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Brandom's Linguistic Rationalism

Lecturer: Gilles Bouche

Originally Taught: Summer School 2011

Brandom's Linguistic Rationalism will offer a reconstruction of most of Brandom's published work, including Making It Explicit, Articulating Reasons, Tales of the Mighty Dead, Between Saying and Doing, and Reason in Philosophy, with the aim of giving participants an overview of Brandom's system, an idea of both its structure and its scope.

Brandom's linguistic rationalism about conceptuality
Brandom's philosophy begins with the question of who we are. Who are the beings whom we recognize as belonging to us in the most fundamental sense? Brandom's short answer is that we are conceptual beings, beings which apply concepts in thinking and talking, believing and acting. (An obvious alternative answer would be that we are human beings. Importantly, Brandom's conceptual beings need not be human beings.) Brandom's work as a whole aims at developing the short answer into a longer one by developing a theory of what it is to be a conceptual being.

Brandom's topic is conceptuality. His position is a form of linguistic rationalism about conceptuality, the view that any conceptual being must be a linguistic and rational being in the sense that engagement in rational linguistic practice is necessary for engagement in any conceptual activity.

More precisely, Brandom first endorses linguisticism about conceptuality as the view that conceptual practice is linguistic practice, not in the sense that every conceptual act is a linguistic act, but in the sense that even nonlinguistic acts, actions in the narrow sense, are conceptual acts only in the context of an engagement in linguistic practice. Only beings which can talk can act. Brandom then endorses linguistic rationalism about conceptuality as the view that engagement in rational linguistic-conceptual practice, the practice of making assertions as what reasons are given for and against and as what reasons are given as, is necessary for engagement in any linguistic-conceptual practice.

According to linguisticism about conceptuality, conceptual practice is linguistic practice, the practice of using linguistic expressions. Linguistic expressions have meanings. Brandom endorses pragmatism about conceptuality as the view that linguistic expressions only have meanings to the extent that meanings are conferred on linguistic expressions by the use of linguistic expressions.

Brandom claims that the practice of using linguistic expressions confers meanings on linguistic expressions by instituting norms governing the use of linguistic expressions. Norms determining whether linguistic acts are correct or incorrect are instituted by practice-implicit attitudes of taking linguistic acts to be correct or incorrect. Importantly, Brandom insists, and claims to be able to show, that practice-implicit attitudes of taking acts to be correct or incorrect can institute norms which are objective, that is, which determine whether acts are correct and incorrect independently of whether they are taken to be correct or incorrect.
To sum up, at the center of Brandom's system is a specification of rational linguistic-conceptual practice as necessary and sufficient for conferring meanings on linguistic expressions by instituting objective conceptual norms. This may not sound like much. But, to my knowledge, Brandom is the very first philosopher to have shown, in detail and with clarity, what a subject must do in order to count as using linguistic expressions in a way which confers meanings on linguistic expressions, what a subject must do in order to count as a linguistic and hence conceptual being. According to Brandom, most importantly, a conceptual being must be a rational being. I do not know of any more sophisticated theory of the foundations of rationality, linguisticality, and conceptuality.

Brandom wants to explain not only how subjects can consciously use linguistic expressions, but also how subjects can come to self-consciously use linguistic expressions in talking about themselves as subjects consciously using linguistic expressions, thus making explicit what is implicit in conscious linguistic practice. Like every theorist, Brandom wants to help the reader to a shift from inadequate to adequate theoretical self-consciousness, but he does so precisely by showing how self-consciousness arises from consciousness, how subjects can effect a shift from conscious to self-conscious linguistic practice.

In all these respects (endorsement of linguisticism, rationalism, pragmatism, normativism, and expressivism as commitments about conceptuality), Brandom claims to be following Hegel more than anyone else. Indeed, Brandom's work can be read as advocating a shift, within analytic philosophy of language, from the empiricism of Locke and Hume to the rationalism of Kant and Hegel, which will be more obvious once Brandom's book about Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, on which Brandom has been working for almost three decades, will have been published.

Why take an interest in Brandom's work?
Most evidently, Brandom's work is of immediate interest to anyone interested in theories of rationality, linguisticality, and conceptuality, in explanations of how linguistic expressions must be used to express meanings and of what subjects must do to count as rational, linguistic, conceptual subjects.

Brandom's work is also of interest to anyone interested in rationalist discourse ethics. Brandom's concerns are not just theoretical, but also practical, in the sense that he hopes to ground an ethics on his rationalist theory of conceptuality, roughly an Hegelian version of Habermas's Kantian discourse ethics.

Finally, Brandom's work is of interest to anyone interested in answering the question of who we are, but not as the question of who we are as conceptual beings. It is important to understand that Brandom's conceptual beings need not be human beings. Conceptual beings as such need not live or die, reproduce or work, engage in politics or write novels. Brandom's methodology consists in abstracting from any features which are not necessary features of conceptual beings. On the one hand, this methodology allows Brandom to study conceptuality in its purest form. On the other hand, it is clear that a theory of us which abstracts from any features which are not necessary features of conceptual beings will not have much to say about many issues mattering to beings which are not just conceptual beings. Brandom himself does not tell us how to bring about a shift from a theory of us as conceptual beings to a theory of us as not just conceptual beings. Such a shift is beyond the scope of Brandom's system. Still, what matters is that any theory of us as not just conceptual beings will have to be informed by a theory of us as conceptual beings.

Is Brandom an analytic philosopher?
Brandom understands himself as an analytic philosopher, situated in the tradition of analytic philosophy of language. (Though he understands himself as an Hegelian just as much.) But the fact that Brandom's work arises from the tradition of analytic philosophy of language does not at all prevent us from relating it to work arising from other traditions. There are obvious connections between Brandom's linguistic rationalism and structuralism. Both understand meanings of linguistic expressions in terms of relations between linguistic expressions. Both endorse semantic holism, the view that the meaning of any linguistic expression depends on the meanings of many other linguistic expressions. Whereas structuralists focus on relations of difference, Brandom focuses on relations of inference and incompatibility ("square" stands in a relation of inference to "rectangle", in a relation of incompatibility to "circle"), which allows him to develop a rationalist theory of conceptuality. Relations of inference and incompatibility are rational relations: An assertion stands to another assertion in a relation of inference if it is a reason for that assertion, in a relation of incompatibility if it is a reason against that assertion.

Philosophy of language as such is neither analytic nor continental. What might at first appear as a difference between analytic and continental philosophy, corresponding to a respect in which Brandom's philosophy is analytic, is better understood as a difference between theories of us as conceptual beings, which abstract from all features which are not necessary features of conceptual beings, and theories of us as not just conceptual beings. Within the family of rationalist theories of what we are, this difference separates "analytic" rationalists such as Brandom from "continental" rationalists such as Hegel and Habermas, whereas all three philosophers share the aim of upholding a rationalist understanding of what we are against both positivist and romanticist counter-currents.

The aim of Brandom's Linguistic Rationalism would be to reconstruct Brandom's theory of us as conceptual beings. The shift from theories of us as conceptual beings to theories of us as not just conceptual beings is beyond the scope of Brandom's system and hence would be beyond the scope of the reconstruction. Brandom's engagement with Hegel and Habermas however suggests one way of approaching such a shift, namely through a contrastive reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Brandom's yet unpublished book on the Phenomenology, and Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action. Reconstructing Brandom's linguistic rationalism lays the foundations for such a contrastive reading.

Difficulty

Intermediate