Notes on Reading “Articulating Reasons,” part 2

Before they slip the sieve of my aging memory, I want to complete my notes on the points in Brandom’s book that will be important to the book I’m working on.

I’ll sketch here a few more of the fundamental orienting assumptions Brandom outlines, but in a way that is meant mostly to emphasize what is of importance to the argument I will want to (eventually) make.

What is a concept? Against the standard “intensional” understanding, in which a concept is a specific set of real conditions in the world, the inferentialist approach is to understand the concept as a kind of doing, as a way of making explicit what kinds of commitments one is making in undertaking some kind of action.  This has implications for the concept of “truth,” and helps overcome the “true justified belief” idea of knowledge.  (This has always seemed to me to simply beg the question—since if you could know when something is “true,” you wouldn’t need to worry about justification or belief…and if you could know when something is actually “justified”, determining whether it is also “true” would be redundant.  I tried to raise this question in the one college philosophy course I ever took, but the professor could not grasp my point.  And no philosopher I have ever raised it with does either. Nonetheless, I persist in believing this is a fatal flaw of the TJB theory of knowledge.)

Instead, what we have in Brandom approach is the idea that we  begin from an “appropriate doing,” (I’m still unsure how we would know we have one…but that’s another concern) and then try to figure what kinds of inferences “preserve” the “good moves.”  This is a bit puzzling in the description here, but seems to suggest that instead of starting with a given, and using rules of proper inference (logic) to extend it, we start from the proper actions, and then consider as “true” the inferences that enable it.

Another key issue is “semantic holism versus atomism.” This is something I have considered essential to any understanding of how symbolic systems work since my first encounter with Lacan decades ago.  The point here is that, as Brandom puts it, “one  cannot have any concept unless one has many concepts.”  This seems to me to be supported by the discussion of what symbolic means in Deacon’s book The Symbolic Species.  No concept can be grasped separately from a whole set of concepts which it entails.  Lockean theories of language tend to work the other way around—and this Lockean approach is essentially a way of avoiding the problematic truth that we get our concepts not empirically but socially, in a language that is already made by others and which we simply must enter into the use of.

A final issue here is the inversion of the understanding of logic.  What Brandom has in mind here is what I always took to be the Hegelian logic. That is, instead of assuming we can use logic to prove the truth of a claim from incontrovertible premises, logic might instead work to draw out the implications of what we take to be those incontrovertible premises. Logic, then, is less Aristotelean than Socratic—working to push us to become aware of what we are assuming but may not be recognizing.

Two more major points, then, from two later chapters in the book. There are many other important points in this little book, but these two are what will be most important to the kind of argument I want to make.

The first is from chapter two, in which Brandom attempts to “offer an account of the willas a rational faculty of practical reasoning.”  Discussing Kant, Brandom argues that “Kant’s big idea” is that what distinguishes language-using humans from other kinds of creatures is that we can be responsible for our commitments.  The smallest thing we can be responsible for is a “judgement” understood to mean “predicating a general term of a singular one,” which is to say, we are responsible for our aesthetic construal of the world.  Normative language, which is to say language of “oughts,” of what we ought to do, is a matter of making explicit what entitles us to certain judgements (how we know we are categorizing singular terms correctly) and what this commits us to (what kind of actions in the world would take if we accept this categorization).

An important point to follow from this is that we do not need to accept the standard Humean take on our capacity to use reason.  That is, the almost universally assumed belief that we have certain desires inborn and out of our control, and then we employ “reason” to figure out how best to achieve those desires.

On this understanding of how reason works, reason can, potentially, operate to help instruct us in what we ought to desire. That is, reason tell us what to want, instead of merely helping us to get what we cannot help but want.

The argument here is subtle, but I think cogent.  Desires are not to be understood as the ultimate premise of all actions, but of the kinds of collateral commitments I am making if I am going to do something at all. Take Brandom’s example of opening an umbrella in the rain.  The standard assumption would be that there must be an ultimate desire to stay dry, which motivates the reasoning p rocess: if I open the umbrella, I will succeed in achieving my desire to stay dry.  But Brandom’s point is that the “desire” statement may simply function to “make explicit the inferential commitments that permit the transition” from “it is raining” to “I will open my umbrella.”  That is, we might have a desire to get wet, sometimes. The desire statement, then, is not the ultimate real cause, but simply an indication that I am committing myself, in following the norm of umbrella use, to the act of not getting wet. This assumes that we can do things for all kinds of reason, for practical reasons, and those reasons can be be changed and are not therefore necessarily primary in all acts of agency.

One final point for now, from chapter six, about the nature of objectivity.  This is crucial to any defense agains the ubiquitous postmodern ideology of absolute relativism.

The crucial point here is that “the implicit representational dimension of the inferential contents of claims arises out of the difference in social perspectives between producers and consumers of reasons.”  What is most important for my overall argument here is that this assumes that we arrive an an “objective” understanding of the world not despite our  differences in assumptions and commitments, but exactly because of them.

The standard take on this problem is that we can never really communicate, since you begin from your implicit assumptions about the world and I begin from mine, and we each have different intentions…so that we never quite do understand one another, and in fact could not ever succeed in persuading one another to a change in position, since what would count as a “reason” is determined by our construal of the world, and so your reasons won’t be reasons for me.  This position is so common today that it often is simply assumed…but when a particularly damaging piece of evidence is offered against someone’s position, it is not at all uncommon today for them to state this position explicitly, and take it as an absolute refutation. The argument is common, and is often put in terms like  “I don’t take that argument seriously” or “postmodern theory teaches us that there is no objective truth” or something along these lines.  The proposer of the irrefutable argument or bit of evidence is then accused of claiming a “God’s eye view” or of being dictatorial or authoritarian.

This position offers an alternative.  Because what we do in language just is to ask for and give reasons for certain kinds of commitments, we can see the reasons someone else is committed to a certain way of acting in the world.  As part of these reasons for taking extra-linguistic action in the world, we often need to make reference to things, to “represent” things in the world.  (It is important here to remember that “representation” on this approach follows from the commitment to act—it is secondary, rather than primary as it would be in a Lockean epistemology).

I can almost always understand what thing in the world you are referring to, even if that thing in the world has a completely different “meaning” to me, because of my different set of concepts and my different intentions and commitments.  For me, what is crucial here is that we can then gain a sense of what our assumptions are only because there are other people with different ones. These assumptions may be fundamental, or simply perspectival—that is, we may share most of the same concepts and intentions, but have some minor difference in perceptual experience.  If there were nobody with a different set of assumptions, we would never recognize our assumptions as assumptions, and would have not hope of ever moving toward objectivity.  When we see that someone else conceives of a thing completely differently than we do, we see a way to separate out our assumptions from the object.  The point here is that, if we are thinking correctly, we should recognize that the only reason we can ever be persuaded to change our position on something is that we so often do encounter other language users whose positions are radically incompatible with our own.

If we could all accept his, and stop retreating behind the postmodern avoidance strategy as a way of clinging against all reason and evidence to our destructive intentions, we might have some hope of surviving as a species.

But that’s all on Brandom for now.  Next, I will probably try to post a part of the second chapter of the book I’m writing, in which I try to analyze smartphone use as an ideological practice—tricky to do, since I don’t own one and have never used on myself.  Or, perhaps, easier for me to do for exactly this reason.

I hope my notes on Brandom are clear and of some use to anyone reading this.  Any suggestions as to how to make these points in a more accessible manner will be appreciated.

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