05 September 2007

Brandom's John Locke Lectures Online

Words and Other Things links to Brandom's John Locke Lectures from 2006. So far I've listened to Brandom's first lecture, and McDowell's response. A few scattered thoughts:

Brandom is much easier to listen to than to read. I'd actually seen the John Locke lectures were online before (in text), and got bogged down in the first lecture. Audio's pretty clear, too; I had to crank Winamp to max volume for it to be loud enough, but at least it was intelligible when it was audible. This is often not true of lecture recordings.

I kept wanting Brandom to provide some more examples of his "PV" relations between vocabularies. If he had any examples other than the indexical one (or the merely-alluded-to project of Huw Price, or the Laughing Santa bit), I've missed them. While listening to the lecture I was skeptical of just what McDowell later said he was skeptical of: both the desirability and the possibility of saying "what needs to be done" to count as making use of some particular vocabulary without making use of that very vocabulary (at least in many cases, including all of the interesting ones Brandom mentions). As I recall, this was just what was at issue in McDowell's "In Defense of Modesty" and its sequel, "Another Plea for Modesty", where McDowell was arguing with Dummett about what we should want from a "theory of meaning"; McDowell came out in defense of the adequacy of basically Davidsonian mock-ups (true-in-L and all that) as being perfectly satisfactory for doing what we should want a theory of meaning to do. I am pretty sure these were also some of the essays where McDowell argued with Crispin Wright about the Investigations; Wright seems to be footnoted in every other essay I've read from McDowell's two books. Good stuff.

Another point related to the "Modesty" essays and McDowell's response to Brandom: I can't say I have any idea what Brandom finds attractive in resuscitating "analysis", at least in the handling-one-vocabulary-with-another sense in which he wants to breath new life into the beast. Various attempts at this have certainly produced interesting creatures in analytic philosophy (and in philosophy in general, reduction being not a recent invention), but I can't say I can think of any cases where the undertaking has proved successful. Nor am I sure why we should lust after such a success when the empiricist and naturalist projects are dead (which Brandom takes them to be).

Brandom mentions the AI functionalism program (which he, rightly, thinks is a hugely important part of the trajectory analytic philosophy's taken in the past century). I suspect that one of the big "pay-offs" for Brandom's project is supposed to be that it shows how we can get an automaton to use intentional vocabulary (or at least get an automaton to use some interesting sort of vocabulary). If so, I suspect that seeing why Brandom's attempt fails might be illuminating for seeing why functionalism should join empiricism and naturalism on the scrapheap of the twentieth century. (If Brandom's attempt does not fail, then hey, get some engineers clued in and start cranking out R2 units and positronic brains.)

I am inclined to think that the success of something like Brandom's program is not needed for AI (or whatever the current descendants of AI are calling themselves). If robots aren't "really" capable of using some vocabulary or other (in that they don't do what we do when we use that vocabulary), but can do a fair enough job of passing for doing so, then I don't know what is supposed to go wanting. If a vocabulary which an automaton can understand is not PV sufficient for some vocabulary V, this doesn't mean we can't construct an automaton such that we comport ourselves naturally with it as if it had mastered vocabulary V. Which is good enough for government work. Conversely, I don't think AI work is going to lead to any amazing revelations about human psychology; if we get a robot that can mimic some aspect of human behavior, there's no reason to think it's doing the "same thing" we do when we behave in the relevant manner in the sense that we can use our deeper understanding of the robot we made to understand how humans work. It may very well be "doing the same thing" in the sense that we comport ourselves with the robot as if it were, say, asserting that the weather's turning grim, but there "analysing" what the robot is doing when asserting won't be any easier (or more productive) than analysing what a human does.

Brandom does seem to have some sort of argument to the effect that any discourse which supports assertion (and some other things I'm forgetting) will have to support modal terms, and normative terms, as well. That might be interesting. I still feel the hairs on my neck raise when modal talk comes up; it still looks suspicious to me. Don't trust the stuff more than I have to. I'm fine with "necessarily", "possibly", "maybe" et al as ways to modify the strength of one's doxastic commitments on a particular point; I suspect that something more sinister than this is often afoot. But perhaps I just haven't had cause to need to speak of necessity, and if I do then I'll warm up to those strange little boxes and diamonds.

I've noticed that McDowell quotes Wittgenstein (chapter & verse) rather often when writing (or speaking) about him. I notice that Brandom's longest actual quote from Wittgenstein is "look to the use" or "language is a motley", and I do not believe he gave the citations; generally, the only direct liftings from Wittgenstein are two- or three-word slogans. Brandom also notes that what he gets from Wittgenstein is something Wittgenstein wouldn't have found interesting or worthwhile, and which he would not want to encourage in others. On the plus side, at least Brandom is self-conscious about the fact that his reading has to be seriously, seriously wrong about what Wittgenstein is getting at -- not that he seems to care. I suspect N.N. got annoyed at these bits of the lecture.

I should probably listen to Brandom's reply to McDowell's reply while it is still fresh in my mind, but I should also have started the reading for Property about two hours ago. Hopefully writing a little something helps me to recall what the devil I just spent two hours listening to.

It would certainly be nice for the John Locke lectures to get more attention in general.

I need to get a copy of the current issue of Inquiry. McDowell responding to Dreyfus's APA address sounds awesome and is exactly the sort of thing I want to see happen over and over again.

Huh, I have somehow spent almost an hour and a half tooling around with this post. Hopefully the Property reading's short! ;_;


N. N. said...


I've listened to the first lecture, McDowell's response, Brandom's reply, and the Q & A (I had alot of driving around to do today, so I put them on my ipod and listened in the car). I think McDowell's response and Brandom's reply are easier to follow than the first lecture itself. The Q & A helps a bit, as well.

I don't quite have a handle on what Brandom is up to. Certainly the project of explaining other "vocabularies" by a base vocabulary that is a bad idea (though Rorty goes too far in the other direction, it seems to me). But judging by Brandom's reply and the Q & A, it's not all at clear to me that that is what he's up to (though, as I said, I can't yet say what he is up to).

One question I'd like answered at the outset is 'What constitutes a vocabulary?.' Is this term, taken from Rorty, roughly equivalent to 'language-game.' If so, then there is nothing problematic (from the standpoint of the later Wittgenstein) with replacing (translating, paraphrasing, etc.) one vocabulary into another for the purpose of getting clearer about the former by means of the latter. This sort of replacement is a central method for getting clear about the grammar of the former. From what I can tell, Brandom is not proposing anything beyond this (of course, if that's the case, how is he doing something new).

Also, the curiosity vs. problem-solving disagreement doesn't seem to be that important. Sometimes getting clear about the grammar of a word helps us out of a problem, but that's no reason to devalue the activity of getting clear for its own sake.

Perhaps we can work through some of these lectures. By the way, has your blog come out of hiding, so to speak. I'm getting ready to announce another blog (http://brainscam.blogspot.com/), and I'd like to mention yours with it.

Daniel said...

Just listened to Brandom's response and the Q&A. Might type up something more substantial on them tomorrow. I think I have a rough feel for what Brandom's trying to do, and his response to McDowell (and Rorty) about why it should be worth trying to do it is just: "Well, I have succeeded in doing it!" Which would be a fine response, if he could back it up (which he promises to do in the later lectures).

Roughly, the old guard of analytic philosophy was trying to discern the relationships between various vocabularies for bad reasons, such that if they couldn't find the relationships they wanted the vocabulary under scrutiny was held to be illegitimate. Brandom has no sympathy for this motivation. But he thinks something like what the old figures in analytic philosophy were trying to do really can be done, if we shift our attention to rigorous descriptions of the pragmatics of various languages rather than an exclusive focus on semantic issues. This won't vindicate the aims of the old figures, nor will it show that they were right to denigrate vocabularies they couldn't convert into their preferred terms, but if Brandom really can pull it off then that's neat by itself.

I'm hoping he'll come back to the indexical example, because I'm still not at all sure why McDowell's criticism is not supposed to work. Brandom mentions that he's really making a very modest claim, but I don't see how he's supposed to avoid McDowell's comment that any description in non-indexical terms for what person P is supposed to do (if person P at time T wants to use the indexical 'I') will have to include a clause to the effect that P intends that P is himself (otherwise you can't say what the difference is between Oedipus saying "banish me" and "banish the slayer of Laertes"). Which uses indexical language. So it looks like non-indexical vocabulary isn't PV-sufficient for describing what one has to do to use 'I' after all. Brandom mentions that he's just not addressing a whole host of issues people have brought up in regards to indexicals (can God use them etc.), but I'm pretty sure he thinks he actually has an answer to McDowell's criticism. I just can't tell what it's supposed to be.

I'm not quite sure what the rules are for individuating vocabularies. Brandom said he took the term from Rorty, but Rorty always played a bit fast & loose with that sort of terminology, so I expect Brandom has a more technical definition he's working with. Brandom mentions that in logic you can talk about the "expressive power" of a vocabulary, and this sort of thing is supposed to be shown to be the case for our everyday vocabularies as well: the expressive power of any vocabulary which admits of assertion is supposed to be sufficient to countenance modal and logical vocabulary, if I understood his summary of what will be the substance of one of the later lectures.

I suspect that Brandom's use of "vocabulary" is an odd mongrel formed from being very sympathetic to Rorty, but having a fondness for "hard" philosophical logic that Rorty just didn't feel the pull of. One of the things Brandom mentions is that "pragmatism" is looking a little threadbare lately, and really needs some more microdescriptions of our practices. I'm pretty sure that Rorty is closer to Dewey & kin here: the way to "keep pragmatism vital" is not to keep finding philosophical work to do, but to also look at things like politics and religion. Cultural criticism. Pragmatism was never really suited for becoming a research program. Sure, there were "microdescriptions" of our practices in James & Dewey, but it's just strange to take that sort of practice as what is definite of pragmatism. But then, Brandom also has Wittgenstein as the pinnacle of pragmatism, in a line which includes James & Dewey as predecessors, and I'm just flat-out confused by why that grouping makes sense to him. If by "pragmatist" you mean "Quine, Davidson, Rorty" then I can easily see how Wittgenstein belongs in this company; I'm not sure what Wittgenstein has to do with the "Pierce, James, Dewey" line. Of course Rorty connects Wittgenstein and Dewey, but he does the same thing with Dewey and Heidegger. Rorty had a knack for getting everyone he liked to all show up together.

I suspect the reason curiosity vs. problem-solving came up is that it's the difference between Brandom and McDowell: Brandom is trying to do this novel thing just to see if it can work, and McDowell is broadly quietistic. Quietists are not generally known for setting off on adventures. So, it's more or less a difference of philosophical temperament. Which doesn't make a difference in the quality of the work done, of course. But it does explain why Rorty & McDowell are both puzzled at why Brandom is trying to keep the corpse alive, so to speak. If Brandom actually has found some interesting relationships that hold between various vocabularies, then that will be a fine justification for his necromancy.

(As an aside, I like how Brandom formulates the claim of his made-up "indexical skeptic": "I don't understand indexical vocabulary." I also snicker whenever someone refers to "Dick Rorty.")

I'd like to keep working through the lectures like this, coursework permitting. And yeah, I'm no longer "in hiding." I just didn't want to be one of those guys who has a blog that sits there abandoned with like three posts, so I was going to just write for nobody until I had something substantial tossed up. Now I at least have ~30 pages of rubbish, which is close enough to being something substantial.

The "Brainscam" blog looks interesting.

Shawn said...

Good post. I will have to go through the Locke Lecture material again so I can keep up.

I'll respond to the bit about Wittgenstein near the end of it though. The explanation of Brandom's relation to Wittgenstein is in the first two chapters of Making It Explicit. Roughly, he thinks that Wittgenstein was dead on when he said that meaning is normative, when he exposed the rule-following problem, and when he suggested that use rather than representation is the foundation of meaning. Now, Brandom is interested in trying to come up with a theory of meaning based on these ideas whereas Wittgenstein thinks it is an awful idea. Brandom is not a quietist, so they aren't trying to do the same thing.

There is another broad question of why this program in particular. The Locke Lecture material seems to be trying to fill in details of the relation between practice and meaning. In the Making It Explicit seminar, Brandom brought up the distinction between formal and philosophical semantics. The former is specifying the interpretants of words and sentences in such a way that complex combinations can be computed on the basis of simple ones. The latter is the story about how we can hook up our words to those meanings. As I understand it, the broad brush picture of the Locke Lectures is filling in relations between our doing certain things and those (or other) things having certain meanings.

N. N. said...

All right. More driving around to do, so I listened to McDowell and Brandom's reply again. (McDowell is such a pleasure to listen to. His lectures must be great.)

Right. So in his reply to McDowell Brandom says that he intends to choose different base vocabularies (why he chooses one as opposed to another is completely arbitrary; he says he could choose one "because it's Tuesday"), and then see how much of a target vocabulary (again, to be chosen more or less on a whim) can be expressed in it. Invariably there will be parts of the target vocabulary that cannot be expressed in the base vocabulary. But he does not claim, as the metaphysically rooted core paradigmatic programs of analytic philosophy have claimed, that what cannot be expressed in the base vocabulary isn't real. It's just an interesting feature of their relation that the two don't eclipse each other. And we learn something by finding out what cannot be expressed in various vocabularies (what do we learn?). Once all that can be expressed in the base vocabulary has been expressed, we move on to the next base vocabulary and target language, etc.

N. N. said...

In the first lecture, Brandom distinguishes between meaning and use, i.e., "between what's said and the activity of saying it." He also says that "use confers meaning." However, the Wittgensteinian doctrine is that meaning is use.

In other words, it seems to me that the distinction between semantics and pragmatics is dubious from a Wittgensteinian standpoint. When Brandom says that use confers meaning, I want to ask "What, then, are meanings."

What am I missing?

Shawn said...

I think this is another point at which Brandom and Wittgenstein differ. Brandom doesn't want to identify meanings with use. Meanings are abstractions that explain and systematize use. The Wittgensteinian wants to identify meaning as the use, while Brandom wants to say that meanings are functionally related to uses but not identical. I think meanings get connected to norms implicit in practices that gives them a normative flavor that one wouldn't be able to give to plain old uses. (I'm not sure about that last line though.)

Daniel said...

I'm not at all sure that Brandom is at variance with Wittgenstein, here. Let's look at what Wittgenstein actually said, since "Meaning is use!" was not a slogan which he himself adopted:

"43. For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word "meaning" it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language."

That "though not for all" strikes me as rather important to keep in mind. I don't think Wittgenstein wanted to define meaning in terms of use tout court; he is not, after all, a behaviorist in disguise.

I think the distinction between semantics and pragmatics is a matter of emphasis: in semantics many of the activities of a speaker are bracketed out, with his words and sentences themselves being what one is concerned with treating. In pragmatics one does the reverse: what one is interested in is the various ways in which a speaker makes use of the words and sentences which he employs, but the words and sentences themselves are of secondary importance (their meanings might be taken as irrelevant even, in some cases). I think one of the points Brandom is insisting on is that semantic programs have to pay attention to pragmatics if they are to achieve their goals as semantic programs. "It is only in the context of a use that a sentence has a meaning", so to speak. So the distinction isn't dubious, but it doesn't admit of being pushed terribly far: to grasp either the semantics or the pragmatics of a given language, one must get a handle on both.

The phrase "meanings get connected to norms implicit in practices" strikes me as odd. It makes it sound like there are "meanings" anterior to norms, floating free of them, when it seems to me that a "theory of meaning" just makes explicit a variety of norms which are binding within some practice (i.e. the language-use under inquiry). The various actions (vocalizations, scribblings) in the practice were already fully meaningful before anyone bothered to formulate a theory of meaning which could spell out how they all hung together. But perhaps this is the sort of thing you meant to say.

N. N. said...

Wittgenstein does claim that meaning is use, e.g., in Philosophical Grammar (pp. 59-60): "The explanation of the meaning explains the use of the word. The use of a word in the language is its meaning." I don't think that this entails behaviorism, but that's a longer discussion.

As you mention, Wittgenstein qualifies this in Investigations, 43, but I think the exceptions to are unimportant in the context of Brandom's project.

Baker and Hacker have a good discussion of this in the first volume of their commentary on the Investigations, Wittgenstein: Understanding and Meaning, pp. 119-122.


Daniel said...

I've not read the Grammar, and the Hacker book's "Search Inside" feature leaves out the pages you mention (as well as most of the rest of the "meaning & use" chapter). Luckily, Amazon seems to have the full text as searchable. On the other hand, "seems" here may include the failure of reality to live up to one's first glance: pages 119-122 are about logical atomism, and a glance at the table of contents leads me to believe that Amazon only has the first (unrevised) version of the book up for searching.

From what little of Hacker's book I was able to read, I suspect that we are merely at variance over how "use" is to be understood. I think all parties can agree that on some understandings of what it is to be given the "use of a word" (or a sentence, or a vocabulary), there is not a further question about the word's (or sentence's, or vocabulary's) meaning. I suspect we might also be at cross-hairs about the meaning of "meaning"; Brandom seems to agree with Davidson that there's some value in a "theory of meaning" despite the notion of giving the meaning of a word (or a sentence) being hopelessly confused. I expect that Brandom traces this back to Quine, like Davidson does; hopefully Brandom will spend some more time in the lectures discussing his relations to his various predecessors in the analytic tradition.

Hopefully I can find time to listen to lecture #2 tomorrow; I ended up spending the entire afternoon asleep on the couch today.

N. N. said...


My fault. Volume 1 of Baker & Hacker's commentary is in two Parts (i.e., they broke the huge book that was Volume 1 into two smaller books). I mistakenly linked to Part 1, which consists of interpretive essays. The page numbers I gave are from Part 2, which is consists of section-by-section exegesis. Here's the link:


I leave on a 4-day vacation tomorrow, so I probably won't be checking in until the end of the weekend. Cheers.

Daniel said...

Having read the correct pages now, I'm still not sure that there is much in the way of substantial disagreement here. From page 121, quoting Wittgenstein to comment on the "though not for all" clause:

"I have suggested substituting for 'meaning of a word', 'use of a word', because use of a word comprises a large part of what is meant by 'the meaning of a word.'"

This seems to be what Brandom is getting at with his urging of the need for a study of pragmatics in attempt to build a semantic doctrine. The distinction between meaning and use, semantics and pragmatics, is mentioned just to point out that it's a porous boundary, with neither standing freely. Wittgenstein's quotation continues:

"It is a queer thing that, considering language as a game, the use of a word is internal to the game whereas its meaning seems to point to something outside the game. What seems to be indicated is that 'meaning' and 'use' are not equatable. But this is misleading."

Here I take Wittgenstein to be rejecting the notion that "meanings" are some extra-mundane entities which our practices give us access to, whereas the use we make of our words is mundane, all too mundane, to do this required work. I think Brandom is with Davidson (and McDowell) in rejecting this picture of meanings; the "meaning" of a term is down there in the game with everything else, and there is no need for something "outside" the game to be operative for the game to get a normative hold on us, or for its intentional terms to get a hold on the world. When the practice is understood, we can see that the various usages, the various moves made in the language game, are meaningful -- we do not merely correlate various practices with various meanings, but understand the practices themselves as meaningful. (We do not merely associate a certain event of lip-flapping with the meaning of "Hello, how are you?" but see that in this case someone is saying "Hello, how are you?"; if we do not understand that here we have a saying, and so something with a meaning, something contentful, then we do not understand what is being done. And so we can't understand the use being made of a term here without understanding the meaning of what is said.)

I stand corrected on whether or not Wittgenstein used the "Meaning is use" slogan himself; he doesn't use it in the Investigations, but he clearly did in some of his other (middle-period? I know the Grammar is from the middle period) writings. I'm inclined to prefer the formulations in the Investigations to LW's earlier writings though, and I'm still not sure there is any real disagreement on this matter between Brandom and Wittgenstein.

Hope you enjoy the vacation. My next vacation is thanksgiving. It will be greatly appreciated by the time it gets here.

Shawn said...

You're probably right that about Brandom not being at odds with Wittgenstein about the identification of meaning and use. A more careful phrasing would be: at odds with some Wittgensteinians.

As for "meanings get connected to norms implicit in practices" presupposing antecedently existing meanings... The idea is that a good story of pragmatics will explain how our words have the meanings they do, what the semantics says they do. The things that the semantics assigns don't have to be mysterious just because they are meanings. There is a sense in which your suspicion of meanings seems correct. There's a sense, though, in which it seems like meaning is a general term for what the semantics is assigning sentences and subsentential bits. I think the latter sense is acceptable for Brandom's project. No?

Shawn said...

That is a fascinating quote for the Philosophical Grammar. I was only familiar with the quote from PI about looking to the use. I have a short post on it actually. I didn't think that Wittgenstein anywhere said something that close to "meaning is use". That is something to note down...

Daniel said...

That Brandom is "at odds with some Wittgensteinians" I will certainly agree.

I will also agree that in a broad sense "meanings" are harmless, and semantics needs be no more dangerous. I think I just took badly to the wording of your original sentence; it seems to imply that we are looking for a "full-blooded" theory of meaning, the sort which Davidson repudiates, rather than the modest sort which I think we can actually get to work. I am sure Brandom's stance towards all this will start to shape up more when I get around to listening to more of the lectures.