Brandom on Analytic Philosophy and Wittgenstein
July 24, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Epistemology, Robert Brandom, Stuart Mirsky, Wittgenstein, analytical philosophy, logic

Have just sort of finished reading Robert Brandom's Between Saying and Doing and I have to admit he's got my head spinning. I had to skip a lot so I guess at some point I'll have to go back to it. The earlier book of his that I read (Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas which I commented on here in my essays "The Logic of Action" and "Brandom's Ethical Strategy") was dense and abstruse and so challenging but I found it intriguing for the notions he put forward and explored about how meaning is pragmatically grounded and can be explained as navigating a network of inferences ("inferentialism") in which any statement can be seen to have meaning insofar as it can be taken as a conclusion from other statements and can, itself, imply conclusions when it is conjoined with other premises and which involves distinctions of compatibility and incompatibility the recognition of which permits reasoning to conclusions to proceed. (Conclusions, themselves, are exemplified by, and recognized through, the actions one is disposed to take based on the statements one is considering.) On this view, meaning for Brandom becomes the practice of discursively connecting statements in an inferentialist web such that the meaning of any term or statement arises from the extent of the web in which it is embedded and the capacities we have (both inherited and learned) to make our way through and around it.

Of course this interests me because I was kind of getting at the same thing with two of my own essays on this site: "Can Machines Get It?" and "A Horse of a Different Color" in which I proposed that getting the meanings of terms and symbols amounts to making an array of associative connections between different mental pictures we have gathered over our lives and that sharing understanding between two or more speakers is then a matter of achieving a certain critical mass of commonality in the groups of "pictures" held by each speaker, without any requirement for a one-to-one correspondence between actual, particular mental pictures. Thus meaning becomes a matter of the occurrence of general templates (or prototype patterns of association) on a kind of macro scale of memories (remembered experiences). This works in much the same way as Brandom's proposed inferential webs which language speakers must navigate in order to find meanings in sounds though my emphasis was on the psychological phenomena of mental pictures rather than on the practical capacities behind and arising from making the "right" linguistic connections. Yet, the result would, in large part, look the same.

So I was naturally looking for more of the same with his book, Between Saying and Doing. And, of course, I wanted to get a better handle on the guy's ideas. But I suspect I chose the wrong book to continue with this time! Nevertheless, there's stuff in it worth commenting on, to the extent that my meager grasp of his theses enables that.

In a nutshell he presents this book as a way of making his case that analytic philosophy is flawed but not fatally so. While rejecting the classical approach of analytic philosophers, which aims to establish a privileged logic-based language (mode of discourse) to which other forms may be reduced to the extent they are, in fact, intelligible and which, if they cannot be so reduced, must be deemed unintelligible, he argues that the analytic approach is broader and deeper in philosophical tradition and that it need not be abandoned. Instead he offers his analysis of language relations (semantic exploration) in order to establish a way to perform philosophical analysis meta-linguistically. Not surprisingly, he finds much of value in Wittgenstein, who he takes for a sophisticated pragmatist in his later incarnation, one who rejected the logicist analytical methodology of his predecessors (and which he practiced, himself, in the Tractatus).

For Brandom, Wittgenstein finds a place in a pragmatic tradition tracing back to the American pragmatists and from them back to Hegel and Kant. In some ways this is a very ambitious claim but Brandom, despite the remarkable opacity of his approach, makes a good case for this view.

In this post I won't go into great detail (because I probably can't) but I want to at least reflect on some of Brandom's thoughts on the Wittgensteinian solution which he in part embraces and in part rejects. First though I want to kind of explain Brandom's strategy.

Brandom argues that philosophy is about exploring linguistic usages but not in the simple way that reduces philosophical method to one of simply reporting ordinary language uses and comparing these against philosophical variations in order to discern and clarify confusions of thought. Contra what is thought of as classic Wittgenstein, Brandom believes that we can effectively elaborate complex formulations of language relations which show how some of the different language games we play amount to crafting meta languages (languages about other languages) and that the value of doing this lies in the exploration of these relations it makes possible, rather than in our discovering or producing any core linguistic paradigm against which all other languages can be measured. That is, he takes the classical analytic tradition to be about establishing a single base or core language to which all other modes of expression and thinking about things must be reducible and which, alone, adequately expresses the available truths in the universe. But he firmly rejects this classic analytic project of finding the most basic way of saying anything to which all other ways are ultimately reducible.

The gain in philosophizing analytically for Brandom then lies, not in converting all intelligible claims to a single language paradigm which, alone, is most capable of capturing and reflecting what is true, but in exploring the linguistic terrain to learn the relationships of an open ended complex of language games and so building up understanding of these through a discovery of how and why different things we say can relate to one another. It's knowledge gained in the sense that it is new information qua understanding but not in the sense that it reflects information derived from observational activity in the world. It's observation through analysis, through following the lines of reasoning about what we say and how we say it to their effective conclusions. Hence, he rejects the notion that philosophical analysis is not about learning new things because he embraces the notion that analysis is not so narrowly delimited as to only be about picking apart and classifying things we already know!

In a very important way, he is not so different from Wittgenstein, of course, though he clearly departs from that thinker when he claims, contra Wittgenstein for instance, that language does have a core around which all other language games revolve and that this core is the language of assertion, i.e., of claims about what is the case. Other things we do with language are not, he thinks, core to our nature as "sapient" beings for they can be found among any number of sentient creatures in varying degrees. For sentience to ascend to sapience he argues that we must add to our communicating mechanisms the capacity to speak about and so think about and act with regard to things qua things. The language games we engage in involving praising, ordering, asking, expressing, signaling and so forth are all, on this Brandomian view, integral parts of our conceptual world but not what makes it conceptual. To have concepts, he proposes, we must have the capacity to make assertions and to have that we must have the still more basic capacity to relate statements of an assertoric type to one another inferentially. This capacity, he sees, as that of doing, i.e., it is the pragmatic base of intentional minds. The mind that can think and speak about things is one that can relate these kinds of statements to one another in an inferentialist way.

Brandom thus holds that assertion claims are explicable in terms that involve analysis of linguistic practices (i.e., that 'knowing that' claims are undergirded by 'knowing how' practices, as in knowing how to make correct inferences from particular assertions and to imply others with one's assertions -- and of knowing which of these to act on and when). However, while recognizing that assertions are claims about things ("knowing that" claims) he holds that they aren't simply matters of making observational claims for, he thinks, we can assert all sorts of things which involve constructed concepts, i.e., concepts which take their meaning from other assertions qua theoretical entities, fictions, etc. (This is another point I've made myself on this site in a number of essays, hence, I suppose, my increasing interest in Brandom's work.) Indeed, a key part of his argument is that observationally based assertions (statements about things observed or observable) have no special privilege claim over statements about other kinds of referential ojects. (Again, I find myself on common ground with this kind of thinking and have made similar points here: "Empathy and Reasons," "Realizational Ethics.")

Brandom clearly diverges from Wittgenstein when he insists that theorizing is an integral part of language practice, however, and that, while rejecting theorizing as a means of seeking philosophical knowledge on a par with observational (empirical) knowledge, makes sense, precisely as Wittgenstein claimed, this is not to reject theorizing in toto. He believes that theorizing is part of the "knowing that" game and that there is clearly a place for it, particularly for theorizing about language itself (about its semantic relations). Indeed, for Brandom, the whole point of philosophy seems to be to explore the semantics of language (the meanings of what we say) by exploring the relations between the different kinds of sayings and doings we engage in.

With this brief summary behind us, let's just cut right to the chase then. Here is Brandom on Wittgenstein vis a vis the analytical project in the last section of his book, Between Saying and Doing (beginning on page 210):

One constant in Wittgenstein's thought, early and late, is his denial of methodologically monistic scientism. "Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences," he says in the Tractatus [Proposition 4.111], and this view seems to be part of what lies behind the theoretical quietism of the later work. In fact, I think Wittgenstein thinks that if systematic philosophical theorizing were possible, it would mean that philosophy is an empirical science. Since it is not, philosophers must eschew theorizing, restricting themselves instead to light, local descriptions of discursive practices, where such descriptions might provide helpful reminders in freeing ourselves from the sorts of misunderstandings and puzzlements that arise precisely from the theories implicit in inherited pictures of what is going on when we think and talk. Whether or not Wittgenstein himself reasoned this way, I take it that it is common for his admirers to see him as presenting us with a forced choice: either embrace scientism about philosophy of the methodologically monistic sort -- that is, take philosophy to be an emprical, scientific discipline -- or give up the idea of systematic philosophical theorizing once and for all.
I think this is a false choice. Rejecting scientism of the methodological monistic sort does not entail giving up the possibility of systematic philosophical theorizing about discursive practice. One of the most powerful methodological features of the natural sciences is the postulation of unobservable theoretical entities, and their deployment in constructions aimed at explaining what is observable. Theoretical entities are those about which we can make only theoretical, and not observational, claims. Theoretical claims are ones that we can only become entitled to as the conclusions of inferences from other claims, not non-inferentially, as the results of exercising reliable dispositions to respond differentially to environing states of affairs by making observation reports of them. A generalization of this method would have the role played by observational vocabulary played by any antecedently available vocabulary, whether observational or not. So for instance one might postulate meanings to explain properties of use, where the latter are expressed in a non-semantic vocabulary, whether or not our access to claims about correct usage are made observationally or themselves inferentially. [The analogous postulation of intentional states to explain behavior Sellars calls 'philosophical behaviorism,' by contrast to the 'logical behaviorism' that is committed to defining the states in terms of behavior. In the case of meaning and use, the corresponding non-theoretical move is a semantic instrumentalism that insists, as Dummett used to do, that every aspect of meanining be manifestable in use.] The claim that theorizing of this sort could be legitimate in philosophy does not commit one to the claim that this method is the only legitimate method of acquiring philosophical understanding -- which is what methodologically monistic scientism claims. The generalized method of postulation and construction might be one form of philosophical understanding among others. I want to claim that what is objectionable about the methodologically monistic form of scientism is its exclusivity. Rejecting that at least leaves open the question of whether, and which, features of natural scientific investigation, explanation, knowledge and understanding ought to also to be counted among those useful and appropriate in philosophy. after all, description is also a central and essential element of scientific methodology, and even the most rigororous versions of Wittgensteinian quietism allow philosophers to describe features of linguistic practice.
Update on July 24, 2014 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

After addressing some of the nuances of pragmatism per se and its implications for the analytical project, Brandom returns to Wittgenstein at page 222:

A more Wittgensteinian pragmatism addresses metaphysical programs more in a retail than a wholesale spirit. It addresses empiricism and naturalism, and any successor projects one by one, seeking to undermine the specific claims of privilege they put forward. (Here the various criticisms Sellars addresses to empiricism, adverted to in my opening lecture, as well as those of Quine and Austin can serve as paradigms). But it also expresses a more general suspicion that any such program will turn out, upon examination, to have been motivated by a philosophical anxiety that can be traced to some relatively specific misleading philosophical picture of what knowledge, mind, meaning, or reality must be like -- on pain of some Bad Consequence. The best anti-metaphysical strategy is then to diagnose and dissolve that underlying misconception, thereby relieving the felt pressure that had made a metaphysical response seem possible because necessary. McDowell reads Kant and Hegel as already engaged in enterprises with this diagnostic-therapeutical, anti-metaphysical shape. As far as the general issue is concerned, I think this is an anti-metaphysical attitude, and a template for arguing against metaphysical programs, rather than an argument as such.

He goes on:

What most gives me pause about the commitments underlying programs of the sort I am calling 'metaphysical' is that they essentially require us to quantify over all possible vocabularies. Universal base languages are base languages from which every vocabulary that is legitimate in some sense (specific to the metaphysical program) can be elaborated as a target vocabulary. I have my doubts about that notion. It is not that I am confident that no sense can be made of the notion of all possible vocabularies. It is rather that I do not think it comes with a clear sense . . . talking about "all the facts" and talking about "all possible vocabularies" involves a set of common commitments, ones about which I am uneasy . . .
One might think in this connection about the third proposition of the Tractatus: "The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts" (1.11). Wittgenstein rejects the idea of facts that cannot be expressed: for any fact, there is some vocabulary in which it can be stated (clearly). To talk about "all the facts" is then to talk about everything expressible in any vocabulary. The Tractatus is predicated on there being some one vocabulary in which anything sayable at all can be said. It is in this sense a work of metaphysics. And the claim I've cited is a metaphysical claim. Nothing but embarrassment results if we ask about the official status of the second conjunct of this proposition in the botanization of the Tractatus. That a specified collection of facts is all the facts is not itself one of those facts, nor is it a fact of that kind. But facts are what can be said. Wittgenstein officially denies that we can even say that there are facts, or how many there are (4.1272). It is, then, something that is shown? But how? The awkwardness here shows how the issue of the intelligibility of quantifying over all vocabularies arises in this particular setting. But cognate difficulties attend claims such as "All the facts are physical facts." Putting aside worries about the boundaries of "physical facts" (it is a very implausible claim if one means contemporary physics, and it is hard to say what one means by something like "eventual" or "ideal" physics in a way that remains plausible without circularity) and in the sense of "are," the question of how to give a definite sense of "all the facts" in such a way as to make the claim plausible without question-begging remains . . . .
. . . . there is a distinctive kind of philosophical understanding that consists in practical mastery of the relations among vocabularies that become visible when we trace various possible base -->target relations through the (admittedly, in general, ill-defined) field of vocabularies. As an example, functionalism, and its specifically computational AI species, is an attempted local privileging of one vocabulary over another: functional vocabulary over intentional vocabulary. It has no pretensions at all to global privileging of functional vocabulary, to its being a universal base vocabulary. Though I have offered some reasons for skepticism about even the most plausible, pragmatist, version of AI-functionalism about intentionality, I think that a suitably broadly construed functionalism is something like the only straw floating as a prospect for an account, in other terms, of intentionality. [I say something about this in the first chapter of Tales of the Mighty Dead.] Of course, it may well be, as some Wittgensteinians, for instance, think, that intentional discourse can only be understood in its own terms, and not in terms of some other vocabulary. For reasons I discuss above, that does not mean that understanding would totter. analytic (algorithmic, algebraic) understanding is not the only kind of genuine philosophical understanding, and it is not always available.
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