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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 that we have (an impossibility on his view). They exist, as such, only within a network, a kind of logical space, of inferences. That is, on his view, in order to hold an idea in our heads (which we can do but other animals, as far as we know, cannot), we must be able to follow rules of inference which involve recognizing that some statements follow from other statements and that they imply still others. A statement or claim must be able to be both a premise for some conclusion and a conclusion itself when the circumstances call for that. It must be capable of serving both kinds of functions. Our job as language speakers, then, is to know how to use our statements in these different ways when circumstances call for it, to know the rules under which a statement supports something or is supported by something else. We must not only be able to speak in these various ways but to behave in accordance with the inferential relationships expressed by our statements, when it is apt to do so.

We must recognize when there is compatibility between claims and when there is incompatibility and to do that we must be able to act in relation to those conditions because only acting thus expresses the recognition of these relations. Therefore, says Brandom, language itself is a network of things we do, rules we follow which implies relations of certain kinds within which what we know takes on meaning.

In this way, Brandom asserts that pragmatism provides the basis for explaining what it is to know anything. Representing things in the world is, thus, not a matter of picturing things but of doing things (again finding common ground with the later Wittgentein). Ideas occur only insofar as they connect with an entire web of other ideas and those connections are dictated by the relations of inference. Thus, again, he argues that the familiar logic of discursive thought is built on a logic of inferential rules of behavior (including, of course, verbal behavior) and that this is a deeper kind of logic than the sort we ordinarily recognize when we think of the logic of argument or of formal logic of the sort Russell pioneered, etc.

This has, it seems to me, important implications both for Artificial Intelligence research and for understanding our actual ways of thinking and speaking. It's especially interesting from a moral standpoint because moral valuation is about normativity (doing things according to rules) and, if Brandom's analysis is right, this is a more basic mode of operation than descriptive/objective assertions which are the stuff of the sciences and which ordinary logic lays out the rules for. If normative elements are more basic, as he thinks, than descriptive elements, then the normative nature of moral discourse is not undermined by its failure to find support in descriptive discourse (is's yielding oughts).

Moreover, while Brandom does not dismiss the elements of the mental lives that we have when we know things (the mental imagery of our thoughts, say,) he is less concerned about that than with the way in which a logic of inferentialism, consisting of expressions of behavioral dispositions, underlies the logic of descriptive language. I have to admit to finding this a bit problematic since, it seems to me, the mental lives we have are quite real and important in any effort to explain understanding and knowing and, at some point, any effort to replicate these elements artificially.

An important addition to understanding Brandom, I think, is to note that he argues that assertoric language is necessary for any language to qualify as that, i.e, it is, as he puts it, the "downtown" of human cognition, i.e., no language which lacks the capacity to describe by assertion can be anything more than a signaling enterprise in his view. In this, he acknowledges diverging from Wittgenstein who, he believes, held that language was just an amalgam of various and different games (rule governed things we do with sounds) without any essential ingredient. For Brandom the pragmatic dynamic underlies the assertoric but the assertoric must be present for language to be language and humans to be what we are.

I'm only about halfway through Reason in Philosophy at this point. It's a very slow, very challenging read, but I'm finding it quite interesting (though I'm not sure it needs to be as ponderously written as Brandom has written it). Hopefully I'll be able to explicate it a little better when I've finished and, perhaps, draw some implications from it for my own thinking on the matter of moral valuing which has informed most of my efforts here since Sean began this site.

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