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Brandom’s project in Making it Explicit is twofold: first to develop a “normative pragmatics” according to which social practices (at least, discursive practices) must be explained in terms not of their properties, but in terms of the proprieties of moves within them. In other words, practices are to be explained in terms of the normative statuses of participants. Second, he wants to develop an “inferentialist semantics” that “answers” to this normative pragmatics. Thus the semantic content of a speech act is explained in terms of the proprieties (i.e., normative statuses) of making certain material inferences from its appropriate application to the consequences that such an application commits one to (which may include either making or endorsing other speech acts). In this project, then, it is pragmatic terms indicating normative statuses that have explanatory priority over semantic terms indicating language-world relations. The latter class of terms includes “traditional semantic vocabulary” such as “truth” and “reference;” these are to unpacked in terms of the pragmatic significance of their use, rather than in terms of, say

“primitive denotation” as a causal relation between expressions and the world. In other

36 This can only be a partial and incomplete explication. Each major feature of Brandom’s account (a

“normative pragmatics” and “inferentialist semantics” that includes a substation-inferential account of singular terms and an anaphoric account of deixis) is developed at great length in MIE. My goal in this section is to say enough to motivate and to set the stage for my primary concern, which is his approach to the objectivity problem.

words, the representational dimension of language (word-world relations, if you will) are to be unpacked in terms of the normative dimensions of its use. This bears some unpacking.

What distinguishes “us” from other beings, as discussed, is the fact that our attitudes and actions are intentional “in the sense of the propositional contentfulness of attitudes.”37 In other words, our attitudes are ways of “taking something to be true” of our world or ourselves; by taking them we say something, we make judgments, we have beliefs. As already discussed with respect to Kant (and discussed below with respect to Brandom) this propositional contentfulness “is a matter of conceptual articulation,” and it is the nature of this conceptual articulation of propositional content that a philosophical semantics seeks to explain. The terms of this explanation must begin with the question of what is required to see someone’s actions or attitudes as intentional; in virtue of what can we see the overt behaviours of someone to be cases of believing, judging, saying or acting on something? Brandom follows Davidson38 and Dennett39 in arguing that taking this “intentional stance” requires attributing at least a certain degree of rationality to one’s object. Thus, if I am to attribute intentionality to you by, say, attributing to you the belief that it is raining, I can do so only by seeing that belief as something that it would be appropriate (or inappropriate) for you to have under present circumstances. Similarly, I attribute your behaviour when you cover your head and run for cover as an intentional action only when I can see it as an appropriate action to undertake given your belief that

37 MIE, 7. Thus it is not identical with Brentano’s definition of “intentionality” as “the directedness of sense” (ibid.) (although, on Brandom’s view, his account of conceptual contentfulness will explain the directedness of sense in perception).

38 Cf. Donald Davidson: “Radical Interpretation,” in Inquiries Into Truth and Interpretation, 2nd ed.

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 125-139.

39 Cf. Daniel Dennett: “Intentional Systems,” Journal of Philosophy 68, no. 4 (1971), pp. 87-106.

it is raining and your desire not to get wet. In other words, that act of attributing intentional states necessarily involves evaluation of someone’s commitments and their entitlements to those commitments, that is, their reasons for having the attributed states.

Brandom sums this up in the slogan “Attributing an intentional state is attributing a normative status.”40 To say that someone “believes” or “judges” or “does” X is to say that she takes up a position in the logical space of reasons; it is to attribute to them a commitment and to make some evaluation of their entitlement to that commitment.

Propositional/conceptual content – i.e., an account of what she believes – must be explained in terms of where and how she takes that stance in the (normative) space of reasons.

Brandom’s “normative pragmatics” has a further wrinkle. Rather than treating normative statuses such as “commitment” and “entitlement” as primitive, he aims to give an account of these statuses in terms of the normative attitudes of participants in a practice; an explanatory strategy he calls “phenomenalism.” For example, the normative status of “being safe” in baseball is explained in terms of the normative attitude of “being (appropriately) taken to be safe” by the other participants (or by an umpire). These attitudes can take the form of the explicit application of a rule –“He was safe because he touched first base before the baseman caught the ball” – but ultimately these explicit rule-applications must answer to normative attitudes implicit in practices. In fact, it is this requirement and what follows from it that motivates Brandom’s phenomenalism about norms.

40 MIE 16. Brandom also gets to this conclusion by: (a) showing that intentional explanation in terms of the “functional role” of intentional states in “mediating perception and action” (16) essentially invokes normative concepts about proper function; and (b) showing that intentional explanation in terms of assessments of truth-conditions also necessarily invokes normative considerations since “the business of truth talk is to evaluate the extent to which a state or act has fulfilled a certain kind of responsibility.” (17)

If it is the case that intentionality/propositional contentfulness cannot be understood outside of the practice of making normative evaluations (i.e., of attributing commitments and entitlements), this means that understanding one another must mean applying a norm or rule to the other’s actions. But “the rule determines proprieties of performance only when correctly applied,”41 and this suggests that there must be a rule for rule-application. Since the conscious application of a rule can be done rightly or wrongly, the application of the rule presupposes a grasp on the rule that determines the propriety of the application of the first rule. But this opens up the risk of an infinite regress, since the rule-application rule can be applied rightly and wrongly as well, which suggests that, in order to grasp that rule, one must grasp a rule for applying rule-application rules; and so on ad infinitum, which is absurd. This is a potentially serious problem for any approach to understanding intentionality in terms of the norms that govern discursive practices.

Brandom’s solution to this regress problem is to argue that the regress can be stopped if, at least somewhere down the line, we don’t formulate taking a normative stance in terms of applying a rule that we have an explicit grasp upon (i.e., grasping the rule and then applying it) but as taking up a normative attitude in accordance with a norm that is “implicit in practice.”42 The regress becomes vicious only if every articulate application of an explicit rule presupposes an articulate grasp of an explicit rule (a

“principle”). If, however, there is “some more primitive sort of practical propriety”43 – a norm implicit in practice – then there is no need to appeal to another explicit rule to explain its application. Instead of requiring a knowledge that such and such is the rule for

41 MIE, 20.

42 MIE, 23.

43 MIE, 20.

doing thus-and-so, all that would be required is an implicit, practical know-how with respect to norm-application. As long as we can avoid the intellectualist temptation to

“underwrite every bit of know-how with a bit of knowledge-that”44 we have in the practical and implicit taking up of a normative attitude a solution to the infinite regress problem. It is in virtue of this primacy of practical attitudes and abilities that Brandom calls his approach a normative pragmatics – explicit grasp (knowledge-that) must ultimately be understood in terms of practical competence or mastery of a practice (know-how). With respect to norms, this means explaining the ability to explicitly apply principles in terms of the practical ability to apply norms implicit in practice.

But this in turn raises the question of “how to understand proprieties of practice, without appealing to rules, interpretations, justifications, or other explicit claims that something is appropriate.”45 In other words, how can we explain what is to invoke or apply an implicit norm in practice, in a way that doesn’t beg the question against intellectualism (that prioritizes knowledge-that over know-how) and hence return us to the regress problem? To make a long story short, Brandom answers this by appeal to sanctions: “to treat a performance as correct or incorrect in practice, is explained in terms of positive and negative sanctions, rewards and punishments.”46 That is, to treat a performance (attitude, action) as correct or incorrect (which, as discussed, is necessary for treating it as intentional/contentful) is to either reward or punish its subject for the way it is carried out. These sanctions need not be understood in non-normative terms, however, since some sanctions can involve attributing to someone a special obligation or

44 MIE, 23.

45 MIE, 25.

46 MIE, 36.

authority, etc., each of which is attributing a new normative status.47 This explains what it is to take a normative attitude in practice, but what of the normative statuses attributed by those attitudes?

Brandom takes this question to regard the situation of normative statuses [“being committed to X;” “being entitled to that commitment;” “being safe (in baseball)”] in a world that “we can describe, and largely cope with… while restricting ourselves to a resolutely nonnormative vocabulary.”48 He takes the “disenchantment” of the world in modernity for granted – assuming that the success of nonnormative description and coping with the natural world is complete and that it indicates that it is true of that world49 – and distinguishes two ways in which moderns can “domesticate” normative statuses in such a way that “the normative significances we assign to things might be thought to be unnaturalized second-class citizens in an intrinsically insignificant natural world.”50 In the first case, we could take normative statuses or facts to merely supervene on the nonnormative facts such that “settling all the facts specifiable in nonnormative vocabulary settles all the facts specifiable in normative vocabulary.”51 This would essentially constitute a reduction of normative status to naturalistic fact, at least in respect to the degree to which the former is something “real;” hence it is unacceptable to Brandom given his commitment to the irreducible normativity of the intentional. The

47 Cf. MIE, 42-46.

48 MIE 46-47.

49 This will be an issue that I take up again in Chapter 9. Brandom is unclear about the extent to which he endorses a disenchanted view of nature. I will argue that he is unclear and that it is a problem for his theory of objectivity.

50 MIE, 47. It’s worth noting that, in his “argument” “From the Assessment to the Social Institution of Norms” Brandom does not speak in his own voice so much as he ventrioloquizes thinkers such as Pufendorf and Kant. This is not a complete departure from his previous “use” of Wittgenstein, Sellars, etc., but here he seems to be substituting historical reconstruction for concrete argument in a way that he did not previously. My summary of this view is my best construction of an argument for his conclusion.

51 MIE, 47.

second approach is to argue that “all the facts concerning normative attitudes settles all the facts concerning normative statuses.”52 Normative attitudes – practical evaluation of performances (as just discussed) – are quite at home in a disenchanted world (unless, perhaps, the eliminativists are right), and hence a “reduction” of normative status to normative attitudes can demonstrate that they too are not aliens in such a world, granted that the reduction can go through. This, he takes it, is the route taken by Kant, amongst others: “[O]ur own acknowledgment or endorsement of a rule is the source of its authority over us – in short that our normative statuses such as obligation are instituted by our normative attitudes.”53

Transformed into appropriately pragmatist language, it can be said that practical normative attitudes, whether explicit or implicit, “institute” normative statuses. In terms of discursive practices (i.e., practices of giving and asking for reasons, which Brandom takes to be those relevant for understanding linguistic meaning), this means that the crucial normative statuses – being committed to a claim, being entitled to a claim – are to be understood in terms of the practical attitudes of ascribing, undertaking and acknowledging commitments and entitlements. In simple terms: what we are (i.e., what normative statuses we have – e.g.: John is safe) is to be understood in terms of what either we or others do in treating us as being thus. As long as we do not take a reductionist attitude toward normative attitudes – i.e., as long as we don’t try to cash these out entirely in non-normative terms, which Brandom has already established as a possibility in his discussion of normative sanctions – we can show that normative statuses

52 MIE, 47.

53 MIE, 51.

are safely at home in a disenchanted “natural” world in a way that “does not entail relinquishing the distinction between normative proprieties and natural properties.”54

However, this phenomenalist view of the relation between normative status and attitude raises the question of objectivity. If normative attitudes institute normative statuses, how could there be a gap between status and attitude such that we can say that it is one thing to be correct and another thing to be taken to be correct? Without this distinction there is no objectivity in our assessment of normative status, and it would seem at least that being correct in or being entitled to a commitment is nothing more than the expression of subjective preference (a normative attitude). Furthermore, if it is in virtue of having certain normative statuses that our attitudes can be taken to have conceptual content (i.e., to be commitments or beliefs), how it is that these attitudes can be correct or incorrect in virtue of how things stand with respect to what they are about rather than merely in virtue of what we or other people think about them? Brandom’s answer to these questions is my fundamental concern and will be discussed at length below. For now it will suffice to say that he finds a way to reconcile normative phenomenalism (and an inferentialist semantics that answers to it) with robust objectivity by means of interpreting the practice of taking up normative attitudes and assuming normative statuses as a social practice. More specifically, the objectivity of both our normative statuses and the conceptual contents that depend on them is vouchsafed by the social distinction between the practical normative attitudes of undertaking a commitment oneself and attributing a commitment to someone else. In order to understand the argument for this, though, I need to address the fundamental features of Brandom’s

54 MIE, 52.

“inferentialist semantics” and hence his understanding of the nature and ground of conceptual/propositional content.

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