Monday, February 11, 2008

Brandom on systematic philosophical theorising

Philosophers with Wittgensteinian sympathies often display a schizophrenic attitude to their own discipline. The temptation to transform Wittgenstein's powerful but often piecemeal ideas - such as his attack on private language and his communitarian conception of rule-following and normativity - pulls strongly against the philosophical quietism espoused by Wittgenstein himself. In an interview from a few years back, Robert Brandom makes a useful distinction between "systematic metaphysical ambition" and "imperial systematic metaphysics" (p.560). The former aims for "a certain sort of expression and so of understanding: a kind of discursive self-consciousness", whereas the latter "claims that its expressive resources are the final arbiter of the reality of things". Brandom makes it quite clear that systematic metaphysical ambition is perfectly compatible with a commitment to pragmatism: "each such systematic crafting, assembling, and deploying of expressive resources is an advance in understanding, as much where it fails as where it succeeds". The renewed respectability of systematic theorising is, I think, a welcome development in contemporary analytic (and Continental) philosophy. There should be nothing intrinsically frightening about systematic thought, and genuine philosophical quietists are committed to a Jain-like asceticism which is impossible to sustain.


N. N. said...

I'm skeptical that the quietism McDowell attributes to Wittgenstein can actually be found in his writings. And I've been wondering recently whether Brandom's work on 'pragmatically mediated semantic relations' (McDowell uses this phrase in his response to Brandom's first Locke lecture, but I'm not sure if Brandom uses it) could be allied with more constructive interpretations of Wittgenstein, e.g., Kenny's and Hacker's.

Anyway, your blog looks interesting. If you don't mind, I'll mention it on my blog (I have a few readers that would be interested in the things you're interested in).

Tom said...

I agree with N.N. that this looks like a promising blog; however, I think we differ vis-a-vis the reading of Wittgenstein as constructive.

I think that from a quietistic perspective, the way that you set the issue up here might be problematic. The movement that you describe seems to be one that starts with an isolated model or proto-theory (e.g. 'a communitarian conception of rule-following and normativity') and wonders whether it is legitimate to systematically relate such fragments together into an over-arching system.

But this is already too much for the quietist intepreter, who will deny that Wittgenstein has even something so ambitious as a communitarian conception of rule-following and normativity, or the like. Rather, they will say that Wittgentein has produced a descriptive account of a phenomena (a 'perspecious representation' of it) that is addressed to a particular philosophical anxiety. Such an account would not be a general explanation of some feature of rules or mind or language, but a targeted intervention bearing on an understandable slip to which we are prone or against a temptation to grasp for a misleading analogy in a certain case.

So, I would say that how you initially set things out here already concedes too much to the constructive reading if it is to function as a neutral frame from which to inquire into the virtues of it as against the quietist reading. In short, the issue seems to me to be not just how we relate all the little piecemeal sections of Wittgenstein together, but also determining what is going on in them individually in the first place. I think you might be assuming an answer to the latter question which fatally weakens the quietist position before they even have a chance to put their case.

(Although introductory, I think the spirit of Wittgenstein's later thought, which I do take to be non-constructive, is best captured in the secondary literature in ch.1 of Marie McGinn's Routledge Guidebook to Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations'. You might also want to check out McDowell's article, 'How not to read Philosophical Investigations: Brandom's Wittgenstein'.)

Issues of exegesis aside, I am somewhat sympathetic to your call to systematic thought, particularly in the vein of the German idealists. However, I do not think that Brandom's approach -- both in general and how he seems to conceive of systematicity -- is the right road to go down in this respect. Obviously though, that's a whole other story...

Brian S. G. Blackwell said...

Thanks to both n.n. and tom for the comments. I was pleasantly surprised to receive some feedback, since my main purpose in setting up this blog was a rather solipsistic one - I felt I needed to give myself some sort of motivation to avoid complete intellectual stagnation during the tortuous wait for grad school offers :-) Obviously is very efficient in spreading the word...

To n.n. - I agree about the dubious textual evidence for quietism. There seems to be an assumption amongst supporters of quietist interpretations that the most significant continuity between the Tractatus and the later Wittgenstein is paragraph 7 - an implicit commitment to remain silent about that whereof we cannot speak. I'm not sure exactly what textual evidence is marshalled in support of this view, however. (I seem to recall that McDowell has written an article on Wittgenstein's quietism, which I must confess I haven't read). I think that quietist readings are as much a product of the biographical tradition as anything else - e.g. W's exhortations to his students to do something useful with their hands rather than wasting their time with philosophy.

In response to tom - yes, the point is well taken. In fact I was not-so-subtly revealing my own interpretative bias with regard to the rule-following considerations. I have yet to see an individualistic interpretation of the RFC that is convincing as either Wittgenstein exegesis or as philosophical work in its own right - although I am prepared to be persuaded otherwise if you have any suggestions! (I will check out Marie McGinn's book and the McDowell article). I get the feeling, however, that you are suggesting that any attempt to extract a 'conception of rule-following and normativity', whether individualistic or communitarian, from Wittgenstein's writings will inevitably result in misrepresentation of W's essentially descriptive aims. I may tackle this question in a subsequent post.

Thanks again for your contributions - I will link to both your blogs when I get home from work.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"And I've been wondering recently whether Brandom's work on 'pragmatically mediated semantic relations' (McDowell uses this phrase in his response to Brandom's first Locke lecture, but I'm not sure if Brandom uses it)"

The title of Brandom's sixth lecture is "Intentionality as a pragmatically mediated semantic relation". It is Brandom's term of art. As I recall, he actually jokes about how often he's using it at one point in the Locke Lectures; something like "Not to spoil the big surprise, but my last lecture will claim that intentionality, too, is a pragmatically-mediated semantic notion!"

Tom (Grundlegung) says many things with which I agree. But then I like quietism.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"I'm not sure exactly what textual evidence is marshalled in support of this view, however."

"Philosophy leaves everything as it is" is a big one, as is the rejection of "theses" or "theories" in philosophy. (PI 124, 128, & 109, respectively). That sort of thing. Though it seems like your view of what "quietism" is might need some work -- "quietists" don't have a problem producing journal articles, for instance. That isn't what they take their "silence" to consist in. The only place to "keep silent" is "whereof we cannot speak". (But we couldn't talk about that even if we wanted to -- and how could we even want to do something incoherent?)

Also, I don't think Tom (Grundlegung) meant that quietists would claim that Wittgenstein had some other sort of conception of rule-following ("individual" as opposed to "communitarian"), but that he doesn't have any "conception of rule-following" at all, in the sense in which some take him to argue for a "[communitarian, individual] conception of rule-following". The problem isn't which "isolated model or proto-theory" you've started with, it's that you started with one.

N. N. said...


That's funny. It shows how far I got in the Locke lectures (but I've listened to McDowell's response about five times; perhaps I just like listening to him). I'm working my way through Making It Explicit. It's not easy going (at least, for me). Does Brandom have an earlier article that might serve as an introduction or summary?

Daniel Lindquist said...

"I'm working my way through Making It Explicit. It's not easy going (at least, for me). Does Brandom have an earlier article that might serve as an introduction or summary?"

That's how "Articulating Reasons" is billed (its subtitle is "An Introduction to Inferentialism"), though it's a (221-page) book rather than an article. (I get the impression Brandom is prone to writing long pieces.) I figure I'll crack my copy once I get around to finishing that last Locke Lecture. You might try just listening to the rest of the Locke Lectures, and see what that gets you.

Rorty's article on Brandom in "Truth and Progress" was actually very helpful to me, but I'm not sure how much you'd get out of it, since the article's based around showing how Brandom's trying to synthesize Davidson and Sellars. (That Rorty article was the first time I thought "Oh, so that's why people like Brandom.")

I still like McDowell's response, but I can't say I've listened to it more than twice.