05 October 2007

Brandom Again

Just finished off Brandom's fourth Locke Lecture. His interlocutors in the earlier lectures seem to have spoiled this one a bit; there had been questions asked about this lecture from the start. This gave the lecture itself the feel of a review.

Brandom's goal in this lecture is to offer a defense of modal talk (and so of the "modal revolution" -- the fact that no one is anxious about modal vocabulary anymore in the way that Quine et al used to be), but without recourse to the metaphysical bits of Kripke et al. The defense of modal language is tied to a defense of normative language, since Brandom's strategy for making modal language unobjectionable will also work for normative talk.

The claim is attributed to Sellars-Kant (and Brandom notes that he's often accused of not being able to distinguish between Sellars and Hegel) that non-modal, non-normative language is not an autonomous discursive practice; if you can use descriptive language, then you have mastered the skills needed to understand normative and modal talk. On Brandom's inferentialist picture, use of descriptive vocabulary requires acknowledging a difference between good and bad inferences. It is then argued that to be able to distinguish inferences in this way, one must be able to do things which are (in principle) sufficient to allow one to understand modal and normative vocabulary. The proof in the modal case is that revision of one's beliefs is only manageable if one's beliefs are regarded as having various degrees of counterfactual robustness -- otherwise one would face the task of not being able to tell ahead of time whether or not a belief would be likely to need revision in the light of some other belief. The proof in the normative case is that keeping track of inferential relations requires tracking commitments and entitlements, and these are both normative notions. Brandom offers this account as a fleshing-out of Sellars's claims that "the language of modality is a transposed language of norms."

Brandom's project here strikes me as congenial. No criticisms of it leap to mind, nor do I have anything to add by way of commentary. I generally liked the lecture; Brandom may be growing on me.

Huw Price's response, and Brandom's reply to Price's response, focuses mainly on an issue which has been hanging around since lecture one, the desirability of trying to keep the old analytical-metaphysical beast alive; Price regrets that he was reading from an already-prepared lecture in his response, or else he would have stolen McDowell's "Frankenstein" metaphor. Here Brandom makes a wonderful case for his own views, against Price/Rorty; much of the same ground was covered that Duck went over in his wonderful recent post on Truth.

One of the points Price tries to attack Brandom on is "wanting to cross the word-world divide" and go from saying "We can talk of norms and modalities and numbers" to "There really are norms and modalities and numbers." Brandom's reply is exactly to the point -- Price (and Rorty) seem to be arguing for a "subjectivism" in opposition to the older "objectivism", when what really needs doing is a dismantling of the old subject-object/word-world framework. Brandom notes that we should have learned from Frege to think of a fact as merely being a claimable which is true, and so to not be able to understand what it should mean to move from talking of "true claims" to talking of "objective facts" about "the way the world really is". Brandom's pragmatist bona fides are on clear display, here. Good stuff.

This reminds me of a point Duck brought up a while back. To the questions "Is there a world out there, and if so, do the differences and similarities we see in it come from it, from us, or both?" Duck thinks the answer is (trivially) "Yes, and both". I agree that the answer must be trivially "Yes" in the first case, but I don't think I even understand the second. What does "come from" mean, here? I am inclined to say that any similarities or differences we notice are facets of the world which were there before we noticed them*, but of course no one need have noticed them as similarities or differences before we had, and there's no reason to suspect that we immediately notice all distinctions which we might apprehend. I suspect that this is the sort of thing which would be said to quiet someone's urge to ask "Where do the similarities and distinctions we notice come from -- the world or us?", but I really am not sure I understand the temptation to ask this in the first place.

One sour note: During the Q&A Brandom has occasion to speak of Hegel, very briefly. I haven't the foggiest idea how Brandom is reading Hegel as saying what he thinks he's saying; McDowell seems to have the same problem, so I suspect I am confused for good reason. (McDowell's review of Brandom's"Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel's Idealism" is utterly withering.)

*In most cases. When I notice that (say) I am suffering from a stomach-ache, there's no sense in saying that I was already suffering (silently) before anyone noticed. It can't be a proper stomach-ache if I never feel it.


Shawn said...

Where is that McDowell review located?

Brandom seems to read Hegel in an idiosyncratic way. He reads Hegel in a way that he sees as something to build his project off of. In fact, the way he reads Hegel makes it look like he sees himself in Hegel. Brandom has a tendency to read all historical figures in such a way that they sound Brandomian or inferentialist at the end of the day.

Daniel said...

European Journal of Philosophy 7:2 ISSN 0966-8373 pp. 190-193.

That sound exactly right about Brandom. I'm not sure if he's worse about it when it comes to Hegel, or if I just notice it more there. I can at least kinda see how he's reading Wittgenstein, Sellars, Kant... but I just blink at his version of Hegel.

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