Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Grundlegung on Brandom

Tom from Grundlegung has an excellent post up on Brandom, exploring the issue of what tools Brandom might provide for threading through the discussion of freedom and objectivity. Tom frames the problem in the following way:

So, if freedom implies some spontaneous contribution from the agent and objectivity implies some receptive constraint upon the agent, we ought to be able to tell a story that neatly reconciles them both. The goal is to be able to demonstrate two main things. Firstly, that the authority that the agent has over themselves is not problematically curtailed by the authority exercised over it by things other than itself. Secondly, that the rational constraint upon the agent imposed by others and the world at large is not threatened by the special role that the agent has in determining the normative standards it is beholden to. In short, we want to show how it is not contradictory to suppose that the agent is both genuinely self-directing and genuinely externally directed.

Thus, we have a relatively abstract problem concerning the compatibility of spontaneity and receptivity that is motivated by a story about freedom and objectivity.

Tom goes on to provide a very nice precis of Brandom’s analytical moves – one that goes into more detail, and comes at Brandom from a different angle, than we were able to do in the recent presentation – relating the work back to Tom’s core question on freedom and objectivity:

To recapitulate, Brandom wants to tell a story that explains what contentful language is in terms of the practical capacity of agents to follow conceptual norms. However, this is not simply a narrowly linguistic matter because these conceptual norms determine what it is to judge and act correctly (in co-operation with higher-level conceptual norms that they themselves are subject to). While Brandom’s account remains on a formal level, in that it does not address what he calls the messy ‘retail’ content of particular norms and simply describes their abstract structural relation to semantic content in general, it nonetheless develops an understanding of many of the general features of these norms. As such, his work has a wide application to issues relating to conceptual normativity in the round. As we shall go on to see, this is why it bears upon freedom and objectivity.

Along the way, Tom gives an excellent synopsis of the key distinctions Brandom uses to unfold from social practice, the possibility of commitments that could be recognised to react back on social practice, and spends time analysing Brandom’s critique of approaches that rely on the standpoint of the community, and his “I-thou” alternative – all excellent material, some of which we’ve begun to touch on briefly here in the comments to various threads, but which Tom treats in a much more systematic and distilled (and therefore coherent!!) way than I’ve been able to unfold here. Tom then mobilises this discussion to draw together the following summary of Brandom’s overarching intent:

Brandom wants us to understand freedom in general as a form of rational self-constraint. His model is one whereby we are autonomously bound by norms by actively undertaking a commitment to them. This account of autonomy is used to explain how conceptual norms come to bind us, since in using concepts by making moves in reason-governed games we choose to undertake the commitments that specify the content of those concepts. However, he thinks that it is only the normative force that we introduce as individuals by binding ourselves. The content – to what rather than whether we are bound – is not up to us though. This content is determined through a complex process of negotiations with one’s fellows and is tracked by the deontic scorekeeping that agents must be able to engage in so as to enter the game of giving and asking for reasons. Features of this deontic scorekeeping also explain objectivity, or how our normative attitudes of taking certain uses of concepts to be correct are answerable to attitude-transcendent facts. This is because it introduces the permanent possibility of making a distinction between ascriptions of what one takes to be the case and ascriptions specifying the objects that determine whether one is correct.

Tom moves on from this analysis of Brandom’s project, to offer his own critical reaction in conclusion. These critical comments and questions are very rich, and I’d rather refer the reader back to the original, than attempt to summarise them here : go read! (And, to Tom: I’ll hopefully find the time in the next few days to ask some proper questions over at your site – apologies that this pointer is the best I can carve time for right now…)


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