Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Transforming Communication

I’ve cut and pasted the ASCP conference paper on Habermas and Brandom below the fold, for those interested. The process of preparing for this paper has been interesting, among other things, in shaking out certain “what the hell is going on there?” questions that L Magee and I both share in relation to Brandom’s work – while these questions, and our debates around them prior to the presentation, led us to recast slightly what we said at this event, the material posted below the fold doesn’t clearly indicate those areas where we have open and active questions about Brandom’s project: when both of us are back in Melbourne, we’ll hopefully have time to put a few of those issues up on the blog, through some follow-up posts on Making It Explicit.

This particular talk hugged very close to the terms of a debate between Habermas and Brandom, and also provided a lot of background information that might not be as useful to folks who regularly read things here. Some of this background material – particularly on Brandom – suffers from code switching problems: those are my fault, as I wrote those sections of the piece, and so I’ll apologise for trampling all over Brandom’s vocabulary (and, likely, his framework as well).

We are actually intending to develop a more polished and rigorous article out of this, so critical comments and questions would be extremely helpful, for those who have an interest in this sort of material. (Note that, as we had a generous 40 minute allocation for speaking, the piece is somewhat long!)

Transforming Communication: Habermas and Brandom in Dialogue

Preliminary Remarks

This presentation focuses on Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action, Robert Brandom’s Making It Explicit, and a brief debate that took place between the two authors over Making It Explicit that was collected and published in the European Journal of Philosophy in 2000. Our original intention when we proposed this paper was to discuss the implications for Habermas’ social theoretic project, of Brandom’s quite sophisticated philosophical investigation of speech acts oriented to asking for and giving reasons. Superficially, both authors appear to arrive at rather similar conclusions about communicative practice as the practical origin point for certain kinds of critical ideals of rationality, and we were therefore intrigued by the debate that broke out between them, interested particularly in whether and in what ways Brandom’s much more intricate philosophical analysis of the tacit structures of communicative practice might pose a challenge to Habermas’ social theoretic claims.

When we started working on this project, we expected, I think, that we would quickly resolve the terms of the debate itself, grasping the key points of conflict that each author identified, and then making our own assessment as to the implications of these skirmishes: we expected to grasp fairly quickly whether the mutual criticisms that arose within the debate hit their targets and, if so, what the theoretical consequences of these criticisms might be. We then expected to move on from our analysis of this debate, into our own theoretical concerns related to the potential limitations of approaches that attempt to ground critical ideals solely in a theory of communicative practices.

What we discovered as we worked through the material, however, was that certain key issues at stake in the debate refused to come more clearly into focus as we tried to work them out. On the one hand, we came to feel that there were some key miscommunications at play – places where Habermas in particular seemed to find claims in Brandom’s work that we ourselves couldn’t find. On the other hand, we also came increasingly to feel that Habermas comes by at least some of these miscommunications honestly: that certain elements in Brandom’s project refused to come into focus for us, even after a careful attempt to get to the bottom of his system. We came to understand a bit better why such an argument might break out, and to feel that the presence of the argument does point to key issues that we, along with Habermas, have not quite been able to resolve in Brandom’s project. We therefore present this piece still in a moment of intense uncertainty, with a great deal of work still to be done to achieve our own goal of understanding the implications and potentials for critical social theory of Brandom’s philosophical work.

In the spirit of “making it explicit”, we’ve decided to expose this unresolved uncertainty openly in this paper. This piece is, in the strongest sense possible, a work in progress, in which we are trying out claims that we hope we will be able to improve in the future, so that we can bring more of Brandom’s theoretical project simultaneously into focus, and resolve what currently still appear to us to be tensions or ambiguities in his work. At the same time, in and through this uncertainty, we have developed a broad appreciation for Brandom’s theoretical strategy, and a sense of certain implications Brandom’s project likely has for Habermas’ work – and, by comparing the two projects, we have also come a bit closer to being able to articulate some of our own concerns with attempts to ground a critical social theory in potentials for rationality understood to be embedded in communicative practices.

To express the collaborative aspect of our research, and to give you a chance to hear more than one voice in the presentation, we have divided the talk into sections. I will confess that I have by far the easier task, which is to open the discussion by providing a broad brush stroke account of both theoretical projects, intended to highlight what we hope is a relatively uncontroversial overview of the similarities and potential points of difference between the two sets of work.

Liam then gets the hard task of diving into a couple of aspects of the debate between Habermas and Brandom, exploring some more technical points that arise in this context – and discussing some of the aspects of the debate that have made both of us feel that, while we perhaps don’t fully support Habermas’ specific lines of critique, we nevertheless have come to feel that Habermas is tugging on threads that plausibly do relate to frayed elements of the theoretical fabric Brandom has woven.

Note that the purpose of this presentation is essentially exegetical: we are seeking here to do no more than workshop our current working understanding of what these authors are trying to do. We therefore will not address directly how this analysis fits into the context of our own broader critical projects. To avoid confusion, however, I do want to flag that we are exploring these theorists with a critical intention, rather than with the aim of simply applying one or the other to our own theoretical projects. We see their work as the best contemporary expression of a particular approach to critical social theory, and we therefore see the critique of their work as a productive step in opening up the possibility for very different approaches.


With that prolegomenon out of the way, I want to begin by drawing attention to some of the common elements of Habermas and Brandom’s projects.

First, and most significantly, both Habermas and Brandom take up the challenge of accounting for the emergence of critical ideals from within social practice. They each reject the appeal to a “god’s eye point of view” from which the theorist might purport to gaze down “objectively” on social practice, analysing it from some standpoint outside the society being criticised. This socially immanent approach to critique potentially carries both philosophical and practical advantages. Philosophically, such an approach can claim to be adequate to a post-metaphysical commitment to draw its ideals from a secular, non-transcendent, practical “ground”, and can also claim reflexively to account for the possibility for a critical theory to emerge as one aspect of the very context being criticised. Practically, such an approach can potentially tie the theory’s critical ideals very directly to social practice, reducing the leap between the critical ideals to which the theory appeals, and analyses of how and why conflicts might arise “on the ground” in everyday practical settings (whether either Habermas or Brandom takes full advantage of this practical potential is a question I’ll leave to one side for the present paper).

A socially immanent approach to critique, however, also imposes a complex set of argumentative burdens. From the standpoint of an immanent critical theory, there is no simple way to reject competing theoretical positions as “mere” errors, by appealing to conventional notions of truth or falsehood, since there is no objective standpoint outside society from which such a determination could be made. Instead, the theory must become reflexive – it must explain how competing theoretical approaches might plausibly arise, as expressions of some determinate feature of a particular aspect of the social context being analysed, and it must also explain how the theory itself might plausibly arise as an expression of some other determinate feature of social practice. The theory must therefore somehow explain itself as an immanently-available perspective, generated alongside other immanently-available perspectives of which it is critical – all of this while avoiding the relativistic conclusion that immanently-generated perspectives are all equally defensible, because we lack an Archimedean point from which to pass “objective” judgment on them. Somehow, the theory has to assemble all of its critical resources without stepping outside the dispositions generated by the very practices it wishes to criticise.

Habermas and Brandom both understand their theories as immanent, reflexive critiques in this sense. They therefore both place at the centre of their analyses the question of how the possibility for their own theory is suggested by the social practices they are analysing, how determinate aspects of those practices also render plausible the emergence of competing forms of theory, and how they can justify the claim that the perspective their theory expresses is nevertheless more adequate than the perspectives expressed by competing approaches.

Habermas and Brandom share more, however, than just this broad commitment to immanent, reflexive critique within a practice-theoretic framework. They also share a common interest in a particular kind of practice – practices associated with communication. They both reflexively grasp their own theories as part of a process whereby potentials for rationality that are implicit in communicative practice, are rendered explicit and therefore become available for application in rationally defensible critique and contestation. Finally, both authors share a counter-factual understanding of the critical ideals they are trying to explain: rather than trying to ground some particular substantive vision – for example, of a form of social life that should be realised – both Habermas and Brandom seek instead to cast light on abstract ideals to which social actors can then appeal to call into question any existent social institution, practice, disposition, or belief. Habermas and Brandom thus both share a notion of critique as an open-ended and restless process, which enables rational contestation to unfold via appeals to shared ideals grounded in the common practical experience of communication, without, however, foreclosing in advance the substantive decisions a particular human community might make about how it wishes to organise its collective life.

Such similarities in approach are all the more striking, given the radically different theoretical contexts for the two projects. Habermas, as is well known, sees his work as forging a new path forward, after the impasse reached by the first generation Frankfurt School theorists, which led them to declare contemporary society “one dimensional” – to declare, in other words, that an immanent theory for the genesis of critical ideals was no longer possible. Habermas confronts this impasse by arguing that it derived from the first generation Frankfurt School focus on labour as a social practice related to the instrumental manipulation of an object world. He argues, in effect, that the first generation Frankfurt School focussed in a one-sided manner on the potentials and forms of rationality implicit in only one particular set of social practices, failing to understand how such practices are themselves situated within a much more complex internally differentiated social context. Habermas’ “linguistic turn” – his interest in the implicit logic of communicative practices – is thus motivated by the desire to find a practical locus for the generation of critical sensibilities, to serve as an alternative to the practices associated with labour or instrumental activity.

In what he famously describes as a “second attempt to appropriate Max Weber in the spirit of Western Marxism”, Habermas embeds a theory of capitalism within a theory of world-historical rationalisation. He presents a sweeping reconstructive historical narrative that posits that traditional societies precluded the realisation of rational potentials embedded in communicatively-structured lifeworlds, by imposing ritual restrictions on speech and by engaging in collective practices that conflated subjective, objective and intersubjective dimensions of practical experience – preventing social actors from becoming aware of rational potentials embedded in communicative practice, which could be released only with the differentiation of these distinctive realms of practical activity.

As traditional societies dissolved, in Habermas’ account, what should have happened was a release of rational potential associated with the explicit differentiation of these three realms of practical experience, which, for the first time, should have given social actors explicit access to logics immanent to each practical sphere. What should have happened was the collective recognition and development of several differentiated sets of critical ideals and associated forms of rationality, each appropriate to a particular dimension of practical experience: roughly – authenticity, as the ideal guiding practices that a subject orients to its own interior experience; truth, as the ideal guiding practices that a subject orients to an object world; and the good, as the ideal of practices that a subject orients to other subjects. Through the critical exploration of practice against the standards provided by such ideals, the potentials of differentiated forms of rationality (aesthetic, instrumental, and communicative) should have been released.

What did happen, in Habermas’ account, was instead the emergence of a new, post-traditional abridgement of the communicatively-structured lifeworld, which distorted the release of rational potentials, resulting in a one-sided development of instrumental forms of rationality, at the expense of communicative rationality. The cause of this one-sided development, for Habermas, was capitalism – and then the technocratic state that emerged in response to capitalism’s own crisis tendencies. These two elements of what Habermas calls the “systems world”, associated in his account with material reproduction and therefore validly with instrumental reason, have overstepped their proper practical boundaries, infringing into dimensions of social practice that, in a post-traditional lifeworld, ought to have been differentiated and freed to develop according to their own immanent logics. Instead, a new form of post-traditional conflation of practical spheres has constrained the realisation of the potentials of non-instrumental forms of rationality, generating its own symptomatic crisis tendencies in the form of crises of meaning and of legitimation.

It is from this strongly social theoretic foundation, and driven by the concern to ground the potential for a particular kind of political practice, that Habermas then attempts to reconstruct an immanent logic of communicative rationality, expressive of the rational potentials of intersubjective communication. In this reconstructive analysis Habermas seeks to locate core democratic ideals, unfolding these from the practical experience of communication oriented to understanding another subject, which for Habermas “primes” all social actors who engage in communication with the experiential capacity to grasp what would be required for an “ideal speech situation” (non-coercion, action oriented to mutual understanding, etc.). This commonly shared counter-factual ideal then provides a framework to which social actors can appeal in order to contest any actual speech situation, based on the failure of that actual situation to conform to the ideal. In a post-traditional setting, only those forms of collective life negotiated through processes aimed at achieving mutual understanding and consensus, through means adequate to these immanent potentials for communicative rationality, can enjoy legitimacy.

While there is much that can potentially be said for and against this perspective, what matters for our immediate goal of understanding Habermas’ dispute with Brandom, is that Habermas sees his analysis of communicative rationality as (1) enabled by a social theory that posits a functionally differentiated society as a precondition for the release of communicative rationality, (2) reliant on the practical differentiation of several functional spheres in which social actors are understood to learn experientially that subject-object relations are properly governed by a different form of rationality and a different set of normative ideals, than subject-subject or subject-self relations, and where the boundaries between these spheres are understood not to be “merely” conventional, but instead to reflect practical ontological distinctions that come to be properly recognised in collective practice in a post-traditional context, and (3) laying the foundation for a claim that shared frameworks of meaning must be constituted by social actors in a post-traditional lifeworld through practices adequate to communicative ideals, in order to secure crisis-free symbolic reproduction.

While Brandom may converge in some significant respects on Habermas’ conclusions, his starting point lacks any of Habermas’ explicit concern with understanding the potentials generated within a specific society at a particular historical juncture. Brandom’s work, situated largely on the terrain of the analytic philosophy of language, provides a “social theory” only in the sense that it analyses the structure and implications of a particular kind of social interaction: speech acts that place social actors into the frame of the linguistic game of giving and asking for reasons. Brandom’s theory is nevertheless immanent to social practice: he rigorously derives all of his core theoretical categories from the communicative practices he analyses, and consistently rejects the adoption of an “Archimedean point” that steps outside social interaction. He also attempts to be reflexive, explaining the philosophical positions with which he disagrees by invoking the Wittgensteinian notion of false extrapolation from plausible metaphors in natural language, and attempting to account for the possibility of his own theory through his analysis of the potentials of communicative practice. I’ll leave aside for the moment the question of whether his approach to these issues is fully adequate, and just give a broad brush strokes sense of the movement of his argument.

The analysis Brandom unfolds is nothing short of extraordinary in its scope and nuance, and I can treat the argument gesturally at best here. He sets himself the question of understanding how it might be possible to derive critical ideals (he calls them “norms”) from social practices, while remaining loyal to the notion that these are norms: principles that are binding on us to the extent that we consent to be governed by reason, as opposed to sociologically-observed regularities of practice that are causally compelling or statistically discernible, but not rationally compelling. Brandom is interested here in capturing, not what we do, or even what we believe, but the conditions of possibility for our being able to discover principles that we ought to follow, even in circumstances in which, in practice, we fail to follow – or even to be aware of – these principles. Brandom wants to capture the possibility for a kind of norm that cannot be reduced back to the actual behaviour of an individual, a group, or even an entire society: he wants to hold out the possibility for a kind of norm that could enable us to recognise that we have all been wrong about some collective practice or belief. He wants to assert the objectivity of norms, our “liability” to norms or the capacity of our norms (even when presently unknown) to carry implications that can react back on collective practice – and he wants to do this while also asserting that norms never arise anywhere else but within collective practice itself.

To unfold this argument, Brandom mobilises an intricate argumentative apparatus, to which I cannot do justice in this presentation. For our purposes, the most important concept to understand is Brandom’s notion of “deontic scorekeeping”, which is a model he proposes for understanding how each social actor engaged in communication is constantly keeping, as Brandom describes it, “two sets of books” on their interlocutor. One set of books tracks commitments and entitlements to which a listener believes their interlocutor thinks themselves to be committed. The other tracks commitments and entitlements to which a listener believes their interlocutor is in reality committed (from the perspective of the listener), regardless of the interlocutor’s subjective self-understanding. Brandom argues that this deontic scorekeeping system is tacit in practice, having to be reconstructed actively by a theorist (much as Habermas understands the need to reconstruct the tacit logic of communicative rationality). Risks of misinterpretation by the theorist are high, both because the practice is a tacit one – something done, rather than something that practitioners necessarily articulate explicitly – and because the results of this process of deontic scorekeeping are expressed in natural languages in terms that systematically suggest certain metaphors and analogies that plausibly, but from Brandom’s perspective inaccurately, have been taken by philosophers as support for correspondence theories of truth, transmission metaphors of communication, and other theories Brandom criticises en route to unfolding his own model.

Brandom uses this model to suggest that all social actors have access to a practically-grounded ideal of objectivity – to the concept of a contrast between “what other social actors think” and “how things really are”. Brandom presents this ideal of objectivity as a structure to which social actors gain access by participating in communicative processes: as a structure, it does not pre-decide social actors’ determinate commitments as to what is “objectively” true, but rather gives social actors constant access to the notion that there might be a gap between what social actors acknowledge or perceive to be the case, and what “actually is” the case. The awareness of this potential gap provides the most basic precondition for the emergence of critical sensibilities that will contest particular notions of “what is the case” – whether put forward by individual social actors or even by communities as a whole.

Brandom goes beyond this, determining other practices that enable or contribute to the emergence of this structure, unfolding an inferential theory that makes clever use of concepts of substitution and anaphora to account for the ways in which different social actors can “refer” to the same object, enabling social actors to speak about the same object, while still differing substantially in their perspectives of that object, thus enabling concepts of “reference” and “truth” that do not rely on the correspondence theories he is trying to supplant. He makes further use of intrinsic differences among a universe of social actors, where the diversity of social actors fuels differences in perspectives and therefore conflicts over appropriate claims about “how things really are”. Along the way, he unfolds a specifically normative vocabulary used to express the scorekeeping and other practices he analyses, and he situates logical vocabulary as vocabulary that expresses, and can therefore play a crucial role in rendering explicit, the implicit practices he theorises – thus explaining the conditions of possibility for the emergence of his own, higher-order, model, while still linking this model back to the social practices of actors whose behaviours he is theorising.

I cannot do justice to the full argument, and I’m conscious of duplicating details that Liam will pick up, in a more adequate context, below. For the moment, I’ll bring my portion of the talk to a close by saying that, as with Habermas, a great deal could be said about the strengths and weaknesses of particular moments in Brandom’s complex apparatus. What matters most for understanding his dispute with Habermas, however, is to recognise that (1) his “social theory” operates at a much higher level of abstraction than Habermas’, not relying on specific claims about the nature of the society or the historical period within which the sorts of interactions he analyses play out, and not analysing the implications of any other sorts of social practices, aside from the specifically linguistic exchanges at the centre of his analysis, (2) he seeks to avoid predefining any particular boundary between subject-object and subject-subject relations, viewing such boundaries as constituted in social practice and as themselves reflective of practically-instituted norms – as Brandom expresses this, his approach claims that there are “norms all the way down” – including norms determining what does, and does not, constitute a normative or non-normative fact, and (3) his framework – particularly his use of concepts of substitution and anaphora – is intended to provide room for social actors to interact and communicate “successfully” in and through a wide range of divergence in background assumptions and interpretations, and without necessarily achieving shared frameworks of reference or consensus.

At this point, I’ll hand over to Liam, who will move down from the very high level of abstraction at which I’ve been describing both projects, and into the trenches of a debate that exposes some of the potential flashpoints where these projects may collide.

Habermas and Brandom, Facts and Norms

Habermas’ interest in Brandom can be seen as an extension of his engagement with the Anglo-American pragmatist tradition, which began in the 1970’s, and which forms a cornerstone of his own magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action. Two distinct strains of this tradition concern Habermas: on the one hand, linguistic pragmatics, through the work of Austin and Searle; and on the other, the philosophical pragmatism which runs through, most explicitly, James, Dewey and Rorty. It is therefore not surprising that he be particularly interested in a major work which in part aims to marry together these two strains of pragmatism.

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 these senses. Throughout the many 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 a thorough-going pragmatist framework. This is what excites and provokes Habermas, among others – the promise of a social theoretic account which stretches all the way down to a sub-sentential level of analysis. This could allow for the incorporation of, for example, formal logic and model-theoretic semantics into social theory – a result foreclosed by competing, rather than complementary philosophical traditions.

Brandom himself stops far short of a commitment to the kind of social quasi-transcendental categories employed by Habermas, using the ‘social’ as a simple ‘unexplained explainer’. How specific kinds of social practices emerge historically to shape what constitutes meaningful statements is deliberately unspecified and underdetermined for Brandom. This underdetermination will arise later as a major sticking point for Habermas.

Writing in 2000 in response to Making It Explicit, Habermas recognises its exhilirating potential:

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, 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.

Habermas structures the remainder of his analysis in two parts: the first is largely an articulation of Brandom’s position, while the second part adopts a more critical tone, articulating three objections to which Brandom, in turn, replies. The following remarks attempt to capture the substance of both these objections and Brandom’s replies. For the moment I’ll skip the substance of the second objection and reply, which concerns a somewhat more technical analysis of the character of second and third person relations in Brandom’s account.

At the heart of the exchange is the conceptual status of facts and norms in their respective frameworks. The different use of these terms, among others, creates considerable complications for the present kind of synopsis, and a fuller treatment of the exchange would need to supply a far more detailed mapping of the concepts which Habermas and Brandom respectively deploy.

The problem of feedback

In Habermas’ first objection, Brandom is correctly described as wanting to avoid the naturalist conception of language, in which words designate objects first and foremost in the order of explanation of meaning. From this designation, according to the tradition Brandom claims stems from Descartes, comes the development of meaningful utterances. The naturalist standpoint tends to run alongside a number of corresponding arguments: that of semantic atomism, in which words, rather than sentences, have priority; of representationalism, in which the correspondence between words and objects is taken as given, or at any rate, as capable of adequate clarification and specification; of verificationism, in which truth, rather than inference, plays the primary functional role of language. Against these orientations, Brandom avowedly wants to submit an account that is normative rather than naturalist; semantically holistic rather than atomistic; inferentialist rather than representationalist; and oriented towards use-as-inference, rather than meaning-as-truth.

The problem for Habermas is how Brandom can articulate a pragmatist position which does not lose touch with the world – a problem which, in short order, Habermas assesses, variously, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida and Rorty to have failed to solve. So does Brandom succeed? A key indicator would be whether members of a community in Brandom’s linguistic universe could correct their concepts in the light of experience. But this is evidently not forthcoming:

One looks in vain for an analysis of empirically driven learning processes that not only compel individual members of a linguistic community to correct their deficient linguistic knowledge but force the community as a whole to revise habitualised semantic or conceptual rules.

Later on he claims:

Brandom sees himself compelled to adopt a conceptual realism that, with its propositions about the structure of the world ‘in itself’, undermines his discourse-theoretically based analysis of a reality which ‘appears’ in language.

Tradition can supply linguistic participants its conceptual tools ready-made in the form of concretised facts; but in this event there would be, Habermas claims, no availability of critical ‘kick-back’ from experience for those participants. In parenthetical form, then, the first problem for Habermas is that Brandom must be committed either to a kind of semantic circularity or contradiction – either language users circulate inherited concepts in an endless cycle of untestable linguistic assertions, or they have access to a correcting reservoir of experience. But in the latter case Brandom’s avowed phenomenalism is contradictory.

The problematic is recast by Habermas as a failure of Brandom to adhere to a thorough-going pragmatism – it is therefore 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 feedback via a loop of subsequent action-perception. This has serious, worldly consequences.

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 his overarching argument on the centrality of rational assertions within that practice, what he sees as the inevitable result of Brandom’s turn from naturalism leads to an untenable “semantic passivity”. For Habermas and for Brandom too, as it turns out, this is an objectionable stance; for Habermas it is objectionable both on epistemological grounds – since 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” to co-ordinate human agents on the basis of rational consensus. This latter point Habermas returns to in his third criticism.

Habermas’ objection is strong: if it holds, with consequences Brandom is unlikely to want to undertake, the edifice of Making It Explicit collapses – for it strongly undermines Brandom’s whole point to demonstrate how sapience arises out of a tripartite structure of inference, substitution and anaphora. If sapience equates to “semantic passivity”, it can hardly be a consequence worth arguing for.

Brandom responds:

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.

He acknowledges a world of objects which most certainly do intrude upon discursive concept formation, and states emphatically:

We don’t just observe, we experiment; we formulate theories and hypotheses, test them, and then revise them accordingly. Cognition is unintelligible except as an element of a feedback governed cycle of cognition, action, cognition.

Similar passages exist throughout Making It Explicit itself – so how then does Habermas’ contention arise?

One possibility is that Habermas mistakes methodological moves for ontological claims. A key tactic of Brandom’s in positing inferentialism is to rely upon a certain order of explanation. For example, inference precedes representation; sentences precede words; normative or deontic attitudes precede stances; intersubjectivity precedes objectivity; and facts precede objects. Precession in order is not, however, a complete ontological disavowal of the succeeding terms, but a prioritising of the means by which those terms themselves are produced. Some examples of how Brandom operationalises this notional order:

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.


… there is an asymmetry between the two conceptions [of facts and objects]. I think the notion of fact can be unpacked in a language that does not yet explicitly invoke objects.

So one read of this debate shows Brandom comfortably rebutting Habermas here. The “feedback loop” between perception and action required for verification and for knowledge is still available for Brandom, but downstream in the order of explanation from the essentially normative character of the process itself. This would seem to bely Habermas’ concluding point:

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 resistance of stubborn objections.

Brandom would contend that rather objectivity is attested to by such contingencies – but only via the resistance of stubborn objections. Without those objections, in the sweeping discursive game of “giving and asking for reasons”, objectivity does not arise – it is the product, rather than the producer, of discourse.

But for Habermas, adopting assumptions which appear more explicitly in the next objection, Brandom’s protestations would simply reaffirm his original line of critique. Another more likely possibility for his complaint, then, is that Brandom ignores the necessary “meta-theoretical” categories to make his theory stick. The lack of the proper differentiation of subjective, objective and intersubjective spheres, which form the engine room for communication in Habermas’ own theory, means that this piece of the inferentialist puzzle – how to connect up language with the world in such a way as to permit correction through experience – remains a poor fit.

The Problem of Facts and Norms

Habermas’ third objection concerns the pivotal concepts of facts and norms in Brandom’s work. The objection contains both a formal and a substantive complaint. On the formal side, 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.


On the one hand, Brandom relativises the metatheoretical distinction between facts and norms with respect 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.

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 market. Norms contrast with facts; they are produced within the moral-judicial sphere that stands opposed to rationalised systems. Talk of facts being normative is to blur an essential “metatheoretical” distinction, which must be made prior to a theoretical articulation:

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.

Brandom does not want to deny this Kantian distinction. Again however it is a question of the order of explanation. Before one can ask how facts fall out into spheres of morality, physics or aesthetics, it is necessary to ask just what facts are.

Facts, for Brandom, are “true claims”; a repeated and heavily laden phrase, which means something like: facts are particular kinds of claims which commit the speaker to “the way things are”, articulated through concepts, and are registered by listeners in what Brandom calls a social practice of deontic “scorekeeping”. Such commitments are true, just if the articulation is of a kind that listeners can register that commitment for the speaker. Facts can be normative or non-normative – it is a question of which vocabulary is applied. At the same time, and confusingly, facts are also normed – that is, they gain their status as true claims through exposure to the normative practice of “giving and asking for reasons”.

Thus Brandom does not so much commit a category error, as a) deploy a schema where the terms “fact” and “norm” cut across different ontological spheres, and b) conduct an inversion of Habermas’ “metatheoretical” categories to, in some sense, “post-factual” ones – categories which group facts intelligibly after one has a handle on what facts are. Those categories do apply, says Brandom, just not here, at this level of explanation. Almost apologetically, he offers:

I agree this is a crucial distinction [between how we find things to be in the nondiscursive world, and how we make things to be by our own decision]… It would indeed be a bad thing if it goes missing, becomes unintelligible, or even is treated as of merely secondary importance in the account of discursive activity offered in Making It Explicit. But I do not think it does, although that fact can be obscured by the ways in which I use ‘fact’ and ‘norm’ – which are quite different in some ways from standard usages, including Habermas’ own.

Habermas then moves on to the substantive question of norms. The title of Habermas’ paper catches up with 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 ample ground for the positing of valid norms that do not emerge naturalistically from either tradition, or from some transcendental (or, in the case of Habermas, quasi-transcendental) injunction. This is to repeat, in Habermas’ view, the Hegelian turn from a universal categorical imperative towards an endlessly dialectical process, which in a secular context has neither moral foundation nor teleological endpoint.

Brandom is alive to the moral ambivalence of his account. 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 candidates are “natural kind skepticism” or “trancendental moral theory”, according to Brandom. 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) of a philosophical outlook and project that belong to an age we have rightly moved beyond.

This is a form of moral nihilism. 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 an 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. This, clearly, is a gesture towards Habermas’ own theoretical undertaking. In a somewhat pacifying gesture, Brandom states:

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: to what extent does a more fleshed-out, analytically capable account of discursive practices serve to strengthen, or alternatively undermine, a social-theoretical framework like Habermas’? Conversely, how might such a framework intelligibly wrap-up Brandom’s key achievement – the alignment of formal semantics to both linguistic pragmatics and then philosophical pragmatism – to provide a properly historicised and socialised ground for these discursive practices?

10 responses to “Transforming Communication

  1. Andrew Montin December 10, 2007 at 11:41 am

    Hi, I’m glad the conference went well. Interesting paper. Just a quick point – Liam, I think, says at one stage:

    “[Brandom] acknowledges a world of objects which most certainly do intrude upon discursive concept formation…”

    But what does this entail exactly? And how does one make sense of it in the light of his conceptual realism? It seems to me that one of the central issues in the debate between Habermas and Brandom is precisely the origin of “world-disclosing” concepts. For Habermas, such concepts are the product of cooperative effort in the lifeworld; by contrast, he takes Brandom to be advocating a kind of methodological individualism in which the subject has “direct access to a supposed conceptual structure of the universe.”

    The discussion about “feedback” is related because Brandom does not draw a distinction between instrumental and communicative action. Habermas acknowledges that Brandom has an account of experimental action (cf. the example of the litmus paper) but argues that the fact reality frustrates our expectations about how to act is not yet a reason for changing our doxastic commitments. For example, finding that I’m consistently late when driving to work because I’m often stuck in traffic doesn’t mean that I reassess my belief that driving to work is the best option; it may mean I simply try to find a better route to work. As Habermas says: “Perceptual judgments play a different role in engaged coping with reality than in the communicative horizon of attributing, justifying and acknowledging truth claims.” Because Brandom is oblivious to this distinction, it is not at all clear what would constitute “discursive concept formation” on his view.

    Btw, I’m in Melbourne all this week if anyone wants to have a coffee with me. 🙂

  2. N Pepperell December 10, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    Andrew – I’m always up for coffee or lunch. LM won’t be back until later in the week, and I’m not sure when he’s planning on being back in circulation, but I’m around. Tuesday isn’t great for me, but any other day should be fine – just email a time that works best for you (if possible, meeting in the city is generally best for me – I can induct you into the coffee shop where the reading group hangs out or something… ;-P).

    As for your comments above: I think this is the question 🙂 In other words, we see (well, I shouldn’t speak for LM, who is still holidaying in Tassie, the bastard ;-P) a genuine basis for confusion here – an area in Brandom’s work where, because in some senses (I think) Brandom takes the answer to this question for granted, and spends his energies focussing on a very different sort of question, he is somewhat gestural around these issues.

    Personally, I don’t take Brandom to be recommending a sort of methodological individualism – but I can understand how people come by this interpretation honestly, given the Tarde-style formulations he uses in his work. I think, instead, that a broader concept of the social is constantly referenced by Brandom, but as a sort of unspecified, black box sort of concept – the theorisation of which might then render Brandom subject to a critique that some of what he interprets to be intrinsic implicitly in communicative practice, and then rendered explicit by the emergence of a certain kind of normative and then logical vocabulary, might actually be constituted in a more direct sense in other realms of social practice that Brandom “black boxes”.

    One element of Brandom’s project that interests me greatly, in a critical sense, but that we didn’t thematise in this paper at all, was Brandom’s critique of what he calls “I-we” approaches to the social, as contrasted with his preferred “I-thou” approach. It’s the advocacy of an “I-thou” approach that invites reading Brandom as a methodological individualist, but I suspect that Brandom is thinking in a different direction here – that what he’s trying to fend off is simply a form of thematising “the social” that would view communities, collectivities, or “Society” as sort of an empirical arbitrator of what is good or true.

    Brandom doesn’t believe this offers sufficient critical potentials: he wants some possibility for criticising society as a whole for being potentially wrong. He moves to “I-thou” relations because they enable him to thematise how a structure of interaction (paradigmatically, in his account, between two individual interlocutors, but in principle extensible to other scales of interaction) can generate a counterfactual ideal capable of cashing out the possibility for criticising, not only individuals for being out off synch with some larger, norm-instituting, collectivity, but even societies as a whole.

    Brandom doesn’t consider that there might be other ways of going about this – that not all approaches that thematise the social, understand the social as a sort of Durkheimian anchor for the normative. I suspect this is what causes him to be insufficiently attentive to the possibility of his being read a methodological individualist (because he’s thinking about fending off other sorts of critiques and misunderstandings of his work), and also what causes him to be as “black box” as he is about determinate aspects of a specific social, which might open up theorisable counterfactuals of different sorts.

    This hits on another issue that we didn’t have time to thematise in this piece: Brandom’s constant gestural references to history. I think it’s possible to make a case that his approach is more abstract than it should be, given that he, in many places, explicitly specifies his argument with relation to themes that have preoccupied philosophy specifically since the 17th century. Although I’ve called his theory “reflexive” above, its form of reflexivity is insufficient, I suspect, to account for this level of historical specificity. Brandom could respond (and may think) that the development of more formal and explicit forms of logical expression in the modern era provide all the historicisation he requires – I would tend to counter that are some suspicious homologies between what he finds in linguistic practices, and what I might claim to find in other sorts of practices – suggestinng the need for a broader social theory for an adequately reflexive approach. But the argument here would be complicated enough that it didn’t seem appropriate for a conference discussion…

    All this aside, though, LM and I also struggled with a certain murkiness in Brandom’s account, around the exact sorts of issues that you are raising above – we debated back and forth before presenting, trying to make better sense of what is going on. I think I’m perhaps a little bit closer to “getting it”, having spent some time post-presentation with Brandom’s Tales of the Mighty Dead – although, even here, I find that I sort of go back and forth from chapter to chapter on what I think he’s doing… Interestingly, trying to watch Brandom wrestle with Hegel in this work, he seems puzzled by somewhat similar things, in relation to Hegel, as we are raising here in relation to his own work…

    But I suspect the issue will probably boil down to a matter of Brandom’s trying to thematise very specific things, which leave his work at an odd skew relative to some of the sorts of questions Habermas poses. On the one hand, I think it would be a real stretch to try to substantiate the notion that Brandom believes in “a kind of methodological individualism in which the subject has “direct access to a supposed conceptual structure of the universe.”.” As well, Brandom does draw distinctions that could map onto Habermas’ distinction between instrumental and communicative action – the difference is more in how the two authors understand these distinctions to be “grounded” in collective practice – with Brandom advocating a “norms all the way down” position (such that the instrumental-coommunicative distinction is itself a normative one) that makes Habermas nervous.

    And Brandom genuinely does black box (I think) an analysis of the sorts of reasons that might be accepted, in any particular context, as valid – pointing this back to more socially-specified questions of who would be a trusted reporter, according to other social actors, what sorts of arguments would tend to be accepted in some specific context, etc. – Brandom’s analysis operates at too abstract a level to account for this, allowing only (I think) for an analysis of what particular claims presuppose, and what consequences follow from them, once some (unanalysed) context is given. Brandom does give an account of how the notion of objectivity can arise as a counterfactual ideal via intersubjective interaction – but this is the most abstract of critical ideals. Habermas wants a system that will do more work than this (and I’m sympathetic to that intention) – but, at the same time, Brandom’s work – if only by showing that it is possible to effect a very different reading of the tacit structures underlying communicative practice – may pose a certain challenge to how Habermas attempts to ground his more specific critical ideals. This is the issue we still need to work out in much greater detail (well, one of the issues – as is obvious from this post, there are many others).

  3. Andrew Montin December 11, 2007 at 2:09 pm

    I think Habermas charges Brandom with methodological individualism on the basis of Brandom’s “conceptual realism”. What Brandom characterizes as the “I-Thou” relation would on the face of it be closer to Habermas’ intersubjective model (Habermas also explicitly rejects the “I-We”), except that Brandom substitutes the third person for the role of the second person in Habermas’ account of communicative action. It’s further complicated by the fact that Habermas is critical in places of a purely “I-Thou” or dialogical account.

    In any case that’s a minor quibble. As you point out, the central question is how Brandom’s model of communication can account for “objectivity”. Habermas thinks that Brandom has to fall back on a notion of conceptual realism to do all the work here; whereas Brandom claims that the conceptual realism has no explanatory role in this regard. Only by clarifying Brandom’s account can we try to resolve the issue one way or the other.

    It would interesting to see how one could reconstruct the communicative / instrumental distinction in Brandom’s theory – I’m a bit skeptical, I must admit.

  4. N Pepperell December 12, 2007 at 9:06 am

    Hey Andrew – sorry for the delay – been setting up the new laptop. My guess is that we’re hitting on similar concerns with Brandom, but using slightly different vocabulary to express them. In other words, I’m not so much trying to defend Brandom in the face of Habermas’ critique, as I am unsure that the way the critique is phrased, quite captures where I think Brandom leaves something to be desired.

    The concept of “methodological individualism” carries particular connotations for me – and I both think that Brandom invites those connotations, by some of the ways in which he discusses his work, but that, ultimately, that’s not quite the most on-target critique. I also suspect that Habermas is placing some of Brandom’s terminology in not quite the right context, when he talks about Brandom’s “conceptual realism”- or accuses Brandom of the idealist position that reality is already conceptually structured: I suspect some of Brandom’s terms are being taken here, in a different sense than they are intended (but I don’t have the texts with me here to flesh out what I mean, and I also don’t think this is the most serious issue – particularly because I think, even if one could make a case that Brandom is being “misread”, that misreading is an honest one, in the sense that Brandom’s intentions are a bit murky).

    On one level, Brandom makes a clear case (by “clear” here, I’m not suggesting that I agree, but simply that I think it’s easier to read what he’s trying to do in the text) for how a notion of objectivity, as a counterfactual ideal, might arise in the course of a certain kind of interaction – and, as you’ve said above, I see some similarities between this sort of argument, as a form of argument, and some of the forms of arguments Habermas uses for explaining the practical genesis of some of the counterfactual ideals to which he appeals. Of course, theorising “objectivity” as a counterfactual ideal – asking how we can decide to render some of our judgments subject to kickbacks from, say, a material world, based on reports from certain trusted observers, analysed against socially-negotiated standards – isn’t quite the same thing Habermas is trying to do, and it does dissolve far more back down into social interaction (although Habermas probably goes a bit too far in suggesting that Brandom asserts that the world “out there” is already somehow conceptually structured – Brandom is reasonably clear that he’s not a “constructivist” in such a strong sense).

    Brandom, though, wants to leave much more ”open” and undetermined by his theory than Habermas does – so, on one level, it’s not difficult for him to unfold a distinction between communicative and instrumental rationality/modes of engaging with others and with the world. But the kind of distinction he unfolds here, isn’t the kind of distinction Habermas wants to unfold – and therefore the distinction can’t do the same kind of work that Habermas uses this distinction to do. For Brandom, I suspect the distinction would be a matter of different vocabularies and collective practices – far more contingent than what Habermas envisages, and not itself grounded in Brandom’s own theory of communicative practice, in the depth way in which Habermas seeks to ground it.

    Then there’s Brandom’s problematic reach for “the theorist” at various points in his account. With these reaches, I suspect he breaches the immanent and reflexive frame of his analysis – and Habermas seems to suspect this, as well, which would be why he pings Brandom on the examples that he uses, which tacitly appeal to an audience not involved in the exchange whose structural properties Brandom claims to analyse. I think Habermas hits something very important here – but perhaps doesn’t select the best or clearest examples of where Brandom does this sort of thing, and therefore gives Brandom the “out” of, essentially, missing the point (I think) of the objection, and dismissing the specific examples Habermas highlights, without capturing the critical point: Brandom’s work makes constant reference to things that are explicit to a theorist exploring certain practices whose logics remain only implicit to the participants. From my point of view, this isn’t quite adequate for a reflexive, immanent theory (not that Brandom would necessarily care whether he meets some standard I want to impose on his argument, but I think I could make a case that there are costs – and that those costs are expressed in certain moments within his own argument, particularly in references to the historicity of his theorist, which suggest the need for a wider frame of analysis within which that theorist could be accounted for in a more immanent way).

    At any rate: a bit disorganised on my part – I’ve had a distracting several days, and am probably too far away from the text to be very clear or very sure about my memory of what’s going on, so all of this is intended in a very provisional, getting-my-head-around-things, way.

  5. N Pepperell December 19, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    Just a note, since people are being referred here from elsewhere, that this conversation has partially migrated into another thread, albeit with slightly different themes…

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