Forks in Robert Brandom’s Road

Robert Brandom opens his little book Articulating Reasons (which stands to the massive Making It Explicit roughly as Hume’s Inquiry stands to his Treatise) by observing, “This is a book about the use and content of concepts. Its animating thought is that the meanings of linguistic expressions and the contents of intentional states, indeed, awareness itself, should be understood, to begin with, in terms of playing a distinctive kind of role in reasoning. The idea is of privileging inference over reference in the order of semantic explanation” (1). “The aim,” he goes on, “is to focus on the conceptual in order to elaborate a relatively clear notion of the kind of awareness of something that consists in applying a concept to it” (2).

His first task in the Introduction is to outline a series of nine binary-oppositions, forks in the methodological road, which serve to set his approach to the conceptual apart from its rivals.

1. First, he has to decide about “the relative priority accorded to the continuities or discontinuities between discursive and nondiscursive creatures” (2). Brandom’s story fronts discontinuities — he, like McDowell, is an heir of Sellars’s Kantian emphasis upon the logical distinctness of the “space of reasons” over against the space of nature (3).

“2. Conceptual Platonism or Pragmatism?” (4) You can explain concept-use in terms of conceptual content (“platonism”), or content in terms of use (pragmatism) (4). Brandom “offers an account of knowing (or believing, or saying) that such and such is the case in terms of knowing how (being able) to do something” (4). We don’t account for the use of a word by appealing to the logically prior notion of its meaning; rather, we account for its meaning by appealing to its use in actual speech.

“3. Is Mind or Language the Fundamental Locus of Intentionality?” Brandom pursues “a relational linguistic approach to the conceptual. Concept use is treated as an essentially linguistic affair. Claiming and believing are two sides of the same coin – not in the sense that every belief must be asserted nor that every assertion must express a belief, but in the sense that neither the activity of believing nor that of asserting can be made sense of independently of the other” (6). “Grasping a concept is mastering the use of a word” (6).

4. Should we think of concept-use in terms of representation or expression? (7) The former is especially attractive today to naturalists (emphasizers of continuity), who want to build from simple representings in non-conceptual animals (or machines) to us (7). Brandom prefers to develop an account of concepts in terms of expression. But expressing what? Not the inner (feeling) as outer (language), in the manner of nineteenth century Romantics, but rather the implicit as explicit, “turning something can initially only do into something we can say: codifying some sort of knowing how in the form of knowing that” (8). (If you’re a representationalist, you’re probably going to privilege “mind” in the fork above, p. 9).

5. Intensionalism or Inferentialism?” (10) Most theorists of concepts tend to assume that their distinguishing mark is a “special sort of intensionality” (concept-hood is a function of meaning, “intension”) (10). Brandom, by contrast, argues “that what distinguishes specially discursive practices from the doings of non-concept-using creatures is their inferential articulation. To talk about concepts is to talk about roles in reasoning” (11). Brandom’s is “a rationalist pragmatism, in giving pride of place to practices of giving and asking for reasons, understanding them as conferring conceptual content on performances, expresions, and states suitably caught up in those practices” (11). He “understands expressing something, making it explicit, as putting it in a form in which it can serve as both premise and conclusion in inferences” (11). “What might be thought of as Frege’s fundamental pragmatic principle is that in asserting a claim, one is committing oneself to its truth” (11). Brandom appropriates this as follows: “Starting with what one is doing in making a claim, [he] seeks to elaborate from it an account of what is said, the content or proposition…to which one commits oneself by such a speech act” (12).

“6. Bottum-up or Top-down Semantics?” For an inferentialist like Brandom, “the fundamental form of the conceptual is the propositional,” and the fundamental thing to do with concepts is to assert or deny them (12). Thus, a whole sentence is logically prior to its parts, against the more traditional route of starting with terms (understood representationally), then accounting for judgments (by way of conjoining predicates), and then accounting for inferences (as linkages of judgments) (12-13). “Thus Kant takes judgment to be the minimal unit of experience…because it is the first element in the traditional logical hierarchy that one can take responsibility for” (13). And “Frege starts with judgeable conceptual contents because that is what pragmatic force can attach to” (13). This is “the same pragmatist point about the priority of the propositional” (13). The center of language, on this account, is inference and assertion; assertions and inferences “are what in the first place make possible talking, and therefore thinking: sapience in general” (15).

“7. Atomism or Holism?” Bottom-up semantics tends to be atomist, taking individual linguistic units individually and in isolation from their peers; Brandom’s expressivism is holist: “one cannot have any concepts unless one has many concepts. For the content of each concept is articulated by its inferential relations to other concepts” (15).

“8. Traditional or Rational Expressivism?” “Merely reliably responding differentially to red things is not yet being aware of them as red…What is implicit in that sort of practical doing becomes explicit in the application of the concept red when that responsive capacity or skill is put into a larger context that includes treating the responses as inferentially significant: as providing reasons for making other moves in the language game, and as themselves potentially standing in need of reasons that could be provided by making still other moves” (17). This could be an interesting way of clarifying McDowell’s insistence on the “unboundedness of the conceptual” against the “Myth of the Given”: as he insists, perceiving something as red is always already conceptual, precisely because that (implicit) judgment can function as a reason for further judgment or (judgment-laden) action. If our perceptions weren’t concept-laden, we would be differential responders, not perceivers.” 9. Is the Semantic Task of Logic Epistemological or Expressive?” Logic can either be thought of as proving statements, or “as a distinctive set of tools for saying something that cannot otherwise be made explicit” (19). I.e., “making explicit…the inferences one has already endorsed, is putting it in the form of a claim that things are thus-and-so. In this case a central expressive resource for doing that is provided by basic logical vocabulary” (19).

“The result is an account with a structure recognizable as Hegelian: a rationalist, expressivist account of (a kind of) consciousness (namely, sapient awareness) provides the basis for a corresponding account of (a kind of) self-consciousness (namely, semantic or conceptual self-consciousness), which is then called upon to deepen the original story by providing a model for understanding the sort of consciousness with which the account began” (22).

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