied the Kantian distinction between morality and prudence. [14] Why would Brandom suggest we can make that distinction at the same time he’s flouting Rorty?

8.      He does it because he’s too calm and sane. If we get our back up about this, Brandom can just calm us down by reminding us that we are pragmatists—hence, we assert the conceptual priority of taking over being. Thus, if we take a reason for action to be one that should be pressed on everyone universally, then we just mark off that quadrant of actions and reasons-for-actions as those distinctive of the “moral realm.” It’s not a difference in kind, just a difference of how far we are willing to extend the “should.” Prudence, then, is just the kind of thing that we go easy on people about—some people just like plain, old vanilla. No need to force chocolate on them and ruin the dinner party.

The problem with this bit of sanity is that it is a really good point. Why can’t we keep pushing that point about practical commitments over into the “ought” governing the doxastic commitments? The reason Brandom can’t see how to is because of the intuition he throws up in our face, the one that came up in section 5 and that I riffed on in the first paragraph of 6: the truth of claims seems obviously inheritable in a way actions are not. The other way I put this intuition, in section 5, is that there doesn’t seem to be anything corresponding to desire in a doxastic syllogism (viz. premise B2 of “If it’s raining inside, then you are crazy”).

It is at this point that we have to remind ourselves that philosophers, particularly radical game-changers like Plato, Newton, Jefferson, and Hegel, don’t have to give a damn about our “intuitions.” They are just conformity with the past, which is what our radical intellectuals would like to precisely change. [15] And look at the rhetoric I’ve been mirroring from Brandom in this whole discussion: “only by exhibiting a piece of reasoning...such [practical] commitments can in general be demonstrated” (239); “a claim is putting it forward as something that everyone in some sense ought to believe” (239). What sense is that? Does the restriction of sense in which “truth” is something everyone ought to believe mirror the anomalous pocket we find in the sphere of reasons-for-action in general, which Brandom follows tradition in calling “moral reasons”?

9.      I think it must be, and I’m compelled to push back against Brandom’s summoning of the Enlightenment spirit, for I think it is only that too-rationalist spirit that is operative in Brandom’s assigning of weight to the asymmetry between practical and doxastic commitments, Truth and the Good. Here’s Brandom’s most explicit conjuration:
We come with different bodies, and that by itself ensures that we will have different desires; what is good for my digestion may not be good for yours; my reason to avoid peppers need be no reason for you to avoid peppers. Our different bodies give us different perceptual perspectives on the world as well, but belief as taking-true incorporates an implicit norm of commonality—that we should pool our resources, attempt to overcome the error and ignorance that distinguish our different sets of doxastic commitments, and aim at a common set of beliefs that are equally good for all. (240)
This is the implicit commitment he thinks missing from practical commitments. And put this way, it almost seems like a slap in the face of the Enlightenment political project in favor of its ill-fated theoretical project to destroy superstition—after all, it is just the rhetoric of that hyper-rationalism that provided cover for Europe’s imperialist dominations: “let us help you overcome your ignorance and superstitions...just...let go...of the reigns of....control, ah!, there—now, we’ll just run things until you figure all this out.”

Rhetoric matters, but it isn’t the rhetoric that concerns me here. I trust that Brandom’s on the side of the angels; he just feels the need, perhaps rightly, to fight the demons of Derrideans. [16] Rather, I want to know what Brandom would say to Oscar Wilde. Dear Bob,—was Wilde in error or ignorance when he was tried for blasphemy?
One can only refuse to employ the concept, on the grounds that it embodies an inference one does not endorse. (When the prosecutor at Oscar Wilde’s trial asked him to say under oath whether a particular passage in one of his works did or did not constitute blasphemy, Wilde replied, “Blasphemy is not one of my words.”) (MIE 126)
The Wilde anecdote is a favorite of Brandom’s whenever he discusses this point about the appropriate circumstances of concept-deployment. This point embodies his assent to Rorty’s point about the primacy of vocabularies—it is only in the context of a vocabulary that we can utter true sentences. [17] Brandom seems to clearly make the point that we do not have an implicit norm of commonality governing our choice in vocabularies or concepts. And religious vocabularies are merely the most obvious candidate to push back against Brandom’s asymmetry. Is committing yourself to a religious claim putting it foward as true, and thus in some sense as something that everyone ought to believe? Maybe; but that “in some sense,” it seems to me, is working very differently than the one I quoted in section 5.

10.      What I’ve been driving at is that I don’t think Brandom is entitled to think that the Truth is One in any sense in which the Good is not. In the abstract air of metaphilosophy, the reason we shouldn’t expect them to be different is because pragmatism gives explanatory priority to pragmatics over semantics, use over meaning, action over belief. Brandom’s lead way of working this out in Making It Explicit is to say that “norms implicit in practice” have priority over “norms explicit in rules” (see Ch. 1.3). One way to rewrite Chapter 4.4.3 to reflect this is to say that there is, appearances to the contrary, an implicit desire at work in our doxastic discursive commitments. Here’s the full practical syllogism with the implicit desire-commitment in italics:
A1ʹ   It’s raining outside.
A2ʹ   If it’s raining, and if you don’t want to get wet, then you shouldn’t go outside.
A3ʹ   You shouldn’t go outside.
Here’s the doxastic syllogism with a corresponding implicit desire-commitment filled in:
B1ʹ   It’s raining inside.
B2ʹ   If it’s raining inside, and if you want to use the vocabulary of “crazy,” then you are crazy.
B3ʹ   You are crazy.
It’s not as intuitive as the implicit desire at work in the practical syllogism, but that’s why my reminder about what “intuitions” really are came up at the end of section 8. Rorty and Brandom both understand the awkward balance between old and new they are forced to straddle. Rorty understood that part of the appeal of pragmatism was its commonsensical attitude, almost folksy in the hands of James, but what attracted Rorty was its prophetic, visionary side. This is the side that would rather toss away the old wineskins and let the new wine eke through our fingers than capitulate to our current ability to handle it. But there must be some sort of rapprochement made for the radical innovation to be more than eccentricity, let alone incomprehensible gibberish.

This is what Brandom is at work doing for the radical ideas of Wittgenstein, Sellars, and Rorty in the arena of philosophy of language. For years, (the later) Wittgenstein was received as making systematic philosophy impossible. Brandom says, No. For years, Sellars’ dense prose and historical breadth made his ideas impenetrable. Brandom says, See? And one of Rorty’s most important ideas was what Brandom calls “the vocabulary vocabulary.” Rorty was considered by analytic philosophers (among other things) a relativist. The vocab vocab is one site where this occurs. Ch. 4.4.3 is one site where Rorty’s shadow gets riven with the shadow futurity casts. Brandom takes the future to need the half that falls toward intuition. I think it will need the other half.

11.      The radical idea is that we “choose” what vocabulary we use. If you read Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity—or have any sense of how education works—then that will seem silly. There’s a reason Robert Pirsig jokingly called education “mass hypnosis.” One no more chooses one’s vocabulary than one chooses one’s parents. We’re thrown into the world, as Heidegger would put it. So how do we find ourselves back with decisionism, the trace of which Rorty bemoaned in his earlier Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature? Decisionism is the name used to mark that terrible idea common to Sartre and the boot-strapping American neocon: you, and only you, make who you are, so if you’re a psychopath (or poor), you only need decide to be good to be good (or rich to be rich).

But life isn’t like that. Every choice we make feels like the right choice, and even if it feels like the wrong one, whatever is calling out that “feeling” is clearly the loser in the battle between whatever psychic entities one cares to spell out: reason, passion, conscience, id, better angels, vice, heads, tails. We only do what we ultimately feel compelled to do, in some sense. Even behaving as if for no reason is acting for that very reason. One doesn’t just, willy-nilly, choose.

Of course, you can blind yourself in various ways. Some choices we make, the assessment is so daunting that we go cross-eyed. Sometimes we forget why we did something, and fill in a different syllogism. But this isn’t the problem Brandom is after. Brandom is after a picture of how the mechanism must work to count as working. The most important Enlightenment idea he feels champion of is the idea that making the commitments of our ideas and actions explicit will allow them to be argued over and, following Milton, in a free and open encounter the Truth will take care of itself. The notion that vocabulary-choice fills the spot in a doxastic syllogism where desire operates in a practical one is simply one more explicitation mechanism. [18] It’s the moment where one can, and is made to, perhaps, by challengers, acknowledge one’s adopted vocabulary. And in acknowledgement, we have to take responsibility for it. And if one wasn’t conscious that there were other options available, then Win for Enlightenment. As the G. I. Joes say, “knowing is half the battle.”

(The other half is smacking Cobra Commander’s mask off once you’ve found him out. So even if you can’t coax old vocabs into early retirement, at least you will know where the bodies are buried.)


[1] This piece also got much longer than I anticipated. It is not breezy, particularly in some sections. But Brandom’s vocabulary is worth tussling with, and the general esoteric nature of most analytic philosophy causes me to respond with volume. For two earlier pieces that set the stage for the return to pragmatism that Rorty is the primary protagonist in, see my “Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn” and “Davidson’s ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.’” For two earlier attempts to put Brandom’s vocabulary to work, see “A Spatial Model of Belief Change” and “Better and the Best,” sec. 5.

[2] “Unguarded” because Kant split the difference with rationalism by insisting against British empiricism that, as the formula goes, only a transcendental idealist can be an empirical realist. Empiricism wins the day with common sense, but philosophers must be more sophisticated than that. Rationalism turning into transcendental idealism provides the pre-history to inferentialism that Brandom retails in Tales of the Mighty Dead, while discussing the turning point of Kant and Hegel in Reason in Philosophy.

[3] I’ve tried to discuss Sellars’ Myth of the Given in the context of pragmatism and the linguistic turn in “Quine, Sellars.” I’ve also discussed Quine’s related attack on the Two Dogmas of reductionism and the analytic/synthetic distinction (as a prelude to understanding Davidson’s attack on the Third Dogma of the scheme/content distinction) in “Davidson’s” (for both see note 1).

[4] I’m trying to suppress as many unneeded aspects of Brandom’s philosophy as I can for this exposition, and two of them that are useful to bear in mind is Brandom’s endorsement of two more theses one can attribute to the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations. Not only the priority of use to meaning, but Brandom also endorses the notion that a concept is but a word and that sentences have priority over words in constituting meaning. While the former is linguistic turn common sense, the latter is a serious problem in the philosophy of language requiring quite a bit of theoretical machinery to explain, viz. how do words get meaning from sentences, since it seems so intuitive how sentences get meaning from words? Brandom’s two most technical chapters, “Substitution: What Are Singular Terms, and Why Are There Any?” and “Anaphora: The Structure of Token Repeatables,” aim to supply the detailed backbone for a Wittgensteinian approach to subsentential expressions. As an outsider to the discipline, they are very difficult though surprisingly interesting. I suspect, though, that they are the most important chapters for actual analytic philosophers of language. Rorty for years had gotten a bad rap for dealing in atmosphere rather than nuts and bolts, but Brandom does the hard work Rorty could never convince himself needed to be done. (Since Making It Explicit was twenty years in the making—from dissertation to publication in 1994—and Rorty was an avid follower of his student’s career, it’s possible he was so relaxed just knowing Brandom was out there.)

[5] Though I won’t go into it, Brandom’s inferential status of incompatibility does all the work for him that the logical status of contradiction does for most people. What Brandom is able to make better sense of, to my mind, is the psychological capability of self-contradiction. You can be committed to two contradictory things, you just aren’t allowed. Logical contradiction is subsumed, or skimmed off the top of, the social impropriety of being committed to one thing that precludes entitlement to another commitment you avow.

[6] The JTB, or “justified true belief,” conception of knowledge derives from Plato’s Theaetetus and has been durably used since then, though its sufficiency has been contested by in particular Paul Grice, opening up a small subfield in epistemology for the enumeration of further criteria for knowledge. Brandom has a number of interesting things to say about that conception, and his reconstrual. In particular, however, his discussion of the ambiguity of the concept of belief at MIE 195-96 is apropos.

[7] I’ve borrowed the phrase from the title of the third part of Schneewind’s The Invention of Autonomy, from which I’ve learned much about the history of what I just potted together. Schneewind’s story is about the rise by fits and starts of a morality of self-governance—culminating (though not ending) in Kant—as opposed to a morality of obedience, the special dispensation of moralities with God at the conceptual center. What Rorty would insist upon is that the nature of Kant’s first version of a morality that does not need God, and thus has humans in a world they govern themselves, is still a morality of obedience because of the way he constitutes the sphere of the moral (which importantly stands conceptually outside social behavior). Kantian principles have authority that is distinctly not a social authority.

[8] One might note my inconsistencies of expression: these illustrate Brandom’s notion of meaning as inferential role. Because if you didn’t know that “bowl” in that context was interchangeable with “dog dish,” then we would be entitled to thinking you don’t know what those words mean. (Brandom calls that a “substitution inference,” and it’s one of the cornerstones of his explication of the representational dimension of thought and talk.) However, if Stanley Cavell were here, he might wonder if I, acting as the philosopher and using one of the most common tools of the trade—the thought experiment—actually understood how a conversation works. Reflect on how the scene I constructed, properly sequenced, plays out:
[Dan walks into the living room, and sits down on the couch between the reading Curtis and Don, who is staring at the ceiling]
Dan [to Don]: “Dude, your dog is totally chowing down in the kitchen...the food is everywhere around his bowl.”
Don [still staring at the ceiling]: “There’s a dog dish in the kitchen.”
Chris [looking up from the Meditationes de Prima Philosophia]: “How do you know?”
Don [rolling his eyes and turning his head halfway toward Chris’s end of the couch]: “Because Dan just came from the kitchen and said that Fido was in there eating out of his bowl. [looking back up toward the ceiling] What are you, deaf?”
Chris: “Screw you, Don. What kind of stupid non sequitor was it to say so in the first place?”
Indeed, why did Don make that claim in the first place? Was it to screw with Chris, who he knew had been reading too much Descartes lately? But if it was a trap, why did he roll his eyes? Just to be a dick? It would be like laying a bear trap and rolling your eyes at the howling bear, at his stupidity. (His stupidity—your what for laying it?) And why are Chris and Don on opposite sides of the couch?

Cavell has a very unique, existential approach to philosophy, and took such inquiry into our examples and hypotheticals to reflect something about the nature of philosophy, which induces the philosopher to create such bizarrely remote, half-idiot conversations. (Wittgenstein, Cavell thought, was a genius at this kind of inquiry.) I’ve even thematized philosophy into the thought-experiment, here the emblem of philosophy, to make the inquiry more conducive to such generalizations.

[9] This was the trouble Derrida got linguistic-turn philosophers like Sellars in for what Sellars called his “psychological nominalism”: “all awareness is a linguistic affair.” For Derrida’s slogan that “there is nothing outside the text” sounded like pure, trapped-in-the-head idealism. Sellars’, however, is much closer to Kant’s, which abides by the slogan, “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” For more on this, see my discussion in “Quine, Sellars,” cited in Note 1. A problem in this area is the concept of experience, which Brandom thinks, like belief, is ambiguous and overworked in the history of philosophy. Like “belief,” “experience” just isn’t one of Brandom’s words. I’ve dubbed “retropragmatists” those pragmatists, unlike Rorty and Brandom, who think the concept of experience is ineliminable. These pragmatists, like David L. Hildebrand, often criticize linguistic-turn pragmatists (and analytic philosophers generally, for that matter) for excising experience itself from philosophy. I consider this exceptionally misleading, and a red herring, for it creates a straw man—how could one possibly eliminate one’s experience of the world from one’s thinking? Retropragmatists who pursue this line too often think that that’s why the linguistic turn is an obvious reductio ad absurdum, but I think it’s equally obvious that reductios based on obvious facts mean that the premise at issue is elsewhere. For an attempt to reconstruct Rorty’s stance on this issue, see my “Some Notes on Rorty and Retropragmatism.” In it, I double down on the point I make in “Quine, Sellars”—that Sellarsian psychological nominalism is philosophically identical to Jamesian radical empiricism because it dissolves the same Platonic problem—by moving in a direction the retropragmatists often pshaw: the idea of specifically linguistic experiences, i.e. reading experiences, the experiences of reading books. (For an earlier discussion of Hildebrand, which crosses through my involvement with Robert Pirsig and his coterie of philosophical readers, one in particular, one could read “Dewey, Pirsig, Rorty, or How I Convinced an Entire Generation of Pirsigians that Rorty Is the Devil: An Ode to David Buchanan.” The beginning is a narrative of my transference of power from Pirsig to Rorty, so one could skip down to the link that stands out in blue, “Prof. Hildebrand's short pieces about Rorty,” without much loss.)

[10] This infelicity of expression is the culmination of my pedagogically useful, though inaccurate suggestion that Brandom replaces “belief” with “commitment.” Technically this isn’t true, and precisely because he needs the distinction between (at least) these two different kinds of commitment which the concept of belief obscures.

[11] You don’t, however, have to display the desire in a syllogism, as Brandom makes clear in 4.5.3. This banks on a number of issues I’ve left suppressed, namely the importance of the implicit/explicit distinction in Brandom’s quest to redescribe logic from a canon of rationality into a tool of expression. In fact, my syllogisms don’t even need the premises with the conditionals. Brandom follows Sellars in thinking that all one needs is “1. It’s raining outside. 2. You shouldn’t go outside.” They call this a material inference. Formalist logic understands such an inference from (1) to (2) as good only if one supposes there is a suppressed conditional premise. Expressivist logic understands the conditional premise as optional, as helping to make explicit the implicit reason for why the inference from (1) to (2) is good. If this is your first time in the cow pasture, you’ll wonder at this point what the difference is between the formalist’s “suppression” and the expressivist’s “implicit.” It seems nit-picky, but Brandom makes an interesting case for a lot to be hanging on it. Brandom’s main discussion of the merits of his “inferential materialism” (a wonderful oxymoron if you remember your history of 19th century idealism) is at 2.4.2.

[12] Though I don’t discuss Habermas’s use of the nature of reason to justify egalitarian practices, in “Better and the Best” (cited in Note 1, and esp. sec. 3) I do show how the first point in this paragraph (about justification) is construed by Habermas to fill out the nature of reason (as “universal validity” or “transcendent moment”), followed by Rorty’s argument against it (the “Village Champion Argument”).

[13] TP 132. For Rorty’s criticism of Brandom, see that essay in Truth and Progress and his “Response to Robert Brandom” in Rorty and His Critics. Brandom continues that part of the conversation in “Pragmatism, Expressivism, and Antirepresentationalism” in his Perspectives on Pragmatism.

[14] The most forward statement of this is in “Ethics without Principles” in PSH.

[15] Rorty’s first good defense of this point is in the introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism.

[16] This is oblique, but the only time Derrida and Foucault appear in Brandom’s work is so that Brandom can take pot shots at them for being “irrationalists.” Brandom means this in a quite specific sense, and not in the usual flat-footed way many analytic philosophers wield the epithet at Continental philosophy, but it is another way in which he sends messages to Rorty.

[17] Rorty makes this point in the first chapter of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.

[18] Brandom, in fact, does make this point about the expressive role of broadly evaluative vocabulary like “prefer,” “obliged,” and “ought” in 4.5.3. What is missing, then, is just where the expression of our evaluation of the vocabulary we’re using occurs. This seems to me a central element in the basic make-up of the social game of giving and asking for reasons, as it was put at the end section 5, even if commands and permissions are not. All the arguments Brandom gives for his modified Davidsonian notion of a “complete reason” should apply equally to the adoption of a vocabulary to express that reason.

To put it another way, Brandom seems to suggest in 4.5.4 that he would call my strategy a mode of supplying “suppressed” premises in order to assimilate, as I have, practical and theoretical reasonings. (It comes up in the context of his differentiation of different kinds of practical reasoning, but the point applies.) Brandom thinks this is a kind of optional reductionism. But I don’t think my strategy elicits a suppressed premise anymore than Brandom’s treatment of unconditional or institutional ‘ought’s (which he suggests are different from prudential, desire-relative ‘ought’s). By using a vocabulary, any vocabulary, one is implicitly committing oneself to its inferential structure, and this implicit commitment is analogous to the role desire plays and is incompatible with an “implicit norm of common belief” (250), at least one unrestricted by choice in vocabulary. For if Rorty’s right, the only way to get some people on the same page—like Wilde and the Christian perse-, er, prosecutor—is to burn the pages they are holding so that the only one’s remaining are the one’s you’re holding. When Brandom says that inferences that are “truth-preserving are one, while those practical inferences that are underwritten by desires are many,” what he’s forgetting is that all inferences are underwritten by the vocabulary they are stated in. Vocabulary-choice is perhaps not best put into terms of desire, but it is something implicitly done and seems to vary people’s sense of what is a truth-preserving inference in the same way having different desires varies the practical inferences one would endorse.

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