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Brandom on Analytic Philosophy and Wittgenstein

Updated on July 24, 2014 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

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. . . .

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. . . .

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. . . .

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