Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

No More Teachers…

Final day of my teaching year!!! Well, not quite – my postgrads have decided I should come back and teach one final session in the pub during the break. And I’m supervising an Honours thesis. And I have piles of marking still to do. And somehow I’ve let myself be talked into doing a few days of interview work for a community group. And people are already queuing up, asking whether, now that the term is coming to an end, I can’t give them just a brief bit of my time. And I shudder to think the number of things I’ve committed to write over the “break”. But still – ahhhhh, to have a relatively open schedule into which I can pour these various commitments – I floated home from work this evening.

The “break” begins for me with a quick trip to Macquarie University this coming week, for the Recognition and Work conference. I’m not doing anything meaningful at this event – just lurking and… er… trying neither to work nor to be recognised. Actually, to be honest, I’ll be taking lots of work up with me – mainly for a paper on Brandom and Habermas intended for the ASCP conference later in the year. And, if anyone is planning to be at the conference next week and wants to catch up for a coffee, I might compromise on the not being recognised part too… Not sure what the net access situation will be up there – if I’m able, I’ll try to blog some of the sessions.

4 responses to “No More Teachers…

  1. Tom October 11, 2007 at 9:44 am

    I look forward to reading about that paper on Brandom and Habermas, presuming that you’re planning to post on it. Will it be picking up on the themes from your previous paper on Rorty and Habermas?

  2. N Pepperell October 11, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    Hey Tom – The Brandom/Habermas piece is a collaborative one that LMagee and I will be co-writing – we’re definitely intending to workshop bits and pieces on the blog before the presentation to road test the ways in which we’re reading both authors. Assuming LM is comfortable with this, I’m happy to put the final piece up here.

    Because these things have a tendency (for me, at least) to migrate quite a lot in the writing process, I’ll have a much better sense for the argumentative structure of the paper by the time I’m back from Sydney late next week (hopefully…).

    Very roughly, though, we’re interested in exploring tensions between the two projects, around the question of how critical standpoints might be grounded in language – I’m specifically interested in what seem to be the very different ways in which Brandom’s work points to the social (or, to say the same thing perhaps from the opposite direction: the ways in which Habermas’ social theory constrains the sorts of claims he’ll make about the structures implicit in linguistic interaction).

    At the same time, we’re interested (or… er… I’m interested – have to see if LM fully agrees on this ;-P) in the potential limitations of the strong emphasis on intersubjectivity, the focus on social practices as linguistic practices, and the privileging of practices oriented toward mutual recognition, if these theories are to be mobilised in the development of an understanding of the pragmatic “ground” of normative ideals.

    There’s an enormous amount I’m still working out here – not least what I think both authors are trying to do, and how “fair” it is for me to examine their works in light of my own questions and project – so anything I say at this point, to be honest, is likely to be flat out wrong. But my impulse is to think that too much explanatory weight might be being placed on certain sorts of “overtly social” linguistic practices, with the effect of perhaps blurring the relationship between the historical emergence of certain normative ideals (of mutual recognition, etc.) and other sorts of collective practice.

    So, in Habermas’ case, for example (since I’ve… er… picked on him before…), the emergence of his “systems sphere” catalyses the release of linguistic potentials that are positioned in his argument as already latently “there”, but held back by the dominance of traditional social structures. Habermas will then derive his critical ideals from these newly-released potentials, so that the ideals are “historicised” – he can account for why they emerge when they do – but in spite of this they aren’t really conceptualised as constituted. Our practice provides us with the experience to uncover these potentials, but the potentials are “there” – they are “given”. Habermas wants this, because it allows him to speak with the voice of a sort of embedded objectivity – it allows him to have his historicist cake, while still gobbling up a strong objective status for his normative ideals.

    I think (obviously…) that it’s possible to be a much more thoroughgoing “pragmatist”, in the sense of talking about the active constitution of some of the things Habermas takes as “givens”. Habermas would probably think that down this path lies relativism… But I think it’s only by going down this path that we begin to understand some fairly key features of our collective context – and I’m much more comfortable than Habermas is with the notion that it’s adequate for things to be truths “for us”.

    I’m still not completely certain what I think of Brandom in the context of this sort of longstanding quarrel with Habermas (I have a bad habit of committing to write things to force myself to make up my mind on issues like this, so I often propose pieces when I’ve gotten to the point that I know the issues I need to resolve, but haven’t necessarily resolved them – not sure how… er… irresponsible this is, as an approach to conference pieces and presentations and such…). In certain ways, he should be (I think…??) more “open” to the social in some of the ways that interest me; in other ways, he may still be identifying certain things in specifically linguistic practices, that I’d be inclined to think we wouldn’t think to look for in linguistic practices, if we weren’t already investigating such practices “primed” to be attentive to certain things… This doesn’t mean that he (or Habermas) are “reading things in” – just that their account might be more partial and more closely related to other things than they realise.

    At the same time, and more sympathetically, there are elements – maybe particularly to Brandom’s work, for me – that thematise issues that I think do need to be thematised as a moment within a critical social theory: this work captures something that often isn’t addressed in more sociological theory, which can tend (Joseph Kugelmass has rightly made this point on a few occasions – sorry, no link to a specific place where he’s done this, but he has 🙂 ) to act as though just identifying some “potential” for transformation has fully addressed the issue of a critical standpoint. Brandom’s work, for me, suggests some of the other steps that I suspect are also required, beyond this level of sociological analysis…

    This is probably a huge mess 🙂 I can’t express strongly enough the confused and wrong-headed state in which I generally begin to work on questions that are… er… bugging me… Basically, my hunch is that, if I pull on some of these threads, I will learn something that I need to know – even if my current starting point or understanding is very, very poor… (I’m sure LM is deeply reassured to hear of this… ;-P) So please feel free to call nonsense, correct mis-impressions, etc. – I have no stake in any specific interpretation of Brandom, as this mini-project is really intended to help me confront his work more adequately.

  3. Tom (Grundlegung) October 19, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    Just a quick note expressing one possible worry about this sort of project. There might be an asymmetry in the sort of linguistic-based justication of norms that Brandom and Habermas undertake. I am still unclear on quite what the scope of both their projects is myself, but one way to read Habermas is as trying to justify specific norms constitutive of ideal speech situations on the basis of procedural norms that engaging in communicative acts commit us to. Brandom, on the other hand, seems to be elaborating a general framework for reading conceptal norms off of social practices.

    Presumably, you’ve read their exchange in the European Journal of Philosophy from 2000, in which Habermas heaps praise upon Brandom’s central strategy. (His criticisms are centred on what he take to be tangential elements, such as the conceptual realism that Brandom shares with McDowell.) Since then, so my supervisor tells me, Habermas has become more and more Brandomian in outlook, and is pretty much convinced that Brandom’s position is the way forward. As such, I am tempted by the thought that their strategies are not conflicting but complementary, each aimed at a different level of abstraction.

    I’m not sure if I think that’s all definitely true, but it’s something that it might be worth bearing in mind.

  4. N Pepperell October 19, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    Tom – This sounds right to me (with the caveat that I have a lot of work still to do on this). When I spoke of a longstanding quarrel with Habermas above, I was speaking of my own quarrel with Habermas, if this was unclear – not of a quarrel between Habermas and Brandom. When I speak of tensions between the projects, I’m intending something much more tacit – a sense that Brandom’s framework may be more inconvenient for Habermas than it might at first appear (again – emphatically – without making this into a very strong claim at this point).

    Habermas’ notion of critical stance “requires” certain things that I suspect Brandom’s approach might preclude – and this is a problem because of the power of Brandom’s approach in terms of what Habermas seems to be trying to do, in a way that it might not be if there were greater overt tensions between their projects. To emphasise: I’m still extremely open on this, and am in a sense more curious, than anything else, whether the two approaches can be nested within one another as approaches operating at different levels of abstraction. I have a gut feel that this might not work as comfortably as it appears. But in the strongest possible sense, this is no more than a gut feel at this point – I don’t have a fully developed argument – and it also might not be how we tackle this particular paper. The more definite interest lies in the potential usefulness or limitations of trying to conceptualise a social theoretic normative standpoint in light of Brandom’s approach.

    But this will be why we’ll toss messy and provisional things up here as we go – while I’m fairly comfortable with Habermas, my comfort level with Brandom is much, much lower. This is the kind of enforced learning curve likely to generate several false starts and mis-impressions, hopefully eventually muddling through to something more adequate…

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