Notes on reading “Articulating Reason,” part 1

Lately I’ve been looking to pragmatist philosophers to help me sort out the problem of language.  Clearly, I’ve always been an opponent of most American pragmatism—the reactionary politics and crypto-idealism of pragmatists from William James to Rorty is exasperating.  But there are some thinkers in this vein that take a fundamentally different approach, like Dewey and Sellars.  

What I find most useful about the inferential theory of language is the open assertion from the start of a fundamentally different set of founding assumptions about the nature of language and how its study should be pursued.  These seem to me to be all assumptions that are consonant with thinkers like Hegel or Lacan, but made much more explicitly. Brandom begins the book Articulating Reasons by laying them out in opposition to the more common assumptions with which philosophy of language has typically operated.  

I’m going to summarize some of them here, mostly to get them clear for when I will need them in later parts of my argument.  They seem to me to be simple points, but with enormous implications for a number of human pursuits from pedagogy to politics.  Although I may be wrong that these are “simple” points, since most people, including professional philosophers, seem unable to grasp them—but more on that later.

1). The first commitment Brandom outlines for us is the choice to focus on either the continuities or the discontinuities between “discursive and nondiscursive creatures.”  That is, do we assume that we humans are on a continuum or spectrum of communication that begins with chemical signals plants send and moves up through bees dances and through wolves’ growls up to human speech?  Or, do we assume that human speech is of a fundamentally different kind—that symbolic communication makes us unique among all sentient creatures that we know of?  I have always endorsed the latter, although it seems that the more widely held position is the former.  So most attempts to explain language begin with the study of the brain (ever since Locke, at least) and work up, or begin with a statement referring to the world and reduce down to the neural substrates of this behavior.  It seems to me clear enough on the evidence that no other species has had the capacity to alter its environment that symbolic communication has given us.  And certainly it should be clear enough how different proposing marriage is from the mating ritual of the stickleback fish.  Or how different the proposal for a new skyscraper is from a monkey’s use of a rock to open a nut.  

Beginning from this assumption is fundamental to recognizing  that we can change our behaviors intentionally in ways that animals cannot.  The desire to reject this (to me) obvious truth about humans is part of the global capitalist neoliberal attempt to avoid addressing social problems at a social level.  

2)  The second choice to be made is between what  Brandom refers to as “Platonism or pragmatism.”  The question here is whether the fundamental nature of human thought is to be understood as knowing that or as knowing how.  This one seems to be difficult for most people—since it seems obvious that to know is to have some kind of propositional knowledge about the world outside the knowing mind.  But I would follow Brandom here in beginning from the assumption that the origin of thought is in knowing how to accomplish something, a knowing how that occurs first outside of the symbolic system; knowing that occurs only after we begin to try to make our know how, what we might call our phronesis, explicit in communication with others. The propositional knowledge about what the world is really like is not primarily, but a consequence of our attempt to communicate, and improve, our phronesis (my term—Brandom refers uses the expression “know-how”).

This is certainly a point on which Brandom’s argument has changed my position.  I used to be firmly of the position that all thinking occurs only in language, that there is no outside to language.  And I would still argue that human subjects occur only in language.  But I would agree with Brandom that the capacity to respond to external objects as objects is a precondition for all language.  

Without understanding that knowing, even in language, is more a matter of knowing how to take an action than of how the world is in itself, we also cannot arrive at any understanding of how humans can have agency. If we believe that to have agency we must act  from a correct conceptual  “mirror” of the world, then obviously we can never begin at all.  We are then left with the now ubiquitous understanding of humans as simply “wet machines” which respond automatically to stimuli, often in unproductive ways.

3). “Is mind or language the fundamental locus of intentionality?”  Another crucial assumption we need to make explicit. As Brandom explains, in the history of philosophy it has usually been assumed that language has a “merely instrumental role in communicating to others thoughts already full-formed in a prior mental arena within the individual.”  His argument, on the other hand, is that language use is necessary to the formation of concepts, that a concept is produced only in the act of communication between individuals, not within the individual, and that it makes no sense to speak of “intentions” outside of the kinds of claims that are made about the world in language.  This one I will need to run by some readers, I think, because it has seemed so obviously true to me for so long, that I am often at a loss to understand exactly why it is incomprehensible to so many people.  Brandom spends less time on this than on some of the other issues he outlines for us, and so seems to think it needs less arguing for—and it is clear enough, I suppose…so why do most people still assume the opposite is the case?  In composition theory, for instance, the underlying assumption that thoughts occur outside of language and are then encoded in a language is so thoroughly taken as given that  composition theorists never seem to even feel the need to address the problem of language.  That is, they are so convinced that it is not a problem at all, that they don’t think about it—and so composition instruction is notoriously ineffective, repeatedly cycling through the same three “approaches” under new names every time they figure out the latest one doesn’t work any better with a new label.  What might it take to make this concept explicit to, say, someone whose job is to design a composition course for college freshmen?

4). One last issue for this entry, then.  Is concept use representational or is it expressive?  The usual understanding is that concepts function aesthetically; that is, they are general categories that function to collect specific instances of objects in the world.  They are, then, “representations” of reality, with the word “apple” pointing to a concept of “appleness” of which any given instance is a close-enough match.  (I’m setting aside here the platonic notion of forms, and the interested “third man problem” it raises.) A concept, then, is meant to capture the essential features of the thing in the world, and so to “represent” it.  What Brandom argues is that such “representations” come later, are a secondary effect of the primary goal of language, which is “expressive.”

Brandom wants to distinguish his use of the term expressive from a Romantic notion.  The Romantic idea would be that one has an emotion or intuition which is then (somewhat indirectly and inadequately) expressed in a gesture or in language.  What Brandom is interested in is an almost opposite use of the term expressive, in which what we have first is a commitment to some kind of action in the world, and then we try to “express” the assumptions and consequences of that action symbolically through language.  The point here is that language makes clear what in action or phronesis is not yet explicit. The Romantic notion of expression would insist that the expression makes something less clear—as would the standard notion of representation.  So language is seen as eternally inadequate, and a limitation on and hindrance of thought.  Brandom’s position would lead us to see language as in improvement on (not thought—since that occurs only in language—but) our ability to act in the world.  Asking for and giving reasons is not a falling away from authenticity into the sterile realm of rationality, but the development of true agency.  

What the introduction to this book does is to exemplify what inferentialism is about: the goal of making explicit the assumptions and consequences we are committing ourselves to whenever we begin to use concepts.   The postmodern relativism that seems to have convinced most people that this cannot be done has robbed us of our agency, and is on course to doom the human species to a painful extinction.  Convincing people to change the way they think about reasons—to break out what is often called the “Humean condition”, in which we can never act for a reason, in which our motives are determined and reason is purely instrumental, seems to be a crucial goal if we are concerned for our children’s well-being.  

There are five more such issues to discuss just to get through the introduction to this book.  All of them have, it seems to me, enormous practical implications.  Part of my goal later on will have to be to demonstrate how to put this way of construing the world to use in solving real world problems.  

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  1. knudgeknudge

     /  January 13, 2019

    I am following your thoughts with interest. You might be interested by my little book ‘The Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations’, Paul Bains, Univ of Toronto Press. I think you would find its approach has many points of contact with yours….

  2. I’m currently waiting on a copy of this book to make it to my university library, so for now I’m stuck following your notes here. I don’t have much to say, as I’m beginning to worry that I’m not nearly caught up on the history of the philosophy of language enough to fully contextualize the work being done.

    I will say, Re: #2: The distinction between knowing that and knowing how has always seemed to me to be one of the main points of broader philosophical confusion–especially in epistomology, wherein attempts to come up with a definition of knowledge (in the sense of “knowledge that”) have always met a dead end. I suspect this is the case for all instances where philosophers attempt to somehow separate the human activity of figuring out that and that of figuring out how. That is, it would be a mistake to assume that the former activity can be done in a way that is disinterested in questions of the latter kind, although this is a mistake that philosophers seem intent on repeating ad infinitum.

    “What the introduction to this book does is to exemplify what inferentialism is about: the goal of making explicit the assumptions and consequences we are committing ourselves to whenever we begin to use concepts.”

    Think of how many philosophical issues could be clarified, if not resolved, if everyone did this! The problem, of course, is that most philosophers (most people, really) insist that they are not committing themselves to any a priori assumptions or consequences vis a vis action in the world at all, and are rather solely interested in facts–that is, in knowledge that. This is probably intimately related to the illusion of being a rational, atomistic agent who can somehow separate oneself from one’s existence as a social actor. But that’s a whole other topic, and this comment is getting way too long.

    Is there any reading you would consider a necessary pre-requisite to Articulating Reasons? Or is it written clearly enough for a general audience (i.e. not someone very well-read in linguistic theory)?

  3. Paul,
    Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll take a look. I can use all the help I can get with this matter.

    Yes, I do believe that most of our conceptual problems derive from the assumption that we are essentially atomistic subjects, who then freely choose to interact socially, etc. (This is the fundamental truth of Buddhism, on my understanding of Buddhism) My project now is…not so much to convince people of this, because many people will say “sure, we understand that already, we KNOW that, so we’re tired of hearing you tell it to us.” Rather, by project is to try to get people to notice that although they KNOW this is a wrong idea, they are still operating from the assumption that it is true…then, perhaps, to get them to stop operating from this assumption. (Attempting to do this is what I take to be the entire practice of Buddhism, on my understanding of Buddhism.).

    This is enormously difficult. I can point out, as others have, the flaws in the Lockean assumptions from which we operate, and people become irate because I am repeating myself and becoming tedious. They’ve heard it before, they agree already. Then they go right on operating from these same assumptions…and are unable to see that they are doing so—even thought they’ve just finished stating what those mistaken assumptions are. My project, in the book I am working on, is to find some way to make it possible for those who already don’t agree, intellectually, with the Lockean assumptions they claim to know are wrong, to actually become aware that they are still using them, AND to STOP relying on them, in thought and practice. Or, at least, to work toward thought and practice that does not depend on these assumptions.

    This is a limited, but I don’t think insignificant, audience.

    The problem is sort of like the English professor who gives a lecture on the historicity of the literary canon and the social and ideological functions of literary “quality”, etc., then goes on in the very same talk to expound on the transcendent aesthetic value of Shakespeare, and the universal importance of organic unity, irony, and ambiguity in a literary text. This sounds like an extreme contradiction, but I have heard this kind of talk literally dozens of times in classrooms and at academic conferences.

    These are the people I want to address at this point—not so much the people who insist on transcendent aesthetic values or the atomistic consciousness, or even the materialist reductionists. I’m not trying to persuade them, anymore. What I’m interested in is those who are already “intellectually converted,” but who cannot put their intellectual commitments into practice in actually acting in (including thinking about) the world.

    As for pre-requisite reading, I don’t really know. I don’t consider myself very knowledgeable in the field of philsophy of language, but I can follow Brandom if I just take some time with it. It takes effort, but I don’t find it too terribly difficult. I have had to make some use of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philsophy in engaging with this problem generally—the article on “Theories of Meaning” was helpful. Maybe that served as a sufficient refresher in reading Brandom. My knowledge of philosophy of langauge is dated and limited…mostly stuff I read back in grad school and had long forgotten. I was particulary influenced by Bakhtin, and by Volosinov’s “Marxism and the Philosophy of Language” in my younger days. I’d say plunge in and see what sense you can make of it! Brandom does call it an “introduction,” but I suppose it does assume some familiarity with the American philosophical style of writing.

  4. Patricia Comitini

     /  January 16, 2019

    I’ve been thinking about your summary of Brandon’s proposition in #3:”His argument, on the other hand, is that language use is necessary to the formation of concepts, that a concept is produced only in the act of communication between individuals, not within the individual, and that it makes no sense to speak of “intentions” outside of the kinds of claims that are made about the world in language” as well as the “expressive” use of concepts in #4 that “Language makes clear what in action or phronesis is not yet explicit.” These seem to me to be the most difficult statements to grapple with, not because they are actually obstruse, but because they seem so counter-intuitive to a “common-sense” perception of the way language works–that is, as an instrumental representation of reality. I’m with you in the assumption that we always think in language, and the language enables, by clarifying, our actions in the world. There is no thinking outside of language, so to talk–as many in my profession do–about “metacognition” (thinking about thinking) or that “to write something they have to ‘know’ it first” (I’m an English Prof too). Rather, we might instead conceive of writing something (like this post) as an action to take in the world–to clarify something, to make something change or to create a reason for change. And Brandom seems to be saying–as I think you are too–that fundamentally language is “social”–an “act of communication between individuals.” That its primary “use” –the know-how–is social. Is that correct?

    What I am constantly grappling with is that even though I know we can’t think outside of language, the assumption of my profession is that we do. That there is some idea out there that students need to “capture” in their writing: whether it is writing about literature or writing about something else. There’s a functionality to all writing instruction where concept is seen as something primary to, but distinct from, the action of language (does that make sense?). At my freshman writing workshop yesterday, for example, someone said that “we really teach ideas,” not writing. I was wondering “what is the distinction?” Another said “we teach students how to think and how to think about thinking.” The assumption here is that “to think” or “the idea” is the “meta” and writing and reading are just different functions of “cognition.” These assertions about thinking and writing (and reading) seem obscure and imprecise at best. At the same time, folks talked about students in freshman writing as “lacking motivation” to read or write (and perhaps to think?). Maybe lacking “agency” is a better way to put it? So, we teach students to “think,” but they lack motivation to read or write? How does that happen? What does that even look like? I think there’s a connection between lack of motivation to read and write–that is, seeing any use attached to language–and the common-sense way we understand language as representational and instrumental. Maybe an “inferential” idea of language may help to get me out of this specific contradiction I’m in.

  5. Composition theory, and theory of pedagogy generally, suffers from being dismally philosophically naive, in much the same way psychology is. All of these disciplines just assume, without even knowing they are doing it, the common-sense beliefs about epistemology, language, and the subject that they pick up from ordinary langauge. Often, they may insist they are not doing this-may think they are producing some profoundly counter-intuitive model of “deeper” reality; but when examined, we always find the same Lockean assumptions. Then they can’t figure out why college composition classes have been notoriously ineffective for a century.

    The basic assumption is always that we think in a meta-language, then translate these ideas into the cumbersome and confused medium of words. This is why many professors are concerned with teaching proper grammar, thinking that this is the problem with student writing: they have the ideas, they just lack the tools to make those ideas clear to others.

    It seems to me that an inferentialist approach avoids this error. For instance, Brandom argues that “thinking clearly is a matter of knowing what one is committing oneself to by a certain claim, and what would entitle one to that commitment. Writing clearly is providing enough clues for the reader to infer what one intends to be committed to and what one takes it would entitle one to that commitment.”

    That is, thinking clearly is knowing what overall terms and relations between terms one is implicitly accepting by making any statement. But it is also knowing what extra-linguistic action one is committing to by making a statement. The most trivial seeming statement implies that you have intentions to act in certain ways, and not in others—and that you have “reasons,” in the form of linguistic concepts about how the world is, for having these intentions.

    I would suggest that most of our students who cannot write have no such intentions to act in the world, and see the use of writing in the classroom in a very limited way: that is, they see the goal of writing a paper in a class as simply to fulfill the requirement of that class, with no commitment to actual action in the world implied by it. As a result, they cannot possibly use language in any meaningful way. Brandom uses the example of the parrot, which says the “right” word at the right time, and gets rewarded with a treat. The parrot has no grasp of the what causes a certain thing to be a “car” or what the consequences of it being a “car” are…so it cannot possibly write a good freshman composition essay, much less a meaningful paper on the causes of the Great Depression.

    Until composition theory catches up with the last few centuries of thought, it won’t be of any use to students at all. And to go into a classroom and try to teach from a more informed perspective on what language actually is and how it works is like rowing against the stream. It can be done, but the progress is small when the entire rest of the educational system is working hard to train parrots.

    One more point, on what really goes on in the freshman writing classroom. I’ve done this for many years, at many schools, and have sat in adjunct office rooms with many dozens of composition teachers. Despite what their syllabi say, and what they tell the program directors and department chairs, there is only one thing going on in these classrooms: students are being asked to share the professors’ ideological beliefs. Most composition teachers do not have advanced degrees in English, and the few that do have little or no training in teaching writing, and certainly none at all in the philosophy of language. So, we have one fellow with a Masters in Divinity teaching them about Heideggerian “authenticity”, another with a degree in film studies showing them the “Matrix” movies, another with a Masters in Education teaching them about animal rights, etc. This is what really goes on in freshman composition classes at all kinds of schools: people who couldn’t get into PhD programs are using these classes to ride their ideological hobby horses in front of a forced audience.

    As a marxist, obviously I cannot do this—imagine the outrage from the administration if they heard I was teaching marxist economics or political theory in a freshman comp classroom. My goal is always to push them to make explicit whatever their own existing commitments are, not to convince them to share mine (and certainly at the schools I’ve taught at here in CT I’ve rarely seen a student who had any of the same commitments I do). Once they can learn to think IN language, by making their commitments and assumptions explicit, instead of believing that they think OUTSIDE of language, then it can become possible to engage them in debate about politics and economics and other ideological issues. But that debate needs to be done outside the composition classroom. Unfortunately, I seem to be alone in this assumption.

    This is also, I think, why most people today cannot actually read. They haven’t understood that the task of reading is not replying to what someone else says, but understanding what they say. English teachers tell them to “make new knowledge” and say we want to empower them, give them a “voice”, but that’s all bullshit. The central goal of reading is not to use a text as a springboard for rehearsing potted arguments, but to understand what someone is saying who has commitments and assumptions different from yours. The task then is not to respond to an essay by saying “here’s the truth about the situation” but by saying “here are what I take to be this writer’s assumptions and commitments”.

    And that’s my sermon for today.

  6. Patricia

     /  January 21, 2019

    I was reading an essay yesterday by Robert Scholes (a very esteemed professor of English) which was actually an invited lecture at a professional meeting where he said very much the same thing: that the “ideas” –and I believe from the context what he meant was one’s ideological investment–we look for in our students’ writing are really what we want them to say in order to validate our own beliefs and ideas. We think we are teaching them “objective” ideas, but we are really asking them to parrot (as Brandom says) our own ideological investments. His point is that what is more valuable to do with students is conceive of the classroom as a space which teaches what he refers to as a kind of “rhetoric”–that is, how language can be utilized to examine concepts . This is admittedly different framework from what I think you and Brandom are suggesting, but I do think that the profession is sometimes confused about what they are in fact teaching.

  7. This may be a different context, but it isn’t much different from what I hope to encourage people to do all the time. It is what I have, in the the past, advocated as the most important kind of Buddhist practice: examining our own concepts, to draw out their assumptions and consequences.

    I would say that Scholes is good at explaining why we should do this, but not at doing it with his own (very elitist, capitalist, in a word bourgeois) concepts. He cannot imagine considering the ideological function of opera, for instance–only its “meaning” and the aesthetic beauty of it, but not how that meaning and the very idea of aesthetic beauty are ideologies. This is common, though, among English professors. “All Literary judgements are historically conditioned, and teach historically contingent ‘truths’: and now that the ‘theory’ part of the class is out of the way, we will proceed to explain the timeless human verities and transcendent aesthetic perfection of the novels of Jane Austen..”

    I would be wary of the idea that we examine concepts in language, though. We do, of course, but only because we produce concepts in language. It is hard to escape the assumption that first we have concepts, then we examine (or distort) them in language. Concepts only exist because socially produced languages exist. What we should try to do is produce a discourse in which our aim is to examine the assumptions and commitments of some of our concepts–but with the awareness that this action is itself intentional, and depends on some concepts. Rhetoric is always acting with an intention.

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