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Brandom - Toward a Normative Pragmatics (Introduction)

(Text as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05)

(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)


This is a summary (with some discussion) of Section I of "Brandom (Robert) - Toward a Normative Pragmatics" in "Brandom (Robert) - Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing & Discursive Commitment". My own comments universally appear as “Note:”.

I. Introduction

I.1. Saying ‘We’

  1. Elastic boundaries force on us a task of demarcation between ourselves and others.
  2. It is best not to define ourselves by the deficiencies of others – in our not being subject to such deficiencies.
  3. Is what we are made or decided as much as discovered? We are what we take ourselves to be. We need a principled form of demarcation that doesn’t just seize on arbitrary distinctions of biology, geography, culture or preference.
  4. What would have to be the case for us correctly to count things such as chimpanzees, dolphins, gaseous extraterrestrials or digital computers as “among us”? We must avoid chance issues of origin and material constitution and focus on function – what they can do.
    • Note: I would have thought that what they can experience is just as important as what we can do, should we be able to come to know this of other kinds (ie. accounting for Nagel’s bats). However, while Brandom later recognises the importance of sentience, he gives pre-eminence to what he calls sapience. This raises the question of why we want to determine the “we” community. Three answers that immediately spring to mind are …
      1). To determine those with whom we can meaningfully and profitably interact. This could be at various levels – Brandom wants the “highest”, though not so as to exclude the majority of our fellow human beings.
      2). To determine those on whom we can (or might) rely.
      3). To determine those whose welfare we should or could (rationally and unselfishly) care about.
      Clearly, answers to all three of these questions might include some non-persons or exclude some persons.
  5. They must be able to participate in our self-defining activities.
    • Note: I’d have thought this could still be parochial – eg. “we are the educated aesthetes” – though Brandom admits this.
  6. There can be various non-competing answers to the question “what are we?”, each defining a different community. What we’re really after is the superset of all these overlapping communities: The “we-sayers”.
    • Note: Should this include the “we-thinkers”, to allow for dolphin-persons and such-like? That is, on the presumption that thinking in the absence of language (other than a “language of thought”) is possible.
  7. We still need a contentful way of accounting for this fellow-feeling.

I.2. Sapience
  1. What is it that we do that is so special? The traditional answer is that it is our cognitive abilities that mark us out. Reason, meaning, conceptual content and understanding.
  2. Rationality is normative – we are bound by the norms of reason. We need reasons for our attitudes and performances, and without them they will not be respectively beliefs and actions.
  3. We operate in a web of inference that might conceivably be occupied by beings of other backgrounds.
  4. Sapience rather than sentience. Understanding and intelligence rather than irritability and arousal. Sentience is shared with non-verbal animals; awareness as awakeness; an exclusively biological phenomenon.
    • Note: Brandom mentions cats, as displaying the “exclusively biological phenomenon”; but what about chimps? Do they display more?
  5. The sentient are segregated from those (eg. thermostats) that merely show differential responsiveness to the environment.
  6. One treats others as sapient insofar as one attributes to them intentional states as reasons for their behaviour.
    • Note: I think this is too broad – aren’t all the higher mammals intelligent, and don’t they have beliefs and desires? The intentional stance we adopt towards them is not as towards a thermostat, which we interpret “as if” it had intentional states, while we accept that it doesn’t really possess them. On the other hand, we think the higher mammals really do enjoy these intentional states. However, Brandom accepts this too.
  7. Concern about truth, as well as inference, is another indicator of sapience. You can’t believe something unless you think it true (Note: presumably a reference to Moore’s paradox, though Brandom doesn’t say). Belief is taking-true; action is making-true. We are capable of grasping truth-conditions.
  8. Propositional form underlies both truth and inference. Propositional contents have truth conditions and stand in inferential relations to one another.
  9. Brandom’s project is to explain who we are as sapients by explaining what it is to grasp propositional contents, and also to explain the relationship between inference and truth.

I.3. Intentionality
  1. Brandom describes this propositional focus on intelligible contents as discursive rather than representational.
    • Note: I don’t know what he means by discursive.
  2. Descartes distinguished us, the representers, from that which is represented.
  3. Representations can be correct or incorrect, answerable to what is represented.
  4. A third task for Brandom is to investigate the relationship between representation and the discursive concepts of reason and truth.
  5. Despite much progress, we still don’t know what the representations consist in and what makes them intelligible to the representer. What is it that makes an x-idea an idea about x-es? Brandom doesn’t think the representational power of the mind can be left basic and unexplained.
  6. So, Brandom’s topic is intentionality, but in the sense of contentfulness rather than directedness.
  7. His focus is on sapience, though not to the utter neglect of sentience.
  8. “We” is a multi-faceted term.
  9. His target is a high-grade intentionality that requires linguistic practice to make sense of it. This may be “beastly to beasts” in two ways: by treating sapience as more important (in this context) than sentience, and by ignoring the lower-grade intentionality of non- or pre-linguistic animals.
  10. There can be different senses of “we” corresponding to the different grades of intentionality.
  11. Brandom’s project is partly to explain what a sentient creature has to do in order to become sapient. He wants to know what practices are sufficient to confer propositionally contentful intentional states on those that lack them. This would help us diagnose aliens as in possession of such states, and to program computers or train (merely) sentient animals to attain sapience.
    • Note: it would seem that sentience and sapience are logically independent. Might it not be possible for a suitably-programmed digital computer to become sapient, but never sentient, if sentience cannot be realised on a digital computer? Should we include insentient machines in the “we” community? This, presumably, depends on why we are trying to determine the extent of “we” community. If it’s to determine those towards whom our responsibilities lie, we should favour our non-sapient infants (or even animals, if we can get out of the habit of treating them as property) over our sapient machines, when it comes to the last place on the life-boat.

Note: Some Random Thoughts
  1. Throughout history, “we” has been tribal, rising to national. Or, there have been special interest groups – the aristocrats, the intelligentsia, the Manchester United Supporters, the Anglo Saxons.
  2. We now agree that “we” are at least co-extensive with the human race (though maybe the “mentally defective” are excluded). The “we” that agree on this are a privileged subset of those we count as being “we”. No doubt some of those we count as within “our” community would exclude us from that community.
  3. There is pressure to widen the net, but what are the principled reasons for the width of the net? Brandom gives reasons, but why are these not just his preferences? There seems to be something of a dilemma:-
    a). If we take “we” to be those falling under a natural kind concept (ie. all human beings), we have a basic reason for drawing boundaries as we do; yet we open ourselves up to charges of “speciesism”, because the qualities we find valuable in our group might be shared by others of different species who might (as Brandom notes) be excluded for irrelevant reasons.
    b). But if we widen the net, we open ourselves up to arbitrariness of the function-set we happen to find important.
  4. Brandom considers that “we” are those we can interact with propositionally. I’m not sure how much of this goes on in families, especially between generations. Yet these are paradigmatic “we” communities. A “fellow feeling” can arise in completely non-verbal environments (I’ve experienced a lot of this rowing in eights). We’re concerned about those in the same boat as us, and if chimps or dolphins were to have self-concern, we are their fellow-travellers, whether or not they have language or conceptual thought in the way we do. An argument I heard recently against the commercial predation on whales, is that they form close-knit communities and mourn the loss of group members. I’m not sure how this is known, but I can imagine it being true. If so, whales form a “we-group”. Why exclude them because they can only squeak?
  5. I’m not clear on the relevance of all this to my thesis. I want to know what we are, metaphysically speaking, and what adventures we can survive. So, I need to know roughly how to determine whether or not a particular individual belongs to the class “we”. As Olson points out, if we take this class functionally, members of all sorts of kinds with different persistence conditions might belong to it, so our general questions about the persistence of individuals would have no answer. However, even this might beg the question against those who (seem to) claim that a kind can be determined functionally (as distinct from what? Just what does determine kind-membership? For artefact-kinds function is all we have to go on, but for natural kinds we think there’s something more). For instance, those holding the “psychological view” of personal identity might claim that “we” belong to a natural kind - PERSON.



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Previous Version of this Note:

Date Length Title
03/02/2008 11:55:41 10399 Brandom - Toward a Normative Pragmatics (Introduction)



Note last updated Reading List for this Topic Parent Topic
18/12/2010 19:58:05 None available What are We?



Summary of Note Links to this Page

Jen_080204 (Brandom, Chisholm, Baillie), 2 Status: Personal Identity (Summary of Progress to Date) Theo Todman's Philosophy Research Papers Thesis - Chapter 02 (What are We?)  

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Authors, Books & Papers Citing this Note

Author Title Medium Extra Links Read?
Brandom (Robert) Toward a Normative Pragmatics Paper High Quality Abstract    



References & Reading List

Author Title Medium Source Read?
Brandom (Robert) Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing & Discursive Commitment Book - Cited Medium Quality Abstract Brandom (Robert) - Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing & Discursive Commitment No
Brandom (Robert) Toward a Normative Pragmatics Paper - Cited High Quality Abstract Brandom (Robert) - Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing & Discursive Commitment, 1994, Chapter 1 No
Brandom (Robert) Toward a Normative Pragmatics Paper - Referencing High Quality Abstract Brandom (Robert) - Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing & Discursive Commitment, 1994, Chapter 1 No



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