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Entries in Wittgenstein (8)


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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The Logic of Action

I've been reading Robert Brandom recently after stumbling across a lengthy talk he gave in the UK which is available on-line. He's pretty ponderous and seems to prefer lengthy elaboration and abstruse words where simpler ones, on the face of it at least, might do. That said, his ideas caught my attention. He was presenting a paper at Cambridge, the home of Analytical Philosophy, which dealt, in part, with the links between the American pragmatists and that philosophical school. In the course of that, he linked the pragmatists backwards to Hegel and Kant and forward to Heidegger and Wittgenstein. In sum, he argues that there is a tradition in philosophy, which the American pragmatists, C. S Peirce in particular, exemplified in an especially clear way, that sees the kinds of knowledge we count as "knowing that" as a subspecies, in fact a function of, "knowing how." This, he argues, is the key element in pragmatism of whatever form and can be seen in Wittgenstein's own emphasis on the rule-based nature of language and the things we can say within it as well as in the emphasis, shared with Heidegger, on language use as a form of being in the world itself.

In the book I'm currently reading, Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas, Brandom focuses on Kant's shift from the descriptive to the normative paradigm in discussing epistemological matters. What we can know, on this view, is a function of what we can say, what we are equipped to say, and, for Kant, this depends on the ways our thinking works. Brandom proposes that Hegel's improvement over Kant's picture was to introduce the idea of intersubjectivity, of knowing as doing within the context of a community, the interplay of separate subjects in joint enterprises which have a history and so involve participation not only with one's contemporary fellow subjects but with those who came before us and will come after .

I am not competent to assess his views on Hegel's contributions (I always found Hegel opaque, to say the least) or even to assess his take on Kant. But I am fascinated by his argument that the ordinary discursive ways we have of speaking about things, the descriptive language we use to delineate and affirm or deny facts in the world, which expresses our intentionality (knowing about things), can be traced to knowing how to speak and operate in the world. Here he seems to be saying that, behind the logic we ordinarily recognize re: making assertions (with their true and false relations), there is also a logic, a much deeper logic, of behavior itself, i.e., one of authority (as in granting rights, to claims and claimants, to demand or expect certain outcomes) and of obligation (accepting the responsibility to act in the ways expected). This is the logic of recognizing implications by acting on them. It's a logic of reciprocal relations.

For Brandom having a language is the key to having concepts and having concepts is what differentiates us from other sentient creatures. That is, we are not merely sentient, as he puts it, but sapient. We have the ability to think about things, to be intentional in ways that other creatures do not. But concepts, he argues, are not stand alone ideas . . . .

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Quine, Dennett and Wittgenstein

Here's a very interesting link to a panel discussion on Quine's views about language, science and philosophy. This particular segment (its broken into nine and they are all worth watching, preferably in sequence) involves Dennett (one of the panelists) asking Quine to clarify his position vis a vis behaviorism: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WumCK5cxrFQ

Dennett poses the question to Quine as a matter of Quine's distinguishing the relationship of his views on language and meaning, which Quine acknowledges as consistent with behaviorism, as to whether they are more compatible with a Skinnerian approach to behaviorism or the kind of behaviorism Wittgenstein is often seen as representing. (In the literature Wittgenstein's later position on meaning is sometimes thought of as "logical behaviorism" as opposed to a methodological and/or metaphysical sort which, latter, presumably denies the existence of mental objects in any sense whatsoever.) This is an interesting exchange in light of the frequent debates and disagreements here over whether Wittgenstein was a behaviorist and, if so, which type, and whether Dennett effectively is, and so can be construed as denying the existence or reality of what we call our "experiences" in his attempts to "explain" consciousness.

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Metaphysics, Idealism and Moral Goodness

A correspondent of mine, from India, has been interested in Wittgenstein for quite a while. Recently some of his comments have brought me to the realization that it is the mystical in Wittgenstein (seen in the Tractatus and, later, in the indirect way Wittgenstein attacks traditional philosophical issues in the Philosophical Investigations) that most appeals to him. Perhaps he is not entirely wrong for surely he is in good company. Nevertheless, on this he and I are not quite on the same wavelength. After reading my piece here on Anscombe's take on Wittgenstein's treatment of the mental, he sent me an e-mail which I won't reproduce here since he chose not to post it for public consumption. Nevertheless, he had some interesting things to say on how he sees Western philosophy fitting in with that of the East, particularly with traditional Indian thought. Along the way he raised some issues concerning Anscombe's moral view. After responding this morning, it occurred to me that what I had to say ought to be said by me more publicly. So without divulging my correspondent's name or his words (since doing so must be his choice not mine!) I will just reproduce my response to him here . . .

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Anscombe Comments on Identity

In the third essay of the book, Human Life, Action and Ethics, titled Human Essence, Anscombe takes up the question of the relation between grammar and essence in light of Wittgenstein's remark that grammar expresses essence. Beginning with an explanation and brief analysis of Frege on numerical functions and shifting to Wittgenstein's Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, she explores how we use words to express ideas and the nature/status of concepts as a lead-in to her attempt to answer the question implied by the title of this essay (what is meant by "human essence"?). Along the way she has occasion to speak of the concept of identity, which I thought interesting because of the pivotal role that concept has played in our many arguments about ways to explain consciousness on this and earlier lists.

It's often argued by some here that one has to grant that either the mental is identical to the brain processes we discover in conscious, thinking entities' brains via instruments like the fMRI or it is not and, if it is not, then it is something else and therefore irreducibly different and distinct from the brain and its goings on. . . .

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Empathy and Reasons

This is a very preliminary draft which I expect will require a lot of revision. It's also longer than my usual offerings here which aren't especially short in general anyway. I also diverge here from the typical Wittgensteinian path I usually follow and verge, dangerously, on a kind of existentialist incoherence. I hope to fix that in a later iteration. But for now I've decided to put this up on the list anyway . . . in case anyone here shares my interest in trying to understand and explain how moral valuing works.

Wittgenstein pointed out that the search for justifications, for reasons, ultimately comes to an end. We can only dig so deeply and then, as he put it, our spade is turned. We can go no further. But valuing is a reason-giving game since in making any ascription of value we do so with reasons in mind. Not to have reasons leaves us without a basis for valuing the thing at all – in which case, even if our spade is turned at some point, it cannot be turned here, within the valuing game itself, or that game must collapse. Without the reasons we give others and ourselves – which reflect comparisons of different things, of different options, of different possibilities – value cannot be ascribed. Reasons are the explanations we give ourselves and others when called upon to justify what we do. . . .

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Of Beauty and Beautiful Things

Although I've been using this site to post a number of lengthy pieces I've been working on regarding questions of moral valuation (distinguishing and justifying claims of moral goodness), I thought I'd change my focus briefly as we head into the new year. A correspondent of mine from India, who has evinced an interest in Western philosophy and has been in touch with me about some of its issues, particularly seeking clarifications on his Wittgenstein readings, sent me a quote (unsourced) this morning concerning the matter of beauty.

In fact, his questions have been the prompt for many of the articles I've been moved to write and post here since this site began. But in this case I have no lengthy article in mind. Still his implicit question got me to thinking a bit and I thought I'd say something about his message here (in case he's reading along or others have comments) about the question of what it means to speak of beauty and beautiful things . . .

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