13 September 2007

A short note on Brandom's second lecture

John McFarlane's dissertation may not be published, but it is available here*. I'm half-inclined to see if I can rush through it this weekend, then listen to Brandom's second lecture again. I know I was not catching some of what Brandom was trying to say about logic there. It does come out (more explicitly) that the reason behind the PV/VP/PP sufficiency notions is to allow Brandom a way to show that anyone possessing a vocabulary sufficient for assertions possesses the necessary skills for employing logical vocabulary (and, I suspect, modal and normative vocabulary, though these topics are going to be handled in detail in a later lecture).

In lecture-form, it's not clear to me how this proof is supposed to go. Brandom notes that he's privileging assertions, and in general the capacity to give and ask for reasons for what one says (does?), but I'm not sure what his justification for this is. I know that Davidson holds that any language-user must have a concept of truth, since radical interpretation requires us to agree with the speaker about most of what is true (hence they must have thoughts that they hold true). I suspect that Brandom has some argument similar in form to this, but I've just missed it. I don't think Brandom is just privileging assertion because that makes for interesting philosophical work, since he speaks of philosophers being "proud of their logocentrism", of having an answer to Derrida, and of Wittgenstein being wrong that "language has no downtown." He seems to secure this point, though, by ruling some things which seem like language-games (such as the "Slab!" bit from PI 2) as "merely verbal." It is hardly revolutionary to find that, if only certain language-games are real language use, then real language has a "downtown" and that it is not arbitrary to privilege it. This does not seem like a satisfactory answer to Wittgenstein; I'll just set Derrida aside.

One reason I can think of for Brandom to be privileging assertion is that this lets him make bolder claims about the universality of logic: Rather than just being another case (for Brandom thinks there are many) where one vocabulary is PP sufficient for another, logic (and some other vocabularies, I think Brandom calls them "LX") is PP sufficient for any vocabulary. But this is just to say that logic is PP sufficient for any vocabulary which includes assertions as a subset. The universality is just the universality of assertion-vocabulary. Given that the universality of logic seems to be one of the things Brandom wants to explain, this can't be the reason for his privileging of assertions.

N.N. should be glad to hear that Brandom spends quite a bit of time in the Q&A clarifying what he means by "vocabulary"... after offering a "clarification" in the main lecture which he's forced to rather heavily amend. But at least the topic is broached.

I am going to give this lecture (and McFarlane's response) another listen before I move on. I am sure I am missing something important at the moment.

*I should mention that Paul Raymont's "An Idle Threat: Epiphenomenalism Exposed" is great, while I'm linking to that site anyway.


Shawn said...

From what I've heard, MacFarlane's thesis is great. I missed the reading groups this summer that went through it.

Brandom privileges assertions for reasons given in Ch. 3 of MIE. Briefly, assertions can stand as both premises and conclusions, or as giving reasons and in need of them. It does make for a more logocentric view. The upshot is that he uses it to specify what something must be in order to count as language: it must contain a game of giving and asking for reasons, which is something that essentially has things that can be called assertions. Since assertions can work as premises and conclusions, they tie into the inferentialism, which ties them into concept use. One downside (upshot?) of this is that some things that one might want to call language games or language use, don't get that status according to the technical picture. This is, in part, to separate out different senses of "believes" and "language" that are floating about.

I could see that being displeasing to some Wittgensteinians. However, pretty early in MIE, Brandom says he's going to make a break with the normal Wittgensteinian quietist line to see how far one can get with this sort of project. I have no comments on Derrida.

That is a bit of a sketch of an answer to some questions. The lecture is presupposing Ch. 3 of MIE and bits of Ch. 1.

Daniel said...

Perhaps I'm just misunderstanding his relation to Wittgenstein. I thought he was claiming that he'd shown Wittgenstein to be mistaken when claimed that "language has no downtown". If instead he's just saying that he's going to treat giving & asking for reasons (and assertions as their necessary handmaidens) as a "downtown" just to see what sort of project you can construct if you do so privilege that part of language, then this seems fine. Goes back to the "curiosity vs. problem-solving" distinction that came up in the Q&A with McDowell and Brandom; it's not a philosophical disagreement so much as different impressions about what's worth spending time on. I'll have to pay attention during the re-listen to whether I've just saddled Brandom with more than he's actually claiming.

I suspect that one point I might be missing is what the import of being "tied into the inferentialism" is for Brandom. If he has some sort of argument to the effect that only vocabularies which are part of an inferential network have, say, representational content or intentionality or what-not, then his privileging of giving & asking for reasons makes sense: the space of reasons would be what lets language "hook up" with its objects, and the "merely vocal" language-games simply aren't intentional in this way. The "Slab!" guys have norms; the slab-getter can fetch a slab or fail to deliver, but "Slab!" here isn't an order to the effect of "Bring me a slab!"; the slab-demander could just as well whistle or wave his arm instead of yell "Slab!", and in those cases we aren't tempted to say we have a "language-game". A peacock's plumage is displayed to attract a mate, but this doesn't make its feathers an imperative to the effect that "Peahens should come over here". So privileging giving & asking for reasons might lead to drawing the language/non-language line where we intuitively want it to be: non-humans don't use language.

I have Brandom's commentary on "Empiricism & Philosophy of Mind" lying around somewhere; I should probably give that a look. I suspect he's taking something from Sellars that I didn't find when I read him; McDowell mentioned something to this effect in his reply to lecture one.

(I should probably break down and read MIE if I really want to get a good handle on what Brandom's doing, but, well, long book is long.)

Currence said...

If you plan to read Brandom's commentary, you might also want to read McDowell's opening address at the EPM conference (here: http://www.philosophy.sas.ac.uk/Empiricism_Mind_Sellars.htm).
I'm quite unfamiliar with Brandom -- apart from his study guide on EPM -- but McDowell's paper certainly helped me get a better idea of how to separate Sellars from Brandom's Sellars. If McDowell is correct in his judgment, then it would seem that Brandom's use of some authors (Sellars and Wittgenstein, at least) might be as much creation as interpretation (assuming a difference, blah-blah).

Brandom also presented a paper at the conference, although I'm not sure if it is relevant for your current inquiry.

Currence said...

Huh, looks like that link isn't fully displayed. Here it is, split:


Daniel said...

Thanks for the McDowell link. More free McDowell papers are always welcome.

Also: Good Lord. Look at Brandom's beard. That thing's a monster. I had no idea....

Brad said...

"I know that Davidson holds that any language-user must have a concept of truth, since radical interpretation requires us to agree with the speaker about most of what is true (hence they must have thoughts that they hold true)."

Davidson does hold that any language user must have a concept of truth, but to me it seems for a simpler reason than you site

A language user is a thinker. For Davidson, "thought would not be possible for a creature that did not have a grasp of the concept of objective truth, an awareness, no matter how inarticulately held, of the fact that what is thought may be true or false" (The Problem of Objectivity).

Also, the principle of charity, more specifically what Davidson calls "the principle of correspondence" in "Three Varieties of Knowledge", requires of *any* interpreter that he take "the speaker to be responding to the same features of the world that he would be responding to under similar circumstances...[this principle] endows [the speaker] with a degree of what the interpreter takes to be true belief about the world" (Three Varieties, p. 211of Sub, Intersub, ob).

I look at it this way. The fact that the RI is attempting to come up with a theory of interpretation for the speaker means that he must *assume*, to put it somewhat unhelpfully, that the speaker is a speaker, that is that the speaker is "using" a "language". What follows from this is that the speaker has the same basic logic that the RI has and many of the same basic beliefs about the world.

It is also important to point out that charity--or what follows from the "hypothesis" that the target is a language user--constrains indeterminancy and inscrutability (whatever remains is analagous to the fact that under one system of measurement something weighs x pounds and under another system of measurement something weighs z kilograms--different ways of stating the same fact...namely, how heavy the thing is). Davidson uses this analogy all the time, and the connection that he saw between fundamental theories of measurement and theories of radical interpretation is very significant, even though few people talk about this aspect of his thought.

Daniel said...

brad: This all strikes me as correct. In the post, I actually rewrote that sentence a few times to add in further details, just so as to avoid being accused of being sloppy in presenting Davidson's view. It seems I went too far in the other direction, and could've gotten by with a simpler argument: For Davidson, any speaker must have beliefs, and the having of beliefs requires having a concept of truth, of the possibility that what is believed to be the case ain't so.

I've always liked the measurement analogy. It's a nice domestication of the wild terms Quine uses to set forth his theses.

also: Do you have a blog? I notice you have some sort of profile information filled in, since your handle is clickable, but your profile's not publicly viewable.

Brad said...

jYeah the measurement analogy is very important. As you probably know, Davidson spent a lot of time at Stanford around the middle part of the century. He published a book on experimental bayesian psychology with McKinsey and Suppes. I think that stuff, along with the type of philosophy of science and measurement theory that Suppes has always been associated with, is very important as an influence on Davidson's mature thought.

People always think of Davidson as co-opting Tarski to do theory of meaning, but it is even more useful to think of him as co-opting Ramsey and Jeffrey to do theory of rationality. That is, Ramsey gave a formal procedure to extract belief and desire from preference; similarly, Davidson wanted to show how to extract meaning and belief from what was held true--he modified this later to extracting meaning, belief, and desire from information about what sentences a subject would prefer to be true.

"Let us suppose, then, that the raw data for radical interpretation are facts to the effect that an agent prefers one sentence to be true rather than another. The sentences are, of course, understood by the agent, but not by the interpreter. The task of the interpreter is to decide on
the basis of the data what the agent means by his words, what he believes, and what he values. Thus by starting with preferences between sentences
whose interpretation is not known, we will not beg the question with which we started, the question of the fundamental relation between language and
evaluation. For it is possible for an interpreter to know that a person prefers that one of his sentences be true rather than another without knowing what the sentences mean, and therefore without knowing the propositional contents
of the preference" (p.30 of Expressing Evaluations)

Anyways, I had a blog at one time but it fell in to disuse. I've been preparing a new one on wordpress for the past few days. I'll let you know when I get it off the ground.

Daniel said...

Yeah, Davidson is pretty emphatic about the continuities between his early decision-theory stuff and his later work in the autobiographical section of Open Court's "Library of Living Philosophers" volume. He also makes it pretty clear that "Word and Object" was not nearly as big an influence on him as it's sometimes made out to be; Davidson was already interested in the topics that would lead him to his "radical interpretation" before he read Quine's book.

Daniel said...

Re-listening to the second lecture. Some thoughts as I go along.

I at least understand his response to Derrida now. The Derridian charge was that philosophers couldn't justify their privileging of giving & asking for reasons, hence they were doing so self-servingly; Brandom's pragmatic rationalist is able to offer some sort of rationale for privileging the giving of and asking for reasons: Giving & asking for reasons stands in a PP-necessary relation with asserting, and it is the inferential relations in which assertions stand to one another that serve to give content to all the concepts we use in any of our language-games.

"That our expressions play a suitable role in reasoning is an essentially necessary part of our saying, and their meaning, anything at all. Apart from playing such a role in justification, inference, criticism, and argument, sentences and other locutions would not have the meanings appealed to and played with by all the other games we play with language."

I'm reminded of Wittgenstein's discussion in the second half of PI of sentences like "Wednesday is fat, Monday lean." He notes that one can use language in these sorts of ways only if one can also use terms such as "fat" and "lean" in their "ordinary" sense; "Wednesday is fat" employs "fat" in a "secondary sense." Part of understanding "Wednesday is fat" is understanding that this doesn't mean that a certain day of the week is corpulent; to understand "fat" here one must understand that "fat" is not meant in that sense, though one must know that "fat" does sometimes have that sense if one is to understand "Wednesday is fat". I suspect Brandom has something similar in mind, here, though with a much broader application that the examples Wittgenstein considers: Brandom seems to wants to say that, in general, the primary use of language is the employment of descriptive sentences. (I may be putting Brandom's claim too strongly, here; he does not appeal to primary and secondary senses himself. I am not sure why he couldn't, though.)

Spelling out what is involved in being PP-necessary is what all of the prefatory notes about automata are on about; the first twenty minutes of the lecture seem almost entirely concerned with adding caveats about how many idealizing assumptions go into this. Still, it does seem like a useful model for at least some purposes; Brandom mentions a few times how anyone who can perform addition/subtraction and multiplication can, in principle, do long division. Anyone who still can't get the hang of long division despite being able to perform the earlier mathematical operations is said to have a "psychological" hang-up, as opposed to a conceptual problem. This seems clear enough....

So: Brandom does have some sort of argument of the sort I thought he must, that asserting (and so giving & asking for reasons) are what give sense to our locutions. I suspect that the details of this argument are supposed to come out in an account of how a given set of pragmatic abilities serves to give meaning to the employment of a vocabulary. I have a feeling that this is the sort of thing Brandom won't be giving in these lectures, but which shouldn't be hard to come across if/when I get around to looking at MIE.

I also was attributing a stronger claim to Brandom, vis-a-vis language having a "downtown", than he is actually making. He does offer several hedges, here; I suspected that I'd missed some "If we talk this way"-style Rortyean caveats, and indeed I had. Brandom just declares that he's going to consider "claiming" as a center-point to language-use, and then rules out some of Wittgenstein's Sprachspiele as "merely vocal"; his example is that the "Slab!" players in PI 2 aren't giving and responding to orders, but merely to "calls." He does accommodate the Wittgensteinian insight that there are things one can do with language other than asserting; he merely claims that the "home language game" of descriptive sentences is that of assertion, whatever other use we might put them to. So Brandom does disagree with Wittgenstein over whether we ought to treat any particular use of language as preeminent, but it's a fairly modest claim: Anyone who can use language for these other purposes could also have used language for asserting. (Where "could have" is understood in the sense spelled out with reference to automata; there might be psychological barriers to a real employment of assertions, I should think, without Brandom having to declare that so-and-so was unable to use language at all.)

He notes that many of the vocabularies philosophers are concerned with (modal, normative, logical) are not "autonomous" vocabularies; one could not count as using those vocabularies unless one could also use certain other vocabularies. Any vocabulary which is not autonomous Brandom calls "fragmentary"; thus the use of any fragmentary vocabulary pragmatically presupposes the use of some autonomous vocabulary which is PV-sufficient for it. You can use a "fragment" only if you can use a vocabulary that isn't a fragment. (His example here is Sellars's argument that you can use observational vocabulary (looks-phi-talk) only if you can use objective vocabulary (is-phi-talk).) So if there are any vocabularies PV-necessary for any autonomous vocabulary, then they would also be PV-necessary for any vocabulary whatsoever; any use of a fragment would presuppose the capacity to use the "universally PV-necessary" vocabulary. Brandom suggests (he mentions he's done so elsewhere) that we should treat asserting as just so PV-necessary for any practice we'd regard as "discursive." And because asserting and reason-giving are PP-necessary for each other, giving & asking for reasons likewise become PV-necessary for any discursive practice. Then, roughly put, since logic (or at least the conditional and negation) just tells us what follows from what, what material inferences were countenanced in the language, it can be added to any vocabulary involving reason-giving without having to alter any of the previously-existing inferential relations; ergo, logic can be added "for free" to any autonomous vocabulary, just like the "semantic logicists" had assumed they could.

I think I'm starting to get a better feel for all of this. I still want to read McFarlane's dissertation; the discussion between him & Brandom seems rather condensed at the moment.