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.