Perception and Concepts in Brandom’s “Articulating Reasons”

From Wilfrid Sellars and from Hegel (“Sense Certainty” in the Phenomenology), Brandom suggests, we learn “that even such noninferential reports [as color perceptions] must be inferentially articulated” (48, and cf. my discussion of roughly the same point in McDowell). “Without that requirement, we cannot tell the difference between noninferential reporters and automatic machinery such as thermostats and photocells, which also have reliable dispositions to respond differentially to stimuli” (47-8). What sets a person who can reliably report that it’s in the 70’s from a thermometer?

“It is easy, but uninformative,” Brandom notes, “to say that what distinguishes reporters from reliable responders is awareness” (48). But awareness of what? We can cash out this initial distinction in terms of “understanding”: “The reporter must, as the parrot and thermostat do not, have the concept of temperature or cold” (48). But (for Sellars) “for a response to have conceptual content is just for it to play a role in the inferential game of making claims and giving and asking for reasons. To grasp a concept is to have practical mastery over the inferences it is involved in – to know, in the practical sense of being able to distinguish (a kind of know-how), what follows from the applicability of a concept” (48). For instance, “the parrot does not treat ‘that’s red’ as incompatible with ‘that’s green,’ nor as following from ‘that’s scarlet’ and entailing ‘that’s colored’” (48). This implies both that “in order to master any concepts, one must have many concepts,” and that “to be able to apply one concept noninferentially, one must be able to use others inferentially” (49).

This might seem to suggest that Brandom thinks concepts are definable in terms of the inferences that can be drawn from them. Later in this first chapter, he broadens his treatment by discussing Michael Dummett’s argment that semantics runs on two tracks: first, the circumstances in which a proposition can be asserted (truth conditions), and second, the consequences of asserting that proposition (inferences) (62). “The link between pragmatic significance and inferential content is supplied by the fact that asserting a sentence is implicitly undertaking a commitment to the correctness of the material inference from its circumstances to its consequences of application” (63).

On the one hand, “Failure to think about both the circumstances and consequences of application leads to semantic theories that are literally one-sided. Verificationists, assertibilists, and reliabilists make the mistake of treating the first aspect as exhausting content” (64). But speech-acts with the same appropriate conditions of utterance can have different meanings (predicting vs. asserting that p), because different inferences can properly be drawn from them (“If I will go on a run, I will go on a run” is necessarily true; “If I predict I will go on a run, I will go on a run” is not) (64). And the myopic focus on assertibility conditions over against consequences leads to the problem Sellars identifies as collapsing any distinction between a photo-voltaic cell and a perceiver of red: “You do not convey to me the content of the concept gleeb by supplying me with an infallible gleebness tester which lights up when and only when exposed to gleeb things” (65).

On the other hand, “Pragmatists of the classical sort, by contrast, make the converse mistake of identifying propositional contents exclusively with the consequences of endorsing a claim, looking downstream to the claim’s role as a preimse in practical reasoning and ignoring its proper antecedents upstream…Yet one can know what follows from the claim that someone is responsible for a particular action…without for that reason couting as understanding the claims involved, if one has no idea when it is appropriate to make those claims…Being AWOL does have the consequence that one is liable to be arrested, but the specific cirucmstances under which one acquires that liability are equally essential to the concept” (66).

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This entry was posted in Epistemology, Inference, John McDowell, Pragmatism, Reason, Robert Brandom and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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