Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Habermas and Brandom, Facts and Norms

Update: This piece has subsequently been revised into a conference paper. The revised version is available online, and the comments section there includes a very good discussion and debate about the conference paper. We recommend that readers interested in this piece, consult the revised version and the subsequent discussion to see the further development of the thoughts originally outlined here.

Habermas and Brandom, Facts and Norms

In spite of the obvious difficulties of joint-authoring a paper with a fictional collaborator, NP and I have decided to submit a presentation for the upcoming Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference entitled Dialogues in Place. This comes on the back of a welcome return to the Reading Group, which has been in temporary hiatus. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a position to blog or comment here, but notwithstanding… NP has exhorted invited me to initiate a discussion around some aspects of our proposed presentation. The conference itself

will focus on the conception of dialogue
in philosophy, but with particular emphasis on the opening
up of philosophical dialogue between traditions and cultures
especially between east and west and on the way the happening
of dialogue in place sheds light on both the nature of dialogue
as well as on the place in which such dialogic engagement
takes place.

Our own presentation is somewhat tangential to these concerns, but closely enough related: it aims to examine the work of Habermas and Brandom in relation to the question of normative ideals. The purpose of the following discussion is to outline, in suitably rough and tentative fashion, some thoughts in relation to a recent interchange between Habermas and Brandom, following on from the publication of Brandom’s Making It Explicit. Signficant caveat lector: both NP and I are still slowly progressing through the substantive portions of Making It Explicit, and the following remarks should be interpreted in the light of an as-yet incomplete reading of Brandom’s work. I’ll start with an overview of the exchange, and an all-too-brief synopsis of Brandom’s account, followed by a break-down of Habermas’ objections and Brandom’s replies.

Habermas’ interest in Brandom can be seen as an extension of his engagement with the Anglo-American pragmatist tradition, which began in the 70’s, and forms a cornerstone of his own magnus opus, The Theory of Communicative Action. Two distinct strains of this tradition concern Habermas: on the one hand, linguistic pragmatics, through the work of J L Austin and John Searle; and on the other, the philosophical pragmatism which runs through, most explicitly, James, Dewey and Rorty, but which can also be found in Wittgenstein, Quine and Davidson. It is therefore not surprising that he would be particularly interested in a major work which in part aims to marry together the two. Brandom summarises the project of Making it Explicit in a precis to a volume of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research dedicated to that work:

The book is an attempt to explain the meanings of linguistic expressions in terms of their use. The explanatory strategy is to begin with an account of social practices, to identify the particular structure they must exhibit in order to qualify as specifically linguistic practices, and then to consider what different sorts of semantic contents those practices can confer on states, performances, and expressions caught up in them in suitable ways. The result is a kind of conceptual role semantics that is at once firmly rooted in actual practices of producing and consuming speech acts, and sufficiently finely articulated to make clear how those practices are capable of conferring a rich variety of kinds of content. [my emphases in bold]

The privileging of use over meaning, pragmatics over semantics, and social practices over cognitive states in the order of explanation marks Brandom’s account as avowedly pragmatist in both of the senses described above. Throughout the nuanced passages of Making It Explicit, the overarching gambit is that of bringing the finely tuned semantic analyses of language characteristic of much Anglo-American philosophy in the twentieth century within the broader rubric of societised and historicised linguistic users which is the substance of a social theoretic account like Habermas’. Nevertheless Brandom stops far short of a commitment to the kind of social quasi-transcendental categories employed by Habermas, using terms like the ‘social’ as simple ‘unexplained explainers’. This is not necessarily a weakness of his approach; however it forms an important point of aporetic disagreement between Habermas and Brandom in what follows.

Writing in 2000, in an article entitled From Kant to Hegel: On Robert Brandom’s Pragmatic Philosophy of Language, Habermas  begins with high praise:

Making it Explicit is a milestone in theoretical philosophy just as A Theory of Justice was a milestone in practical philosophy in the early 1970’s. Displaying a sovereign command of the intricate discussion in the analytic philosophy of language, Brandom manages successfully to carry out a programme within the philosophy of language that has already been sketched by others [note: Habermas footnotes a number of prior pragmatist accounts, including his own], without losing sight of the vision inspiring the enterprise in the important details of his investigation. The work owes its exceptional rank to its rare combination of speculative impulse and staying power. It painstakingly works out an innovative connection of formal pragmatics with inferential semantics, articulating a self-understanding that was already available as a tradition but in need of renewal. Using the tools of a complex theory of language Brandom succeeds in describing convincingly the practices in which the reason and autonomy of subjects capable of speech and action are developed.

The remainder of the article is in two parts: the first is largely an articulation of Brandom’s position, though phrased in idioms more familiar to Habermas. The second part adopts a more critical tone, through a series of objections to which Brandom, in turn, replies in Facts, Norms, and Normative Facts: A Reply to Habermas (also published in the European Journal of Philosophy, 2000). As Brandom’s title highlights, at the heart of the exchange is the conceptual status of facts and norms in their respective frameworks. Habermas states three key objections, respectively, in sections 4, 5 and 6 of his paper. I will try to provide a simplified explanation of these objections here, along Brandom’s replies; however the differing idioms make this a difficult exercise in terms of explication.

The problem of ‘conceptual realism’

In Habermas’ recitation of Brandom’s thesis, Brandom wants firstly to avoid the naturalist account of language, in which words designate objects in some real world. This entails a number of corresponding arguments: that of semantic atomism, in which words, rather than sentences, are prior in the order of explanation of linguistic meaning; of representationalism, in which the correspondence between words and objects is taken as given, or at any rate, non-problematic; of verificationalism, in which truth, rather than inference, plays the primary functional role of language. Brandom avowedly wants to submit an account that is normative rather than naturalistic; semantically holistic rather than atomistic; inferentialist rather than representationalist; and oriented firstly towards use-via-inference, rather than meaning-via-truth. For Habermas, what is just as distinctive about Brandom is his desire to retain an Enlightenment commitment to objectivity, without the trappings (in Brandom’s terms) of its Cartesian overtones. So:

Brandom, who is evidently not prepared to tolerate anti-realist consequences, cannot accept a transcendentalised linguistic approach, whether this be given a culturalist turn (MacIntyre), an onto-historical one (Derrida) or a pragmatist one (Rorty).

Such a position – both realist and pragmatist – could be brought about by referral to a social grounding which gives linguistic participants its conceptual tools ready-made in the form of concretised facts; but in this event there would be no availability of critical ‘kick-back’ from those participants. The first problem for Habermas then is that Brandom must be committed to either circularity or contradiction:

How is it possible at all to conceive of the sedimentation of world-knowledge in linguistic knowledge as the checking of linguistic knowledge through world-knowledge? Semantically relevant learning processes would have to explain how empirical contact with things and events can trigger off a revision of the ("world-disclosing") linguistic categories and conceptual norms that have been supplied in advance. Brandom rejects a naturalist explanation. However, as I show in (1), a pragmatist one, which would suit the construction of his theory, cannot be developed solely from the phenomenalist viewpoint of an interpreter who understands a language. For this reason, as I show in (2), Brandom sees himself compelled to adopt a conceptual realism that, with its propositions about the structure ‘in itself’, undermines his discourse-theoretically based analysis of a reality that ‘appears’ in language.

Further on:

In perceiving an unsuccessful action, the actor ‘rubs up’ against a disappointing reality that, as it were, terminates its hitherto proven willingness to play along in an action-context that no longer functions. The objective world can register this ‘protest’ only performatively by refusing to ‘go along with’ targeted interventions in a world of causally interpreted sequences of events. This explains why Brandom, who has committed himself to a phenomenalist analysis of language, does not take into consideration the pragmatist explanation of semantically learning processes… Only when agents distance themselves from their practical dealings with the world and enter argumentation or rational discourse, objectifying the situation ‘ready to hand’ in order to reach understanding with one another about something in the world, does a perception that challenges reality and shakes up behavioural certainties become a ‘reason’ that as a criticism gains entry into the conceptual balance and the semantic reservoir of potential inferences attached to existing views, setting in motion revisions, if necessary.

And finally:

In this way Brandom’s investigation can proceed unwaveringly in a linear fashion from perception to action without taking any notice of how perceptions are embedded in contexts of action and without paying attention to the revisionary power that accrues to peceptions only through their feedback relation to ‘coping’ – to the success-controlled practice of dealing with problems.

For Habermas, Brandom’s pragmatism is a strangely quietist one. It allows for only a one-way entry of phenomena into discourse, at an initial point of perception. Thereafter linguistic practice takes its course, without providing further feedback via a loop of subsequent perception-action, which Habermas would like to foreground.

Thus Brandom’s hard-fought gain of reality is a hollow one, in which "both our discursively won thoughts as well as the world grasped in thoughts are inherently of a conceptual nature – that is, are made of the same stuff – grants to experience no more than a passively mediating role". Habermas then locates Brandom’s position as a reaction to forms of naturalism, hermeneuticism and pragmatism expounded by his predecessors, and terminates this line of critique with a contrastive positioning of Brandom and Wittgenstein:

Together with the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Brandom conceives of the world as the totality of facts… In constrast to Wittgenstein, however, Brandom does not understand this formulation in the sense of a transcendental linguistic idealism according to which the limits of our language are the limits of our world. He finds an objective linguistic idealism more congenial: because facts, in which the world consists, are essentially what can be stated in true sentences, the world itself is of this kind – namely, of a conceptual nature. For this reason the objectivity of the world is not attested to by contingencies that we experience through being affected by the senses and in our practical dealings [with the world] but only through the discursive resistances of stubborn objections.

One of the governing impulses of The Theory of Communicative Action is the potential for human agency within the overwhelmingly system-regulated character of capitalist modernity. While Habermas would applaud Brandom’s rigorous dissection of linguistic practice and overarching argument on the locus of rationality within linguistic practice, what he sees as the inevitable result of Brandom’s turn from naturalism leads to an untenable "semantic passivity". For both Habermas and Brandom, as it turns out, this is an objectionable stance; though for Habermas it is objectionable both on epistemological grounds – it gives insufficient space for the dialectical relationship between perception and action in acquiring knowledge – and on moral grounds – it rules out precisely the possibility for "communicative action". Since this is related to Habermas’ third line of critique (and Brandom’s reply), I’ll return to it shortly.

 The essence of Brandom’s response to this objection is, I think, to emphasise that his distinctive brand of realism is one of priority, an emphasis upon a given "order of explication". Hence he can say: "I agree with all of these criticisms of epistemological theories that present knowers as passive spectators. But I deny that seeing our cognitive job as getting the facts right – commiting ourselves to claims that were in many cases already true independently of our activities – implies any such passive conception". As preparation for his more forceful rebuttal, he states:

This claim about order of explication in ontology reflects a more fundamental asymmetry between the conceptions of sentence and of singular term. Object-based ontologies suffer by comparison to fact-based ones in the same ways and for the same reasons that nominalistic semantics suffers by contrast to sentential semantics.

Objects are not, however, dispensed with: they simply are secondary in the "order of explication" to facts. "The conceptual articulation of facts is such that the most basic ones must have the structure of attributing properties and relations to objects". The nub of Brandom’s response is articulated a little further on:

Here is a diagnosis: Habermas seems to take it that my attempt at securing objectivity intersubjectively (as the product of the orthogonal distinctions on the one hand between the two sorts of deontic status, commitment and entitlement, and on the other between the two sorts of deontic attitude, acknowledging and attributing) either fails to underwrite anything recognizable as, or cannot be the whole story about objectivity. Given that, it then seems natural to assume that I look elsewhere to get what I cannot procure socially – namely to an objective, already conceptually structured reality… But my intent is just the other way around. The recognition of an independent, conceptually structured objective reality is a product of the social (intersubjective) account of objectivity, not something that is either prior to or a substitute for that account… If this diagnosis is correct – that Habermas takes my talk of facts as something that is supposed to explanatory work, rather than (as intended) just as something that is to be explained in social practical terms – then the point that will turn out to bear the most weight must be the social-perspectival account of objectivity, that is, of the nature of the auhority (according to Making It Explicit, always a social category) of how things can be discovered to be (the facts).

It is in fact extremely difficult to know to what extent the "diagnosis is correct" here. A sympathetic view of Habermas’ objection sees Brandom as hedging between a naturalistic realism and transcendental idealism, with the consequence of a "conceptual realism" that permits no place for improvement on the pre-given conceptual structures given to us by language. A sympathetic view of Brandom’s reply (and broader enterprise) sees a social and dialogical process (idiomatically expressed as the "giving and asking for reasons") as foundational to his account – the "feedback loop" between perception and action required for verification is still available to this process, but downstream in the order of explanation from the essentially normative character of the process itself.

There are two points which are striking here however:

1. If Habermas’ criticism here is deemed to hold, it is somewhat fundamental in its implications for Brandom’s overall account. It is therefore surprising to see this in the context of an overall positive appraisal of Making It Explicit. More specifically, the last few paragraphs of section 4 of Habermas’ essay conclude in surprisingly ambiguous terms. The nature of Habermas’ criticism is far from the minor point-scoring objection it appears to be in context.

2. On a superficial reading it would appear that a social-theoretically oriented, pragmatist, inferentialist and holist account of meaning is not so very far from that described at length in Theory of Communicative Action. The problematic of how to describe meaning in ways that are neither naturalist-realist nor conceptualist-idealist would elicit greater sympathy from Habermas (this in turn could well be the response to the first point – that for its deficiencies Making It Explicit at least makes a number of the right kinds of moves).


The problem of speakers: "I-You", "I-We", "I-Them"

The second objection Habermas raises concerns the focus of Making It Explict on forms of discursive practice which are intersubjective only in narrowest sense – dialogue between two participants, between a "I" and "you":

Brandom wants to grant priority to symmetric ‘I-you relations’ between first and second persons over asymmetric ‘I-we relations’ in which the individual is, so to speak, overwhelmed by the collectivity. But does he redeem this claim?

To the collectivist picture of a linguistic community that commands ultimate authority Brandom opposes the individualist picture of single pairs of interpersonal relationships, but he does not give its due to the horizon of meaning of a linguistically disclosed world that is shared intersubjectively by all members. 

In other words, Brandom’s notion of discursive practice is limited to an idealised case of the ‘social’, which does not faithfully represent the rough-and-tumble world of communication between first, second and third persons, singularly and plurally. Of course Brandom follows conventional practice within the analytical tradition (echoed by Wittgenstein, Austin, Quine and Davidson among others) of using simplistic exemplars, to isolate minimalist cases precisely to avoid the complications of real-world dialogical interactions. But Habermas further charges that Brandom does not even remain faithful to this minimalist case:

On closer examination, however, it becomes evident that the act of attributing, which is of fundamental importance for discursive practice, is not really carried out by a second person… It is no accident that Brandom prefers to identify the interpreter with a public that assesses the utterance of a speaker – and not with an addressee who is expected to give the speaker an answer

Not only does Brandom miss the importance of the ‘I-we relation'; he subverts the ‘I-you relation’ into an ‘I-they relation’, which misses the essential character of communication: ‘Evidently Brandom assumes that the result of communication consists in the simplest case in an epistemic relation – a relation between what the speaker says about something in the world and the attribution of what is said undertaken by the interpreter’. This would seem to be bourn about in the central position Brandom accords to the ‘de re’/’de dicta’ distinction.

Furthermore, Brandom’s individualistic emphasis belie what for Habermas is the central communicative function:

Communication is not a self-sufficient game with which the interlocutors reciprocally inform each other about their beliefs and intentions. It is only the imperative of social integration – the need to coordinate the action-plans of independently deciding participants in action – that explains the point of linguistic communication.

Where Brandom has repeatedly emphasised, in Making It Explicit and Articulating Reasons, the value derived from adopting a position of semantic holism, here Habermas accuses him of being socially atomistic. Rather communication belongs to the social whole, to the need to integrate individuals within a social structure. Habermas takes aim too at Brandom’s central metaphor of the "score-keeping" that happens in the game of "giving and asking for reasons":

However, in the case of a strategic team game such as baseball, it is a matter of a calculated adjustment to the reactions of others and not of a consensual co-operation that can satisfy the requirements of social integration… [According to this view] discursive practive emerges on the basis of reciprocal observation from inferences drawn by individual participant, each of them for herself. This picture falls short of establishing that the participants can converge in their intersubjective recognition of the same validity claim and can share knowledge in the strict sense of the verb.

Brandom has some sympathy with the starting point of this objection, although he soon states in reply "I believe that the conceptual raw materials provided are entirely sufficient to characterize such interactions". But the brunt of his response is directed towards the broader target Habermas outlines as that of the communicative function. For Brandom, it is meaningless to talk about some overriding function at all in this way:

Linguistic practice is not for something. It does not, as a whole, have an aim or a goal. It may and does, of course, fulfill many functions. But none of them is its raison d’etre. Language is certainly not a tool for the expression of thoughts intelligible as such apart from their relation to such a means of expression, as Locke, in the company of most of the Cartesian tradition thought. For that conception of thoughts is mythological.

Brandom in turn accuses Habermas of an unsustainable reductionism here. For Brandom language is the multi-purpose tool that allows for a switching of many means to many ends, within a paradigmatically rationalist rubric. Put more elegantally: "For discursive practice is a mighty engine for the envisaging and engendering of new ends – thereby transforming the very concept of an end or goal, giving it for the first time its proper, practical-rational, sense". To treat linguistic practice instead as merely a form of socially-binding adhesive is to assimilate it to a host of related social-functional practices – preparing meals, conducting rituals or sharing artifacts, for example. Whereas Brandom wants to insist upon the difference of specifically linguistic practice, namely, in that it enables a form of rationalised engagement with others unavailable by other means.

Brandom concludes his second response by emphasising another reason why he cannot condone the social integration functionalist account – in that it relies ultimately upon psychologistic conceptions, like "belief, intention and expectation". A key feature of his account is again that "assertional practice" comes earlier in the order of explanation of meaning. Habermas’ implicit premise in turns requires just these kinds of "representalist" conceptions – language functions to "express" beliefs, intentions and so on – and thus succumbs, implicitly, to the very same charge of out-dated "mythologism".

As with the first objection, despite the sometimes ambivalent and courteous phrasing, both objection and reply point to substantive differences between Habermas and Brandom. For Habermas, Brandom is mistakenly individualist and socially atomist; for Brandom, Habermas suffers from the fallibilism of functional representationalism. These are large chasms to navigate if one wanted to find means to marry Brandom’s pragmatic-semantic project to Habermas’ social-theoretic one.


The Problem of Facts and Norms

Habermas’ third objection concerns the pivotal concepts of facts and norms in Brandom’s work. For Habermas, facts and norms are differentiated at a "metatheoretical" level. Thus Brandom makes something like a category error in collapsing the fact/norm distinction:

Brandom himself uses the vocabulary with the help of which we, in the horizon of our world, distinguish between facts and norms, events and action. However, he conceives of everything we do in applying concepts as action in a broader sense. Unlike Kant, Brandom reduces practical and theoretical reason to the common denominator of rational activity. According to this view, judgements and beliefs are guided by norms just as much as the intentions to act, with the result that they cannot be differentiated according to descriptive and prescriptive relations to action.


All communicative practices – even those that, like expressive, aesthetic, ethical, moral or legal discourses, do not refer to the stating of facts – are supposed to be able to be analysed on the basis of assertions.

And finally:

On the one hand, Brandom relativises the metatheoretical distinction between facts and norms with respective to the normative language within which this distinction has to be made. On the other, he treats normative states of affairs as facts on the assumption that we have always to use a normative language when we make statements.

Brandom’s response to this series of charges involves a justification of a different use of the terms, ‘facts’ and ‘norms’. These are operationalised within Brandom’s system in a fundamentally different way to how Habermas uses them within his theory in Theory of Communicative Action. For Habermas, facts belong to a realm of instrumental reason: the sorts of statements which are produced in rationalised systems, like science, technology and the economic market. Norms contrast with facts; they are produced within the moral-judicial sphere that stands opposed to rationalised systems. Blurring this "metatheoretical" distinction is thus a critical category error. Brandom does not however want to deny this Kantian distinction. Rather, his prototypical use of "facts" and "norms" is in some sense pre-spherical – they are constituents of the general linguistic framework required for the production of specific kinds of statements. Put crudely (indeed this general discussion obscures the more precise and systematic exposition Brandom supplies in Making It Explicit): facts are the matter which are crafted and shaped in social discourse to produce agreement between agents. Agreement is what for Brandom brings an irrevocably normative dimension to this kind of social practice. That is, by proceeding to make factual claims, agents are attempting to "normalise" eachother’s beliefs and attitudes, regardless of the content of such claims. Thus Brandom can say:

The difference in question shows up in the systematically central distinction between nonnormative facts and normative facts. Using ‘fact’ in such a way as to acknowledge that there are normative facts does not require blurring this distinction. One important way of distinguishing regions of facts is by the vocabulary needed to state them. This is how we pick out physical facts, mathematical facts, intentional facts, the problematic category of semantic vocabulary, and so on. Normative facts are those whose statements require normative vocabulary. 

Unfortunately Brandom’s own use of "normative" here contravenes his use elsewhere – here he means something like what Habermas would expect, moral or ethical edicts of some kind. But the general use of "norm" by Brandom is in a linguistic (and derivatively) functional sense: the function of a given assertion, paradigmatically, is bring about agreement through a normalising of beliefs and attitudes. Brandom does however have equivalent terms to what Habermas means in his fact/norm distinction:

Statements expressing practical commitments have a normative force that is a close analog (in my somewhat different system) to prescriptve force: indicating, for instance, what someone is committed to doing, rather than how things simply are. Of course, that someone is committed to act in a certain way is also a fact about how things are. But it is a different kind of fact from those formulable using nonnormative vocabulary. 

Earlier Brandom has characterised this distinction as that of doxastic commitments (corresponding to a belief in a given state of affairs) and practical commitments (corresponding to an intention to do something). If it is accepted that the criticism is founded only on the basis of a mistranslation or misconstrual of Brandom’s terms – if, for instance, Habermas’ facts and norms are substituted for Brandom’s doxastic and practical commitments then naturally the criticism vanishes, or at least must take a different form. However Habermas wants to make a stronger case. Brandom’s retention of distinctions is insufficient from the point of view of proper adherence to Kantian kinds of rationality. Regardless of merit, for Habermas Brandom still collapses a vital qualitative difference between the purposive-rational sphere of facts and the practical-moral sphere of norms:

From a Kantian point of view a practical project is all the more rational the more the agent’s will is determined by rational considerations. An agent acts autonomously to the extent that he frees himself from arbitrary determinations, that is, from mere preferences or from conventional considerations of status and tradition… Only moral reasons, however, bind the wills of agents unconditionally, that is, independently even of the value-orientations of a given community.

In Habermas’ view Brandom’s account does not allow for something like universal morality to emerge from the game of "giving and asking for reasons". And yet, this is what a properly Kantian account must do, or lapse again into contradiction:

The deontological understanding of morality, which Brandom himself also favours, does not fit the conceptual-realist understanding of the moral vocabulary he proposes in order to anchor the objective content of our concepts (of all concepts, including evaluative and moral ones) in the conceptual structures of the universe. In other words, a Kantian conception of autonomy does not sit well with a picture that levels the discontinuity between facts and norms…. under the contingent restrictions of an objective world from which they can obtain no normative guidance for their dealings with one another, they have to reach agreement in common on which norms they want in order to regulate their co-existence legitimately.

The title of Habermas’ paper catches up this final, and most problematic of objections: ‘From Kant to Hegel’. For all Brandom’s rigorous explication of inferential semantics couched within a normative pragmatics, there is ground for the positing of valid norms that do not emerge naturalistically from discourse within traditional constraints. This is to repeat the Hegelian turn from a universal categorical imperative towards an endless dialectical process, which in a secular context has neither moral foundation nor teleological endpoint. 

Brandom is alive to the moral ambivalence of his account, although he wants to emphasise that "practical commitments… should not be assimilate to the doxastic commitments". He closes his reply with the provision of two possible moral-theoretic inflections, introduced with the following caveat:

The words ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ (like ‘experience’) do not so much as occur in this long book. Such an omission may seem strange in a work that takes normativity as one of its principal guiding themes. It is, of course, not inadvertent. Its approach is motivated in part by the thought that the understanding of conceptual normativity has been hampered by the fact that theorists of normativity have typically focussed on moral norms.

The two options are "natural kind skepticism" or "a trancendental moral theory". In the first view, moral reasons are justly undifferentiated from other kinds of reasons – they are reasons for action, but qualitatively indistinct. Here, "one might even suspect that the concept of distinctly moral reasons is a historical relic, an artifact (as one might think the concept of distinctively aesthetic reasons i) of a philosophical outlook and project that belong to an age we have rightly moved beyond". Brandom is characterising, perhaps with a hint of parody, the kind of "Hegelian-Brandomism" Habermas is conplaining about. Conversely, in the second view, "one would look to ground one’s ethics in commitments that turn out to be implicit in engaging in discursive practices at all". Thus a ethical orientation would be found to underwrite the entire "giving and asking for reasons" project, as a kind of meta-level "stance", perhaps stated in social-contractual terms, which permits dialogue to proceed. Brandom connects such a theory with Hegel’s project:

Since in this way making explicit what is implicit in concept-use generally is precisely the expressive role distinctive of logical vocabulary, it would follow that the road to ethics is paved by logic. I take it that this thought is one of the central structures animating Hegel’s approach to ethical concepts and commitments.

Thus Brandom concludes with the animating thought that the ethical dimension to linguistic practice remains underdetermined rather than undermined by his account.  

This may be insufficient to counter Habermas’ objections, since after all the role of the analysis of pragmatics within Theory of Communicative Action is to bolster an overarching analysis of society within modernity, to give impetus to the potentials for transformation of an overly rationalised and systematised world. To leave open the very issue of ethical grounds for discursive practice is therefore to erect a hollow, if elegantly baroque, theoretical apparatus. An inverted form of this dilemma remains, which has prompted some discussion between NP, myself and others: to what extent does a more fleshed-out, analytically capable account of discursive practice like Brandom’s serve to strengthen, or alternatively undermine, a social-theoretical framework like Habermas’? This is one of the points our presentation is likely to revolve around, and a key motive for exposing these otherwise fragmentary remarks.

I mentioned at the outset that the discussion seems, however respectful, ultimately aporetic. Yet there is a sense among some of the secondary literature that succeeded this debate that Brandom can represent an updated and more forceful pragmatist cornerstone to Habermas’ social theory – or conversely, something like Habermas’ theory is required to supplement the ‘unexplained explainer’ of the ‘social’ in Brandom’s work. The (highly) preliminary "results" suggest that this would be difficult to arrive at, without some systematic re-wiring of either or both accounts. 

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3 responses to “Habermas and Brandom, Facts and Norms

  1. Pingback: Social Security « Grundlegung

  2. N Pepperell October 30, 2007 at 6:30 am

    Beautiful, masterful piece – to which I won’t be able to respond in any detail, unfortunately, until Friday at the earliest (field interviews, and then an all-day school conference, in the intervening days). Many thanks for getting this started, and hopefully others will respond before I have the opportunity.

  3. N Pepperell December 7, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    Just a pointer here to LM’s revised version of this argument, in the conference presentation that grew out of this piece.

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